Sights and Sounds of Siem Reap
Siem Reap, Cambodia, is the gateway city to Angkor Wat, with exotic appeal, as well as the ease provided by being set up for the tourist trade. If you are looking for adventure, with all of the comforts of any major tourist destination, and a much cheaper price tag than most, you might want to consider a trip to Cambodia.
I’d booked a guesthouse ahead, based on a recommendation from a traveler I met in a hostel in New Zealand (hostels are great for swapping travel tips!) The Okay Guesthouse was $18 a night for a private room with bathroom and fan, $23 if you wanted AC, and at 90-100 degree temps, the AC was worth an extra $5 a day. It also boasted a beautiful rooftop pool and a row of hammocks for your snoozing pleasure. You can spend a little less for something super basic, and possibly not quite as clean, or spend hundreds of dollars a night if you want something 4-star, it’s all available here.
My room at the guesthouse was fairly basic, not quite what the rooms looked like on their website, but hey, the price was right. It was clean, and quiet, and cost less than an 8-bed hostel with shared bath in other countries. Then, a nice surprise when I got back from visiting Angkor Wat – the desk manager asked, “are you in room 222?” We have a surprise for you. We are upgrading your room to the villa!”
“That’s great!” I said, perplexed. “But why?” He said, “We just want you to be happy.” I am happy, but I’m even happier now!
The new room is about the same size, but it has a little nicer decor, a phone, a small packet of tissues, thicker towels, and there are rubber flip-flops by the bathroom to wear in the shower. Other than that, it’s about the same, but still, it was very nice of them. The staff are friendly and helpful, and they keep the place looking lovely.
They even sent someone to move my bags, while I went up and swam in that serpentine pool, which I thought about a lot while climbing temple steps in 90 degree heat earlier. I splurged and had a happy hour drink for a couple of dollars, while watching the sun set behind an unlit lamp by the rooftop pool, so it looked like the lamp was lit by the sun, and thought about how life is beautiful and how lucky I am!
What else is there to do in Siem Reap besides exploring stone temples? Lots of things, it turns out, although hanging by that pool isn’t a bad thing to do in and of itself. The market is a great spot to check out, and it’s only a 20 minute walk or a 5 minute $2 tuk tuk ride away. It’s huge and spills out into the surrounding streets, blocks and blocks of sensory overload, smells, colors, tastes, noise! You can find just about anything you can think of there, shop after shop of colorful clothing, silk scarves, shoes…
…hammocks, lamps, beads, bangles, and buddhas…
…fruits, fish, vegetables, and foods you’ve never seen before.
You can get a massage on the street or in a spa, for a fraction of the price at home,
or have your feet nibbled by fish…
…and drink a fabulous fresh fruit smoothie, where you can watch the girl slice the mango and chop the coconut right into the blender, for a dollar.
Dine in one of the many restaurants, traditional Khmer food, vegetarian fare, or for those Westerners that want a taste of home, go for pizza and a cold beer.
If you dine at the reasonably priced Temple Bar, the colorful dance show is free!
And pub street at night is a blaze of neon.
You can also attend a local circus! Not the kind with animals, rather think of a small cirque du soleil, in a tent, with very talented young Cambodian men and women who sing, dance, and perform amazing feats of acrobatics, all while telling a story about Cambodian history and culture. The circus, Phare, is the product of a school of art and performing arts that was started to help get kids off the streets. I saw the show Sokha, about a little girl haunted by visions of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Intense story, but told with compassion, and yes, even humor, and an uplifting ending.
One of the hard parts of visiting Cambodia is seeing the poverty here, and the after effects of the land mines. You will see people missing hands and legs and feet, some trying to make a living selling you books near the market. While this is hard to see, and you may experience travel guilt (why are we able to fly off to foreign countries, while people here earn $2 a day, if they’re lucky), but also remember that tourism helps boost the economy here and provides jobs and income for many families. The inequities in the world are mind-boggling, and not a problem easily solved. If I have any thoughts of hardship, not having a job or a home right now myself, they are made irrelevant by what I see here, and I’m reminded once again of just how lucky I am.
If you like, you can also visit a local temple. I hired Mr. Yen, my tuk tuk driver from the airport and my day at Angkor Wat, to take me out for a couple of hours, and I asked to go to the temple I’d heard of in the park, near the river. It turns out I was very lucky to have him as my guide, instead of just visiting on my own, as he showed me how it’s done…
First, you remove your shoes…
…then you light a candle and pray..
…and then some incense, and pray some more.
Now take a seat on the ground, and have your fortune told by the monks. You take this book-like packet of pages and hold it to your head, say a prayer asking for blessings or guidance, place this tiny stick into the pages at random, and the monk will tell you something you need to know. Mine was that my job situation was bleak right now, but that would soon change and there were brighter times ahead. Hmmm….
Once you enter the temple, you can take a small bowl of holy water sprinkled with flowers, and rub some on the buddha’s feet, which supposedly brings good luck. I used up a whole bowl.
If you’re lucky, you might witness a wedding party…
…or even two or three, or more! We saw four wedding parties in the temple and surrounding park, having their photos taken, nearby cars and tuk tuks decorated with flowers, outdone by the colorful costumes of the brides, bridesmaids, groom and groomsmen.
All of this fun is at a very affordable price for Westerners. Just to give you an idea, my hotel bill, at the end of a full week, was $221.75. This included 7 nights hotel room ($161), $18 for my driver to Angkor Wat from 5am until 5:30pm, $18 for a ticket to the circus, $6 for a 2-hour tuk tuk tour, $1.75 to have my laundry done (usually I do it myself in the sink, but the sink was tiny, and hey, for less than $2?!), a 2-hour massage for $12 (a pre-birthday splurge), and a $5 fare to the airport. Not a bad price tag, when some people spend that on one night of hotel expense in a major US city. And this was for solo travel. If you’re traveling with a companion, you can cut most of this expense in half.
Food, of course, was extra, but you can have a nice meal for $3 to $4. If you really want to splurge and add an appetizer, wine, and dessert, you might spend up to $15 or so. Overall, it’s probably less than you’d be spending on food staying at home! It’s $20 to get into Angkor Wat for a day, one of your major expenses here, but totally worth it, and it helps fund the restoration of the site.
And there are other things you can do in the area, like visit the land mine museum, or the silk farm a few kilometers outside of town. The silk farm is free, and it’s worth a blog post of its own.
But it’s the people that really make Siem Reap a special place to visit. They are warm, friendly, generous and helpful, and make it hard to leave!