Seems to be pronounced "See-em Reep"

Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
Trip End May 05, 2011

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Siem Reap Rooms

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, February 7, 2011

I love Cambodia already.  It's everything I came to love about India minus the hassle. 
I arrived late on Saturday night having spent literally all day in Bangkok airport.  Now had this been Singapore airport that would have been fine, it's like a city in itself.  However, though Bangkok did offer some entertainment in the form of the chance to make a free souvenir mobile phone charm (oh yes), that only killed about half an hour (and I dragged it out) of a very long wait.  I got there at 11am and had a long layover anyway which was exacerbated by the fact that my connecting flight was then delayed, so we didn't start boarding until 7.30pm.  Luckily I was flying with Bangkok Airways so was able to stay in their 'lounge' which offered free tea and cake! 

When I got off the plane in Cambodia at 9.30pm the first step was to get my visa.  The procedure seemed almost designed to make you smile.  A long counter against one wall was manned by about ten immaculately dressed officials, and all the tourists form a queue at one end.  When you get to the counter you hand over your passport, forms, a photo and $20, then go to the far end where another queue forms.  The paperwork is passed along from one man to the next, in a low-tech but efficient procedure, and all the staff were good humoured.  The best bit though was at the end, when the efficiency disintegrates somewhat as the passports get jumbled up as they move along the counter, meaning the man at the end just randomly calls out names as he receives passports.  So instead of an orderly queue you get a huddle of people listening out for any recognisable name, be it surname or first name, obviously read out with strange pronunciation.  Still, it was all quite good fun.

Passing through customs I couldn't see my name at first (I had a free pick-up courtesy of the guest house), until I noticed a tiny man who'd been totally hidden by the person in front.  He led me to what I expected would be a tuk tuk same as you get in India and I know they have in Thailand. So much better than that!  Here they are actual motorbikes towing actual rickshaws behind them, like a modern version of a horse and carriage.  It's all the fun of travelling by rickshaw but several times the speed and without the guilt (I felt really uncomfortable travelling like that in India as it just seems such hard work for so little money!)

The guesthouse is really nice and the staff very helpful, especially with advice about my onward plans.  I've decided to take an overnight bus tomorrow night to the coast, then spend a few days there before heading up to Pnomh Penh, the capital, then once I've sorted my visa I can hopefully find a boat to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) in Vietnam.

My first day in Siem Reap I walked round the whole city: it's not too big and quite pretty by the river. Very touristy of course: most visitors to Cambodia probably only visit this one place so they have to present themselves well, but it's not tacky.  There seem to be loads of charity organisations selling souvenirs, photos, paintings, postcards etc - in an effort to offer an alternative to begging for local people, many of whom are extremely poor, orphaned, landmine victims etc.  This morning I bought a book from an arm-less landmine victim.  I have no idea how representative of the rest of Cambodia Siem Reap is, but I like it so far - I'd been expecting it to be like India I suppose but it's much much quieter (no horns!!), less busy and cleaner (though very dusty).  Even walking round the markets you do get a lot of "lady lady you want scarf?" but everything here is done with a smile - it's a cultural thing apparently, they never express anger at all and always smile no matter what they feel.  Smiling is contagious though, even if it is fake!!

I decided on my first day to go to the brand new but expensive National Museum, which gave a good introduction to the temples.  For those of you that don't know, Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor Wat Temples complex.  Between about the 9-13th centuries, Angkor was the seat of the rulers of the Khmer Empire, until invaders caused them to flee south in the 15th century.  According to the museum the empire was really powerful, trading with India and China, and the rulers were influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism.  Successive rulers built temples throughout the period, dedicated to various deities, and although religious leanings changed over the centuries, everyone had respect for the temples and simply adopted or adapted them rather than destroying them Henry VIII-style.  In fact I think I'm right in saying that the temples weren't just places of worship but they were also palaces as the kings were considered as a sort of god.  
So Angkor was a whole city, or actually a number of cities, spread over a large area (someone told me 2000 square km but wikipedia says 1000!), but the people lived in wooden housing while only the temples were made of stone.  For this reason after the city was "abandoned" in the 15th century the remains basically disappeared except for the temples.  I put abandoned in inverted commas because that's not really true: the royals left but the local people obviously didn't just forget it existed.  Even various European explorers visited the place from time to time, but it wasn't until the late 19th century, when the travel journals of a Frenchman called Henri Mouhot were published, that public curiosity really arose.  From 1907 onwards a French team made concerted restoration efforts, which continue today under UNESCO.

