Cambodia: contrasts and culture in Siem Reap

Post 8 of the South East Asian Adventure series. View the rest of the series so far here.

Siem Reap in Cambodia was undoubtedly the most exciting city we visited in Asia. It was unique in offering simultaneously the most authentic glimpse into rural southeast Asian life, and the most glaringly inauthentic, tourist-centric centre. Nowhere else can you find a green river, its earthy banks strewn with fishermen, flowing just metres from a neon-lit, English-signed, music-blaring nightlife hub called ‘Pub Street’. We fell in love with the place.

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Diamond D’Angkor

After a long and dull journey from Hanoi (involving yet another transfer at Bangkok airport and soulless lunch at McDonalds) Siem Reap was the perfect remedy. We were met at the airport by the hotel’s taxi driver and driven through streets alternately clean/modern and muddy/ramshackle to our chic boutique hotel, Diamond D’Angkor. Hotelier Nako welcomed us into the breezy reception and invited us to sit on a sofa while he brought us welcome drinks, cool damp towels and a map of the city, which he talked us through in excellent English.

We were amazed when we saw our room, which turned out to be a suite. It was the largest and most luxurious we’d stayed in all holiday. The bathroom was spacious and stylish; the sitting area boasted French doors leading onto a large balcony; and the luxurious bed was draped in a mosquito net and faced a large flat-screen TV. Below this sat a stack of locally relevant DVDs, including a documentary on the Angkor temples and both Tomb Raider films (the first was partly filmed at Cambodian temple Beng Melea, which we visited on our final day here)!

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Siem Reap River

Leaving our lap of luxury to explore the town on foot, we were immediately struck by how raw and rural some parts of it appeared. Our sleek hotel stood on a dusty road lined with tangled foliage, electric wires and scruffy tin-roofed shops and cafes. Its lack of any pavement meant we had to sidle down the roadside to avoid the motorbikes puttering past. After dodging our way through a few more bustling streets, swerving around street peddlers and food carts, we emerged at the bank of Siem Reap River.

We were taken aback by how green the water was, and how raw the banks were – simply gently sloping, grassy knolls populated by trees and fishermen. In the distance, a waterwheel turned. In contrast, the short bridges crossing it was sturdily built of concrete and iron, and thronged with people and vehicles. On the opposite side of the river lay something more discordant still: a towering Hard Rock Café.

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We followed the river along a paved path where tall trees, white concrete benches and soft grass created a sense of tranquility even as motorbikes raced alongside us. The riverside continued to deliver up interesting sights, among them simple rowboats, piled-up motorbikes, stone animal statues and a flamboyant pink hotel.

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We also dropped by a few temples on our walk: these resplendent in red and gold, with spiked roofs and lush gardens. One had a number of large statues outside demonstrating religious fables, some of which were particularly grisly! Eventually we came to a busy road junction surrounded by billboards showing photos of the royal family. The distinctly wide and modern road from there back into town took us past the royal and government buildings, grand and colourful, as tuk tuks, motorcyclists and cars jostled for space in the road.

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Dinner and dancing

That night we didn’t have the energy to browse TripAdvisor or to go out drinking on Pub Street, so we decided to surrender our first Cambodian dinner to a fully blown tourist trap. Based purely on the fact that our airport-hotel taxi driver had pointed it out, we dropped into Koulen. This is one of Siem Reap’s several ‘dinner show’ restaurants, where you sit at long, lined-up tables to eat as much food from the buffet as you like and watch a traditional Khmer dance performance on a stage.

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There are probably better places to eat dinner, and to watch Khmer dancing, but at that moment Koulen was just what we wanted. We were able to try several Cambodian foods at once, and I, at least, really enjoyed the Khmer dancing! I found its slow pace and many one-legged poses both graceful and unusual – it reminded me of the Tai Chi we did on our Halong Bay cruise. Some performances, particularly those involving male dancers, involved using baskets and coconuts as props.

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The traditional music was lovely, and the dancers beautiful in their gilded, jewel-coloured costumes. I wondered how they managed to keep their giant, temple-shaped crowns on their heads. After the show I went up to take a typically cringey tourist photo with the dancers – don’t judge me! – before heading back to the hotel. It was important that we had a good night’s sleep, as tomorrow we’d be visiting Siem Reap’s star attractions: the temples of Angkor and Pub Street.

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All text and images (c) Juliet Langton, 2016. All rights reserved.

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