Currently in Thailand, three weeks behind in terms of writing due to internet chaos, diminishing battery power, sun stroke and exhaustion. Apologies for the delay!
Dishevelled and confused after a twelve hour bus journey, we arrived in Siem Reap. At five in the morning, it was actually earlier than we anticipated to arrive and we were at a loss of what to do. In the middle of mayhem, a tentative tap and shy “miss” surpassed the swarm of tuk tuk drivers.
Mr Om stayed with us throughout the seven days and six nights we spent in Siem Reap. He took us in and around the Angkor Wat temples, he ate with us at local markets, he partied with us until the early hours of the morning and he invited us to his brothers house in a nearby village to eat and drink.
Siem Reap has to be my favourite place so far, with so much to do and offer there’s no chance of being bored. Home to one of the wonders of the world, the temples are incredible. I would recommend a tour around a few because every temple has a story, and you don’t want to come all this way to miss out right? Just don’t be surprised when your guide ‘asks for a donation for his local school’ when you finish.
Guides are available at the entrance to many of the Angkor Wat temples, but there are an official group of guides in a desert colour uniform. At $35 a day, they are slightly more expensive than others inside the temples, but they fluently speak a vast array of languages from Japanese to Italian so can explain in more detail and answer questions you may have in depth. Depending on your preferred language, the guide may differ in price.
I think it was our second day when we were walking around the Bayan temple where being tattooed by a monk came up in conversation. Without hesitation, we arranged to meet back the next morning. We were scammed into thinking it was an exclusive deal, and when he wasn’t there in the morning, Om took us to a nearby pagoda and asked the head monk where we could get the tattoo done. Much to my dismay, monks can’t touch or be too close to women, so I settled with a water blessing/water-boarding/submissive drowning for good luck session (hate you Jake).
For guys, you’re looking at about $50 for a protection tattoo and blessing. There aren’t many to choose from, but the monks know what they’re doing and many have proper tattoo guns as opposed to traditional bamboo. Gloves were worn and anti bacterial lotion used, just don’t be shocked about sanitary conditions inside a hut – you’ll survive, they are monks after all right?
One of the most memorable parts of the trip in Siem Reap was visiting the floating village. Me, Jake and Om met a couple of locals and we got a boat out to the village itself. We stopped on the way out to the Tonle Sap at what we thought was a restaurant to buy a couple of beers and snacks for sunset, but ended up being a small crocodile farm. They are all over Cambodia and it isn’t a pleasant sight; huge crocodiles in a confined enclosure with nowhere to swim and smaller ones layered on top of one another.
Above the crocodiles were dead bats drying out on the roof of the restaurant, and snakes in cages which were practically thrown at us for photo opportunities. It was surreal at the time against the beautiful backdrop of the village, but looking back, quite sad.
Sunset came and we sat at the end of the boat, drank beer, ate dried meat, talked, and watched the sun go down. The water sat still, reflecting the last light of the day while lily pads and root plants floated next to us. The gentle hum of jungle life sung all around and the guide spoke about the history of the village, his life growing up in Cambodia and asked us many questions about London.
On the way back to the dock, we passed a local school where we bought rice for the orphans which it housed. The guide originally asked for $50 for a fifty kilo bag, taken aback by the price he quickly showed us a smaller bag for $30 and we hesitantly agreed to buy it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a legit school, but the price wasn’t. When working on Samloem, Jake bought supplies for the villagers from mainland and rice was approximately $20 for fifty kilos.
Being poor and having next to nothing is a massive guilt trip for a westerner travelling Southeast Asia, but unfortunately this is often used for trickery and manipulative scandals. It’s hard to say no, and the unpredictable nature of those that guide you makes it almost risky to refuse paying more money. This bribery has not been uncommon throughout our trip and is inevitable to happen. Saying that, be polite and don’t let it ruin your time!
In amongst all the chaos and mornings dealing with a severely hungover Jake, I ventured out and found Peace cafe (lol). A stone’s throw away from the city centre, the stretch of circular chairs invite you to curl up, recover and divulge in you-time. I spent a whole afternoon here reading and drinking their fresh juices (try the ginger zinger for refreshment and a detox).
While I was there, I stayed for a monk chat which turned out to be a Q&A with a monk from the local pagoda. We spoke about the origins of Buddhism and his life as a monk, as well as dispelling many myths about Buddhism like how it is compulsory for Khmer people to serve one year in a monastery. This talk was free, and led me to later watch a documentary on YouTube about Buddhism (click here) which helped me understand more about the artwork seen in Angkor Wat and in the many temples and pagodas.
Buddhism, yoga and meditation pretty much go hand in hand. They all aim for inner peace and silent thoughts of contemplation in order to control thoughts and processes of the mind. After the monk chat, I paid $6 for a yoga session delivered by an Indian guy who had clearly been doing this for many years. Possibly the most advanced class I have ever been to, I found myself in deep meditation throughout.
Siem Reap, it’s been fun and we’ll see you soon – we miss you Om and don’t worry, we’ll tell everyone you’re single. 😉
Eat: Both me and Jake agree that the duck we ate with Om and his family was by far the best thing we ate in Siem Reap, but in terms of local cuisine? We stopped by a market on the way back from one of the museums and had a meat patty type thing wrapped in banana leaves served with mixed salad, rice noodles and a peanut dipping sauce. They barbecue the meat in the leaves and it was just fab. Om if you read this, please comment the name!
One of my favourite restaurants near our guesthouse was Temple, and from the outside looking in, only the big bucks go here. Yet inside it is totally affordable with dishes starting from $2 and a coffee menu that spreads over two pages. It’s ultra modern, Instagram worthy and there’s a rooftop bar with a pool upstairs!
Drink: This is an easy one, pub street! Right next door to the night market, pub street is a strip of bars and clubs that invite you to get absolutely hammered and have a good ol’ boogie on their many stages. Get on the car bonnet at Yolo Bar, on the DJ decks at Temple and anywhere semi stable at Angkor What?! bar. Trust me, I did them all.
On another of my getaway walks, I found a super cute, hipster coffee house that wouldn’t look out of place back home. I cannot for the life of me remember the name ofthe place, but it is a 30 second walk past The Hideout (another nice place to eat). It’s shaded with dark wood interior and quirky in an organic kind of way. Tables are set up with plug sockets next to them, you can buy trinkets to take home and the whole place oozes simplistic charm.
Do: Visit the many museums dotted about Siem Reap. In fact, I would recommend going to the National Museum before the Angkor Wat temples to really understand the history of what happened here. The Cambodia Landmine Museum was truly eye opening and provides unfiltered information to the life and work of child soldier Aki Ra.
The Aspara dance shows include a buffet dinner which was fun. Traditional Cambodian dancing uses a lot of hand gestures and super flexible fingers. It’s all very slow paced and delicate, a reflection of the culture I guess. The costumes are fab and it makes for an entertaining evening on a rainy day.
Stay: We stayed at the Ivy Guesthouse which was in a pretty good location. You could walk 10/15 minutes to pub street and the night market but the road it is on is quiet enough to not be able to hear the shenanigans close by. It was clean enough for an ### room. Cockroaches seem to be a bit of a problem for the guesthouse, but the cosy restaurant area sheltered by overgrown trees kind of makes up for it. The staff are lovely and tapas Friday’s are good value for money and seemingly popular with other local tourists ($1.25 per dish).