Siem Reap, Cambodia
April 24 – 26, 2008
Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat. Tourists and archaeology aficionados descend on the town before embarking on their Angkorian adventures. The daily influx of foreigners and their money has resuscitated this little backwater town into an oasis of modern (read: Western) trappings in the middle of the dust and poverty of Cambodia.
The town is wallowing in tourist dollars (USDs are accepted and preferred over the local currency), but it still seems the back of beyond. It can simply be a pit stop, but it can very well hold its own in terms of attractions. Siem Reap may be all these things simultaneously, but it still comes off as a charming little town seemingly unaware of its contradictions.
Hotels of all stars and sizes abound, from swanky to dodgy. Typically, I booked myself in one with less of the former and more of the latter. Knowing nothing about the town, my travel buddy Ayee and I scoured the internet for cheap digs. We called several choices from the Philippines and only one receptionist gave coherent answers in English and a good deal: $12 a night for a twin bed.
Baca Villa is a quaint guest house located in the Old Market area. The staff was amiable with ready smiles at all times. Like sitcom characters, they regaled us by ribbing one another. But just like the town, they still seemed awkward in their service yet eager to please. Our room was sufficiently spacious, though stuffy and stale-smelling. It had a big bathroom, though. I was happy to find a tub; I promptly conjured images of a decadent night of being lathered with suds by an attending apsara (an Angkorian nymph). So I turned the tap on, and whoa – mineral water gushed out. And it wasn’t the bottled kind. The water was so dense it was actually the color of saffron! Suds turned to mud. As it happened, I had to use mineral water for my oral hygiene regimen. The bottled kind. In all fairness to Baca Villa, our two-night stay was more pleasant than punishing. Skye, the super-friendly hotel staff, doubled as our personal tuktuk driver-cum-tour guide-cum-entertainer. He even had a sparring partner, fellow tuktuk driver Arie. Their banter reminded me of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in Dumb & Dumber! Skye speaks commendably good English, and offers reliable advice about Angkorian itineraries.
The Old Market area is a tourist attraction in itself, a backpacker’s haven of shops, restaurants, and bars. This is the place to get those souvenirs and to unwind before or after the main event that is Angkor Wat. Still staggering from our 8-hour bus ride from Saigon, we endeavored to explore the area. It wasn’t long before we saw a sign: Ecstatic Pizza. Who could resist a promise of happy food? This was Siem Reap, the intermission of a town, after all. Oh, and the pizza? Thin crust, rather dry – but for weary travellers, it sure was ecstasy. Could it have been spiked with E?
On our second night, still overwhelmed by our Angkor experience, we wandered off to Pub Street, where narrow alleys are lined with pubs (of course) and fancy restaurants. Restaurants bleed into one another; you have to make sure which one you’re in. Both local and international cuisine beckoned with flashy signs, dim lights, and restaurant barkers. One sign on the door of the Temple Club caught our attention: “traditional dance performances nightly.” We figured it would be nice to have some entertainment to go with the Khmer “special” food, called amok – a fish curry dish swimming in coconut milk with bits of chicken and carrots wrapped in banana leaf. It was tangy enough to run amok for, considering I’m neither fond of fish nor curry.
After dinner, the night cap came in the form of a traditional apsara dance. Just earlier in the day we saw these mythological celestial nymphs (or female divinities) frozen solid in stone. This time they sprightly appeared on stage, enchantingly dressed in bright colored sampot (a wrap-around cloth; the word is close to the Tagalog word saplot, which also means wrapped clothing) laden with glittering embellishments. The dancers were decked out in wrist and ankle jewelry, as well as that very Indochinese pointy headgear. The apsara dance itself is a study in graceful movements: light and subtle, guided by upturned fingers and toes. It was a greatly nuanced performance; each flexed finger and facial expression told the story. I positioned myself up front for the best view. These modern-day versions of the apsara would flit by like ethereal visions of the Angkorian avatars.
The next day, it was time to leave. Thinking we would get lucky in bus arrangement as we had been in Saigon, we let the staff do the booking for us. A dilapidated minibus, already packed with passengers and without air-conditioning, arrived. We looked at one another in dismay; we would be on the road for 10 hours to Bangkok after all. Without much ado, we were herded in amid confusing chatter. And without baggage compartments, the sorely unhappy Caucasian tourists had their luggage blanketing the aisle. We had to gingerly step on between-spaces to get to our seats.
Such was the paradox of Siem Reap. Just when you thought you had it good, you would feel ripped off. Despite some of its attendant inconveniences, I regretted staying only for two days (I hadn’t visited the museum and the Siem Reap River). Siem Reap deserves another visit to unravel more of its seeming contradictions.