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.