Siem Reap and Angkor
15.02.2012 - 16.02.2012 40 °C
It's quickly evident, Cambodia is a very different country.
It is well on its way to rising out of the ashes of a brutal war that ended only 35 years ago and lasted just 3 years 8 months. But that's all it took to wipe out nearly all of Cambodian traditions. In a massive genocide, an estimated 2-3 million people were killed, half the population at the time. It was at the hands of a maniacal general, Pol Pot, hungry for absolute power and submission from the people.
Having to start from practically nothing, the younger generations don't have much to go on in the forms of traditions, as most of their families were killed. Therefore, the western influences are quite strong. The main street is loaded with KFC's, 7-11's, and cafe's. The center of town is a lively street, "Pub Street", which really comes alive at night along with another night market. It's loaded with restaurants and bars, massage parlors and ice cream stands. A popular tourist trap are fish "foot massages" - you sit around a specially made fish tank and dunk your feet in, the fish then nibble on them and eat the dead skin cells. We're avoiding it, I heard it's really bad for the fish.
Foodie's beware, there isn't much in the form of "Cambodian" cuisine or Michelin star restaurants when eating out. They have some dishes labeled "traditional Khmer food" but it tastes more like a less spicy version of Thai food. One dish called Lok Lak, is actually pretty good and I would recommend it! It's thin slices of beef in a sauce with white rice. We ate at The Red Piano and The Temple, both popular and well recommended restaurants, but the menus were more of a sampling of international foods: it had everything from thai noodle dishes to pizza to cordon bleu and Belgian waffles.
The tourism industry is catapulting the country through years of oppression, but it's obvious there's a large gap between the five star hotels that line the main road in Siem Reap and the rest of the country. The roads are mostly dirt, only the major ones are paved.
Siem Reap is the big city close to Angkor Wat, so it rightfully has been taken over by the tourist industry serving the temple.
In the last 5 years, over 180 hotels have been built, expanding the town to 3 times it's size. No longer a little secret, the crown jewel of all temples, Angkor Wat, attracts over 2000 tourists a day!
On the short drive to the temple, your view is of wooden shacks and many street children and even some young mothers carrying their babies, begging. There's an orphanage and free school on the grounds of the Angkor ruins and there are a few NGO's helping the community with free healthcare and education. Kids (usually less than 10yrs old) run up to you with little baskets of hand made bracelets and trinkets cutely saying "just one dollar." Ignore them and take a few more steps and the fare quickly drops to "I give you special, two for one dollar."However, giving them money will only keep them on the streets. Sometimes these kids have pimps which they pay, other times they learn to buy booze and drugs. At least if you ignore them, there's more of a chance they will attend school.
The city is currently negotiating a deal to build a bigger airport outside of Siem Reap that will accommodate large Boeing Jets for international travel. As of right now, only local flights are allowed and the number of flights are limited each day. There were no direct flights from Chiang Mai, so we had to connect through Bangkok, each flight only 40 mins long. Though that was a pain, I can't imagine what an even larger influx of tourists would do to this city. Angkor Wat is already showing signs of wear with marginal efforts for preservation and restoration. The holy temple and surrounding grounds have been renamed to "Angkor Park," which only makes me wonder how soon it will be before Mickey Mouse shows up.
BUT, let me just clarify, Angkor Wat and all the other ruins surrounding it (over 1000 of them) are absolutely magnificent. Without a doubt, a must see lifetime experience. Pictures won't do it justice, and reviewing those picture afterwards will take your breath away a second time. We saw Angkor Wat at sunset the first day we got in. Then we made a group decision to wake our asses up at 430 the next morning to see it again at sunrise. Even though sunrise is at 630, you have to get there that early or otherwise the other hundreds of tourists will take up your good view.
If you're a die hard coffee drinker and just can't crack those eye-booggers in the morning, no worries: there's a whole village of locals who line the edge of the temple, and will happily take your order and bring you a cup of coffee or tea for just one dollar. (BTW, although the local currency is the "Real", the dollar is accepted everywhere. So much so that you don't even have to change over money and even ATM's spit out dollars).
When I looked at the itinerary of this trip, I wondered why we would be touring the ruins for 3 days. Well it turns out, there's so many ruins no less magnificent than Angkor Wat, it would be a shame not to visit more.
My favorite was actually Ta Prohm, aka, the tomb raider ruins. Yes, Angelina Jolie pranced around these ruins herself, but what's so cool about them are the trees. There's a special tree called the "Spung" tree. It has a shiny bark, enormous roots, and grows very quickly (for a tree). So they have grown on top of and inside of these ruins, with their roots growing over walls into the ground. It's spectacular and truly makes you feel like Indiana Jones and Lora Croft are giving you a tour of their set.
We also visited Angkor Thom, which was actually an ancient city. It's 5 times bigger than the Angkor Wat complex, so the best way to get around is via bike or tuk-tuk, or you can be posh like us and have a van drive you around. The heat was very hard to bear, it registered 41 deg C, and one of our group members (sweet Rachel) almost had a heat stroke. Hydrate! Use sunblock & a hat and scarf to drape over you!