Siem Reap – cafes, art galleries and NGOs

While Siem Reap provides food, water and shelter for the temple hordes, it is very much a stand-alone city that deserves its own attention. It has a naturally pretty setting with a mopey tree-lined river that runs through the city and leafy streets filled with stately old buildings.

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It is undergoing a renaissance right now – you can feel the buzz of that perfect blend of historical charm and fresh energy. However, old and new and rich and poor exist side by side; Siem Reap is a long way from being gentrified.

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As we were driving down a desolate, garbage-strewn lane toward our hotel, my heart sank. Is this where we would be staying for the next six nights?

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But no, we stepped out of the heat and dirt and into a frangipani-scented oasis. We were greeted with cold facecloths and glasses of pineapple juice by Ratanak, Ban Rang and Sopheak. They were the first Cambodians we met and they’re quite typical of everyone we’ve encountered since – gracious, helpful and genuine.

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Straight ahead lay the pool.

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Our room – spacious, cool, white linens, dark wood, a balcony. Our bathroom – a separate shower, quality toiletries and a first on the trip so far – a huge, stone tub. Hot water, excellent wifi, breakfast included – just 8 units – very quiet – all for less than $40 a night. Bingo! Sometimes we win the hotel lottery and in Siem Reap it is easy – high-quality boutique guesthouses are in abundance and very affordable.

If you want to splash out a bit, there are a growing number of very high-end properties, including Sofitel, Le Meridien, the famous Raffles, and my favourite, Victoria Angkor.

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We walked through a couple of these dream hotels (Stephen a little reluctantly), and the staff were exceptionally kind. I rather needlessly pointed out that we were not hotel guests and they maintained their poised and professional demeanor and were positively welcoming.  We even got cold scented facecloths! This property is fashioned after the French Indochina period, and there is not one detail they haven’t looked after. Room rates run about $200 a night, which would be worth every penny. This is their pool area.

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Siem Reap is very walkable, but considering the extreme heat, we took each day slowly, and found reasons to go into air-conditioned stores just to cool off. Grabbing a tuk-tuk is another option, as they are just $2 a ride to most places. While there are nice residential pockets in Siem Reap, we didn’t see any gated communities or enclaves – opposite ends of the economic spectrum can be found on one street. I stepped inside the front yard to take a photo of this stately building, and then realized it was a private home.

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Just down the same street, we found this colourful scene. Almost no-one uses dryers here. When you drop off your laundry, you want to be sure your undies are in good shape – they will be hanging out on a clothesline for all the world to see.

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Going to the market is an endurance test as I found out while trying to buy my Angkor Wat top. First of all, we walked about 15 or 20 minutes to cross the river and get to the market. By then, we were “glowing.” We stepped inside the tented market and were besieged by vendors. “Hello Madam, I have nice dress for you. What colour you like? I have all sizes. Special morning discount for you, madam. I have t-shirts, I have scarves.” When I tried to protest that I really just needed to have a look first, they were absolutely undaunted. “Over here, madam, I have jewellery, special price. You need shoes?” If I so much as looked at anything, the onslaught ramped up. They were calling out from half a dozen stalls. By then, I was sweating profusely.

Cambodia uses U.S. dollars as their preferred currency – any transaction larger than a popsicle will be quoted in US dollars.Their riel are 4000 to $1US, and you will receive riel back as small change.

We managed to work our way through one stall long enough to buy Stephen a pair of nylon Colombia convertible pants for $30 and were working on an Underarmour shirt for $8US, but the sales pressure was so great, that we stuck with the pants only. The vendor reverted back to Khmer (I’m quite sure she was swearing at us).  This is not our game – it’s exhausting. We keep imagining our son Dan here – he’d be in heaven.

The rest of the market area (known as Pub Street) is where the majority of tourists find themselves for shopping, cafes, restaurants and bars. There is a mix of same-same vendors with a few nicer stores – well worth a visit.

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The traffic is hectic – although nowhere near on a par with bigger cities – we’re waiting to see how we fare in Phnom Penh. We still have not been able to figure out the right-of-way.  As you watch this video, let us know if you see a pattern emerging.

We walked past this construction site this morning – another old building undergoing a complete re-do. “Safety First” signs are prominent all over town, including here, where we figured perhaps the foreman had yet to make his rounds.

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The restaurant and cafe scene is robust and feel-good – many places in town are tied to a particular cause (almost all child-related), and percentages of sales go toward their charity. In many cases, the restaurants serve as training centres for young people who are disadvantaged, and would otherwise be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We stopped by for coffee and/or food at a number of them, but the one that made the biggest impression on us was New Hope Cambodia. It is set in one of the poorest slums in Siem Reap, and serves a number of purposes – a training centre for youth, a school for children to learn English, music and computer skills, in addition to their regular education. They also offer family counselling, emergency shelter, medical treatment and food and support for over 300 families. It was at their on-site restaurant where we met two of the staff, Rani and Genda.

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They spent a lot of time explaining the programs and the neighbourhood situation to us. Genda is in charge of volunteers – she has people coming from all over the world to spend time helping out in many capacities. We met an Australian couple who take three weeks of their vacation time each year to work in the school.

