Saturday, October 20, 2012

Siem Reap - The Beautiful and the Ugly

Our remaining two days in Siem Reap passed quickly. It's easy to get caught up in the fascination and magic of the place. It's clear that it's a tourist town, with the locals who work within hospitality always eager to please but as always, there's another side to watch out for. I'm covering a lot in this ur, hang tight!

Day 2 in Siem Reap was essentially a full day of temples. Getting up at 5am, we headed out to Ta Phrohm, or maybe better known as the Angelina Jolie/Tomb Raider temple. Whilst Angkor Wat is generally more popular for sunrise visits, we opted for Ta Phrohm, as we wanted to escape the crowds and we ended up being very pleased with our decision. Especially since this particular morning was overcast…there wasn't much of a sunrise to see. 

Ta Phrohm at 5am was quiet, deserted, peaceful. The light was still filtering in through the trees in the jungle and we slowly got to see the place open up. And it was also quite cool at that time. I personally loved this temple a lot as I was smitten with the organic structure of the roots that often threatened to overwhelm the remaining structures, or just co-exist, moulding itself to fit in like a jigsaw puzzle piece. The trees are just so beautiful here.

Even though we hadn't organised a tuk tuk driver through the hotel (Cheathata Angkor Hotel), they still packed a complimentary breakfast for us, which was very sweet of them. And with that, we made a friend after feeding him bread, who continued to take us around the temple for a little. Apparently his name was Noj.

I honestly can't remember all the temples we visited (I think we did about 7 that day), our tuk tuk driver was quite knowledgeable and took us to many that we hadn't heard about and was able to tell us a little of the history of each. One visit I found interesting was where there were two shrines next to each other, one that hadn't been restored at all and one that had been 90% restored. The character of both of those were so different in my opinion and I kind of took a liking to the one that was still looking a little worse for wear. 

Our last temple for day 2 was the Bayon, which again is quite impressive, due to the fact that it really does have it's own character (once again), it was the only temple we saw that had these huge faces carved into the rock. You can't help but wonder how on earth they did it! I need to do a little more research, but we were told that the faces are apparently servants, looking out in all directions to look after their master. 

We were out from 5am till about 1pm, so lunch, a nap and then out to Pub Street for the evening. I honestly quite enjoyed the atmosphere, sure, incredibly touristy, but I think there are other countries in South East Asia that do it far worse. Although some local guy we did pass by, did tell Brad that his 'wife was very nice'. Eek! 

Lively and cheery, it was quite hard to choose a spot to have dinner and settle down for beers. We ended up at Khmer House Restaurant. It's hard not to go for a more local flavour. Cambodian cuisine on a whole we found quite interesting, with both elements of Vietnamese (with rice paper rolls and lots of veggies) and Thai (fish amok, curries etc.), it was…kind of like the cuisine child between the two. From what I had had anyway. 

Blue Pumpkin do some sweet sweet ice-cream. Num.

One of our more touristy and sillier things we tried was the fish massage. For $3, it's a half hour of giggles, beer (one can complimentary!) and fun. Your feet come out feeling pretty smooth afterwards too!

Our last day included a few more temples in the morning and one final visit to Angkor Wat, to visit the Bakan, or principal sanctuary, which was closed the first time we went for cleaning. 

I always found it odd how so many of the statues had been beheaded. I suppose if he had had a tour guide we may have found the reason why. 

I really loved exploring, finding new nooks, crannies, etchings on the wall.

But really, out of all the temples, Angkor Wat just finds a way into my heart and leaves me breathless. After we climbed the incredibly steep steps up to the Bakan, the cool breeze that rushed through, the view over the trees, there just such an incredibly meditative atmosphere to the place. 

As tourist groups rushed through, snapped pictures, made a lot of noise and left in a matter of minutes, we, unrestrained by time, slowly walked, breathed, sat and looked. It's really the only way you truly appreciate it. 

