Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Few Days in Siem Reap and Angkor

Downtown Siem Reap.  Quick, how many Cambodians can you see in this photo?  1, waiting in his tuktuk to give the tourists a ride.
This vacation has been good and relaxing so far but I've felt a bit off center the whole time.  I've been trying to figure out why.  It started well, with an easy, short (50 min.) flight from Bangkok.  Visa on arrival was also easy and there was a nice guy with my name on a sign waiting to take me to my hotel.

Siem Reap was prettier than I expected - greener and lusher than Mandalay for sure.  The town is also smaller than I expected.  It seems to be comprised primarily of hotels, restaurants, banks and stores for souvenirs.

Check in at the Bayon Boutique hotel was easy and the staff very friendly.  We arranged for me to get a massage in my room an hour after I arrived.  Perfect.

Then my stomach started gurgling.  I've been having issues off and on for the last couple of weeks.  I have kept trying to blame it on nerves, diet, etc. but it is keeps up will have to assume it's giardia or some other type of bug.

Even with the gurgling belly, I was excited about the massage.   The massage therapist arrived an hour late, but who cares? It went well for a bit.  Then there was a knock at the door.  One of the hotel staff.  A few minutes later, as I was getting back in the relaxation zone, there was another knock at the door.  I appreciate that they were trying to be helpful but they'd booked the damn massage in my room for me.  Ten minutes later, my phone rang.  I answered, there was no one there.  Five minutes later, it rang again.  And again, it was someone from the front desk.  A few minutes later, the massage therapist stopped massaging and started packing up her stuff.  What?  We were 1 hr. and 15 minutes into a 2 1/2 hr. massage.  Seems there was a miscommunication.  She didn't speak English, the guy at the front desk couldn't help because he'd just come on duty and didn't know what was happening, so I called it a day.

That night, I was up every 15 minutes trying a new weight loss program.  Damn.  I wasn't really feeling like goig to a cooking class but had really been looking forward to it.  I really did enjoy the class, although had a fever by then and was feeling very puny.  Luckily, they found a chair for me and I did a combo of cooking and sitting.

I spent the afternoon meditating in the toilet and napping in between.  On Wednesday, I'd booked a guide and tuktuk driver to head to Angkor.  I was feeling better, although still shaky.  I'd eaten virtually nothing for two days.

The day was overcast and more humid than hot.  The temples were larger and more spectacular than I'd expected but I was disappointed at the hordes of tourists.  My favorite times were when we just sat on the large, fallen stones and I pretended there weren't tour groups and tried to imagine what it was like 1,000 years ago.  My tour guide was informative and had a good sense of humor.

I spent the evening in my hotel room, Skyping, 'net surfing and watching tv.  I also enjoyed a long, hot bath and a good book.

On Thursday, I spent the morning with the same guide and driver.  We drove around town, went to the Old Market, which stocked items imported from China and India and readily available for less money in Bangkok and I quickly tired of somewhat aggressive sales ladies.  Friendly, but not inclined to take no for answer until I'd said it for the 10th time and hadn't slowed my pace.

We headed along the Siem Reap river out of town and I felt a bit more optimistic.  Every thing looked "same same but different".  Architectural styles are similar to Thailand and Myanmar but not exactly.  The same for shops and tea shops.
We'd headed out of town to place that sells ceramics.  You can also learn to throw pots from the charming owner.

Her daughter is on school vacation this week and loves to use the potter's wheel to make her own stuff.

The owner made some beautiful stuff.  I especially loved one elephant pitcher but was afraid it wouldn't make all the travel to get back to the USA with me.

When we headed back into town my guide and driver seemed a bit flummoxed about what to do with me.  I didn't want to spend my time buying souvenirs or checking out high end hotels.  I was feeling very jaded and thinking that perhaps my sense of curiosity and adventure have begun to wane.  I haven't really explored SE Asia that much.  Even so, was my attitude too "been there, done that"? Perhaps.

I had my tour guide friends drop me off in the center of town and started wandering around on my own.  I perked up when I got to the part of the market where the locals shop.  No one was trying to wrap me up in a "hand made" silk scarf or insist I admire their genuine rubies.  It was just Cambodian people selling stuff to other Cambodian people.  It made me smile.
Not a single one of these hardworking vendors cared where I was from or tried to sell me anything.  It was lunchtime and they were taking care of business.

When I stepped out of the market, back onto the street, I was back in tourist land and that's when it hit me.  I was feeling off kilter because Siem Reap and even Angkor, to some extent, had a bit of an Orlando feel.  Tourists and everything created to make them happy.  Restaurants selling Italian, Chinese, Mexican, French, Swedish, Japanese and other cuisines.  With an occasional Khmer restaurant tossed in, but a sanitized "tourist" version.

I'm not knocking it and don't mean to sound like I'm above a good tourist experience.  And Siem Reap is that.  Once I realized what was bothering me I decided to go with the flow.  I said "No, thank you." politely to a dozen tuk tuk drivers as I walked a block to find a massage place.  I left the heat and humidity outside and sank into a comfy chair for a 2 hour massage in a blissfully cold room.

When I finished I strolled across the street to Viva, a Mexican restaurant.  I got take out and then smiled at a tuk tuk driver who came running.  He'd never heard of my hotel but gave it a game effort trying to find it.  We both kept apologizing that neither of us knew exactly where it was.  We stopped several times for directions.  We were laughing out loud by then and I assured him I was having a great time, exploring the small roads with him.  We made it to the hotel and said goodbye.

My brief time here gave me an insight into why I love Mandalay.  It doesn't have a Hard Rock.  Transportation is expensive and hard to find.  People look at me as a novelty, not just another damn tourist.  The main tourist sites are pagodas and monasteries rather than shops set up by NGOs to help support locals.  It gave me a glimpse of what places like Bagan and Inle Lake in Myanmar may like in a few years.  I'm glad I'm there now.

Postscript:  This post isn't meant to discourage you from visiting Siem Reap.  People were friendly and there are great hotels and amenities to make it a "low culture shock" vacation.  Hopefully, UNESCO and the Cambodian government will continue to keep water parks and other tourist stuff from encroaching on the wonders of Angkor.

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