Siem Reap: our first taste of Cambodia…

DSC02158As I mentioned in a previous post, we’d heard a lot about the scams that tourists run into at the Poipet border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia, so we applied for our e-visas online to help avoid some of the hassle. In addition to this, we took the advice of our hotel in Siem Reap to have a driver waiting for us at the border to bring us directly to the hotel. We had to provide our names, passport numbers, birth dates and gender in order to have this all arranged because, we were told, otherwise the driver would not be allowed to pick us up due to the taxi mafia running the bus stop. Anyway, everything went surprisingly smoothly for us. We were able to easily fend off the first few attempts on the Thai side to get us to apply early and pay more out our visas (first at a random restaurant rest stop, then again when the bus dropped us off about 2 blocks from the actual border). And as planned, once we finally did get through the crazy immigration line up to enter Cambodia, a man was waiting for us with our names on a sign when we exited. We still had to take the “free Government-run bus” ride to the bus station / taxi stop outside of town, but the man led us to a taxi and told us that the driver would bring us to our hotel. We enjoyed our highly air conditioned 2 hour ride into Siem Reap and commented to each other about how well the border crossing went overall. That is, until we arrived into town and all of the sudden we stopped in a parking lot where the taxi driver got out, took our bags out of the car and handed them to a tuk tuk driver. Then another man popped his head into the car to tell us in perfect English that the taxis weren’t allowed to bring us into the city so he’d have his tuk tuk driver take us from there for free. This seemed a little sketchy to us, but after reconfirming that the ride was free we felt no choice but to get out. Of course as soon as the taxi drove off, we were then explained how this tuk tuk wanted our business for the next 3 days to see the temples and that’s why he offered our ride now for free. And when I said that we didn’t need a driver to see the temples, that’s when he got more visibly irritated and then came the story about how he’d been waiting there for us all day, taking no other business and how he needed to feed his family, etc., etc…  Oh boy. So I asked how much it would cost to just take us to our hotel and he said 200 Thai Baht (for some reason some places take Thai Bahts here in Siem Reap) and when we protested at the high price and tried to counter with less he refused and would not budge. So there we were, with no idea how far we were from the hotel, with no way to call or contact our hotel, and the tuk tuk / taxi mafia getting more and more irritated with us by the minute. Just when we thought we were in the clear! Anyway, we finally just gave in and agreed to pay the money to just get ourselves to the hotel. Low and behold, the driver went about half a block, made a right turn and voila! We were right in front of our hotel!! Literally, in the time we spent arguing with the other man we could have walked our asses to the hotel itself…if only we’d known. Once we walked into the hotel I spoke with the manager about what happened and they were extremely apologetic. After some investigation, it turns out that the taxi driver was not one they normally work with and I guess he didn’t know to bring us directly to the hotel and in the end, the manager refunded us the money we paid and even threw in 2 free massages for our troubles. Saweet!

Despite a rocky beginning, Siem Reap did eventually grow on us. Obviously the main reason we’d visited was to see the complex of incredible temples nearby, but we actually enjoyed our time in the city as well. Our hotel had a fleet of extremely poorly maintained but charming bicycles that we could use for free (as Jesse put it, “someone should do the hotel a favour and steal these bikes…”) so we took full advantage. We learned to get used to the weaving cars, tuk tuks and motorbikes that could be literally driving on either side of the street at any given time. Sometimes when I was biking closely behind Jes, he would unexpectedly swing out to the side to reveal an oncoming motorbike or mobile food cart that I hadn’t seen coming which often resulted in some very close calls (Jes eventually learned to signal to me if something was oncoming in our lane to give me more warning, which helped since the brakes on most of the bikes were quite rusty!)

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At first glance, Siem Reap seems to be a town catered to and overrun with tourists. It’s lined with loads of hotels, has a main drag called “Pub Street” where there is every type of restaurant and bar you could ever need, and the parties seem to be endless. There is $0.50 draft beer pretty much everywhere you go, $1 foot massage chairs at every corner and pools of $3 fish foot scrubs (where you let little fish eat all the dead skin off your feet!). Generally speaking, our first impressions of the city weren’t the greatest and it didn’t surprise us when we met a young Australian man who had been doing some volunteer work in rural Cambodia for the past month when he said “Siem Reap is not really Cambodia…” but it was still a obligatory stop in order to see one of our “bucket list” items in Angkor Wat.