In the late afternoon, we ended up deciding to go see a floating village, which our tuk tuk driver had suggested on day one, that we decided against, at the time. We actually ended up checking it out because I mentioned it to my mum on Skype and she said that when she had visited, she had done something similar and it had been really nice. Fair enough.

Ah, what a mistake it had been not to do more research. 

Essentially, we got a private boat ride out to this floating village on a lake (I think it's Tonle Sap but I'm not entirely sure), where you get to see how they live on the water. We were taken to a minimart, encouraged to buy food for the orphanage and then taken on rounds to the orphanage, school and finally to the crocodile farm and mini restaurant/tourist shop.

In total, we spent about $100, on the boat ride, buying stuff, etc. etc. which in hindsight of course, was quite a lot of money to spend on anything in Siem Reap. Upon returning to the hotel and Brad doing a bit of googling, we did find, that a lot of it of course, was a bit of a scam, which we were a bit upset by naturally.

And although we were upset, is it something I regret having done? Not entirely really. I think it's always interesting to see a different way of life and on the lake, there's really nothing like it. The houses are actually floating and constantly moving, with even a floating basketball court donated by some country or another. Whilst there are the poor in Cambodia, the people living on the lake are some of the poorest. I honestly can't imagine how they do it. 

And having experienced this situation, it sort of felt like it cleared the happy, joyful, hopeful smokescreen for a little and reminded us of the poverty and desperation that still exists. It's easy to get caught up in the wonder of a holiday and forget to put the world and the people who are in it, into perspective still. Although we may have been swindled out of a little more than we would have liked to part with, in the bigger picture, it's not a large amount for us (there are after all, scams out there that have far worse repercussions), and although most of that money will be pocketed by the wrong people, we can only hope that some of that money trickles back to the people who need it and that on a whole our cash will be eventually pumped back into the economy. 

But still. I was a bit upset at how silly I had been. 

So thank god for HAVEN, which was literally just a few doors down from the hotel. A training restaurant started in 2011 by a Swiss couple. HAVEN takes in young adult orphans, after they leave an orphanage and have nowhere to go, gives them vocational training in hospitality, teaches life skills and, as the name suggest, provides them a haven. 

In a relaxing, tranquil atmosphere, that kind of looked like a beach paradise really, over clean and delicious rice paper rolls, a rice dish I don't really remember and possibly the best onion rings I have ever had in my life, I cried over my stupidity, but took solace that I was then actually contributing, but in the right way, back to the community again. Seriously though, those onion rings were to die for, in only the lightest of batter, perfectly crisp…I dream of coming across onion rings like those again.

A couple more beers later, a night of sleep and the next day we found ourselves on a plane to Vietnam…

…Cambodia in the end, was an amazing experience. Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have such different personalities and whilst in Siem Reap, it's easy to get caught up in the magic of the ancient history, having to be on your toes for scams really brings you back to reality and puts into perspective the state that the country is still in. There was one scam we nearly fell for, where a very young girl, came up to me as I was getting off the tuk tuk in front of a supermarket and immediately started saying "I don't want money, I don't want money". She had a baby in her arms and told us she wanted milk. 

It's kind of hard to say no to that right? What's wrong with milk?

But being the dolts we are, we ended up buying a small pack of regular milk instead of baby formula, which we ended up drinking ourselves…we were both probably lacking in the calcium after all. 

We found out later that it was indeed a scam, and that they get you to buy baby formula, which they sell back to the store you might have bought it from, or to another source, to get sold on again. It's really quite sad.

But! I hope that this doesn't put you off from visiting, and simply just makes you, hopefully, a little more aware than I was. As I mentioned in my Phnom Penh post, I highly encourage everyone to visit Cambodia, as it is an incredibly unique and fascinating place, with a multitude of histories behind it and hopefully, a brighter future for the country to look forward to.

Between Pub Street and Old Market Street
(Sorry, it really doesn't get more detailed than that...)

Sok San Street
Siem Reap, Cambodia

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