Siem Reap – Our first few days.

Getting from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was a very easy acomplishment. It took only a half days worth of comfortable bus travel (with a company called Giant Ibis – who came recommended to us, because many other bus companies travelling this route are known to provide horrendously hot and turbulent rides) before we arrived at around 9pm, we were then transferred to our hotel by a Tuk Tuk, and even had time to briefly explore a nearby market place before settling in for the night.

But we have since decided to spend a total of nine nights in Seim Reap, and as I have FINALLY caught up with this blog, it is actually the city that I am currently waking up to!!! (Wooooooo).

So here’s what we’ve acomplishment so far…

Day One:
On day one we wasted no time in setting off to see some of the Angkor temples.
We hired a Tuk Tuk driver for the day, and he took us in a small loop around the MASSIVE Angkor area to see the central Angkor temples. Most notably in this area was the temple of Angkor Wat – a construction which is even bigger than the hype suggests. It just goes on and on and on.. and in fact this may be because Angkor Wat was not just a single temple, but a whole city in it’s day! But none the less the centre most temples of these massive grounds were always built for (Hindu) God’s, not for mere mortals.. and it is absolutely obvious.
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The long outer wall of Angkor Wat encloses a total of 82 hectares of land.. and this outer wall is then surrounded by an even more impressive moat, which encloses almost 200 hectares… it probably doesn’t have to be stated, but Angkor Wat is the biggest of the Angkor temples. And it took us 2 or 3 hours before we felt satisfied we had seen enough of the place.

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But nevertheless we were eager to see more, and we spent an entire day touring between other smaller temples as well. Many of which I have to admit, I can’t remember the names of..
But at every temple that we visited the same notions of hard labour, visionary excellence and Godly and Kingly commitment were evident.

Some temples were tall, with pagodas stretching up several metres. Some were broad, with outer walls stretching on for miles. Some temples were perfectly preserved with fine carvings of dancing goddesses, elephants, war lords and monks. While others were rougher, less complete, covered in moss and drowning in their own rubble.. Some temples have become home to monkeys, who walk around completely unperturbed by the crowds of tourists who coe at them.. some temples were built with grand archways and some with massive reservoirs – the largest was some 7.5km in length and capable of holding 55million cubic metres of water at a depth of only 4 metres..
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These places were amazing to see, and the ancient Angkor race who conceived them might well be considered one of the ‘great’ ancient human civilisations, alongside the Egyptians and their pyramids.. But unfortunately for the Angkor population, these temples and the extravagant canals and reservoirs that went with them, were what may ultimately have lead to their downfall. As successive King’s dreamt up more and more extravagant designs, and put more and more of the people’s time, money and resources into the completion of exorbitant shrines, which served little practical purpose.. the people themselves became poor and went hungry..

Day Two:
On day two we still had many more temples to see.. So we set off with our Tuk Tuk driver again to the further reaches of the Angkor complex.
We saw temples made of red blocks and grey blocks, and temples being consumed by trees. We saw some of the most pristinely recovered carvings at Banteay Srei temple (aka the lady temple), and we saw much more of the same kind of impressive, but dare I say.. ‘repetitive’ temples that we had explored on day one.

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And after another full day on our feet, climbing through doorways and windows and walking around the huge grounds of ancient temples, we arrived back to our hotel, absolutely pooped..

Day Three:
By the end of day two we had decided we had seen enough temples to satisfy ourselves for a while. We wanted to see something else. We wanted to find something which wasn’t so obvious. We wanted to explore Siem Reap in a way which we thought most tourists didn’t (because it seems many backpackers pass through Siem Reap in two or three days. With only enough time to rush through a few temples, before disappearing into a neighbouring country – Laos, Thailand or Vietnam – to party).

So we spent a large part of the day researching – flipping through brochures and scouring the Internet, making plans for the rest of our time in Siem Reap. And by mid afternoon we had found a Fair Trade handicraft market (AHA – Angkor Handicraft association) which wasn’t too far away, that sounded like a glorious exception from the big, generic night markets surrounding Siem Reap’s central Pub Street (that is literally it’s name) near where we were staying.

But in order for you to fully understand why the concept of a small, made in Cambodia, fair trade handicraft market was so wonderful.. I need to have a small rant..

Cambodia in not completely unlike it’s South East Asian neighbour’s – in fact the tourist market culture, with it’s repetitive goods, generic and completely unoriginal souvenirs, and stall holders calling out at every single passer-by (“helloooo, hello mister” “lady, lady you try” “I give good price”…), is a common culture, and it’s not at all exclusive to Cambodia..
BUT, many of Cambodia’s markets are different.. And I don’t think it’s a good kind of different..

In Thailand – sure, the stall holders try to call you into their stores as you walk by. If you chose to enter, they will most probably persist to follow you around and tell you that everything is “very nice”, while watching everything that you touch (because to touch something, means that you want to buy it, so pressure will then be applied…). You will be offered everything at prices that are too high. And you will be expected to barter – which is generally awkward and confusing for any Westerner… But it is all relatively passive..
Thai people have seen tourists in their country for many years now, they know us a little bit, and they allow us a little bit of independence, and time, when it comes to spending our money.. (which is not to say there aren’t scammers and pushy exceptions.. there absolutely are!). They put their offers out in the open, and they let you decide. If you walk away.. Maybe you’ll be called back for a better price. Maybe, you will just be left to walk away..

