Where We Visit the Center of the Khmer Universe,
Have a Scare, and Live it up in High Luxury
for a Southeast Asian Christmas (By Allison)
We landed at the Siem Reap (Cambodia) airport after a quick flight from Danang (Vietnam), handed over our passports, and watched as they were passed along—assembly line style—by a succession of immigration officials, each of whom performed some inscrutable but presumably vital action on those precious little blue-bound treasures on their way to receiving the all-important visas-on-arrival, which would allow us to enter the country.
By now we had forged a very close relationship with our passports—not only were they the most important documents we carried (without which we would be well and truly stuck), but they had become both cherished souvenirs (containing an official, governmental record of our trip so far) and old friends (having ridden in a hidden pocket on Aaron’s person for nearly six months).
So it was not without anxiety that we watched as they were passed, prodded, flipped through, annotated, and shuffled with a variety of other passports in many bureaucratically-favored hues from all corners of the globe. It was like a high-stakes game of Immigration-Three-Card-Monte: “Which box is your passport under, Sir?” After marveling at how easy it would be to walk off with the wrong passports, we checked carefully that we received the correct ones back, squeezed past a less fortunate family who had received most (but not all) of their passports back and were trying to exchange an incorrectly-returned Italian one for the German one they’d handed over, vowed that this airport would be our choice for new identities if and when it came to that, and emerged into a modern Disney-esque terminal full of kitschy reproductions of artifacts from Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is, of course, the reason we (and 2,000,000 other visitors that year) had come to the northwest corner of Cambodia. We didn’t know all that much about this famous temple complex…just that it had appeared in each of our “best of” coffee-table-style travel books and that Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider was at least partially filmed there. Judging by the pictures we’d seen, it was incredibly beautiful, in an Indiana Jones kind of way, and we were very much looking forward to seeing it.
A short tuk-tuk ride later, we arrived at our hotel to find a spacious and nicely decorated room. Although we’d been in the country for only a few hours, it was already clear that this was the hottest place we’d been to on the trip, making the air conditioning and the nice little pool out front look like welcome oases. Our one concern was that the bathroom was open-air. It did have walls, but there was nothing—no screens, no glass—in the windows, which meant that there was a cloud of mosquitos buzzing around the bathroom. Given the wide variety of mosquito-borne diseases in the area and the bits of us that were likely to be exposed in said bathroom, we were not happy with this. Eventually, after much discussion, the manager got someone to tape some plastic across the holes in the wall. It wasn’t elegant, but it worked. (And given the events in subsequent days, we would come to feel very justified in insisting.)
As evening fell and the temperature dropped from ferociously-uncomfortably-hot to only moderately-uncomfortably-hot, we headed out to explore the area, grabbing a tuk-tuk to the center of town, which was…not what we were expecting. After our months in exotic and foreign Laos and Vietnam, it seemed that we had now landed squarely in an overwhelmingly tourist-centered town. The central tourist hub of Pub Street, inhabited mostly by drunk Brits and Cambodian guys offering motorbike taxis, feels like a recreation of Bourbon Street from New Orleans (but with less nudity). It’s full of bright fluorescent signs advertising cheap booze, multistory buildings with balconies, and tons of things to entice tourists—although here you’re more likely to be seduced by a tank full of “cleaner fish” waiting to nibble the dead skin off your feet than by any of NOLAs more adult offerings. Seriously, there were all these big tanks everywhere, even on the sidewalks, full of these “cleaner fish”…you’re supposed to sit on the edge of them dangling your feet in with a bunch of strangers like a big communal pot of lukewarm fish and foot soup. We skipped it.
Fortunately, it turned out that once we ventured a few blocks away from Pub Street, there were plenty of cute little local restaurants. In the end we picked a spot with something that would satisfy both Orion and the grownups. Our stomachs full, Orion and I retired to the hotel, where I read up on Angkor Wat, while Aaron explored the nightlife a bit, finding an atmospheric Shanghai-themed cocktail bar called Ms. Wong’s where he and a friendly American expat spent a couple of hours solving the world’s problems.