Cambodia is filled with stories like that and with young people who are determined to bring their city and country around. The ravages of the Khmer Rouge slaughter have taken decades to recover from and the number of amputees (from the land mines) and street kids and desperately poor people need such a staggering amount of ongoing care, money and expertise.

Twenty percent of Cambodians earn $1-$2 per day and the NGOs make the difference between life and death for many of them.

Sex tourism is another blight. While it is not as overt here as in Thailand, it is a social ill that Cambodians want fixed.

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Fighting the sexual exploitation of children is another big challenge. Many hotel rooms in SEAsia have signs posted advising guests that having children (not their own) in their room is illegal.  Brochures outline ways to avoid harming children (no 1-hour orphanage visits, don’t buy from begging children, etc.) They are trying to break the cycle, but when poverty is so dire, families often feel they have little choice.

On the other end of the social scale, we had two beautiful people and a small gaggle of photographers land in on our hotel property the other day. We had just come back and were keen for a swim, so headed down to see what was going on. Not a big fashion shoot as we thought – it was a pre-wedding photo session. The couple will marry in May.

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They picked their day wisely – the next day the sky clouded over by mid-afternoon and got very dark and threatening. Again, we had just gotten back home and the skies opened, the winds howled and there was thunder. We got a humdinger of a tropical storm – watched safely and with great enjoyment from our balcony. Within half an hour it was over and the sun came out.

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We had a sneak peak at the famous Phare Circus. Artists put on a 15-minute street performance to entice the crowds to buy tickets for their nightly show. Since it originated in Battambang (where we are going tomorrow), we decided to catch the show there, but this was a terrific warm-up.

Tonight, we finished our stay in Siem Reap with a thoughtful cello concert, talk and film. Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss national who has lived in Cambodia before and after the Khmer Rouge invasion, performs once a week. He is a much-loved pediatrician whom the locals refer to as “Beatocello”. Through his fund-raising efforts and tireless promotion of Cambodia’s great need for help he has created a foundation that has opened and operated five hospitals.

Our first impression of Cambodia has been to witness hope and forward-thinking action on the part of  both locals and foreigners to bring them out of darkness.

 

Overwhelmed in Angkor Wat

We were on a don’t-miss-it pilgrimage to one of the world’s greatest (and most-visited) sites, armed with some preconceived notions that had been reinforced by fellow travellers.   Many tourists skip the rest of Cambodia entirely, and hop over from Thailand or Vietnam to fit in their requisite one-to-three-day visit to Angkor Wat.

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In 1993 there were 7,650 visitors to Angkor Wat. Numbers for 2016 came in at just under 2.2 million visitors. The 400-sq.km. Angkor Wat Archaeological Park has become so saturated with tourists that many articles have been written advising on “best times to beat the crowds.” (Hint: at lunchtime, when everyone else is eating, but the noonday heat is enough to drive you mad).

There are many factors having a negative impact on this “bucket list” site. The structures are being weakened by the millions of footsteps that climb their sandstone steps and run their hands over their bas-relief carvings. The government is in discussion as to how to protect this priceless national treasure and control tourist visits in a sustainable way. It’s complicated.

We began our day at 8:00 a.m. and carried through to 3:30 p.m. We were picked up at our hotel by our tuk-tuk driver, Totiha (s?) He was with us for the entire day, taking us from temple to temple. All the tuk-tuks look like this – like little chariots – pulled on two wheels behind a motorcycle. They feel tippy but are remarkably maneuverable, and the biggest bonus for us was the fabulous cooling breeze we experienced after each scorching temple visit.

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Angkor Wat is just outside Siem Reap. After our hectic ride through the city, we landed on a long stretch of road leading to the temple complex. It was our first glimpse of the immense scope of the park.


The surrounding acreage is peaceful and atmospheric – jungle coming right up to the sites and wide lakes to cool things down a bit.

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On the advice of our hotel manager, we went for a 1-day pass, which made for a very long, very tiring day, but worked for us. In a move that was considered controversial for its potential impact on ticket sales, prices jumped dramatically on February 1.  A 1-day pass rose from $20US to $37 US, and a 3-day pass rose from $40 US to $67 US. Our first stop was the ticket booth, situated beside the tour bus parking lot.

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There were easily 100 tour buses – maybe 150, each with a capacity of 50 passengers. There were dozens of mini-vans. Tuk-tuks – too many to count. Motorcycles and scooters – well, you know already how many;  a few die-hard souls even rode bicycles.

I’m not a big fan of crowds and as we made our way through the throngs at the ticket booth, I felt quite crestfallen. We had skipped the sunrise start – were we already too late?  However, they’ve got the system down pat – we had our photos taken, passes printed and were back on our tuk-tuk within 10 minutes.

Before I go any further, may I tell you about the newly strict dress code at Angkor Wat. Since a percentage of the population does not understand the meaning of “skimpy attire”, and since another percentage of the population thought taking topless selfies of themselves in temples was a good idea (???), administration cracked down. Code of Conducts sheets are posted everywhere, and on many temples, women must cover their shoulders and their legs to be admitted.

