Stuck in Siem Reap

Downtown Siem Reap

I could describe Siem Reap as Kansas, or Niagara Falls, or the Wild West – or just a place where you can get stuck. It was somewhere I got stuck for a while – not because I loved it, but because I couldn't work up the energy to go anywhere else.

I'd say it's like Kansas because the red dust swirls in a vortex up around the motorbikes and into your face if you're riding on the back, making me think of dirt poor depression-era farmers and the Wizard of Oz, where everything is whipped in the wind. It's more Niagara Falls tacky than it is tornado-scale windy – a downmarket version of the Falls, with bright neon signs hanging over the streets that are filled with tourist shops and restaurants, all on the doorstep of a world wonder – Angkor Wat. In front of the shops are street side aquariums pedalling fish massages, to nibble away at your temple-worn, dirty, scaly feet. And like the Wild West, it's filled with enterprising Westerners looking for a haven away from Thailand where the living is still cheap and easy. It's a crowded party town that's dusty and sweaty and filled with transient tourists and locals trying to make money off of them.

Tourist having a fish massage

Not long after I arrived, Tony from the US warned me that Siem Reap was a vortex for foreigners – it sucks people in. They just stay, maybe work for an NGO, and drink all the time, because there's nothing else to do. Prophetic words, you ask? Not exactly. I avoided the spiral of drunkenness and debauchery without much effort, but I did stay put. When I finally left after close to two weeks, it was to go to a retreat centre a half hour motorbike ride out of town, where I wound up staying for almost 2 months.

At the circus! Impressive show

While in town I was stuck mostly in slow gear. I hung out with Mitch from Ottawa, a friend of friends from home, the owner of the hotel I stayed at, and an enterprising and all round friendly guy. I maxed out my quota of ancient temples after three days at Angkor Wat with a visit to Beng Melea, billed as the most mystical of them all. It's in pieces with massive trees groping the rubble, and surrounded by a muddy moat serving as a playground to a bunch of kids who were running shrieking and diving in the water. Twice when they saw me, one of them broke out into the Gangnam Style dance. I might have been wearing sunglasses but I don't look like Psy – I was laughing but I did start to wonder if there was something I was missing. In town, I wandered around Pub St and the Night Market, ate chocolate and Western food, and started to feel lost about where to go next.

At Beng Melea

Gangnam Style, whenever, wherever

At first I was planning to travel out east to the jungle to go birdwatching, but I heard the rain and the muddy roads weren't worth the trip. My next destination was Laos, but I couldn't figure out a way of getting there that didn't involve around a 1.5 day bus ride. I couldn't work up the enthusiasm for the travel, and I was feeling kind of non-plussed about actually getting there. There was just so much going there and here and somewhere else, with a list of things not to miss and travel that would take around three times the length of time as at home. I'd had plans to see more of South East Asia, but everything was so spread out, slow and the prospect of moving around so much was feeling more like work than anything else.

Floating Village of Mechray - visit with Mitch

The days passed and I stayed in Siem Reap, dragging my feet, getting sick, making plans to go birding with Mitch at another ancient temple, but those fell through. Finally it came down to giving myself a Saturday morning deadline to book a bus or a plane out of town. That was when I realised there wasn't much point going anywhere. Not if I wasn't feeling excited to actually get there. I'd had to work up the energy to go see Angkor Wat, and that is a Wonder of the Ancient World. Sure, I've since heard it described as 'just a bunch of rocks' but it's kind of, well, one of those places you're supposed to go See. It came to me then, that what I needed wasn't more sight-seeing, but some time out to get my excitement levels back up. What I needed was a retreat. I started looking for places in Thailand and Laos, and sent a few emails, before mentioning it to Mitch, who surprised me by saying there was a retreat just outside of town. I hadn't even thought of looking in Siem Reap or Cambodia, feeling anxious to get on the move, but a half hour tuk tuk ride versus a day and a half of travel to northern Thailand was suddenly much more appealing. I called the centre and made plans to go the next day – I booked for a week, and never expected I'd wind up staying from the end of July to mid September. That's where, rather than getting stuck, I found myself wanting to stay put.

 

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The Temples of Angkor – Heaven on Earth

Angkor Wat

The Angkor temples are billed as no less than heaven on earth – they are the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Hindu equivalent of Mt Olympus, home of the gods. It's the world's largest religious complex, and considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. With a lead-up like that it's hard not to get the expectations a little out of proportion.

As one of the must-see's of South East Asia, it was my main reason for coming to Cambodia. Reason enough to hop on the bus, not quite enough to get me reading up on it all in advance. What with one thing and another, and mainly not feeling like it, I didn't get around to going through the write-up before I was facing the entry and looking for a spot to sit and open my book away from the crowds.

