I like to travel to places I’ve seen in movies or on tv, or read of in books. Something will spark a whim to see some places in person, with my own eyes. This has led to travel to Savannah, GA (Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil), New Orleans (too many sources to count), London (reading English history, and ‘Dr Who’), and Venice (again, so many sources), among others. My husband, the nice Roger, likes action movies, so we watch a fair number of them. In the early 2000’s, this included ‘Lara Croft-Tomb Raider’, starring Angelina Jolie. I thought there was something truly magical about the scenes shot outside some beautifully deteriorating Asian temples. Setting movie magic aside, further research – books and travel articles, National Geographic programs, and of course, the Google, only served to cause my whim to evolve into certain belief that the great temples at the Angkor Archaeological Park, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, were places I should see with my own eyes.
However, you don’t travel to Cambodia on a whim. Our trip required 30 hours of actual transit through four airports via three planes. Our home airport, Bradley Airport, is a small, well-run international airport. Surprisingly, our next stop, Toronto’s Pearson Airport, was awful. The building was under construction & the staff was under-informed. I expected better of the Canadians. Then, fifteen hours in the air, via China Southern (the less said about China Southern’s in-flight ‘food’, the better) to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, arriving in the cold pre-dawn hours. My first thought as we walked through the nearly empty terminal was to applaud the cleaning staff, because you could eat off the floors. Other than the glistening floors, it looked like any other Western airport, with stern customs officials, long hallways, and mostly Western advertising. That is, until I went into the ladies room, entered the first available stall, and found myself faced with my first pan-style toilet, having not noticed the sign on the stall door. It’s a very new airport, so the white porcelain hole in the floor was shining and clean, but still, I was in unfamiliar territory. I adapted to my circumstances.
Our connecting flight to Siem Reap was in several hours, so we had time to people-watch and breakfast. I surmise that hiring and grooming parameters for China Southern airlines’ female cabin staff must be very strict so far as height, weight, age, hair, and makeup are concerned. I saw a crew of eight or ten attendants walk by, and I couldn’t have told the difference between them on a bet. They looked like clones. Breakfast was interesting, though. Once a restaurant opened, we had a Chinese-style breakfast, consisting of noodles in a clear broth with lettuce, topped with a fried egg, and side orders of shrimp dumplings (excellent), boiled peanuts (interesting), and a small dish of chicken feet (just…no). I also found interesting the number of people working in this small airport kiosk. One person took our order, another person cooked it, yet another person brought the tray of food to the table, and at least two additional staffers were standing by, awaiting tasks. All of this for a restaurant with less than ten seats. It seemed odd.
Finally, after a relatively short flight, we arrived at Siem Reap International Airport. The main terminal, to which we walked across the tarmac after deplaning, looks fairly new, a modern architectural riff on traditional Cambodian building styles. The airport is staffed by largely unsmiling customs officials, although one petite officer’s stern mien was undercut slightly by her choice to accessorize her crisp, immaculate, uniform with sequin-trimmed, platform sandals and a bright pink bow in her hair. There were ‘No Photos’ signs everywhere. We obeyed.
Luggage retrieved, we stepped outside into humid tropical air, where we were greeted by a sign with my name on it, held up by the very cheerful Mr. How (“as in ‘How are you?’ “, he explained), a driver for our hotel. As we drove down the wide, well-maintained road, I asked what the name of the road was. I was told it was just the airport ring road, apparently built as a direct result of the filming, in 2001, of ‘Lara Croft-Tomb Raider’. Mr. How spoke at length and with gratitude about the connection between that event and the current climate of bustling growth in both Siem Reap and Cambodia at large. I also found it endearing how he (and others we spoke with during our stay) referred to Angelina Jolie with warm familiarity, using only her first name. Cambodians appear to have made Ms. Jolie one of their own. Additional reading indicates Ms. Jolie has returned to the country regularly on both humanitarian missions and, in 2017, to make a film. It would appear the warm feelings are mutual.
As we drove to the outskirts of Siem Reap, bypassing the city proper, the poverty of the country became more evident. I am guessing that zoning and building codes are minimally enforced. Garbage pick-up appears to be, at best, erratic. The most common form of transport are small motorcycles, Vespas, and tuk-tuks, most of which look quite old. Traffic laws appear to be viewed as more like suggestions. I was glad to have a driver. Once we turned off the ring road, the road surface became hard-packed red dirt,with the dust kept down by the occasional sprinkle of water. There were chickens running loose, white cows in small fields next to traditional stilt houses, more elaborate buildings from the French era, and small businesses set up in front everywhere. There were tiny laundries with two washers and two dryers; specialty shops of all types – one sells fruit, one sells bike accessories, one sells women’s clothing, etc.
A few more minutes, and we’re turning into the drive of our white-washed hotel, Sojourn Boutique Villas, which turned out to be an oasis of tranquility.
I had read of this place in the New York Times in 2015. It is a well-reviewed small hotel, just outside of Siem Reap, with a restaurant and spa, run in an eco-conscious manner. Additionally, they provide job training and actual jobs to people from the community in hospitality and spa services. The fact that they would arrange transportation and guides to the temples made it an even more attractive choice.
We were checked in by So Kheum, a handsome, soft-spoken gentleman, who gave us a basic rundown of the hotel, and also shared with us a bit of his own story, working for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines after losing a close friend and part of his own right leg to a landmine, at the age of 14. His story is included in three books of photographs, taken by Gervasio Sanchez – ‘Vidas Minadas’, ‘Cinco Anos Despues’, and ‘Minadas Diez Anos’. These three books tell, in brief stories and wrenching, beautiful photographs, the tales of people injured by landmines throughout the world, at the time of their initial injury, five years later, and, finally, ten years later. It was a sobering introduction to a beautiful country, devastated by conflict, striving to move forward.
So Kheum showed us our villa, and left us to settle in, after giving us a final, slightly embarrassed, warning not to drink the water. It was another reminder that we were a long way from home.