2013-01-20 Siem Reap NewAfter a few underwhelming meals in the city, we then discovered that the writers from one of our favourite food blogs – Easting Asia – had visited Siem Reap so we promptly made it our mission to visit all of their recommended food stalls and restaurants. After that, things really turned around for us. We had one of our best meals of the trip at this little barbecue beef stall in town that we biked right by because it was so small that when we asked a local kid where we could get these beef skewers he literally turned around and pointed to a place that we were essentially standing next to. Here you just sit down and the lady brings you delicious, marinated beef skewers, fresh green papaya, cucumber & ginger salad and if you ask, some toasted and buttered baguette bread. When you want more, you just point for what you’d like and at the end, she counts up how many plates and skewers you have sitting on your table to tally up the bill. Our whole meal with drinks cost about $4USD. Amazing!

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Eating Asia also brought us to a surprisingly tasty restaurant where we had a big feast for dinner one night. We ordered a delicious pork, coconut milk and fermented fish dip called prahok ktih served with fresh veggies, some sour fish soup, beef & mango salad, and fried salted fish with watermelon. All fantastic – especially the dip.

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We continued our Eating Asia tour the next morning and had pork congee for breakfast, along with some chicken rice at the Central Market. Then biked over to another street stall to have vermicelli noodles with spring rolls and chicken or pork as well as some fresh spring rolls in rice paper. Yum-my!

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We also signed up for a Street Food Tour run by one of the other hotels in the area.  We were pretty sure that we were going to miss it because we got lost along the way and couldn’t find the hotel. After biking back and forth along the street we thought it was on and asking several different random people where the hotel was (each pointing us in different directions), we eventually seemed so far off the path that we asked a tuk tuk driver if he knew. Of course he did! And he was so nice that he even drove his tuk tuk (with us following behind) right to the hotel. But before I could even get out some money to tip him as thanks, he’d driven off! He restored our faith in the tuk tuk drivers of Siem Reap :)

Anyway, turns out we were the only people who signed up for the tour that day so we did not miss it! We had a very nice Australian lady named Deborah who’d lived in Siem Reap for about 8 years tour us around different markets. She explained the different influences on Cambodian food from Thai, Chinese, and French cuisine. She also explained that the goal of her tour was to just give enough insight into the local food stall scene to make us comfortable enough to go out and try things ourselves. Perfect! First we stopped off at a market just down the street where we tried Cambodian subs (similar to Vietnamese subs but with different meats and the green papaya salad on top). We also had a crunchy deep fried cracker made of little dried shrimps that you squeezed a lime over and dusted with salt & pepper and she introduced us to the coconut waffle lady who, unfortunately for us, had already run out for the day! We resolved to come back and try her waffles out another day (which we did, and they were amazing).

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We then headed to a much bigger market on the east side of town where we were told most of the locals would buy their produce from. Deborah gave us an overview of all the different types of produce being sold, the different Cambodian dessert varieties and anything else we came across. We found a fried noodle stall that also served us some sort of tasty fried chive pancake and for an extra 500 Riels (about $0.12 USD) would add in a fried egg! Delicious! We bought some really great rice krispie-like treats with melted palm sugar molasses on them, as well as milo-banana crepe. A short bit of excitement ensued when a very low flying hot air balloon floated by on its way to a crash landing. DSC01634

On our way to the next stop, Deborah insisted that we hop off our tuk-tuk to chase after the “Sugar man” who is a man on a bicycle with a very loud blaring speaker (hooked up to a car battery) playing some sort of dance music who has a long strip of what looks like warm, white sugar taffy with peanuts inside that he pulls off pieces of for you to buy. Not sure exactly what it was, but it was tasty! DSC01645Then finally we headed to an area just slightly out of town to a street that Deborah described as “the local drive-thru”. Apparently this is a recent phenomenon in the past few years where local street vendors and stalls have started to open up around 5PM every night along this long street and the local adults and kids come to hang out. We walked along the street in order to get close to the food, but most locals would just cruise along on their motorbikes, stopping at their favourite vendors to pick up food to go and continue on. There are little mats set up along the other side of the road where you’ll see families or groups of friends stop to sit and enjoying whatever food or drinks they’ve just purchased. There’s even a little carnival that’s set up shop on the weekends where you can ride Angry Birds bumper cars or other small rides. The whole area had a really great genuine community vibe. Deborah seemed to think it was brought on by a need for the locals to have a place to hang out, away from all the mass tourism inside the city. It definitely felt like we were the only tourists there. We enjoyed our walk, trying some coconut crackers that a lady cooked over an open flame, sat down to eat some congee and spring rolls, and picked up some black bean sticky rice steamed inside a bamboo tube. We thought about trying some of those deep fried bugs that we’d seen in other markets, but apparently you need to buy them by the can full and we just didn’t think that we’d really enjoy them that much! All in all, it was a really fantastic tour and really helped to whet our appetites and interests in Cambodian food.
DSC01663 DSC01657Next up, we’ll talk temples… :)

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