Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the fifth largest city of Cambodia, with the capital being Phnom Penh (21 points in Scrabble, right there!).

As the country shares a border with Vietnam it was involved in Uncle Ho’s struggle next door, but at Day 9 of our holiday, we are a bit over him. A civil war started and between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 20% of the population died from starvation, disease, exhaustion (due to being overworked) or execution. Cinema, through the 1984 release of The Killing Fields, brought the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge to the world stage. We are not here for this, but because of the movie Tomb Raider – more about this later.

It is interesting how certain movies leaves a lasting tourism effect on a location: there are many across the globe, but two examples we’ve visited, comes to mind:

  • the Taj Lake Palace (Udaipur, India), hosted the villain’s hideout in James Bond’s Octopussy.
  • this idyllic beach off the coast of Phuket (Thailand) was the “salt water lake” in Leonard DiCaprio’s The Beach. The gap was filled in digitally, during post production.

Just south of Siem Reap lies the vast Tonlé Sap Lake. It is southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake and with the abundance of fish comes an unique community. They have built houses on stilts in the lake, but in the dry season (as the water recedes), they move to ground level and live underneath their homes. Personally, this seems like a lot of work. Why not just live on dry land year round and go to the lake for food instead? But it is their way of life that makes them unique and thus by itself makes for a stunning tourist attraction.

(Speaking of post production, here is a drive by of the village: recorded in iPhone’s time-lapse mode with the speed reduced in Premier Pro)

The same type of boat that ferried us around the Mekong Delta, was also used here – complete with high tech navigation and that signature steering wheel.

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This is Apsara Dance country. References to them can be seen everywhere, including carved into the walls of the various ancient temples. Myth has it that mortals and divinities could not resist these heavenly dancers’ charm. Follow the link above for the history lesson. I am just saying that if you get arthritis, your dance career is over. Naturally there is a dinner-and-show in town, and almost compulsory for tourists to attend – our food was great. (Fish is cheap here, thus we pulled the “seafood allergy” trick again to get decent food, instead of a random sad-ass piece of steamed fish)

I get it. Technically it is difficult to perfect this type of dance, as it is all about angles and degrees, but the music? Did not get what the story was about, probably a love job or triangle with a disapproving parent of sorts somewhere in the mix, as the cacophony from stage right has proven to be rather distracting. I prefer the second video below: time lapse, but quiet.

Often there is a contrast between one’s chosen hotel online vs reality, where the latter does not quite live up to the hype. Our resort turned out to be the other way around. I doubt if any of our photos does the place any justice either. Our vehicle left the tarred road and ventured down a dodgy looking gravel road that deteriorates the more we move away from society. On holiday I panic fast and was fearing that we will end up in a barn or sharing a shed with animals. The place looks terrible. Can I not rather stay in the car, with my lovely air conditioning? What a pleasant surprise. Past reception, a paradise unfolds and the dirt road long forgotten. A golden coconut outside your sliding door signals “do not disturb” to housekeeping and one positively needs GPS co-ordinates to find the bathroom, somewhere towards the back of the room.

OK, enough with the side show. We are here in this unforgiving humidity to beat the crowds and witness Angkor Wat (the building that features on Cambodia’s flag) and the “Tomb Raider temple” (also know as Ta Prohm Temple). Or so we thought. Turns out there are loads of temples in this place and our tour includes Angkor Thom (South Gate), Bayon Temple, Elephant Terrace, Bakheng Temple, Banteay Srei and Ta Keo Temple. This is day 11 and 12. With a combination of exhaustion and constant heat, we turned to our guide with a request: take us to the spots we need to take pictures (for whatever reason), keep the history lesson concise and get us back to aircon in the fastest route. Suppose one could have spent more time in each location, immersing in the sheer beauty of the surrounds and craftsmanship of the carvings and architectural construction, but we also have internet back home.  Our guide did not disappoint. Some tourists’ dress code is considered disrespectful towards the local religion/culture when it comes to their temples and for this reason outside almost each temple is some retail opportunity to purchase more modest garments to cover some of the excessive skin. Luckily our hotel provided us with (pink!) scarves, which we also employed for absorption purposes.

Our driver was a real life saver. With each return trip to our vehicle, he had an icy bottle of water ready and a cold facecloth, with a hint of eucalyptus oil on it. Soothing and welcome!

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Our tour guide showed us a camera trick … how to appear twice 😉

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Siem Reap even has a bit of a night life. There are markets, when the heat subsides with a degree or three, where one can buy souvenirs and trinkets. Neatly tucked away in a alley sits Miss Wong Cocktail Bar. You can imagine our surprise – with how many miles away from home – to find a cocktail bar named after a South African’s famous painting. Feeling slightly patriotic, we fanned some greenback in exchange for cocktails. A lot. It was only the next morning that we realised that this was a wong choice.

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With so many tuk-tuks fighting for business, branding is everything. And yes, he actually plays the song …

In closing, some interesting bits:

  • during the monsoon, cobras venture closer to villages, in search for dry land. As a result +/- 25 people die annually from their venom, as consolation, there are no poisonous spiders in Cambodia.
  • the economy is built around tourism and rice
  • there are no electricity generation within the country, but they rather purchase it from their neighbours. Vast parts of the countryside is without and households typically runs of 3-4 car batteries, which are recharged weekly.

Our driver literally hangs around, waiting for us to return.

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For our flight to Bangkok, we had excess luggage of 12.8kg. 80 USD later, problem solved. A New York couple in front of us flicked out an Amex first, only to learn 15 minutes later that it was declined (a common problem with this type of card abroad). Then only did the husband proceed to open his wallet, revealing an obscene amount of dollar bills. Why not just pay cash in the first place?

Next stop: Bangkok