Our next destination was Siem Reap, which I discovered was more than just the gateway to Angkor Wat. The city was a fascinating place in and of itself.
After the speed boat ride, we alighted on a red, sandy dock area, climbing some crumbling steps past the throngs of tuk tuk drivers and children hoping to carry luggage and score a dollar. Getting situated in the tuk tuk we’d reserved (but paying an additional ), we pulled out of the lot and onto the main road, a gravel affair running along the top of a sort-of berm. To either side were planks leading to houses, which rose on stilts above the rice paddies and marshy land that led off into the distance.
Cool. Cool cool cool.
About 5 minutes into our trip I had the best surprise of my trip – Chris pulled up in a tuk tuk next to me! He signaled we follow him. I had the absolute honor to say, “Follow that tuk tuk!,” and only discovered when we got back to Chris’ house that he’d said the same thing to his tuk tuk, but wearing his Indiana Jones hat. Scout badge to Chris.
Chris and Anya’s house is on the second floor of this great building, tucked back into one of several lots off of a main street. It was so comfortable, and can I just say how refreshing it was to have the whole house on one level?! Sure beats the 5 levels we’ve got going on in Saigon!
The weather was obscenely beautiful while we visited. Northern Cambodia was having an unusual cool streak, which was appreciated. There wasn’t a huge amount of trash, which was surprising given the huge numbers of tourists we saw. The vegetation was your Standard SE Asia Palm/Frond Thingies. This tree was in the lot outside their house – If this doesn’t say “KEEP OFF ME” I don’t know what does.
The Old Market was fun to visit, and I spent wayyyy too much money on Christmas/Birthday gifts (which I still, as of this morning, have not sent home. Shame on me)! We picked up some food for dinner and parted ways with Chris, who needed to get to work. He took a tuk tuk, and we meandered over to the river (after I spent all the USD I had on me in the market, naturally).
The Siem Reap River is the major connective tissue in Siem Reap’s past and present. Originally, the city consisted of several small villages built around Wats, or buddhist temples, spaced evenly all the way to Tonle Sap Lake. Today, this is a beautiful riverwalk featuring colonial and Cambodian elements. The river is low in this picture – knowing that the Tonle Sap lake that this river feeds grows by ~13,000 sq. km during the rainy season, I’m sure Siem Reap will look much different later this year. I look forward to visiting again and seeing the changes!
When the French came (as they were wont to do, here in SE Asia), they imposed a grid system in the center of the merging villages, creating a downtown area. In this area (the whole of which can be strolled inside 5 hours), colonial architecture remains, anchoring a very Western spread of restaurants and bars, Cambodian market places, and smaller houses next to large, newer hotels like the Park Hyatt.
The city is quite walkable. Traffic is light. The rules are even looser than in Saigon, if that’s possible, but they usually gets out of the way for pedestrians, who are milling everywhere at all hours.
This was a large Wat on the riverfront that we poked around in – quite beautiful! Services were happening in one area.
At the time I thought Angkor Wat would be kind of like this. I was only half right. It was wilder and crazier than I could ever have expected.
Did I mention that the weather was amazing?
In front of virtually every property there’s one of these. They seemed analogous to the alters seen here in Vietnam. Strangely, they were pointing all different directions. I never figured out what they were oriented to (my guesses were either a cardinal direction or the front door of the structure).
In the heart of the downtown area are several alleys that have become home to a mixture of bars, souvenir shops, Cambodian home cooking, and western restaurants, all laid up in what I daresay is a very attractive package. There was no other place (except the nice grocery store – holy crap, it was amazing! They had ALL THE SPICES) that demonstrated Siem Reap’s desire to cater to tourists with money to spend. And, in the case of the grocery store, the not-insignificant number of expats that live, work, and play here.
In order to control the influx of tourism that Angkor Wat has seen – traffic that has been steadily building for years – Siem Reap has focused on providing two kinds of lodging for its visitors: the hostel and the high-class hotel. There is a huge number of luxurious hotels catering mostly to upscale, global clientele. English is spoken everywhere, and fairly well. (Vietnam’s tourism industry clearly lags behind in comparison.) Mingling with the well-to-do are students and young travelers that stay at one of hundreds of hostels, here to eat pizza, check out temples, and party in Cambodia’s premiere nightspot, Pub Street.
Coming back, we were confronted with this intriguing possibility. It was 5:45, however, which means the sun was close to setting – no thanks to being lost in the Cambodian countryside on a bicycle after dark!
All in all, Siem Real is a relaxing and enjoyable destination – surely more interesting and compact than Phnom Penh. Over the course of the week I drank in cafes, had homemade ice cream, feasted on Indian, and let the first half of my school year slide off me like a dead skin. Even with out the grandeur and artistry of the temple complex, it was the perfect place to have a conversation with myself. (For the record, my self-conversation WITH the temples was basically a mix of Oh-Sweet-Jesus-It’s-Hot/Good-Lord-This-Is-F&@%ing-Incredible). I think I can understand the feelings of the expats that choose to put down roots here – great weather, small city, western amenities, western friends.
For myself, it was an amazing city to get to know and visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. For one thing, it’s a little more expensive for expats. For another, it’s much too small. We kept running into the same people the whole week we were there. It would be interesting to be a part of a smaller expat community like that. On the other hand, I like the choices that a metropolitan area gives me.