After visiting the museum I went to get my 3 day pass, which would get me in to see the sunset for free that evening.  It was a rather confusing set-up and as I stood around looking confused a young Dutch guy called Peter approached me and we shared a tuk tuk to Angkor Wat.  Unfortunately we misread the map and ended up watching the sunset from the place recommended to watch the sunrise haha!  It was really nice and peaceful though, and we enjoyed watching some monkeys having great fun taking it in turns to put a small plastic bag over their head.   Equivalent to children playing with cardboard boxes I suppose, but perhaps a little more dangerous...  Anyway after sunset we came back into town and went for dinner at a place specialising in local cuisine, which was really yummy.  Then we headed to what we thought was the famous night market.  We watched some really mesmerising "apsara" dancing, the Khmer courtly dance which is slow and very beautiful, but commented that the market itself was smaller than we'd expected.  I found out the next day that we'd ended up going to the wrong one, and the real one is much bigger!  Anyway being Dutch, Peter had decided to cycle round the temples, which is definitely the best way if you're used to cycling, which I'm not!  I'd arranged to go by tuk tuk, organised by the guesthouse.

So the next day I was meant to meet my driver at 4am for sunrise at Angkor Wat.  On hearing my alarm I sleepily got up, showered and dressed, putting on my watch just as I was about to leave.  That's when I discovered it was ten to three not ten to four, and I'd forgotten to change my phone since leaving Singapore!  I read in bed for an hour before heading downstairs.  It was a packed day, starting with obviously the sunrise, which was nice although I admit I probably spent more time looking through the camera than at the real thing.  Then I followed the standard circuit of temples, and was pleased I'd bought a guidebook as I enjoyed looking at all the bas-reliefs at Bayon in particular.  As it heated up though I got increasingly tired, and frustrated with the number of tourists, particularly an incessant flow of large groups of Chinese and Japanese who seemed to be doing the exact same route as me.  Sometimes it was quite funny to watch everyone posing - literally the whole temple complex is like one big photo shoot.  It's full of empty doorways and windows which serve as beautiful frames.  I soon realised though that it was impossible for me to take nice photos without hoardes of posing tourists all over the picture, so I'd like to say I totally gave up and decided to concentrate on enjoying the place with my eyes, but it's all just so photogenic I couldn't help but try regardless.  

I got back to the guesthouse at 2pm totally exhuasted and with aching feet.  I'd intended to go back later to see Angkor Wat (the major one) then sunset from the proper place, but that plan failed when I fell asleep for a couple of hours.  When I woke up I went to the real night market, where I bought a few souvenirs (unfortunately Cambodia is also full of pretty dresses but I've resisted so far!) and went on the internet for a bit (it was really nice to talk to a couple of you on facebook chat!  I should do that more often.)  
 This morning I decided to spend the day locally and go to Angkor Wat for sunset then tomorrow head out to some of the more distant temples.  I walked all the way to the post office looking for a tube for some pictures I bought in Singapore, but they only sold flimsy bamboo-woven ones which rather defeats the point.  I may have to buy a poster from a photography gallery I found, because I noticed that comes in a tube!  (seriously, it would be ok to buy all these pictures if I actually had a house to put them in!)
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Pat I on

No worries, before you know it you will be hanging all your art on you walls. Just keep collecting, that's the fun of it! Seems like Cambodia agrees with you!

mum and lewis on

glad to hear from you - was a little worried as heard on the news that there is trouble on the cambodian border (just take care)
we are sat in Mix having lunch and taking advantage of their WiFi - since our main tour guide (aka Hollie) has left we are leading a slower pace of life here in Goa!
sounds as though you are really enjoying yourself - so pleased to hear about your travels, perhaps a book in the making?
take care and keep in touch - lots of love M&Lxx

Jo on

Hi glad to hear you're having a really good time now:) good for you! I like the sound of everyone smiling all the time - I wish people would do that in the UK more:) - everyone always looks grumpy:). I really like the dress you're wearing in the picture too - you look very relaxed and like you're enjoying yourself, which is great.
Look forward to the next update:) xxx

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