There were a lot of things I hadn’t realized about Angkor Wat until we got there. The first is that Angkor is not just a single temple, it is actually a temple complex/city. And it’s big. Really big. Really really big. At over 1000 km2, it is about the size of Los Angeles, making it the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Wow! I was also a little surprised by the age of the temples or, rather, the lack of age. Yes they are old, but they aren’t quite as old as I’d imagined. I was thinking they’d be ancient like the pyramids in Egypt (built around 2500 BC). As it turns out, the most famous temples in Angkor were built in the 12th century, putting them more on par with Chepstow Castle, which we’d visited in the UK.
Thanks to the hotel’s wifi and the modern traveller’s penchant for sharing their advice with anyone who cares to partake, I was able to work out a plan for our visit. Our top three destinations were Angkor Wat itself (natch), Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider site), and Bayon (a temple covered with giant faces that gaze benevolently in every direction). These all have the advantages of being beautiful, open to tourists, and within an easy tuk-tuk ride of Siem Reap. Some guidebooks will tell you that these three places can be visited in one day, but given the heat, the humidity, and a seven year old’s limited stamina for taking in cultural sights, we decided to visit one temple each day. We figured we’d spend the mornings exploring ruins and the afternoons recovering from the heat and relaxing in the pool. Or at least that was our plan…
The first day started off well. We were picked up bright and early by our tuk-tuk driver from the previous day who had, in the manner of similar folks all over the world, seemed to have “called dibs” on transporting us around when he picked us up that first day.
We had decided to visit Ta Prohm first. It’s the one Angkor complex temple that was left as it’s European ‘discoverers’ found it—crumbling and overgrown by vines and strangler fig trees. It was easy to understand why it was chosen as the setting for the Tomb Raider movie. We all felt like quite the intrepid explorers as we scrambled over stones, under roots, and through passageways. Although there were a lot of people there (it being the week before Christmas and, therefore, the Australian winter holiday), we managed to find a few out of the way spots where we could feel like real explorers.
Ta Prohm was delightful (and truly not-to-be-missed), but it was also insanely hot. Almost sauna hot. We managed to keep Orion going for a while with a water-soaked bandana around his neck. But after a few hours of playing Indiana Jones, we were ready to head back to the shaded pool and blessed air conditioning of our hotel room.
That evening, we made our first visit to the Blue Pumpkin café in town. It had come highly recommended by our friend Maya from Laos, who had raved about the ice cream (and after just one day in steamy Central Cambodia, we could understand the importance of a frozen treat). Orion was thrilled by a menu that included many of his favorites, including nachos, which he hadn’t seen since South Africa.
The Blue Pumpkin was also the site of one of our more baffling experiences in the ongoing and surprisingly challenging quest to procure plain cheeseburgers for Orion. Perhaps part of the problem was that we let our guard down. The restaurant seemed so promising as a cheeseburger source—it was a very modern, very international appearing establishment. The walls were lined by sleek white raised banquettes, on which perched a multinational assortment of barefoot 20-somethings sipping smoothies and nibbling muffins. If ever there was a place that seemed prepared to cater to the tastes of western tourists, surely this would be it.
Thus, it was with great hubris that we ordered Orion “a plain cheeseburger. No sauce and no vegetables, only meat, cheese, and bun.” Our very friendly server read the order back to us and we reclined against the oversized white pillows, confident that a perfect meal for Orion would soon appear. So, imagine our surprise when what appeared on Orion’s plate was a bun with a slice of cheese…and that’s it. No burger. Even more perplexing, when we looked closely at the slice of cheese, it was slightly melted and had tiny bits of cooked ground beef stuck to its underside, indicating that it had once been attached to a burger, which had, inexplicably, disappeared.