At the Bayon

The Lonely Planet advises going at sunrise to see Angkor Wat, and getting in and out before the morning crowds begin (8-9 am) popping in at lunch while the morning tour groups leave for the restaurants and before the afternoon tour groups arrive. Because as the temples are monumental in size, so now are the crowds they attract. T-shirts in the bars in Siem Reap have a stylized Angor Wat image with the words 'Wat Disney' underneath. While it's obviously a contradiction to object to the presence of so many other tourists when touristing myself, it was hard not to feel overrun by the crowds and the resentment of having to share it all. I tried to tap into the sense of magic and wonder that the first peasants and early explorers must have experienced, but what with trying to avoid the photo shoots and side-stepping around the foreign tour groups to eavesdrop on the English ones, my senses were occupied with navigation.

Time passing

Unfinished carvings at the Bayon

My guidebook reading had me prepared for a 'spine-tickling' sight upon entering the inner causeway and being hit with the full scale splendor of Angkor Wat. I was all set for a tingle, but what hit me instead when I looked up was a feeling of being cheated – the temple appeared to be … hollow. The front three lotus bulb spires pointed up from what looked like an open gateway, contradicting my idea of it being a solid type of building you could enter. It wasn't until I stared at it for a while that I realised that the roof of the scaffolding covering some of the entranceway was reflecting the same dull colour as the sky. An optical illusion at work, and that effect combined with the unavoidable evidence of modern tampering, eroded the sense of authenticity and time-worn presence more than the passage of hordes of tourists.

Angkor Wat temple - or gateway

I took my time wandering around Angkor Wat, reading about each of the bas-relief murals stretching around the complex, climbing up and up the steep narrow steps ascending to heaven, and taking a break on the grounds to stretch out in my hammock that I had purchased from a market in Phnom Penh precisely for this purpose, following a piece of travel advice I got on the road. Unfortunately, while I'd got a good deal on the hammock and managed to find some coordinating cord to hang it with that morning at the local market in Siem Reap, I hadn't thought of the bug spray. Lying stretched out in the trees pressed against the taut hammock strings, I must have resembled some kind of long kebab-shaped mosquito feeder, and it was lunch time. My efforts to nap were further thwarted by a family of six who declined to follow the path to the toilets and came over to pee in the trees in front of me.

Perfect pose

Of my first day, and probably of my whole three day visit, my favourite temple was not Angkor Wat but Preah Khan – a smaller, quiet, moss-covered temple lying partially in ruins in the north end of the complex. Miraculously, it was almost empty of tourists – surrounded by large trees and glowing in the late afternoon sun, it exuded some of that time-worn atmosphere I had been looking to find. I didn't have much time, but I stayed until the temple closed at 5:30pm.

Preah Khan entrance

Inside Preah Khan

It was the end of the day but not the end of my visit as I biked back out toward the town, passing a few elephants coming back from their tourist rides, and I stopped to get closer. I had some leftover jackfruit that I had been my lunch for the day, and one of the elephants took the large piece out of my hand with his sandpapery snout, sucking it back like it was a little piece of popcorn. Excitedly I rooted through my bag to bring out the sweet buns that were the remainder of my food for the day. I put my hand out again but the offering was declined. The elephant sniffed and turned away – not nutritious is not delicious if you're an elephant, it seems. I hadn't expected them to be so discerning, after being surrounded by assorted dogs, rats and others feeding off available scraps throughout the rest of Asia. Elephants are certainly a breed apart.

The Elephants of Angkor

I spent my remaining two days visiting the temples biking around the small circuit and the grand circuit, which form the main itineraries for visits to Angkor. I visited the two other top draws of Angkor – the Bayon, with the omnipresent smiling faces of the god-king (Avalokiteshvara resembling King Jayavarman) peering down from every vantage point, and Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, where the movie was filmed. This is billed as the most atmospheric of the temples, where the jungle is more visibly in the process of reclaiming its territory. Enormous light-skinned, mottled trees that look like smooth snakes are in the act of swallowing the temple stones mouthfuls at a time, while lichens in shades of pinks and greens cover and eat away the stone in a more discreet and colourful manner. Unfortunately this temple is another tourist hub, not quite as bad as Angkor Wat but with not enough of the calm and quiet of Preah Khan.

Smiling faces of the Bayon

Ta Prohm

Riding around on the bike, passing through kilometres of jungle filled with temple after temple, passed large statues of decapitated gods holding the serpent Vasuki churning the ocean of milk, through gateways where the smiling King Jayavarman stares down, and seeing the immense river-like moats surrounding the grandest of the temples, this was a real taste of the wonder of this place. Getting away from the tourists, that was heavenly.

Gateway of the Gods

Inside the temple walls - Bayon