"Hopefully, we'll be hearing about Cambodia soon (hint-hint)." So sayeth Ed from Yuma, in one of his recent emails. I guess this means that I need to get a move on.
In Vietnam they don't tell you anything part 3:
We arrived in Hanoi from Lao Cai station at a bit after 5am. Say what you will, but our experience is that the trains do run on time in Vietnam. It seemed that the rain had followed us to Hanoi, as there was a steady drizzle coming down. After disembarking, we walked over to the Taxi stand, and started negotiating a fare to the airport. The guy running the place firmly stated $20/US, a bit on the high side. So, fine, I wrote 140,000 VND on a piece of paper. When the guy saw this his eyes popped out of his head, and he wrote $20! OK, I wrote 120,000 VND, even in the darkness I could make out the veins in his neck bursting through his skin. He wrote 300,000 VND, I wrote 200,000 VND, he wrote 280,000 VND, I wrote 240,000 VND. By this time, my "good cop" the Missus, played Her hand, She grabbed my arm, and started leading me out to the street, and said real loud, "we can get a taxi on the street". The guy relented, and we got a taxi to the airport for 200,000 VND. But not without a catch. Our taxi was driving through the soaked side streets of Hanoi, when the driver suddenly stopped in the middle of the street. He walked out of the cab, which kind of freaked me out! After a few minutes he returned and said, "you get out now!" At which point, not being sure of what was going on, I was starting to get into a fighting mood. He basically kicked us out of his taxi, and another taxi appeared in it's place, and this guy waved us in. I guess there was some kind of side deal, this driver took us to the airport without uttering a single word.
After making it through stoic customs and immigration, we had a Banh My for breakfast, and eventually, we caught our Vietnam Airlines flight for Siem Reap. Here's a photo of the in flight meal:
In case you were wondering, along with looking like plastic, it tasted like plastic.
As we arrived in Siem Reap, we glanced up at the display, and it read 96 degrees! We knew that this was the hottest month of the year in Cambodia, and yes indeed it was going to be a hot one. I was ready for a hot, and sticky miserable time. But something happened to me on the tarmac in Siem Reap. Both the Missus and I immediately made out the fragrance of plumeria in the air...and we couldn't help but smile.
Customs and immigration is usually a trying ordeal, and we expected such at the airport. And when we saw the gauntlet that was the immigration line, we thought we were in for one.
But it was not to be. I paid our $20 a piece and we moved on down the line. Our money and passports were passed from officer to officer, sort of a passport bucket brigade. And these guys were smiling! In fact, the Missus thought one of the officers was calling Her, and walked up to the Guy. It turns out that Her maiden name sounds just like a Cambodian word. After checking Her passport, instead of being irritated, the Guy cracked up laughing, and started telling everyone else at the desk. They were just having a good old time. The Missus went to exchange some money, and the teller, realizing She made a mistake, started giggling. We certainly were not in Vietnam any longer. There is a central Taxi desk at the airport with a $5 flat rate to hotels in Siem Reap. Things were very organized.
The hotel for our stay was the Angkor Star. The hotel was interesting, it was a bit older, but very clean. There was a small "casino"(I'm really stretching the definition) attached to the lobby, with the universal casino scent(damp-cigarette) making its way out into the lobby area. But everything was more than adequate for $30/night.
Also, the Hotel was located on Sivutha Street, one of the main drags. It was also one of the few streets that actually seemed to have a "name". After rehydrating, and taking a shower, we decided to take a walk and grab something to eat. It was over 100 degrees by now, with the humidity hovering in the 80's, but maybe because we were so excited to be here it didn't bother us much. We walked down Sivutha(the heat just makes you slooow down) looking to find "Pub Street", but no one seemed to have a clue.
Of course, we could have stopped and grabbed some noodles or something else at any of the many restaurants lining the street. Or maybe have some...... Korean Food? It seems that the latest tourism wave in Siem Reap is from Korea. I counted at least 6 Korean Restaurants, and several hotels seem to cater specifically to Korean tastes. Here's a restaurant in transition; the cuisine of the last "wave", Japanese Food, is being served in addition to Korean Food.
There's even a Korean Market on Sivutha! In all seriousness, I was very impressed by what troupers all the Korean tourists were. The older Ladies in their visors with towels wrapped around their necks(don't forget the parasols) marched through the ruins at Angkor in the mid day heat and humidity with aplomb. They sure were tough. We also noted all the humanitarian efforts being provided by the Koreans and Japanese in Siem Reap in our travels. My favorite vignette was when the Missus offered an older Korean Lady Her seat, to thank her, the woman handed the Missus a piece of chocolate.
There was something a bit different about our planning for Cambodia. For once, I hadn't really done any research on restaurants or food. I did read the guidebooks and various forums, but didn't take notes. So, with no plans, we headed toward where we thought Pub Street was. But it seemed that none of the locals knew or had heard of "Pub Street". Finally, we came upon the Hospital(Hospital Street, of course!), and I recognized some of the names, the Blue Pumpkin, Happy Herbs Pizza(guess what the Happy Herb in the pizza is? No thanks, I've already experienced the late 70's...no need to go back, god help me if I ended up in the 60's), and the Red Piano. Finally, we came upon our destination, a place that many of the guidebooks and forums recommend, Khmer Kitchen.
Khmer Kitchen is supposedly known for Khmer Home-style dishes. And so I thought I'd give it a shot. Now it's disclaimer time. Siem Reap seemed to have the worst lighting I've ever experienced in restaurants. Ranging from "bug killer neon green" to almost pitch black, photos were always a challenge. Khmer Kitchen was no exception. And since I don't use a flash...well, my apologies in advance. This restaurant down an alley of restaurants was pretty packed. We were seated at a table, handed the binder with laminated pages that is the menu, and eventually made our selections.
The one dish I kept reading about was Amok, a steamed curry like dish usually made with(for us tourists) fish. So it was a must for us to try.
Coconut and galangal were the principle flavors in this dish. The fish, sliced into small pieces were very moist and mild. What we noticed in Siem Reap was how fabulous the green beans tasted, even in this dish they stood out. Going through the various forums, I found that many people were really disappointed in the fish amok, and Khmer food in general, which is often described as Thai food without spice. I'd disagree, Cambodian food is much more subtle, and as I learned later, very dependant on the Kroeung or the flavoring paste. It is a mild dish, and not something I'd crave, but the Missus really enjoyed it.
I also wanted to try the Beef Loc Lak:
I've had this dish prepared Vietnamese style, and this is totally different, though I've been told the origins(the French influence) are the same. In this case, under the fried egg lay chopped beef in a sweet-peppery gravy. It was delicious, as was the additional sauce provided. One thing you'll notice is that at these types of restaurants, someone comes to your table and a scoop of rice is put on your plate by the Server. We made good use of the rice in this case.
Green Bean Omelet.
This was a pretty dish, which we saw at many of the food stalls in Psar Chas(Old Market). However, it did not have much flavor.
All told our dinner ran $14/US, cheap by US standards, but having just come from Vietnam......
We returned to our hotel, and tried to get in touch with the driver who had been recommended to us. We had communicated by email, and were told that he was booked, but that he'd find someone for us. And yes, he did indeed have a driver ready for us....with a 520am pick-up. No problem, we could dream of what lay before us.
Everything was working out...as if someone was looking out for us.