We called our server over and, after a long discussion with what seemed like the entire waitstaff of the restaurant, we managed to communicate that we did, indeed want a burger and not just a slice of cheese peeled off of one. In the end, we had a nice meal and definitely enjoyed the brisk aircon. O must have been satisfied with his burger because he asked to return there a couple of days later to try the elusive nachos, which arrived, sadly, with salsa but no cheese instead of the other way around. But the young people working there were so nice that it was hard to get upset. Plus, as shaky as their English skills were, they were a lot better than our Khmer abilities!
We saved Angkor Wat, the most famous temple, for our second day. Based on recommendations from fellow travelers, we had decided to drag ourselves out of bed early enough to see the sun rise over the temple. To add to the drama, it was the morning of December 21, 2012, supposedly the end of the world predicted by the Mayan calendar. If an apocalypse was nigh, Angkor Wat, the ancient Khmer symbolic representation of the universe, seemed like an appropriate setting from which to experience it. Our personal tuk-tuk driver showed up right on time, depositing us at the temple in the pitch black pre-dawn.
Shockingly, we weren’t the only ones to have had this idea, so we joined the throngs streaming through the darkness over an ancient bridge across a moat to the edge of a pond in front of the temple. We managed to stake out a spot right at the edge of the lake. Aaron maintained his control over our couple of square feet of prime real estate, even as others tried to squeeze in. One woman even tried to reach through his legs to put her tripod in front of him! (Aaron’s edit: Or maybe she was just being friendly.)
It was really crowded, but still lovely, and I was just preparing to fully enjoy the mystical sight when Orion started complaining. He had had a bit of a rough morning and it had been more difficult that I’d expected to get him up and out of bed. This was a surprise because usually he’s quite chipper in the morning and he hadn’t complained about the other early departures we’d had up to that point. I figured he was just a little sleepy, but right as the sun was about to rise, he really started to complain that he was tired and wanted to sit down. I’m afraid that after all the effort we’d put in to be at this special place at this moment, I didn’t have a lot of patience for my uncharacteristically whiny child. He settled down and we managed to enjoy the sunrise itself (which was really spectacular—I definitely recommend it to anyone who is visiting Angkor!)
Hoping that some nutrition might perk up our droopy boy, we headed over to the line of food tents for some noodle soup and bread. This, plus a chance to sit, helped a little and we managed to convince Orion to walk over to the temple. Just as we crossed the threshold, I gave Orion what I hoped would be an encouraging hair ruffle and immediately realized why he’d had such a tough morning. He had a blazing fever. Feeling horribly guilty about dragging our sick child out and especially for my earlier impatience, we sat down next to an intricately carved column by a ritual bathing pool. Because Orion seemed reasonably comfortable as long as he could lie down, we decided that Aaron and I would each do a quick visit of the temple before going back to the hotel.
The temple was amazing. Even a quick trip past layer upon layer of carvings was enough to be awe-inspiring. My favorite was a bas-relief representing the Churning of the Sea of Milk—a Hindu creation story in which the gods and demons divide into teams and play a giant game of tug-of-war with either end of a serpent. In the middle the serpent is wrapped around a mountain in the aforementioned sea of milk, the mountain gets whirled around, whipping the milk into a latte-style froth and, in the process, creates a variety of goddesses, supernatural creatures, and the nectar of immortality. It’s amazingly intricate and lifelike.
Soon enough, though, it was time to take our sick boy home to the hotel. Aaron got him to swallow some acetaminophen while I set out to gather some basic keep-hydrated survival supplies from the local stores. I was reasonably successful, and managed to bring back juice, soda, an ice pop, and some plainish crackers. After a quick snack, Orion was ready for a nap and, with his immediate needs met, Aaron and I were left to contemplate our next move. It was probably just a standard cold-type malady, but Orion doesn’t get a lot of fevers, and this one was very high. Furthermore, we had been in developing countries in Africa and Asia for the previous three months, meaning that a febrile illness could be caused by…almost anything.
