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A Week in Cambodia

By: Tim Russell Posted: November-11-2010 in
The Spider Girl
Tim Russell

Last week I was back in Cambodia to do a couple more channel management/social media seminars in conjunction with e-Hotel Alliance, so I decided to stay on afterwards for a few days to explore some of the more far-flung temples around Siem Reap.

Arriving in Phnom Penh on a typically overpriced 35-minute flight, I was whisked off by our local partner Mr Sinan to a Khmer barbecue restaurant. The Khmer barbecue is a hybrid of the usual Asian tabletop barbecue and the Vietnamese lau (hotpot) – the grill is dome shaped with a moat around it, pork fat is placed on top, the meat sizzles on the dome, and the moat is filled with broth in which vegetables & shrimp can be cooked, mingling as they do with the meat juices. It’s all good fun and very tasty. Such is the competition between these establishments that each restaurant owner closely guards the secret recipe for their broth, preparing in secret and not even sharing it with their own staff!

The following morning I go for a wander around Phnom Penh’s splendid art deco Central Market, with its huge domed roof and many fascinating alleyways stuffed with all kinds of goods. As usual the wet market is the most interesting part, the usual array of fish, meat, fruit & vegetables mixed with a somewhat less appetising selection of dried insects, spiders and frogs. I take lunch elsewhere.

Then it’s time to jump into Mr Sinan’s car for the long drive up to Siem Reap. Sinan has a somewhat unorthodox approach to driving – can of Angkor beer in one hand, mobile phone in the other, with one of said items occasionally being put down so he can touch the steering wheel. It’s extremely effective but, judging from the frequent screams coming from my Thai colleagues in the back, a tad hard on the nerves. But as a veteran of Vietnamese roads, it’s a walk in the park for me.

Around halfway we stop at a roadside restaurant with two giant wooden spiders outside. Thereason for this soon becomes clear – the restaurant is the haunt of a young girl who sells large black spiders, either live or barbecued on skewers. Like most streetwise Cambodian kids, she’ll let you take pictures provided you cross her palm with US currency, so I put my rampant arachnophobia to one side for a while & shoot a few pics, before adjourning to the restaurant for tea & some Cambodian noodle soup which, with its sour, cheesy taste, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed.

On arrival in Siem Reap, I quickly check into the Royal Angkor Hotel and then head out for a candlelit dinner cruise at Angkor Wat, a really unique experience that would be even better if the temples were illuminated at night – in the event, we could have been anywhere. But it was very relaxing, being rowed around the moat whilst sipping cold beer and munching on a Khmer set menu, whilst listening to traditional Khmer musicians.

Upon our return to shore, we head to a local beer garden, where delightful young ladies serve us cold Angkor beer from a portable beer pump at the crazy price of $6.00 for 3 litres, including free food. The rest of the night is a bit of a blur as a result.

I spend the following morning relaxing by the pool before the afternoon’s seminar, then head out in the evening to enjoy superb Italian food at the Trattoria in the centre of Siem Reap.

By now it’s Friday, and we’ve booked a full day tour of some of the temples in the area around Siem Reap, kicking off with Banteay Srei. This temple is famous for its extraordinarily detailed stone carvings but it otherwise unremarkable if you’ve already visited Angkor & Bayon, and you have to buy the full $20 Angkor pass to visit it.

After probably the best Khmer food I’ve had anywhere in the country, we arrive at Beng Mealea, 70km from Siem Reap and probably my favourite of all the temples in the area. Like Ta Phrom, Beng Mealea has been overrun by jungle and is all the more spectacular for it, and its distance from Siem Reap means that very few of the 2 million tourists who visit the town every year actually make it here – apart from a couple of Canadians, we had the whole place to ourselves and were able to wander around the wooden walkways that take you into the heart of the temple in total peace & quiet.

On the way out I got chatting to a group of local kids who were collecting nuts & fruit from trees on the edge of the temple; they were visibly from very poor families but a couple of them spoke English and they were very friendly and cheerful. I bought them some exercise books from Aryap, a local girl who sells stationery for visitors to hand out to the kids, thus helping out both the kids and her own family, which, as she was pregnant, was about to grow further. It’s such a shame that Cambodia’s tourist industry is so centralised around Siem Reap – opening guesthouses, lodges & homestays in more remote places such as Beng Mealea or Koh Ker would mean less rushed itineraries for tourists, and provide more stable, better-paid work for people like Aryap, who spoke excellent English and would clearly be in her element in a service environment. As it is, all the tourists & money pour into Siem Reap itself, while the surrounding villages get virtually no benefit.

From Beng Mealea we headed down dirt roads through Preah Vihear province to Koh Ker, 120km from Siem Reap and inaccessible until 2005 when the surrounding minefields were cleared. Due to its remoteness, we were the only people there. It’s an amazing place – you begin by walking through ruined Prasat Krahom, smashed to pieces by the Khmer Rouge who looted the place of anything valuable, and then arrive at the incredible pyramid structure of Prasat Thom, 40m high and reminiscent of the Mayan pyramids of Mexico. You used to be able to climb to the top, but the wooden staircase recently collapsed and injured a Japanese tourist so it’s currently off limits. Also worth a visit is Prasat Bram, with its towers almost totally swallowed up by jungle creepers.

From Koh Ker it’s a 90-minute drive back to Siem Reap, and after a 10-hour day of touring, I sleep nearly all the way.

Saturday is my last full day in Siem Reap, so after a sensational breakfast at the Victoria Angkor (including freeflow champagne), I head off to Tonle Sap, SE Asia’s biggest freshwater lake and home to a community of fishing families who live in stilthouses on the lake. It’s an interesting place to visit but if you’ve seen the floating villages in Halong Bay or spent any time in the Mekong Delta, it doesn’t really offer anything new. Watch out for the Vietnamese families who live on the lake who, unlike the Cambodians who live off fishing and crocodile farming, try to make their money from hassling tourists to take pictures of their kids holding snakes. During my whole week in Cambodia, it was the only real tourist hassle I saw.

After one last night of revelry on Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street, a textbook example of how to maintain the architectural integrity of a town whilst providing entertainment for visitors and thus boosting the local economy, I headed to Siem Reap airport with the heavy heart I always experience when leaving Cambodia. A stunning country with beautiful scenery, amazing temples, and lovely people (is there a more photogenic race of people on Earth?). I will be back, in January 2011 for ATF in Phnom Penh!


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