We landed early into Siem Reap, and spent our first day lazily exploring the town. We began with a stroll to the Old Market. It’s edges are lined with restaurants boasting huge menus, thick like bibles, ready to serve the traveller anything and everything their heart desires. Dive into the market through the spice stalls, and out of the sun light. You’ll be greeted by stalls laden goods to bring in the tourist dollar. Skirts, t-shirts, trousers, paintings, bowls, place mats, bags and big glass cabinets full of silver jewellery. As we walk past the traders flick a switch, and the massive gem stones are illuminated by white and red fairy lights.
Head on deeper into the heart of the market to find the food stalls. The entire central spine of the market is filled with tables heaving with fruits, fish, meat and vegetables. Food is cooked here too, big dented pans bubble with hot oil. Little patties of I don’t know hiss and sizzle. Its hot and noisy. Smells hit you like an assault. The back of the mouth burn of spices, the slightly unpleasant tang of chicken getting too warm, a fresh, earthy vegetable smell. The oily savoury aroma of dozens of cooking pots makes my mouth water. Dust shimmers in shafts of light burning through gaps in the wooden roof.
We leave the market area behind and walk down to the river. Along the riverside the town is peaceful. The banks are green, lined with trees, dotted with occasional statues. Every so often a bridge crosses the slowly drifting waters, some plain and functional, some beautifully ornate. A woman sits by the water, peeling fruit to sell. Her bicycle, light green, propped up against a bench. A young boy flies a kite. People sit, reading, writing, reflecting.
Further along are the Raffles Gardens. Beautifully manicured, with dancing fountains, stone lions and flowering borders. Look up. The trees are filled with bats. We heard them before we saw them, raucous, preparing for the twilight. Enormous creatures, hanging from branches, stretching out their translucent, papery wings. Some creep along the branches, elbows moving like hands. Sinister creatures, out of place against the blue mid-afternoon sun.
At the edge of the gardens stands a busy temple. Inside a band plays, beating out rhythms on drums, plucked strings reverberating around the room. The South East Asian love of the gaudy is evident; elegant buddha statues are crowned with rotating, glowing, neon covered disks. Outside the temple sits a woman with a cage full of birds. Release a bird for good fortune she calls. Some say the delicate birds are trained to fly straight back to the cages. Bus loads of tourists stop off to make offerings at the temple. Around the back, the flower sellers work through piles and piles of lotus blooms. With deft hands they peel back and twist the outer petals, revealing the bright pink insides, forming subtle beauty into striking artifice. Discarded flowers litter the floor.
As night begins to draw in we wander back into the centre of town. The area around the market comes alive at night. The lights of Pub Street begin to glow amid a tangle of wires and cables.
The night markets open, stalls and stalls and stalls. Each market claiming to be the original and the best. The streets become packed with Tuk Tuks bringing people into the town. Little back streets fill up, seating spilling out of restaurants onto the pavement. Hidden between them are little craft shops and galleries, housed in quaint, French buildings, their colourful shutters open to let you peek inside. The beautiful, dreamy pictures of Angkor we see build our anticipation for the days to come. Rows and rows of massage chairs become filled as temple weary visitors seek out the $1 massages. Mostly young travellers, their elephant pants hitched up to the knee, grimacing through painful leg massages, shoulders and necks forced around by strong, purposeful hands. We decline the massage, and stick out feet in a tank of fish instead. At first the tickling is almost unbearable as the tiny mouths work away at our calloused, dusty skin, but after awhile it becomes tolerable, and almost relaxing. Sitting on the side, lulled perhaps by the fish, perhaps by the free beer that comes in the price, we begin to see why they call it a fish massage.
Every few metres you find an adapted motorbike; a blue roofed stall selling banana pancakes. Made unlike any pancakes I’ve seen before, I watch fascinated. Ladies pluck small balls of dough from a bowl of liquid. With deft hands they roll it out, then spin it in their hands like a pizza chef. Wafer thin, it is rolled onto a heavily oiled hot plate, then, with a flick of the wrist, folded up and slid into a paper tube.
We take a seat on a restaurant balcony to watch the world go by. Downstairs, we select our dinner from fresh fish, prawns, vegetable kebabs, chicken and beef, all laid out on huge slabs of ice. The food is cooked at the roadside on a glowing barbecue. Sitting up stairs the smell of the fat sizzling on the hot coals wafts up. We order a whole red snapper, and pull apart the delicate white flesh greedily.
We headed back to rest our heads at our hotel, excited that tomorrow would bring our first glimpse of Angkor.