Friday, May 24, 2013

Cambodia part II: Siem Reap

The most obvious reason to go to Cambodia is to see the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park (it's not just Angkor Wat, you know), and the place to stay then is Siem Reap. The name translates roughly as Fuck Off Thailand, or Thailand (Siam) Defeated, if you want to be a bit more literal. It's a tourist town, and has been cleaned up quite a bit in order to attract foreign dollars. (You actually do pay for things here in US currency, although it's all coin-free, so small change is given in Khmer notes. 1000 riel = 25 cents.) Hardly any children begging on the streets, for instance. It can be hard to remember not to give to or buy from children who ought to be in school, especially since they sometimes follow you around as you visit a temple, asking your name, where you are from, etc. But it's not good to incentivize truancy. In Phnom Penh I was kicked by one child when I refused to give money to the woman he was with, but nothing like that happened in Siem Reap. The way to help these kids is to do what you can to support the better NGOs, like Green Gecko. There are several restaurants and shops that support projects like this, so you can eat well and shop while doing good. And then you can visit the temples (where you can also give to the bands of landmine victims that play there.)

The view from my hotel room when I first arrived in Siem Reap

To see enough I think you need three days here, and more would be better. The best temples are at Angkor Thom (a complex of temples and terraces, including the famous Bayon), Ta Prohm, and Angkor Wat. You can see all these in one day. I did, although my visit to Angkor Thom was a bit rushed. There's also a "big circuit" of slightly less good temples that you can also do in one day. And then there are various places not too far that you will probably also want to visit, like the River of a Thousand Lingas (which I saw--not too far from the lingas is a waterfall with a pool you can swim in, where little (and some not so little) fish nibble off your dead skin, which can be an unwelcome surprise when you don't see them coming, but it grows on you) and Beng Mealea (which I didn't see). You can definitely burn out on these temples, which are often similar to each other and crawling with tourists trying to spoil your pictures. But I regret not seeing every one that I missed. So it's wise to take your time, take breaks, and see as many of them as you can. From my hotel I paid $15 total to be driven to the park, around the big circuit with as many stops as I wanted for as long as I wanted, and back again. A ticket to get into the park costs extra.

Damn kids ruin my shot of the lingas

The weird thing about these temples is that you can just climb all over them. In fact you have to, to some extent, to get around. So you'll stumble, put out your hand to stop yourself falling over, and realize that your hand is on, and damaging, a thousand-year-old world heritage site. In a few places entrance is not permitted, but I saw whole tour groups push and squeeze past the signs telling them to keep out so that they could get a good look and take their pictures. The thoughts you have during your visit are these:

  • That might make a good picture
  • I am the love child of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft
  • Man, it's hot
  • I wish these other people would go away, or at least move off camera
  • I should focus more on what is around me and less on taking pictures
  • Wow, there was a huge and very sophisticated civilization here a thousand years ago in the fricking jungle. How did they do it? What was it like? Why don't I know more about it?
  • Elephant statue! I love elephants. Must get my camera out.
It's probably a good idea to have a guide or a guidebook that you actually read there and then so that you don't just take pictures and leave. But you can always read up before and after. Another good idea is not to focus only on the best temples. The others are very nearly as good, and are less crowded, which makes for just as good an overall experience. 

Elephant statue!

Between temple visits you can see the sights of Siem Reap. It's mostly bars and t-shirts, with the odd massage parlor thrown in as well. But you have to get some souvenirs (five t-shirts for $10! who cares if I don't need any more t-shirts!), the massages are good value (traditional Khmer is only $6 in the hotel, $3 in the market, and it's both invigorating (i.e. painful) and awkwardness-free (you are fully dressed throughout)), and you've got to eat. Two other things to see are the Angkor National Museum and Artisans d'Angkor. The museum is relatively expensive ($12, and that's without the audio tour, in a country where you can buy five t-shirts for $10 (as I might have mentioned) and dinner for $3) and a bit falling apart, despite looking very new. It's not that the place is falling down, but some electronic equipment is either missing or broken, and I didn't get the movie I was expecting of sunrise at Angkor Wat (although there was some underwhelming, sped up thing that might have been it). That said, I think this place is a must-see. I spent two or three hours there. For me it provided exactly the right amount of background on history and religion to appreciate the temples more (of course other people will want more or less). You also get to stop and look at statues and carvings in a way that you aren't likely to at the temples themselves. The best time to go might be between temple visits. That way you will recognize some things and have them explained to you, while picking up new knowledge to enhance your future temple visits. I just went before I saw any temples, and forgot more than I would have liked. Artisans d'Angkor is free, although of course you exit through the gift shop. Once you've found it (down a side street and then an alley) you get a free guided tour around a series of workshops where people make statues, scarves, etc., to sell to tourists. Not my kind of thing, really (I don't like crafts or going behind the scenes of anything), but my guide was very friendly (something that applies to all Khmer people, if I can essentialize for a moment) and the tour was quick. The cool thing is that these are the people who are called in if something at one of the temples needs to be replaced or repaired. They are also lifted out of poverty by working for this group. So you ought to buy things in the expensive shop, but I didn't. 

There are four kinds of prices in Cambodia:
  1. The price for locals
  2. Cheap prices for tourists (five t-shirts for $10, scarves for $1 each at the market)
  3. Mid-range prices for tourists ($10-$20 for a scarf, say, at an NGO-related store)
  4. Expensive prices for tourists ($100 for a scarf at the National Museum or Artisans d'Angkor, say) 
Probably everyone should pay the high prices, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't have Angelina Jolie's budget. And I didn't see many other people doing it either. So I think some of these prices, at least in the museum gift store, will have to come down, even if they are only what they would be in other countries. I stuck with options 2 and 3, although my friend bought a nice piece of art for under $40 at Artisans d'Angkor, which isn't bad. 

Since I've descended into talking about shopping I should stop. This is what Siem Reap is like though. You come for the temples and a sense of wonder, you spend your time bargaining, looking for bargains, or avoiding people offering you bargains. It is great though.

That's a circular rainbow around the sun.


  1. your job is to stop your friend from purchasing anything that costs more than $5.

    1. Uh-oh!! Channel me . . .

    2. HK is where it will get difficult. But I'll do what I can.

  2. Bare your teeth and growl.