I learned today that Royal Gardens are relative. Some rather poor, dusty and dull trees, a spout of water, and an empty garbage-strewn fountain a royal park do not make. The beautiful temple, where costumed youth are posing for professional photos, makes for an interesting pause. The men and their harmonious instruments add reality to the fact I am in Siem Reap. Drawn to the screeches in the trees, I look for the monkeys but instead note that the sounds come from numerous large bats. Countless motorbikes, rickshaws and bicycles zoom amid honking cars and trucks. All traffic seems to move slowly. Good thing as there are very few traffic lights and a smattering of stop signs, most of which just suggest as action to be contemplated by drivers. There appears to be no rules to driving when it comes to direction, passing, turning, or right of way.
I locate few crosswalks as I walk thru littered and sandy streets, beside the brown sluggish waters of the Siem Reap River, stepping over huge exposed tree roots and uneven stones – when there is any discernible path at all. I see very few people walking anywhere and those are tourists. They are the ones with shoes. Every local wears flip flops.
My destination is the National Museum. Here are the artifacts and history of the Khmer civilization. I struggle to learn about the kings, religion, architecture and history of the Khmer, once a mighty kingdom ruling over most of the mainland of Southeast Asia, including Lao, Thailand and southern Việt Nam. It is all so new to me. But I do come away with the knowledge that this was an impressive era, on par with the Mayans, Egyptians and Chinese. Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon are only three of over 110 temple complexes built by the Khmer kings. Their reign lasted from about 800 to 1400 AD and during that time managed to peacefully transition between Buddhism and Hinduism and eventually combined elements of both religions into their Theravada Buddhism of today.
Cambodian culture is so different than my Western roots and that’s a good thing. My comfort zone is stretched and I face new challenges. I love the Asian breakfast which includes every item from fried noodles and vegetables, fruit and yogurt, eggs and waffles, to salads, pastries and soups made to order. Cambodian beer is good so I head to the Lucky Market Shopping Center to pick up a supply of Angkor Beer and Cambodia Lager for .60 a can. No worry about currency as all prices are posted in dollar which is the primary currency.
I pick up my luggage at the hotel, hire a tuk-tuk for $2, and make the short ride to Paradise Hotel where I will meet up with the small group I will be traveling with for the next month. My education into Southeast Asia begins in earnest.