Malaria, for instance, is endemic almost everywhere we’d been since we arrived in Tanzania. We had all been taking malaria prophylaxis, but we knew it wasn’t 100% effective. Untreated malaria can be dangerous, so we decided to increase Orion’s malarone from the prophylactic dose to the treatment dose, giving him four pills a day rather than the one that he had become used to. The up side to that is that he became a champion pill swallower.
Dengue fever is also common in Laos and Vietnam and, despite our best mosquito prevention efforts, Orion had gotten a fair number of bites (he has the misfortune of being particularly appealing to mosquitos). As if to underscore the seriousness of the situation, the previous day we had seen a sign in front of the Siem Reap Children’s Hospital warning of an outbreak of hemorrhagic dengue fever.
This was a bit of a concern because, in contrast to malaria, dengue is a viral illness and has no specific treatment beyond supportive care. So all we could do was try to keep him hydrated and comfortable and keep his fever down. That, and really hope that he didn’t start having any unusual bleeding, which might signal the onset of the hemorrhagic form of the disease which can be…quite severe, to say the least. Initially all was well, and the fever passed after a couple of days.
The most likely time for hemorrhagic complications of dengue is from 24-48 hours after the end of the fever. We watched our son like a hawk during that period. Sadly for us, shortly after we arrived in the lobby of our fancy Christmas splurge hotel in Phnom Penh, and right in the middle of the timeframe for bleeding complications, Orion got a fairly impressive nosebleed. This was, to put it mildly, worrisome.
We managed to get the bleeding under control before we stained too many pale silk upholstered pieces of furniture. Even as we were dealing with that immediate crisis, our minds started racing. If this was the first sign of hemorrhagic dengue, then Orion might well need more care than we could provide in a hotel room, including blood products. As a pathologist with some understanding of transfusion medicine, my thoughts immediately went to the safety of the Cambodian blood supply (not great, I imagined) and the risks of blood donation between close relatives (significant, unless the blood is properly treated using irradiators, which I doubted were readily available). We whisked our son back to our room where Aaron immediately checked his skin and the inside of his mouth for other signs of bleeding which, if present, really would indicate an emergency.
Thankfully, there were none. Orion does occasionally get nosebleeds so we hoped that this was one of those that had picked an inopportune moment to appear, rather than a portent of something more ominous. We did make sure that we had our medical evacuation insurance information handy (we did), considered where the nearest adequate hospitals were likely to be (Bangkok was closer, but Singapore would be better), and worked out the best way to get through to the transfusion medicine doctors at our hospital (that call would have been an unusual one for the hospital operator to receive). Fortunately, we never needed any of those things. Orion did have one more nosebleed, but it never got worse than that and he got better quickly after several days of resting and ice cream. If it was hemorrhagic dengue, it was a mild case.
The thing that surprises me now about that whole experience is that we never really felt panicked. When I think about it now…wow, it sounds really scary. (Both of us teared up a bit while reading over this post.) But, at the time, I think Aaron and I both knew that the best thing for Orion was for us to stay calm and rational. Or maybe it was simply that, out of self-preservation, we didn’t allow ourselves to think about worst-case scenarios in the heat of the moment.
Last Day in Angkor—Bayon
Back in Siem Reap, before this episode was anything more than an interfering but uncomplicated fever, Aaron and I realized that the rest of our sightseeing at Angkor would have to be done in a tag team fashion. That way one of us could stay with our invalid as he rested at the hotel. At that point, the one big site left that we wanted to see was Angkor Thom. I had read articles describing Angkor Thom as the most striking of the Angkor temples, particularly the part of it called Bayon, famous for its innumerable giant faces. We decided that I would go in the morning and Aaron would go in the afternoon/evening.