In Thailand the occasional beggar is always going to be about, ready to interrupt your meal or your beer, with cupped hands out, asking for money – but this is really not something I can remember a lot of in Thailand.. most of the people who interrupt your dinner in Thailand are not beggars, they actually have goods to offer you – skewered scorpions, woven bracelets or gaudy lighters.. They’re small scale business people, out to make an honest living..
And I’m not saying the begging is wrong, I am not a completely heartless person who sees beggars as mere inconveniences, just let me finish…
You should feel guilty sometimes.. because this isn’t a first world country. But the truth is, for the most part, the Thai are getting on with it. They’re putting on happy faces, they’re progressing, they’re building businesses, they’re developing cities. They’re welcoming the masses, and they’re profiting from it. And although the crafts and bits and pieces that you see about in market places may be repetitive.. they are at least actually being sold in their country of origin – unlike most English and American souvenirs which are made in China…

But most importantly… the Thai people (mostly) are NOT using their visitors (us) to make gains through emotional trickery, confusion tactics and abusive pressure.. They make their money honestly.
In Cambodia however.. ’emotional trickery’ is exactly what I believe takes place..

Cambodia is a relatively new tourist spot. Both the tourism industry and the country in itself are still in infant stages. The people here are having to learn about and accept foreigners (who themselves, often have little knowledge of the traditions and beliefs of Cambodian people), while at the same time they are still struggling to fulfill their own basic needs.. I mean, it must be pretty confusing..
Then add to this the fact that the country has a hideous history of corruption, war, foreign rule and genocide – which have dictated that Cambodia has never, really had it’s own independence.. And what you get… is a huge population of people who are very comfortable with begging.. And, more relevantly to my point – who are very comfortable with employing dirty tactics to make a sale..

Right now… in Cambodia, it feels like every Westener is treated merely as a walking money sack which needs to be exploited.. And we have been put through some extremely stressful and extremely uncomfortable situations as a result.

I’m Cambodia, you should expect to encounter someone who wants to sell you a Tuk Tuk ride, a guest house room or a meal… about.. every 100 metres.. or less. They will yell at you from across streets, from 20 metres off, from the back of restaurants which you are only trying to walk past… you will almost constantly be trying to avoid buying something (of course this is in tourist centres, and especially in Siem Reap).
And if you show ANY remote amount of interest in an item at a market place.. you will be pounced on. A salesman/woman will be at your side instantaneously to put what ever it is you have looked at into your hands and to give you a price. And the prices will be high and variable and (as in Thailand) you will be expected to barter. You will not be given time to look around, these marketers will pressure you to buy quickly. They will talk A LOT. And they will deliberately act to fluster you, so that your easiest way out… is just to buy the damned thing!

I have been a scenarios where I have approached stores or market stalls with the legitimate intention to buy something.. a sarong, a painting, some chopsticks.. AND THEN a sales woman will hurry over to me.. she will pick up what ever I am looking at and shove it at me. She will give me a thousand words to explain why I need to buy the thing. And then she will begin to drag me into a sale… A sale which I would love to make, but which I just need a little freakn time to decide upon!!
It’s pushy, it’s abusive, they treat you like you have absolutely no intelligence or free will.. and it’s incredibly tiring.
After 3 days in Siem Reap I was so tired of being harassed by sales people that I actually felt physically nervous about the idea of having to walk through a market space..

However, I am proud to say. That I bought nothing from these people. Instead me and Sam worked as as team, pulling one another out of unwanted sales, and endeavouring throughout the rest of our trip, to find only small, authentic, unobtrusive market places and stores to buy our souvenirs from. And we’ve learnt a lot from this. For example, many of the repetitive items that you find in Siem Reap’s pub street night markets or Phnom Penh’s Central Markets are imports. They’re often crafts that could be made in Cambodia, but are instead imported from Thailand or Vietnam, undercutting local producers, and undermining the Cambodian arts and handicrafts industry altogether. They’re not authentic, they’re not Cambodian, and they’ve likely been mass produced in a factory without care or craft.

So finding a fair trade market place, where you can actually go and speak to the artists and ask them about the processes that they use within their crafts is awesome. Knowing that these people are going to be paid a fair salary is also awesome. And finding items that are a little bit different from the masses, that have been made with a little more care, and that are made to last – is really awesome. And further, we were legitimately excited for a market which we could browse through in our own time. Without pressure or coercion.

So the point is we found an awesome market place online. And we went there. And it was great!
It was only a small collection of goods. But we found some beautiful watercolour art, some little hand made clay tea cups and a gorgeous tea light candle holder to take home. And we even got to talk to one of the clay molders while we were browsing, and found out all about the colouring process and the extreme cooking heats of the craft. We found out the origin village of the watercolour painting too. And we just generally, loved being given the chance to breath, and ask questions while browsing..
It is definitely a shopping location that I recommend.

And to conclude a lazy day, we decided to go to the Cambodian circus! (Phare)
Which was AMAZING. It was only a small tent, with a full house of maybe 200-300 guests. The tickets cost a rather pricey (in Cambodia terms..) $18US. And of course the lighting and visual effects were nothing like you would find in a Cirque du Soliel big top.. But the show was none the less completely worth it!
The cast were just so brilliant at engaging the audience and making us laugh and clap and cheer. Some of the stunts were legitimately scary to watch. There were somersaults and flips and jumps and catches galore. AND the writer of the show was actually a survivor of the Pol Pot Era, who wrote the whole show around the tale of a young girl who lost all of her friends to his regime, and had to live a life haunted by the horrors she had seen.. so despite the thrilling circus stunts, there was a very serious and educational undertone to the whole thing.. which at one point, did make me cry.. But the balance of horror and just pure thrilling enjoyment was perfect. It is undoubtedly something that any one in Siem Reap should see. And I would honestly even go so far as to say.. it was flawless.

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