Cambodia / Places

Sleepless in Siem Reap

Crumbling ruins at Angkor Archaeological Park

Crumbling ruins at Angkor Archaeological Park

The final stop on my Cambodian journey, and the natural hands-down highlight, was the few days I spent in Siem Reap amongst the temples of Angkor Wat. An archaeologist traveller’s dream, really… Two intense days were spent ruin-roaming- on the first viewing sunrise and on the second sunset- which certainly provided me with all of the temple time I’ll be needing for some while. Me and my Aussie travel buddy James had managed to succumb to the charms of tuk tuk driver Mr Dara, who dutifully shuttled us around the key sights in the very vast park, and we managed to clamber over and through an impressive volume of stone over two exhausting but exhilarating days. Nothing can prepare you for the strangeness of visiting somewhere so iconic, but we made the most of both lapping up the rich history of the place, and playing Tomb Raider like 10 year olds. I’ve already lost count of how many temples we saw, though I was amazed by the variety of styles and states of them all. The standout experiences had to be the moments spent watching the sun appear over Angkor Wat itself, wandering amongst the enormous faces of the Bayon, and clambering through the jungle-eaten ruins of Ta Phrom and Preah Khan, my ultimate favourite. We also took a slightly off the beaten track wander on our second day around the entire circumference of Eastern Baray lake, putting Mr Dara’s precisely engineered schedule somewhat out of line, but providing us with amazing insight into the village life quietly going on within the park- children backflipping around the lakes, farmers washing their buffalo, mothers and daughters doing laundry, and fathers and sons fishing. Definitely a recommendable way to break from the crowds…

The giant stone faces of the Bayon

The giant stone faces of the Bayon

Looking down over Phimeanakas temple

Looking down from Phimeanakas temple, Angkor Thom complex

The Elephant Terrace

The Elephant Terrace

Backflipping champions of the Eastern Baray

Backflipping champions of the Eastern Baray

Sunset scramble on Phnom Bakheng

Sunset scramble on Phnom Bakheng

Siem Reap town itself, a few kilometres outside of the park, has thrived as the seat of Angkor tourism, and now stands as Cambodia’s capital of culture, as well as a hedonist’s retreat. I was fortunate enough to arrive at the time of the Angkor Photography Festival, hosting displays of international and world class photography around the city, while all year round, the galleries displaying the work of American photographer John McDermott, responsible for the most iconic images of the temple complex, can’t fail to inspire some camera creativity. For the more upmarket visitor, there is an array of entirely worthy hotels around the riverside French quarter, though I was stationed south of the city near the Pub Street tourist heartland of the town. When not visiting temples, this area provides daytime entertainment in the form of the bustling central market, uncountable cafes and food joints, shops promoting socially responsible arts and crafts collectives, galleries, and pestering tuk tuk drivers constantly in search of work. Night time, however, is when the centre comes alive, with a ripe offering of restaurants, bars with eternal happy hours, clubs (including the energetic stalwart Angkor What?!), and three separate night markets which collectively represent every souvenir available to the browsing tourist in South East Asia.

Pub Street

Pub Street before waking

Outside the Central Market

Outside Central Market

Souvenir city

Souvenir city

After sampling all of these delights, including a wonderfully displaced meetup with old university comrades visiting town, I ended up having unexpected lingering time in Siem Reap due to food poisoning- spent, as is becoming typical, in museums and cafes. I found the Angkor National Museum, though thoroughly modern, somewhat disappointing, perhaps more due to the high entry price and overwhelming volume of information it offered than any more serious shortcoming- I think I came away even more confused about Angkor history than I was when I went in (but do have bedtime reading sorted for the foreseeable). I spent lazy hours and plenty of tourist dollars in ethical cafes on comfort food, and even had the opportunity to take part in an English conversation lesson at the very wholesomely titled Peace Café. This was actually one of the most pertinent experiences I had in Cambodia, definitely learning a lot more from my shy teenage student than he did of me- primarily about the realities and intricacies of the Cambodian education system, and the dearth of opportunities on offer to the country’s youth. Not on any count surprising, but powerfully insightful, and the experience made me more poignantly grateful for the opportunities I’ve been offered growing up in dear Blighty. If anything inspires you to teach…

Riverside life

Riverside life

Harrowing displays at the War Museum

Harrowing displays at the War Museum

...and Soviet spoils from the Khmer Rouge regime

…and Soviet spoils from the Khmer Rouge regime

My final day in Siem Reap was spent surprisingly productively, considering the state of my stomach, on a tour visiting Tonle Sap lake. We first visited the local War Museum, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to any temple tourist- an eccentric collection of staged guerrilla-life-in-the-war photos, disused weaponry, and Soviet and American tanks, which provides victims of the conflict some employment and the opportunity to educate the general public about the shocking reality of their experiences. We were guided around by a disarmingly humble former child soldier, now unemployed adult landmine amputee, still searching after 30 years for his separated family- who incidentally imparted to our little band of tourists the quality of Big Picture life advice that it is very rare to receive. In the name of ethical tourism, we also visited the famous Artisans d’Angkor workshop, home to the now thoroughly self-supporting craft collective, which provides employment to a spectrum of disabled Cambodian citizens otherwise unable to find work. Apart from being a remarkable model of social enterprise, the quality of the outfit’s output is unfaultable, and when I come back with a few more dollars one day I’ll be furnishing my home here… The lake visit itself was remarkable- as dusk began to fall over the town, we chased the Siem Reap river down to the largest lake in SE Asia, to visit the Vietnamese settlers dwelling at Chong Khneas, in the midst of the water. The stilted settlement itself was small, but busy- populated in the evening by women thrashing the catch of the day from their nets, children floating around in polystyrene boxes and tin baths, and families moving between homes to catch up on news and share dinner. Being the most frequently visited of the Tonle Sap settlements, Chong Khneas has also of course become tourism-tainted, with vessels of dishevelled children mooring up to passing boats with their snakes seeking “one dollar one dollar”- though considering the abject poverty apparent here, it was hard to begrudge them this. That evening (and my Cambodian trip as a whole, incidentally) concluded with a clichéd breathtaking sunset over the lake- which had me reflecting on Deep Thoughts About Travel, and feeling totally captivated by this little country.

Riverine roads at Chong Khneas

Riverine roads at Chong Khneas

Sunset over Tonle Sap lake

Sunset over Tonle Sap lake

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