Bayon was incredible. It’s an impressively intricate structure, with high walls and towers, and everywhere you look there are these huge carved heads seeming to watch you. Fortunately most of them are smiling serenely, but it’s still quite arresting. The enormous faces (all 216 of them) look remarkably similar—they are thought to be representations of either King Jayavarman VII (who built the temple) or the Buddhist spirit of compassion (the devout Jayavarman VII was one of the first Buddhist kings of Cambodia) or perhaps both (Khmer monarchs were considered god-kings). As we had been reading a couple of historical novels about Jayavarman VII, these details were a bit thrilling to us.
In any event, the overall effect of Bayon is striking: they say that Angkor Wat is classical Khmer while Bayon is the baroque version, and that seemed to sum it up nicely. Bayon also had more than its share of amazing carvings, including a three dimensional version of the Churning of the Sea of Milk lining a bridge and bas-reliefs of hundreds of the beautiful apsaras—the dancing female divine spirits we’d been introduced to in the other Angkor temples. It was hard to turn a corner without running into another example of this favorite motif.
Although I missed exploring with my constant travel companions, it was nice to wander at my own pace, feeling free to go or stop as I pleased without worrying whether anyone might be bored or tired. Nevertheless, after a few hours in the heat I was ready for a break and headed back to town. I stopped for a delicious lunch of spicy papaya salad, picked up a milkshake to take to Orion, and returned to the hotel to relieve Aaron, who set out for his own lunch and exploration of Bayon.
The temples at Angkor had been among the sites that topped our list when working on our around-the-world itinerary. So, did they live up to our high expectations? In a word: Yes! Sure, there are loads of other tourists, but even the masses of Aussies on summer break couldn’t detract from the majesty and mystery of this spectacular place. We were extremely glad to have had the chance to see these grand, graceful, and intricate structures in their peaceful forest setting.
In the Lap of Luxury in Phnom Penh
After three days of exploring the Angkor complex, it was time to move on to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh (maybe by the end of this blog post I’ll have figured out where those h’s go). We’d reserved seats on the posh Ibis bus (for $13/person, almost twice the cost of a regular bus), which we hoped would provide us with pretty comfy digs for the 6 hour ride. Sadly, we arrived to find a swarm of mosquitos inside the bus (less than ideal, given our brush with infectious disease) and that our assigned seats were wayyyy in the back. Things could have been a lot worse, though—at least the gastrointestinal complications of Orion’s illness managed to wait until we were approaching a rest stop to manifest themselves. I’m afraid we left the bathroom at that rest stop in rather a worse state than when we arrived. We left a big tip for the bathroom attendant and armed ourselves with plastic bags for the rest of the ride. O was quite a trooper and (luckily for us and our fellow passengers) proved to have quite good aim.
After the somewhat harrowing bus ride, I was thrilled to arrive at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, the grand and graceful old hotel that would be our home for the next few days. Given our scruffy appearance and questionable olfactory state, I wasn’t sure this fancy hotel would be quite as pleased to see us. Nonetheless, the staff were incredibly gracious and welcoming. A very dapper and proper Swiss man who introduced himself as a “hotelier” sat down with us for a long chat about how we wanted to spend our time in Phnom Penh and no one seemed the least bit put out when Orion’s aforementioned nosebleed started in the lobby.
Now, if you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that this was not our normal class of accommodation. Just a couple of weeks earlier, we’d been in our $7 a night room in Vang Vieng, Laos, and only a few days later we’d be back in single-digit territory. But, it was Christmas and we’d decided to indulge in a holiday splurge. It didn’t hurt that Aaron had managed to find an internet special giving us three nights for the price of two, as well as free breakfast and tickets for all of us to the extravagant Christmas Eve and Christmas morning buffets. Score!
