Siem Reap: more than Angkor

Yes, more faces of BayonA buddah adorned in saffronSiem Reap is a more than a little like Disney World. In a country with so much poverty, here there’s a boom on. A guesthouse and a tuk tuk driver around every corner. More massage salons than you can shake a stick at. Swish art galleries. Restaurants serving all the world’s cuisines.

It’s hardly surprising that a few people are trying to cash in and in a way it’s quite nice to see when you think that many Cambodians try and raise their families on less than the average backpacker’s beer budget.

Of course all this exists because of the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, just a few kilometers north of the town. It’s a pilgrimage site for Cambodians and hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world every year. The South Koreans take top spot in the visitor stakes – so much so that the landmine victims performing music near the temples play Korean songs to elicit donations. Then come the hordes of Japanese, Europeans and Americans.

Face and skyThe guidebooks say you should devote at least three days to the Angkor park and most tourists follow that advice. A one-day ticket is ‘a crime’ according to the Lonely Planet but we shamelessly went for the criminal option, knowing that we get worn out quickly by temples and ruins. We guessed our threshold correctly. After a day of pushing our way through the crowds to take in the wonders of six different temples and past the patter of the souvenir sellers – “You want water lady? Lady, you buy my water. Lady, over here. Lady…” – we’d seen enough ancient glories.

She is selling lots of fruitAnd now we’ll commit an even greater crime than buying the one-day ticket and say that Angkor was not our favourite experience of the past few days! While other tourists spent three days or more roaming around the temples, we split our budget and devoted the other half to a trip around the Tonle Sap lake. This lake – the largest in Southeast Asia – swells dramatically in the rainy season, so much so that all the houses are built on stilts and the road to the towns on the lake’s edge disappears under a meter of water when the monsoons come.

With the rainy season only recently started, we were able to go by tuk tuk to Kampong Khleang and then on by boat down a waterway leading to the lake. The day was beautiful and our camera clicked over and over as we watched families on the water, all of them waving, smiling and friendly. At the moment, few tourists take the time to see Kampong Khleang.

FishermenSmall girl, big bicycle!The families who don’t have a house raised several meters in the air make their home instead in houseboats. They run TVs off generators, keep their chickens and pigs on floating rafts and are served by floating shops that come by selling everything from household goods to freshly mixed iced coffee.

It was a fascinating trip and one we’ll remember for quite some time, even more fondly than the temples of Angkor. So too with the charity we visited on another morning, set up to provide landmine victims with prosthetic limbs. We were truly touched by the work they were doing as well as by the information they provided on the landmine problem in Cambodia and the problems faced by amputees. We spent the rest of our days wandering through the markets and leading a hunt for the best street food. Both fun ways to spend a few hours.

Although we only spent one day at Angkor, our five days in Siem Reap were quickly over and now it’s time to head for Phnom Penh, three to four days away. The roads are apparently in good condition so the daily showers shouldn’t hamper us too much. Actually they feel quite nice at the end of a long day! So, next time from Cambodia’s capital, where we’ll go on a visa hunt (should be much easier than Central Asia) and explore some tragic Khmer Rouge sites.

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