If Phnom Penh represented the ugly parts of Cambodia for me, Siem Reap (pronounced ‘See-em Ray-ap’, not ‘Sem Reep’) represented the beautiful parts.
I arrived on the night bus in the dark, just after 5 am. A tuk-tuk from my hotel was at the bus depot to meet me and I was whisked off as the sky was just beginning to hint at lightening. At the hotel, I had a shower and some breakfast and did my usual postcard routine, then I was off again in another tuk-tuk before 9 am. Today, I was going to Tonle Sap lake to see a floating village.
As we sped (much like becak drivers in Indonesia, tuk-tuk drivers in Cambodia don’t do slow) through the town on our way to meet the tour guide and other members of the morning’s tour group, the horrors of Phnom Penh seemed very far away. Siem Reap was clean and charming, with cute hotels, guest houses and boutiques dotted up and down its streets.
Before we got to the lake, we stopped at a village for a quick tour of life in a typical Cambodian village. We walked through the local market and up to the local Buddhist temple before getting back into our tuk-tuks and continuing to the lake. Once we got there, we were assigned a boat and off we went up the tributary towards Tonle Sap lake itself. Our guide told us that this particular village had just recently moved into this tributary because the rains had finally come and the water levels were high enough for their house boats. During the dry season, they live on the lake.
When they said we would tour a floating village, I didn’t expect to see a Catholic church and police post. There was also an elementary school for children of Vietnamese refugees. I found this interesting. Cambodians and Vietnamese seem to have a long and complicated history, and Cambodians seem to still be carrying strong negative feelings towards the Vietnamese (I didn’t meet any Vietnamese people so I can’t say if they reciprocate those negative feelings). These refugees had fled Vietnam during the war in the 1970s and had been living in Cambodia for decades, but they still lived separately from their neighbours, even here on the lake. The day we passed by, a Vietnamese relief agency was at the school delivering rice to the Vietnamese “refugees” of this particular village.
We stopped at a shop where crocodiles are reared – big business in this area, apparently, as their skin is sold to Thailand and Vietnam, then the finished products are bought back by Cambodian shop owners for sale in their shops. Eventually, our tour was over and we headed back to the dock and then to back into town. I honestly could hardly comprehend the poverty in which these people lived. Their livelihoods come from fishing, and their children attend maybe 4 or 5 years of school, if they’re lucky, before they stop to help their parents full time.
Back in town, I had the tuk-tuk driver drop me off at the Angkor National Museum; I was visiting the temples the next day and decided that the afternoon would be well spent learning what I could in order to better appreciate what I would see in less than 24 hours. It was excellent – this museum delivered what the National Museum in Phnom Penh had failed to the previous afternoon. I learned all about the country’s ancient Khmer roots and its Angkorian kings. Eventually, I left and headed back to my hotel because I was tired and hungry (never a good combination for me), but I could easily have spent another hour exploring the museum.
That afternoon, I had a nap – I had slept for about 4 hours on the bus the night before – before I got ready for the evening. I was off to dinner and a show.
Siem Reap’s economy seems to be almost fully constructed around its Angkor roots, and this goes for entertainment as well. Apsara, beautiful dancers in Hindu lore, are heavily featured in the carvings on the walls of the Angkor temples, so an Aspara dance show is a must-see in Siem Reap. The show I saw that night was nice but not great; there are probably better ones in town. I was seated halfway down the large hall and had to get up and walk to the side to see the stage properly, so that likely contributed to my underwhelmed feeling. The mic was also not great so I couldn’t hear the explanations of the dances very well. But the highlight of the night for me was the glass of wine that I had with dinner.
I had not drunk a glass of wine since before I left Jamaica. Alcohol (except locally produced Bintang beer) is illegal in Indonesia so I hadn’t had a drop for months. I relished my glass of supremely mediocre rosé that night. I also relished a giant plate of food; I ate way too much but I didn’t care. I literally ate until I was incapable of eating another bite. The food was good and I was appreciating it not being soaked in oil. I was also appreciating the absence eggs, rice and noodles.
Near to the end of the show, the waitress came over and said, “Excuse me, lady, can you do bill now?” The “lady” startled me a little since in Jamaica, calling a woman “lady” is usually a precursor to a good tongue-lashing (“Listen, lady, if yuh nuh waan me mash yuh up inside ya tideh…” and so forth). But this is the Cambodian way of saying “ma’am” and I thought it was cute.
After the show was over, I hopped in my tuk-tuk back to the hotel, and was out like a light before 9:30 pm. It had been a long day, but a good one. Siem Reap, with its quiet charm, had rescued my softer feelings for Cambodia.