In Cambodia Part 1: Siem Reap

Angkor Trip 024I arrived in Siem Reap during the late afternoon of 11 April.  My first impression was that it was quite a dusty little town and reminded me of the many bland Thai provincial towns I’ve zipped through while on buses.

The temperature was rather cool, much more pleasant than it had been in Phuket (which had been experiencing the most severe heatwave it had seen in ten years or more) and began to rain shortly after I’d climbed into a tuk tuk at the bus company’s office.  The side road leading to my guesthouse was a muddy quagmire when I arrived at Angkor Wonder.

Upon check-in, the proprietor – Mr. Why Not – gave me a couple of bottles of water and a couple of maps showing Siem Reap (with the guesthouse prominently marked) and the Angkor Archaeological Park.  He sat down with me to give me an overview of what to see and suggestions of how to go about seeing the attractions.  I explained my plans for the next couple of days and haggled a bit on the prices.  Mr. Why Not is a former tuk tuk driver himself and he employs his own drivers for the convenience of his guests and keeps the prices competitive.

Angkor Wonder Guesthouse, Siem ReapFollowing a quick shower and a change of clothes, I headed out for my first exploratory excursion.  I’ve become very adept at walking along dilapidated Asian roadways over the years and was able to negotiate the mud and heavy traffic (many bicycles, motorbikes, tuk tuks, and trucks in addition to a surprising number of fancy touring cars and SUV’s) with ease.  As I reached the main road with it’s huge traffic circle I encountered my first offer of a tuk tuk ride – “Would you like a tuk tuk, sir?”  Very polite, particularly when compared to the drivers in many areas of Phuket.  I replied, “No, thank you,” to which I was shocked to hear, “Very well,  Have a nice day!”  Wow!  And that was the standard exchange, the drivers never failed to be exceedingly polite and several engaged me in further conversation.  It was the complete opposite of the pushiness and outright rudeness I’d become accustomed to in Thailand.

My primary mission on my first evening in Siem Reap was to find Viva, a restaurant that claims to have the “best Mexican food in Southeast Asia.”  It was about a fifteen-minute stroll from my guesthouse (I was walking fairly slowly, taking in the sights), conveniently located just to the east of the Old Market and grouping of bars and restaurants that surround Pub Street.

Second-floor dining room at Viva Mexican Cafe, Siem Reap.I knew from reading online reviews that the best seating at Viva would be found on the second floor; the ground floor is open and patrons sitting there are often pestered by children hawking postcards and other souvenirs.  So, I asked to be seated upstairs.  I had the entire dining room to myself which was quite enjoyable.  On this first visit (of three), I ordered a beef taco, a plate of nachos, and a soda.  The portions were huge – the taco very tasty but came on a rather thin tortilla which quickly disintegrated from the juices of the wonderful salsa.  The beef was shredded rather than ground but it was still very tasty and downright authentic.  I enjoyed the nachos as well and I do feel it is definitely the best Mexican food I’ve tasted since leaving the USA.  The prices are also very reasonable – the tacos are just $1 each and can fill you up by themselves.  My entire bill for this meal came to $5.50 and I left a rare tip.

Old Market, Siem ReapI didn’t do much else on this first night in Siem Reap – planning to spend the entire next day just walking around.  But I knew my second mission was to find a replacement for the Thai-purchased backpack that had come apart during my journey to Cambodia.  I located a kiosk in the Old Market selling luggage.  Two sisters manned the shop and the older of the two spoke flawless English; I fell in love with her accent while she was giving me all the possible details on the pack that I liked the best.  She told me that it was made in Vietnam to Western standards – waterproof, durable, zippers that would last – and opened every compartment, explaining what I could put in each.  When I decided that one was too big, she found a slightly smaller version of the same style.  I was even able to pay for it in Thai baht at a savings (and haggled the price even lower).  It’s a great little backpack (although I ultimately had to use the old one to cart my dirty clothes back home as I ended up buying a few more souvenirs that I’d planned) and has become my everyday take-to-work pack.

