Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 24 – 26, 2008

Siem Reap was the gateway to Angkor Wat. Tourists and archaeology aficionados would descend on the town before embarking on their Angkorian adventures. The daily influx of foreigners and their money had resuscitated this little backwater town into an oasis of modern (read: Western) trappings in the middle of the dust and poverty of Cambodia.

Apsara Dancers at the Temple Bar in Siem Reap

The town was wallowing in tourist dollars (USDs were accepted and preferred over the local currency), but it still seemed the back of beyond. It started out as a pit stop, but it could very well hold its own in terms of attractions. Siem Reap may be all these things simultaneously, but it still came off as a charming little town seemingly unaware of its contradictions.

Baca Villa Hotel, 026 Phum Taphul, Kumh Svay Dangkum, Siem Reap

Hotels of all stars and sizes abounded, 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 before our trip and only one receptionist gave coherent answers in English and a good deal: $12 a night for a twin bed.

Baca Villa was 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 seemed awkward in their service yet eager to please. Our room was sufficiently spacious but a bit stuffy. 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 spoke commendably good English and offered reliable advice about Angkorian itineraries.

Skye, Tuktuk Driver and Guide with Ayee
Ecstatic Pizza, Old Market, Siem Reap

The Old Market area was a tourist attraction in itself, a backpacker’s haven of shops, restaurants, and bars. This was the place to get those souvenirs and to unwind before or after the main event that was 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?

Pub Street Alley, aka The Passage

On our second night, still overwhelmed by our Angkor experience, we wandered off to Pub Street, where narrow alleys were lined with pubs and fancy restaurants. Restaurants bled into one another; we had to make sure which one we were 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 – fish curry swimming in coconut milk with bits of chicken and carrots, the whole dish wrapped in banana leaf. It was tangy enough to run amok for, considering I was neither fond of fish nor curry.

Amok: Cambodian Cuisine

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 was close to the Tagalog word saplot, which also meant 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 was 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.

Agile Apsara Dancers

The next day, it was time to leave. Thinking we would get lucky in our bus arrangement as we had been in Saigon, we let the staff do the booking for us. A dilapidated minibus already packed with passengers stopped by our hotel. When Ayee asked about air-conditioning, as promised, the bus staff assured her of opened windows. We looked at each other 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 deserved another visit to unravel more of its seeming contradictions.