Flashback to #soulstrengthspirit tour, March 2016
Tuk-tuk to the hotel. The streets of Siem Reap are filled with color and dust. Orange cloaked monks ride sidesaddle on the back of motorbikes. A cart filled with natural weave baskets, golden yellow bicycles. We pass the city center, the royal gardens, a foot bridge with a 7-headed serpent (Naga). It is 90 degrees outside but motorbike riders are dressed for a NY winter. A common sight throughout my travels.
The sky view from the sunbed is blue, the sun hiding behind the clouds. Almost ethereal.
Food in Cambodia is influenced by neighboring nations. My lunch on the first day poolside at Borei Angkor Wat includes fresh greens and peanuts (it’s a good thing I’m not allergic), pork fried rice served in a bowl with a sunny-side up egg. Equal parts starch and protein, and a side of mixed vegetable salad. I learn later that there is a strong Thai influence to the cuisine, leftover from the first occupation before the Khmer Rouge took reign.
During the course of my trip, I will have many massage treatments and only two will cost more than $20. The first one is the (2) hour Mudita Signature Spa at Borei Spa, much needed after a 24-hour flight. Every massage in Eastern culture starts with a foot bath ritual, where a copper or ceramic bowl is filled with hot water, flower petals, and lime slices. This attention to the feet is rooted in the respect for the spiritual power of the human body. A centralized location of well-being, the feet are widely and deeply respected as part of the Eastern tradition. It is common practice to remove slippers upon entering temples and private homes. There is a respect for the feet as a reflection of our inner soul, and grounding for our body. If our feet are relaxed, then so are we. As your feet are bathed with a salt scrub then rinsed, it’s hard not to feel calm and at ease.
Jet lag adjustment, sunrise musings are easy. My hotel room, although set back, faces the road. Ambient sounds of the street: motorbikes, tuk-tuk drivers, I wake to monks chanting, incense heavy in the air. The hotel is large. You are greeted with a welcome drink, directed towards a couch where a cultural vignette unfolds beside you as musicians play.
They place me in a room at the far end of the floor next to a fire door. Not something that would happen in the West, especially as a solo female traveler. Life is different here, the threat of bodily harm and violence is almost non-existent. I have reason to believe the Cambodians have a very different perspective on how to treat humans after suffering at the hand of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
I love breakfast in Cambodia. A beef noodle soup with sprouts and greens. Very similar to Vietnamese Pho. And then there’s the coconut juice, served fresh from the fruit. Yum! One morning I share an outside table with a gentleman from California. Paul is a professor of agriculture at UC Davis working with local farmers to streamline the harvesting and planting process of the rice paddies. Typically rice fields get 2-3 harvests from one swath of land, and in Cambodia, much of the labor is manual which results in long-term physical injuries. That conversation will prove to be invaluable as I continue on my journey and observe rice paddies production in Viet Nam and Indonesia.
Backstreet Academy connects locals to tourists, an opportunity to immerse oneself into the local everyday culture of a city. I sign up for a lesson with a local Apsara dance performer. There is miscommunication, then a missed connection. Apparently, a local guide is supposed to accompany me to the performers’ home but we cross paths and never meet. There is confusion with regard to the location but ultimately the tuk-tuk driver finds his way.
Apsara is a traditional dance once performed only for the royal family, and now solely for tourists. The lesson is performed on a platform in the middle of a homestead. There are 2 half-built structures and in the front of the property a shala-like structure where men are working. There is a poster promoting Apsara and I learn that the young woman performs weekly at a local hotel. The instructor, a young woman of 20 speaks no English. She dresses me in a costume sarong. The lesson itself was a bit frustrating, not having a translator to explain the steps and movement and how it tells the story of the Apsara dance. We do our best at communicating. I’m amazed by how far the instructor’s fingers and legs can bend backward. The instructor’s impatience with my lack of flexibility to do the same shows on her face.