November 28 thru December 3, 2000
I left Singapore with Shelli, early in the morning. We had a flight to Bangkok, Thailand where we laid over for a few hours until we caught a flight on Bangkok Air to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
We were excited to be on the road again after our four hectic and emotional days in Singapore. Siem Reap would be a refreshing and relaxing time for us or so we hoped.
Our flight from Bangkok was with Bangkok Air and to our delight we had the pleasure of flying on a brand new airplane, it had only been in service a week! The flight was not full so we had plenty of space to stretch out and relax.
Our first sight of Cambodia was from the air, it was wet, almost completely flooded. As I looked out the porthole of the plane all I could see was brown water covering the ground. I was concerned that we were flying into a disaster area, I could not see a landing strip!
Lucky for us the pilot had done this a few times before, within minutes he found the landing field and we were on the ground at the Siem Reap International Airport. And yes there was dry ground, the monsoon season had just ended.
The airport was the smallest international airport I have ever seen. It was very compact and filled with official people selling us visas for $25 (U.S.) and inspecting our bags. It took all of 20 steps to get from the runway, to the visa counter, collect our bags, clear customs and get out the front door.
The temperature was very hot, so hot in fact that we were both very anxious to get in an air conditioned cab and to a cool hotel room. We didn’t have reservations, but we did have our trusty Lonely Planet version of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring book. What more did we need?
I gathered my two tons of luggage while Shelli went to find a telephone. For some reason the telephone idea didn’t work, I think we needed a phone card. So we decided to just grab a cab and go directly to our first choice in hotel.
Getting a cab was easy, the drivers know when the plane arrives so they line up, waiting for customers. The system here is rather interesting too. The cabbie charges a flat fee to take you to town, included in that fee are as many stops as it takes to find you accommodations. Of course the cabbie takes you to his favorite places first, then your choices. Either way, when you finally commit to a hotel, he gets a cut, or a “referral fee”. We learned this is a way of life in Southeast Asia.
Our cabbie was a rookie. Not only did he not speak English he didn’t know how to read it either. Of course this makes sense, but it made our search rather difficult. We showed him the picture of the Green Garden Guest House and he didn’t recognize that either. He kept saying to us, “Yes, I know!” Of course he didn’t know what “Yes, I know!” meant either. He would say it then continue doing whatever. Finally his solution was to drive up and down the main street while we pointed at places to stop.
We had several trial stops, while Shelli and I would go into a hotel to see if we liked it. I must say that the accommodations were plentiful, but they were not quite what we expected for a 5 day retreat. We wanted just a few basic things, clean, air conditioned, quiet and a shower. Is that too much to ask?
The first place we entered had a sign on the wall, “No prostitutes allowed!” We liked the idea they were selective, but worried about why they found it necessary to place a sign on the wall. We decided against this place.
Another inviting place quietly put a notice on the night table in the room. They alluded to the same end but in a different manner. That sign said, “no taxi girls allowed.” Could that mean us? We didn’t think so.
Our search was rather exasperating. The prices made no sense. Here we were in the poorest country in all of Southeast Asia and they were charging U.S. prices for less than wonderful rooms. Something was wrong.
We continued to look for the Green Garden Guest House. Our friends had told us they really liked the place, even though they opted not to stay there. At the time the U.S. Presidential election was going on and the Guest House did not have CNN. They ended up paying big bucks for another hotel, just so they could watch the election. Too bad they wasted their money…the election wasn’t over for several more weeks!
Our persistence paid off, we finally came across a little side street, on it was our destination and home to be for the next 5 days, the Green Garden Guest House. We loved it the minute we set foot in the courtyard. The price was right, $17 for a double room and for an additional $3 we could have breakfast.
We settled in and within minutes discovered that we weren’t the only Odyssey riders there. In fact the town had at least a dozen of us adventurers around. In our little guest house Joan and Barbara had been there for several days.
So in true Odyssey fashion, Shelli and I picked their brains. They told us how to get a guide and driver and where the best places were to go sightsee and eat. Our agenda filled up quickly, with little effort. The Odyssey Brain Trust works.
The next day we spent relaxing and arranging for our tour guide and driver. We were still very tired and exhausted from our journey and were in no rush to start running around again. Besides Shelli had forgot to bring cash to Cambodia, a major no-no. For the most part we have been able to access ATM machines , with a few exceptions.
Cambodia was a big exception. Even though they deal in U.S. currency they do not have easy access to get to it if you are a tourist. The bank even charges a hefty 5% fee to cash a travelers check or get a cash advance on a charge card. Shelli ended up having to do the latter. It was that or going without money for the duration of our stay. That was not an option either, since most places do not take charge cards.
The message here is, “take U.S. currency and plenty of it when visiting Cambodia.”
I think the country is trying to make up for all the war torn years when they had nothing. Now the tourists are arriving and they found that they can charge outrageous fees and the tourists will pay it. As a matter of fact, most don’t even bat an eye lash.
After spending the past 2 plus months in Southeast Asia, we were seasoned travelers and could tell the difference between fair prices and gouging. Just the same, we paid it, because we were here now!
Oh yes! Another interesting fact, the currency is U.S. dollars, but anything less than $1 you will need to use Cambodian riel. The exchange was something ridiculously huge, like 6000 riel for $1.
One night we had a light dinner in the fanciest hotel in town. The bill came to $29.65. We split the tab, paying in U.S. (a currency we hadn’t used in a very long time…) The waiter brought our change in riel, he piled up a stack of 500 riel notes, making it look like a ton of money. Shelli saw this and unthinking exclaimed, “I paid in U.S. dollars, I want U.S. currency back!” I did a quick calculation in my head and told her, “Shelli, that’s 35 cents!”
“Oh!” she said. We dissolved into an embarrassed laughter. Oops!
If you have been paying attention to the prices, I would like to know why we spent $17 on a room for two and $29.65 on two salads and a dessert? Like I said, something is wrong here.
Shelli was using the phone, the amputee behind her followed us around town, begging. He was just one of many whose only source of income is to beg. He was smoking a cigarette, a habit that does not collect money from me!
This photo caused a fight. As soon as we snapped the picture these two little boys came running up to us for money. I pulled a dollar out of my wallet to give to one and the other threw a fit. I ended up giving them each a dollar, but the original one wanted it all.
This tree was his home. The rest of the family lived right here on the riverbank. It was a very distressing scene. The whole area was home to the poor people of Siem Reap.
The streets are lined with “sidewalk cafes”. The women open them up to the locals, feeding them the special of the day, right there in the street. The customers linger over a game of chance, spending hours there.
This photo was taken only a few feet from the boy in the tree hammock.