Into Cambodia: Siem Reap

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We landed in Cambodian city of Siem Reap, the gateway for Angkor Wat and the temples surrounding it that together make up the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site.  Airport transport came in the form of a tuk tuk, and we were dubious as to whether our excessive amounts of luggage would fit on the little bike with a carriage.  Our driver had clearly done this before, and expertly piled on all of our bags, with room to spare for the passengers.  We felt a bit conspicuous driving into town on our overladen chariot, but we quickly realised this is the method of travel in Siem Reap, and we went with it!

First impressions

Siem Reap itself is a thriving colonial town that has prospered from the tourist trade, and the wealth is evident in the fleets of Lexus SUVs that roam the streets – both privately owned, and those employed to shuttle tourists around in the air conditioning.

These luxury vehicles and seemed out of place in a developing country, and were unexpected simply in their sheer numbers and total disproportion to other vehicles. Our travels around Cambodia showed us that corruption is alive and well in this developing country, and that always starts with an uneven distribution of wealth.

Sleeping in Siem Reap

There are a few big luxury resorts in Siem Reap with amazing gardens, and every amenity under the sun. Not the kind of trip we are on this time, though, and we stayed in much more modest, but still pretty fantastic accommodation.

The Jasmine Family Hostel was more boutique hotel than hostel, and the blue pool and lush gardens made for comfortable lounging inside and out. We thought it was fantastic value for £15 per night!  However, with the hostel name, the other guests were genuine hostel goers, and that included having breakfast next to a German girl in a bra.  Not a bathing suit.  A bra.  I applaud her positive body image, but it made it hard even for me to concentrate on not staring at her undergarments – I haven’t asked the male members of my family what they were thinking!

We jumped around a bit around Siem Reap, heading out to a remote village for a few days, and then back again to the city to wash clothes and clean up before moving on in Cambodia.

Our second stay was a fabulous flat we rented from AirBnB, and for £20 per night, we had a huge sparkling two bedroom penthouse apartment with two balconies, a pool, and a view of the sunset from our kitchen window. The balcony overlooking the crocodile farm below was an added bonus, and made for some interesting entertainment as well.  

The neighbourhood was normal enough, and the house that sat in front of the crocodile farm was a large typical family home. But instead of a back garden, they had two big concrete enclosures filled with at least 100 enormous crocodiles, who spent their days sliding in and out of the pool, piling on top of one another, and occasionally having contests for who could hold their mouth open the longest. The crocs were fascinating to watch, and utterly bizarre in its location. I so desperately wanted to throw a (already dead) chicken down from our fourth floor balcony into the middle of the crocodiles and watch what happened. But I suppressed the deviant youth inside of me and opted to watch them do practically nothing instead.

Pub Street

The couldn’t be more descriptively named Pub Street is the place to go in Siem Reap for food, drinks, music and general tourist entertainment.  Siem Reap exists mainly for the tourist trade these days, and it makes no apologies for that fact.  Food is cheap ($4 mains) and beer is cheaper (50 cents). The atmosphere is festive, and the Khmer food is delicious, but one night we found ourselves in desperate need of some familiar food – and so we went on a pizza quest!

We didn’t have to go far to find western food, and it was a tough choice between one of the several Mexican places or one of the several Pizza places. In the end, pizza and beer won out, and we lingered at out table alongside Pub Street for several beers, eating wood fired pizza, and played a fierce family game of Gin.

Word to the wise, if Austin ever challenges you to a game of Gin, bring your A-game. He is a shark. And he cheats. So he’s like a shark with lasers attached to his head. Beware.

We were never really hassled to buy stuff in Cambodia. There were a few sellers in Pub Street, but when you said no, they moved on. Kids never begged for money, and we weren’t hassled to buy every little trinket. If I were to pass something out to kids in Cambodia, it would be toothbrushes. Dental hygiene doesn’t seem to be in the culture, and many of the children we met were already losing permanent teeth due to poor care.

Investment in Cambodians

I know this country has much bigger things to invest in as they rebuild themselves and move on from the atrocities of the 1960’s and 70’s, but hygiene and rubbish are two areas that the hundreds of NGOs operating here need to tackle.

However, the level of investment in education and children is of a proportion I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world. They know the future of their nation and their culture depends on educating their majority demographic of under 18’s, and they passionately work to provide opportunity for those least able to grasp it themselves.

Once such enterprise is the Phare Ponleu Selpak school of arts, which takes talented children from the poorest communities and gives them a world class arts education. The school is located in Battambang, about 45 miles from Siem Reap, and offers free tuition in music, art, graphic design, theatre arts, dance and circus. It’s the circus they’re most famous for, and an intensive programme, it graduates professional circus performers who go on to lucrative careers in organisations like the Cirque du Soleil.

We visited the school in Battambang, and adored the circus performance of these talented acrobatic kids!

Siem Reap was an easy re-entry into travel after our extended break in Australia, and warm up in Kuala Lumpur.  It’s a comfortable town, and easy to get around on one of the thousands of tuk tuks roaming the streets.  But nobody is there just for the city.  You go there for the temples, and we spent the next three days exploring these incredible wonders of the ancient world.

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