For my temple visit I had chosen a light airy dress that hits below my knees, and planned on bringing a shawl to cover my shoulders when necessary. Our hotel manager told me that dresses and skirts were not allowed – I must wear pants, and a top with sleeves. While this information did not match with my research, I complied and went to the market to find a comfortable top. If you promise not to laugh, I will show you the result of my cobbled together outfit. We call the look “Travels with my fashion-victim aunt.”

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I bought the top in a hurry. This is what happens when one walks through a hot, sweaty market and harassed by market vendors to the point of distraction.

But the crushing blow is this – Angkor Wat was awash in tank tops, shorts, dresses, bra straps – I could have worn my respectable little dress and felt a lot more presentable.

Anyway…on to the main event. We began with the most important, most iconic temple, Angkor Wat.The entrance is as dramatic as every  photo you’ve ever seen, but the size and scope has to be seen in person. It is staggering and deeply moving.The outer walls stretch for 1.5 kilometres and are encircled by a moat. You cross a long bridge and walkway to approach the temple; as is fitting for a temple of its importance. It stands back and gives you plenty of lead time to admire.

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The distinctive lotus-shaped spires set Angkor Wat apart from the others.

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As we walked through the main entrance and came out the other side, a balloon was just rising over the structure.

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I won’t go into great detail about the history of Angkor Wat – that is all easily and comprehensively available elsewhere. But of all the temples, Angkor Wat was never entirely abandoned and forgotten – it has always functioned as a place of Buddhist worship.

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We expected the greatest crowds at Angkor Wat and there were times when things got a bit congested, but the site is so enormous that we frequently found ourselves all alone.
Visiting important ruins always elicits the same response with us – we are flummoxed by the effort required to build such spectacular structures, in ancient times, before modern tools were available. In this case, sandstone was quarried 50 kilometres away and floated downriver on rafts. It took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to complete. It was a pleasure to sit and take it all in.

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It is a reality check to be a tiny human speck, surrounded by massive stone structures. So many people walked this way before us, and so many will follow when we’re gone. What was this room? We’re imagining a giant swimming pool.
One disappointment about Angkor Wat was the dearth of signage. It would have been so helpful to have information to digest as we went along. I would highly recommend hiring a guide for the day – we “poached” a few times – pretending to take photos as we stopped to listen.

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Our next stop was Ta Prohm, the temples that are being slowly and photogenically swallowed up by the vast octopus arms of massive trees –  silk cotton trees and the aptly named strangler figs. Much of the complex has been propped with steel supports, but the jungle appears to be winning. This was my favourite of all the complexes.

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Stephen propped up at the roots of one of the trees.

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We fell into a sly vendor trap when we landed at a nearby temple where Tomb Raider was filmed. As we walked through, a friendly young man offered to show us the “exact  spot where the Tomb Raider poster was photographed.” We followed through and got our money shot.

 

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He kept following us, pointing out various things and it became awkward and apparent that he was after money. After 10 or 15 minutes, we thanked him and he asked for money in Thai baht! We gave him $5US, and he asked for $10, and at that point we politely parted company, feeling both naive and bit annoyed.

We visited a number of other temples, but as you are probably already feeling it – we were experiencing temple fatigue. Our last big temple – Bayon, in the middle of huge Angkor Thom – was the most surreal in every way.

The main feature of Bayon is 216 massive smiling faces that stare at you from every angle – they are strangely lifelike and powerful.

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We would have spent a lot more time wandering through, and examining the bas-reliefs that cover the outer walls, but for this obstacle course.

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Busloads of tourists had arrived, and there was nothing to do but follow the queue, and hope for a breather somewhere. Alas, it was not to be found.

I have to come to terms with selfies, they are here to stay. But there is a uniquely Asian twist to selfies that I’ve never seen anywhere else – they are choreographed and posed endlessly.

We watched this woman strike this pose in front of a statue, and hold it for numerous takes. Then… just as we were about to try and grab our own shot, another woman took her place, and struck the exact pose. It became apparent that we were unable to get our shot, so we left.
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Our final thoughts of our day at Angkor Wat and surrounding temples? Yes, it is crowded a lot of the time, but it is also possible to find your own quiet place to take it all in.

Trying to do it all in one day might have been a mistake, but we didn’t have the stamina to spread it out over two or three days.

The vendors are relentless – selling everything from guide books to scarves to elephant pants to artifacts, they are in your face in a really unpleasant and aggressive way.

It is hot – really, really hot, and there is very little shade. You need a broad hat, sunscreen and buckets of water to get through a day here.

There are lots of uneven stairs to climb, which require a  level of  attention and determination. I took a pass on two of them – I was so overheated at the time, but Stephen took them all on.

We wholeheartedly enjoyed our day, in spite of the discomforts and annoyances. We are at least a decade too late to see Angkor Wat the way it could be properly visited, but that is the way of many of the world’s top sites. That is not a reason not to go.

We left the park with this final serene memory.

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