And it turned out to be a wonderful treat. After the events of the past several days, every time we stepped into the plush lobby felt like absolute heaven. From the gentle strains of Christmas music, to the big sparkly Christmas tree, to the warm, spicy smell of the complimentary mulled wine, I felt like I’d been transported to a different, far more luxurious universe. As we walked through our lemongrass-scented room onto the balcony overlooking the serene pool, I couldn’t imagine anywhere more delightful. A few hours later, I stepped out of the first hot, strong shower I’d had in months, dried off with a fluffy white towel, wrapped myself in a soft robe, and decided that I never wanted to leave.
And for those three days, we didn’t leave much. We were completely self-indulgent and enjoyed our fancy digs to the fullest—swimming, having high tea, watching Animal Planet, and gorging ourselves at the incredible breakfast buffet (real sunny side up eggs, three types of noodle soups, eight types of homemade jam, homemade bread and pastries, a dazzling array of tropical fruit, and, to Orion’s delight, waffles!).
We did make a few brief excursions to get massages, visit the night market and eat and drink at various restaurants. The night market was a particularly impressive specimen of the genre, clearly intended more for the denizens of Phnom Penh than for tourists. It takes place on a big outdoor central square, with scores of food options, from women dishing out steaming soups to people grilling various meats to men grinding up fresh sugar cane to produce drinks, and hundreds of people eating and socializing on carpets that had been laid on the ground for that purpose. There were vendors selling clothing, crafts, and “Italian gold” jewelry, which they were making right there by aiming a handheld blowtorch at little golden lumps and pouring the molten liquid into various molds. There was also a central stage featuring a succession of young Cambodian men and women crooning unfamiliar songs into the heavily amplified and distorted PA system in what seemed to be a localized version of “Cambodian Idol.”
Aaron spent a few hours at the night market one night and was fascinated by the whole experience. It was the first time on this trip when he drew an extraordinary amount of attention, as he was repeatedly pointed and giggled at by groups of teenage girls. After checking that he had, in fact, remembered to don his trousers, he guessed this was due to his height and the difficulty he had walking down the aisles of the market without being garrotted by the electrical wiring strung at neck-level between the stalls.
Our favorite restaurant was the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. The FCC is something of a Phnom Penh institution and, while it now welcomes a lot more tourists than it does journalists, it still harkens back to an older, idealized-in-a-French-colonial-sort-of-way version of the city that could have come straight from the pages of an Asian adaptation of Out of Africa; all slowly revolving ceiling fans, big leather chairs, and dark wood walls. It was also the site of the triumphant return of Orion’s appetite, when he devoured a whole cheese pizza (and then another one) and for that it will always, always hold a special place in my heart.
And as for Christmas itself, Raffles was a lovely place to celebrate. The Christmas Eve buffet had everything we could have imagined (and a lot of things we couldn’t), including caviar arranged around an ice sculpture, lobster bisque, dim sum, three types of cured salmon, peking duck, foie gras (freshly seared or in terrine form), turkey with gravy, an almost-literal mountain of desserts, and the best array of cheeses we’d seen since leaving France. We were even serenaded by a children’s choir singing carols.
We had picked up quite a few gifts for O over the previous few weeks (many of them knock-offs from the toy street around the corner from our hotel in Hanoi) and I’d gotten wrapping paper, tape, and a few decorations in Siem Reap. Thus, it was a very happy and well-recovered boy who woke up Christmas morning to a pile of colorfully-wrapped boxes.
Orion’s joy as he unwrapped his much desired faux-Lego ice dragon quickly changed to disappointment as we discovered it was missing quite a few pieces, including the attachment for one of its two legs. We all learned a lesson about cheap replicas that day. Fortunately Orion can be remarkably resilient under such circumstances and soon figured out a way to put together a pretty sweet (if legless) dragon anyway. To this day, he tells us he thinks it was better that way.
So we all thoroughly enjoyed our time in the lap of luxury. At first I was concerned that it would be hard to go back to our more frugal way of traveling. As it turned out, though, this respite in complete comfort allowed us to recharge for further adventure. And, as you’ll see in our next post, we were fully prepared to enjoy the pleasures of a more rustic setting.