The Cambodian Countryside and Beng Melea

Our third day in Siem Reap, after getting done with breakfast, we again found Hon waiting for us outside Parklane Hotel.  He greeted us with yet another unflappable smile, happy for his third day of business in a row.  Again, he’d probably been waiting hours for us lazy Americans to get up and at it.

We decided to head northeast today all the way to the jungle temple of Beng Mealea.

The ride was about 2 hours up there and was just as good as the temple itself.  Cambodian countryside is beautiful. Lush rolling green in every direction – rice paddy everywhere.  Almost every square foot but the elevated road itself is covered in marshy water with green rice paddy.  A staggering 85% of Cambodians are farmers.  The lush water rich land is perfect for growing rice, making the above crazy statistic somewhat easier to believe and is also, unfortunately, the reason that the population had to live through the Khmer Rouge.   You see many men and women wading chest deep in the water with nets to harvest rice.

The rural villages and houses we passed all look nearly identical.  Much like Kampong Phluk, all the houses are on stilts, though not as high as the ones in Kampong.  These houses need to be on stilts because any time it rains, anywhere from 6-12 inches of water will collect beneath the mud the houses are built over.

Kids in the villages were happy, throwing smiles and waves our way as we bounced by on our tuk-tuk.  Massive games of football (soccer) and volleyball were being played, even in the muddy rain.  If they had a ball, it was a chance for fun!  While the kids were mostly smiles, most of the adults were fairly indifferent as we passed by.  These are the same people that also had to live through the Khmer Rouge so the fact that they could be indifferent, rather than downright angry, with Americans is actually a positive sign.

Seemingly stray dogs are all over Cambodia (and Thailand), particularly in these rural villages that we pass.  Bob Barker would be upset– none of them have been spayed or neutered and they all look strikingly similar.  As my brother pointed out, this is probably due to the fact that unlike in the United States where breeding is strictly controlled, the dogs here are free to mate around.  Over the years this has probably resulted in the “homogenized” look that all the dogs here share.

Being that everyone is a farmer, in some way shape or form, every house has its own chickens running around and cows milling about the road.  These are not the big cows you are used to seeing in the Midwest which are raised to become beef – they are leaner.  The cows like to wade into the muddy marshes to stay cool, just keeping their heads above water.

Beng Melea is a temple/jungle.  While built in the same style by the same king (Suryavarman II) that built Angkor Wat,  unlike Angkor Wat it was left to become unused.  And that’s where nature came in – every vine, plant, and tree imaginable is growing up, around, and on the stones of the crumbling temple.  Exploring the temple required a scramble, dangerous at points, over the tumbled rock and vegetation.  Indiana Jones would feel right at home minus a giant rolling boulder.  We got our first serious rain since we’ve been over here – quick solution was to hide under a temple bridge and wait until the big drops were done.  Spiders, lizards, and a fun little ant highway kept us company in the meantime.

Because of the rain, the ride home was a bit more treacherous than the ride up – the rain had washed out part of the rural roads and created massive muddy potholes.  Hon was doing his best to keep the ride smooth but if we hadn’t been holding on, we would have been tossed out of the tuk tuk in several spots.  Another fun accidental roller coaster ride, in other words.

I had noticed many of the vehicles on Cambodian roads have CDs, shiny side exposed, taped or glued to the back of their vehicles.  Didn’t understand why until that night, when I realized they make handy and cheap rear reflectors.

Right before getting back into Siem Reap, Hon swung us over to an all-cambodian market.  We were the only non-Cambodians, which was refreshingly like being the only non-thais in northeast Thailand.  First we tried some corn on the cob, which was surprisingly good – and I have pretty high standards being from Iowa.

Next Hon recommend we try some crickets from his favorite cricket vendor.  The woman had a big basket of beetles and crickets and I bought a bag of crickets for 1000 Riel (25 cents).  Hon showed me how to eat them – pluck off the back legs and the wings and then down the chute.  They weren’t too bad – this was probably due to the fact that they had been soaked in deliciously fatty oil for god knows how long – the texture was just crispy enough because of the exoskeleton and just soft enough because of the oil.   I’m no Anthony Bordain but I will say I’m one step closer after the crickets.

As we drove home, Hon showed us pictures of his two daughters and talked about his wife.  His daughters were, of course, adorable.  His wife, well, according to Hon she didn’t understand him.  I won’t get into the specifics, but this phenomenon is clearly universal.

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