Been in town a few days now and have spent a bit of time out exploring Siem Reap on foot (thought Good Old Nell could do with a break!) Walking seems to be a bit of an alien concept here. Instead the whole city beats to the sound of mopeds and Tuk-tuks. Where pavements exist they are uneven and messy but that kind of adds to the sense of adventure. The walk from my hotel to the centre of town just under 3km but takes around 25 minutes and you can’t take a few steps without being offered a ride. When I explain to people I like to walk they look at me with a strange suspicion, I guess when your lively hood comes from ferrying tourists around, walking is the enemy. The area along the river is as busy as elsewhere but manages to retain a sort of beauty and calm. Along the banks small groups gather to take lunch or chat and laugh. The route is lined with small food stalls selling barbequed fish, corn and a variety of soup and noodle dishes. The smell of the food is delicious, although sometimes mingles with the slightly less appealing aroma of the rubbish bins. Despite being only a few kilometres, the walk takes time; in part the heat makes it slow going but also having to occasionally walk in the road means a sense of awareness is crucial. All the road users follow their own rules, meandering from lane to lane, swerving around obstacles and never stopping. Mopeds go by with whole families crammed on, along with the weekly shop and merchandise to sell. The moped fleet doesn’t discriminate at all, old and young, men and women wiz past. The rule seems to be as soon as you can ride, you do ride. Helmets are fairly common especially amongst the Tuk-tuk drivers but they are normally battered and well used. The universal foot-ware of flip flops makes me wonder how these guys still have toes. Clearly they are very skilled riders.
The main centre of town, at least for tourists, consists of the old market and Pub Street. The market is full if vibrant colours and smells as people flog their wares trying to make a living. From every mouth comes ‘buy sir? Shop sir?’ I actually went to the market to shop so happily engaged the store holders in friendly chatter. Quickly, however, I realised they didn’t really cater for the ‘above average sized’ gentleman and aside from a couple of stalls trying to sell me woefully undersized clothes, most people simply smiled and said sorry. It took a bit of searching but eventually I managed to get a few shirts that would fit and enjoyed haggling over the price. I could have probably got the price down a bit lower but considering the profit margins these guys must work with I was happy to pay slightly more (ask me if I still agree with that when I go back to being a poor student!). There must be hundreds of stalls around the various markets and they largely sell similar stuff. Beautiful dresses adorned with elephants, rows after rows of colourful and detailed silks and the classic kind of tourists trinkets. No shortage of Buddha statues, photos and paintings of the temples. The kind of things I will almost certainly purchase before I return to normality, but that is a long way off yet. In between the stalls, shops, cafes and bars the dusty tree-lined streets are bustling with people, many of whom seem captivated by the spectacle of it all.
I took dinner that night on Siem Reaps famous Pub Street. Spread over 3 blocks, the various restaurants, bars and clubs cater well to European, American and Asian tourists with restaurants serving everything from Tex-Mex burritos to traditional Khmer noodles and rice dishes. Feeling slightly overwhelmed and playing it a little safe, I went for green bean stir fry with rice and was pleasantly surprised. The veg was cooked very well, slightly crunchy but done through and the chicken was moist and juicy. The dish came in a reasonably spiced, slightly sweet sauce with a strong hint of tamarind, a spice well used locally. After dinner I wandered through a few bars getting a feel for the place. Some catered exclusively for the Western tourist, upmarket with burgers and pizza a plenty whilst others were much more laid back and akin to lounges. One bar, ‘Angkor What?’ (Love the name) had a very clubby feel and I imagine it is one of cities top nightspots. During the early evening however, the welcoming staff were happy to serve a variety of beers and cocktails and the outside seating was perfect for watching the world stroll by. It seemed that every tourist that passed was from a different place and those who were brand new in town walked slowly, gazing wistfully in all directions. Slightly off the main part of Pub Street I came across ‘Charlies’, a small Western style bar serving a range of local, regional and international drinks and small meals. A fair few expatriates frequented the place, whilst I was there, and were all know to the staff by name. Set slightly back from the road the ‘Charlies’ provided a bit of relief from the heat and hubris of the city and provided another sheltered spot from which it was possible to observe the people of the town. The food stalls opposite seemed very popular with locals with a good number of mopeds stopping to collect that night’s dinner.
Well-fed and watered I hailed a Tuk-tuk and headed back to the hotel, tired but satisfied with my day exploring the city. Siem Reap is not your typical tourist town despite having almost all of the necessary trappings. The market vendors press for sales but are polite when responded to fairly. The restaurants cater for a variety of tastes but also proudly retain their own culinary heritage. It is as if Siem Reap has gracefully accepted its role as ‘gateway to Angkor’ but done so on its own terms, retaining a great deal of its indigenous charm. The leafy roads and open spaces on the edge of the centre stand as evidence of a town that refuses to grow too quickly and that wants to hold on to as much character as possible. It is a town I have no doubts I am going to enjoy spending much more time in.