The service garage was part of the Total fuel station, an integrated facility. Oil companies have different prices; Total charged 0.94 cents a litre for diesel, a bit on the high side. Later during the day when I fuelled at a Tela outlet I paid just 0.70 cents for a litre of diesel, which is about Rs. 44; the cheapest source of diesel during the journey. I made a mental note to tank up before exiting Cambodia. Moreover, the acceptance of USD is a major advantage as one does not lose in changing to the local currency; everything is quoted everywhere, at least in this city, in USD from massage to tuk tuk rides. “It’s only one dolla, saa”, is something you hear from the market vendors, smiling from ear to ear, as you walk past them. It made me wonder what the currency of the country is and how such wide acceptance of USD gets accounted for in the system. That the city is totally dependent on tourism is brought home by the larger acceptance of English; even street vendors respond when you address them in English. This has not been my experience in the other countries that I have been on this journey – most turn their heads away.
I reached the service garage with the car exactly at 7 am, the slot given to me, and found that another car was being given some attention. I had made a checklist of items to be attended to such as engine oil change, brake fluid and coolant top up, oil, fuel and air filter check up, fan belt condition to be assessed and tyre pressure to be checked. The manager said that his mechanic was not used to checking fuel filter and fan belt condition and hence, could do the rest of the job. I agreed and soon work began. The mechanic was surprised that I was carrying all the oils and spares. The young mechanic and his younger assistant did a decent enough job completely draining out the oil – I feel it was changed in good time – cleaning the air filter – which was so full of dust that it took a while to clean it – and the rest of the jobs in under an hour. Tyre pressure was a bit low, which was topped up. I confirmed from the manager that I had to pay just $5, it being April Fool’s Day. When I paid the mechanic he smilingly accepted the ‘wage’ and loaded the left over oils and spares into the car. I could not believe what I was seeing, service for $5 and plenty of smiles to go with it!
Next focus was breakfast. After a shower – you feel like remaining under the shower all the time; it’s that hot – I headed to the hotel restaurant. The spread was overwhelmingly continental with a sprinkling of the orient. I had lots of juices, bread and eggs and fish conjee. When I had travelled through Tibet and China, on my car journey to London last year, the conjee was typical fare at every breakfast. I did not sample it since I thought that rice early in the morning would be difficult to consume. On this trip I have started enjoying it. The hot rice porridge, cooked with either meat or fish, is healthy and nutritious and a better alternative to muesli and cornflakes.
Last evening I was told by guest relations that the Phnom Kuela waterfall is worth a visit even though it is 50 km from the hotel. I had reserved the next day for a visit to Angkor Wat and hence, had time on my hands this day. I engaged the route on Google Maps and headed in the direction of the waterfall. Half way through I lost my way on Maps and followed road signs. It took me to the Phnom Koulen National Park. At the entrance to the Park a fee of $20 was realised. The next 13 km was a lonely drive through thick forest but there were local people along the route vending forest produce such as banana and coconut. When I reached the waterfall it was full of locals and tourists, giving a festive touch to the surroundings. Raised wooden platforms, covered overhead, gave visitors a place to relax and enjoy food they bring with them. Narrow and creaking wooden hanging bridges provided access across flowing water. From various points one can enjoy the cascading falls. It doesn’t come anywhere near the Kuang Si waterfall in Luang Prabang in terms of spectacular sights. But it was a place that people came to beat the oppressive heat.
On the way back to the hotel I saw a big marriage reception and my thoughts sprang to Phoukong in Luang Prabang. He had become emotional when asked if he was married. He wasn’t and was already 29. He said that boys and girls often married young, even before they reached 21. He had not got married because it is extremely costly to do so. Tun Tun had expressed the same in Myanmar. In these parts the man has to pay the woman to seek her hand in marriage. The better looking the woman is the more money you shell out. Phoukong said that women are even reluctant to fall in love, because they stand to lose financially! The wedding dress could cost as much as $4000, he said. The ‘bride money’ could set you back from $10000. These may not sound large sums in India these days but it does here when you appreciate that $100 is considered a back-breaking annual tuition fee.
I was almost blown by the heat and resolved to ‘treat’ the condition with a couple of chilled beers. I found a ‘drink store’, that I thought vended only liquor and was mistaken. It was a small store sold beverages, alcoholic and otherwise, as well as items for daily use. Liquor costs substantially less here than in India. Back in the room I leisurely consumed the beers and took a nap that lasted a couple of hours. I had set apart the evening and the early part of the night to explore the nearby markets. And what an evening it was.
The Siem Reap River is dirty as it winds its way through the city. Plastic and other flotsam and jetsam are an eyesore. When the lights come on they do not matter. Many wooden bridges connect one side to the other. Bright lighting announces the Old Market, Art Market, Pub Street, et al. Old market is a labyrinthine collection of shops and stalls that sells a whole host of products, mostly locally made fabric, readymades, handicrafts, jewellery and paintings. The market is so large that I found many tourists walking around shouting for mates they got separated from! It may not be as large as the Crawford Market in Mumbai, but is certainly worth a visit to pick up branded wear at bargains. As the Old Market closes the Night Market, in close proximity to it, springs to life. Juice vendors are everywhere - $1 for a large plastic glass of what you care to have. At $0.50 roasted and scented coconuts are sold in large numbers to tourists. At the Night Market I found a woman sampling scarves. She would don one and ask her husband if it suited her. The husband had a bored look – they looked much married! In the end, he mustered enough courage to tell her that she already had enough scarves!!
The Pub Street is where all the action is. Streets are lined with eating joints offering all types of cuisine from the Belgian to Khmer. Bands in some restaurants played loud music and some popular old melodies too. There were tuk tuks all over the place. And they make a beeline for you asking if you want “massash or girl, saa”. Massage parlours were there in plenty offering different types of services. The most popular seemed to be foot reflexology – people reclined on comfortable sofas for an hour while expert hands worked on their feet. I was quite taken in by the fish massage; stores offered fish massage for as long as you want for $3, including a bottle of beer. They even advertised that the experience would be free if their fish did not make you happy! A favourite with tourists from Europe seemed the North Face outlet which did brisk sales of shoes and backpacks. Small alleyways with restaurants selling continental food and beer looked transplanted from Europe.
I settled into the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant and ordered Amok Fish, a Khmer speciality. The huge portion arrived in a bowl and I wondered how long it would take me to do justice to it. The preparation contained coconut cream, long beans, onions, green leaves, spicy paste, white egg and fish. The steamed rice was a bit undercooked, but the curry was tasty even though bland. I was seated on a table just outside the restaurant and I could see local enterprise in full swing. Vendors went about their job without being intrusive and pesky. After the meal I walked back to the hotel resisting solicitous tuk tuk drivers. “Lion”, one of them, even volunteered vivid descriptions of the ‘bouquet of services’ on offer depending on time available and nationality of the service provider!