Angkor Wat is not on the top of my bucket list (actually I don’t really have a bucket list for myself), so when the opportunity to travel came up, we went with not many expectations, if only to enjoy some time off and good company with friends. I’d only been to Siem Reap airport, some maybe 10-12 years ago, on an one hour transit from Phnom Penh on work as that was the Silkair route then. Silkair now flies direct to Siem Reap and on some days continues on to Danang. I had enjoyed my two days in Phnom Penh, although I don’t remember much apart from the city being rather dusty and a few interesting cafes that my Cambodian colleague brought me to.
Perhaps the expectations were low, or perhaps there just was the right combination of factors to make a wonderful vacation – great company, amazing food, cheap local beers, and some sobering lessons in history and in present day life. We loved Siem Reap. The 12th century temples were a sight to behold. It’s not surprising that it’s a UNESCO site that attracts millions of tourists each year. We learnt much of the history of Cambodia and the region. The name Siem Reap literally translates to “Defeat of Siam (Thailand)”, but not only were there warring with neighbours, there was also plenty of internal conflict, colonisation, decolonisation, and old or wayward leadership that has led to the country still struggling today.
We rode past rural houses on our noisy modern ATVs on a tour of the countryside which was marketed as a glimpse to rural life. Some children we saw were excited and waved. A friend commented that others looked…weathered. I wondered if they had the opportunity to go to school regularly. We saw children happily swimming in the waters of Angkor Wat, we saw some with their parents at the Old Market, we walked into a local children’s hospital to visit an NGO shop, and walked past what looked like their waiting area. Thinking about the children was sobering as well. Or maybe I meant, sobering as hell.
The streets of Siem Reap are always busy, but the vibe was very laid back and rather authentic. We saw people arriving at restaurants in shorts and slippers. But it seldom felt too skanky, as it sometimes does in touristy spots – think Patpong, Khao Sarn Road, and other seedy places tourists like to visit. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has to do with the strict dress code imposed on visitors to the temples, or perhaps with the religious significance of Angkor Wat and the many temples looming in the distance. The kind of tourists that are attracted there seem to have a certain level of decency.
Late one night, at the touristy Pub Street, when my husband was watching a football match, he reported that he was not expecting to see so many young Cambodians out and about in the touted tourist area after the tourist crowds had thinned. One guide told us he had worked in NYC for a few years and was disappointed when his visa could not been renewed. I have not even been to NYC! He expressed his disdain for the current Cambodian politics, a rhetoric we also heard from another guide. He also told us he liked Singaporeans because of his respect for LKY, yet another sobering reminder of how lucky we are.
We did see some parents with children in the city, someone trying to push their Maclaren pram into Angkor Wat (totally NOT advisable, because of the crowd and hundreds of steps), and I chuckled at the American boy who was maybe 5, complaining about the smells at the old market and his father trying to explain that that was real life. We didn’t feel unsafe, but I don’t think my kids would be ready for long walks around temples and war stories until they’re older.
Overall it was a fabulous trip, and we’d highly recommend Siem Reap to anyone. It is easy to understand why Angelina Jolie has been so drawn to Cambodia after her time in Siem Reap. For now, it’s definitely going to go on my bucket list of places to bring the kids. In the meantime, I will just busy myself with reading up more on exploring Indochina 🙂