1. The bats in Siem Reap: In the Royal Gardens across from the Royal Residence live a colony of flying foxes. They’re huge. When they’re sleeping during the day they look like hanging fruit. We went one evening to watch them leave their roost to go hunting. They stretched their wings to their full three to four feet and took off. They glided from the tree tops in groups of three or four. Out over us in the moon light.
2. Breakfast with the butterflies: A 30 minute tuktuk ride outside of Siem Reap is the Angkor Butterfly Center. They keep several species of butterflies native to Cambodia. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable and want to share all they can about butterflies. Not just about the beautiful, fluttering adult butterfly, but also the caterpillar and the chrysalis. There were caterpillars who used the mercury in their food to create shiny, silver chrysalides or golden flecked chrysalides. There were chrysalides that would shake when touched to ward off evil predators. Cat and I went one cool morning. We ate croissants and read in swinging wicker chairs while butterflies flitted around us.
3. Angkor Wat at sunset: The ticket takers leave at 5:30. If you time it right you can go into the temple for free while the sun is setting. At Cat’s suggestion we went took a path that headed west away from the main ruins. The sounds of the jungle around us were deafening. The cicadas in particular, were loud, but also frogs and birds were sounding off as the evening cooled. Geckos were barking out their funny little call. We walked though a small set of ruins as the setting sun was reflected in the water of the moat. We went out the exit when it was almost too dark to see, the guards setting up at the gate to prevent others from coming in.
4. Visiting a floating village: I got to do this twice. Once as tourists we headed out with friends, paying for a boat to take us past a village built on the river. It was not just homes floating on the water. There were stores, schools, and, yes, pig pens. The second time, Hank and I went to work in a clinic in a floating village across the Tonle Sap Lake from Siem Reap. The hospital sends out a team to the village once every two months. Kids came, some because of an illness, some just to be seen. Hank started out weighing and measuring the kids. By the end he was playing and laughing with the kids. As our boat headed back we watched as families rested on hammock, gathered fish from their nets, or splashed in the water.
5. Palm sugar candy: Cambodians’ sugar comes from the sugar palm. Juice is squeezed from the flower of the palm and then boiled down to a thick paste. Cat and I were given a strip of bamboo to dip into the cooking liquid. We dipped, licked, and smiled. After it’s boiled the syrup is poured into round molds made from palm leaves and formed into patties about 2cm across. When cool the taste is divine. It is similar to brown sugar but more mild, full of molasses and caramel notes. The crystals are fine and melt quickly in your mouth. The palm fruit is also tasty. It has three distinct little fruits with a jelly like fruit filled with a clear sweet fluid. The first time you bite into the fruit, the liquid pours out over your hands. We became friends with the owner of a little stand across from the butterfly center. We must have visited her three times in our month there. We ate a lot of palm sugar.
6. Bamboo sticky rice: There are bamboo sticky rice stalls lining the road between Siem Reap where we lived and Damdek where I worked. The sticky rice is cooked with coconut milk in a piece of bamboo leaning over a fire. The bamboo must be turned frequently to keep the rice from burning. To eat the rice you must first pull out the coconut husk plug then peel back the bamboo to reveal a rod of rice. On the outside the rice has a slight crust from the bamboo and the fire. Inside it’s sticky and sweet with a few black beans mixed in for a bit of a bite. Yum.
7. The Puppet Parade: Every year there is a parade of giant, glowing, articulated puppets through the streets of Siem Reap. It took place this year while we were living there. The parade route went right by our apartment. We went to a fundraiser the week before and met some of the people who organize the event. They work with children to build these giant works of art. Their enthusiasm for their project and children is huge, overflowing on the night of the event.
8. Our view of the Siem Reap River: The balcony from our apartment looked out over the river. Early in the morning school kids would whiz by on their bikes up and over the bridge. There was often at least one boat on the river. Two people in the boat would cast out a net back and forth from one bank to another creating a zigzag pattern up the river. It was always such a quiet and peaceful way to start the day, drinking tea and watching Siem Reap wake up.
9. Our swimming pool: It was on the roof top of a four story building. Our apartment was on the second floor. Almost every day we made the trek upstairs to jump into the water. It was about 1.5 meters deep. I had to stand on the very tips of my toes to keep my face out of the water. I bought five balls over the course of the month. By the end of our month in Siem Reap, all of them had gone over the edge.