After a walk through a few of the narrow alleys north of the market – as well as Pub Street itself – I headed back to he guesthouse as I was exhausted.  I did spend some time checking out the TV in my room – I don’t have a television in my apartment in Phuket – and fell asleep while watching something on the National Geographic Channel.  My room had two queen-sized beds; I’d fallen asleep in the one directly in front of the TV but awoke in the middle of the night and moved to the one closer to the wall fan.  That was much cooler!!

Traffic circle in SW Siem ReapFriday, 12 April, dawned cloudy and relatively cool – a far cry from the brilliant sun and scorching heat I’d been expecting.  It was perfect weather for what I had planned – to explore as much of Siem Reap Town I could on foot.  I had arranged for a tuk tuk trip up to Angkor Wat in the afternoon in order to purchase my pass for the following day (and take advantage of a “free” sunset).

I did set out a bit late, heading towards the market area shortly after nine a.m.  I did as I always do, walking along the streets and stopping frequently to take photos.  I had no real goal in mind, other than to head north most of the time.  I had a good sense of direction, rarely become hopelessly lost, and truly enjoy discovering bits of “authentic” life in side streets and alleyways.

Flower-seller at Siem Reap Old MarketIt wasn’t long before the charm of Siem Reap won me over.  I’d initially thought of the town as being rather dusty and provincial but that’s really what I like about so many small Asian communities.  It’s the people and the vast array of shops that truly interest me.  I am also a huge fan of the French provincial architecture that dominates so much of the community, reminding me somewhat of the Sino-Portuguese shophouses back home. And Siem Reap, much like Phuket, does have the best of both worlds – the vibrant local life and the Western-style amenities to make it more comfortable for visitors.  The community has grown by leaps and bounds in the past several years and will continue to do so, but the charm of what makes Cambodia fascinating is never far away.  All of this, plus some of the most spectacular ruins to be found anywhere are just a short hop away.

Bridge over the Siem Reap RiverI particularly like the greenery along the banks of the Siem Reap River.  Near the Old Market, there are a couple of nice covered (pedestrian-only) bridges spanning the waterway.  These were my favorite places to sit and relax while somewhat protected from the sun which did make it’s appearance soon after I began walking.  I never felt overly hot during my walks this day, but I was shocked to find a deep red ring around my neck where the sun had burnt the skin exposed by my t-shirt.

The "original" Happy Herb Pizza in Siem Reap.Highlights of my walks in town this first full day include discovering the pleasant gardens fronting the ritzy Hotel d’Angkor, stumbling across the French provincial building containing the local post office, walking the unpaved streets on the east side of the river where there were a number of temples and schools in need of tender loving care, and having a nice lunch of grapes and lychee juice purchased at a Western-style supermarket.  I was amazed at the number of huge resorts dotted throughout Siem Reap, particularly in the northern portion (closer to the ruins).  The “funniest” shops/restaurants I found were the many selling “fresh” crocodile bags and shoes and the row of five or six pizzarias whose signboards mentioned the availability of “happy” pizzas (sprinkled with a certain herb that I’m told has medicinal properties but is illegal virtually everywhere, including Cambodia).

Along the way, I saw numerous interesting people – locals and tourists alike.  I wish I wasn’t so shy as I didn’t take as many photos of the people as I wanted to.  Perhaps I need a giant telephoto lens to do that!  Anyway, I hope you enjoy the photo album of the shots I took wandering around Siem Reap.  My next post will detail my first exploration of Angkor Wat that afternoon and evening…

Siem Reap Post Office

Friday, 12 April 2013
grapes, juice, bottled water at Lucky Supermarket: USD $1.93
postcards at Siem Reap Arts Market: USD $3.00
Angkor Wat one-day pass: USD $20.00
postcards from child at Angkor Wat: $1.00
taco, chips & salsa, watermelon juice at Viva: USD $3.75
Total Spent: USD $29.68

Photo Album – Walking Around Siem Reap, 12 April 2013

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