Penman No. 231: A Sortie to Siem Reap

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Penman for Monday, December 26, 2016

 

HAVING MADE a pact to see as much of the world together for as long as our knees could carry us, Beng and I headed out to Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia just before Christmas. It was another booking we’d typically made months in advance (we’d booked our November trip to Guangzhou in February) to avail ourselves of budget fares, and a four-day sortie in mid-December sounded just about right, taking the weather and the crowds (or the lack of them) into account. A few years ago, we’d taken separate December trips to Beijing and Shanghai and had shivered in the snow, but were rewarded with spectacularly desolate views of and from the Great Wall.

At an age when people start talking about bucket lists, we just had to see Angkor Wat and its outlying complex of temples, but as it turned out, Siem Reap was much more than just a location or a jump-off point for Angkor Wat. It had ample charms of its own, and while it would be criminal to go there without visiting the temples, it offered much room for more solitary pursuits. We were there for four full days, spending two days on the road and two just lazing around about town, and it felt just right at our seniors’ pace.

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It takes just under three hours to fly to Siem Reap from Manila; our flight landed close to 10 pm, and we were met by a tuktuk sent by our boutique hotel as a free service, a welcome touch. There’s a long row of big hotels along the national highway but we chose a small one closer to the center of town, about a 20-minute ride away. I exchanged a couple of hundred dollars at the airport, but it turned out to be almost totally unnecessary—in Siem Reap, the US dollar is king, with dollar prices posted or quoted on everything from SIM cards and T-shirts to mango shakes and massages. (Do bring lots of small bills—I’ve never seen so many 2-dollar bills moving around, not even in the US, although curiously signs say that Cambodian banks won’t accept them.) Speaking of SIM cards, a $5 Cellcard SIM gets you 1.5 gigs of data, good for one week.

Aside from dollar bills, the other constant in Siem Reap is the tuktuk, larger and more spacious than its Thai counterpart, with two facing seats in the back and the motorcycle all by itself out front. Ours was driven by an unfailingly pleasant and efficient fellow called Thou (whose name kept me looking for a loaf of bread and a jug of wine); the only drawback to this design is that the driver sits too far ahead of you for any conversation beyond the yelled “Stop!” at points of interest, so I sadly never got to really chat with Thou, even if his English was surprisingly good.

Indeed I was frankly astonished by the facility with which nearly every Cambodian I met—whether driver, waitress, masseuse, or vendor—spoke English. Of course Siem Reap is the country’s tourist capital, and English is now taught in Cambodian schools, but we didn’t see that kind of proficiency in Thailand or Vietnam. Quaint vestiges of French remain—a police outpost still called itself a “gendarmery” (with a Y). I remember last using my pidgin French some years ago with an old silk seller in Hanoi who didn’t speak English, but I never had that problem in Siem Reap. Our foot-massage suki said that she had learned English just by listening to her guests, while our guide at the war museum said that he had been taught the language by an NGO.

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As you can guess, foot massages (widely available for $5 each) were on our daily schedule, mandatory especially after the 10K treks you’ll be making, but Siem Reap is silk-scarf, cotton-shirt, and silver-bangle heaven as well for the casual shopper. Great food—with dishes familiar to the Pinoy palate—can be found all over, and you can easily enjoy a meal for two, including drinks, for $10. Wherever we were, even in the humblest market stall (our kind of fine dining), the rice was consistently good, neither stony nor mushy but with that bounce to the bite that we Visayans call makid-ol. You could even have your massage or your meal with a free daily ladyboys show. If you abhor cheap stuff (I can’t say we do) and want the very best items at corresponding prices, the Artisans Angkor workshop and showroom is in a class all by itself; mid-range, there’s the “Made in Cambodia” market, which also features a free show of traditional Cambodian dance in the early evening.

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Any list of Siem Reap’s attractions will begin with the 12th-century Angkor Wat, and if I don’t say much about it here it’s only because you truly have to be there to appreciate its majesty, along with the smaller but no less wondrous Bayon and Ta Phrom temples. This complex is but a 30-minute drive away from downtown, but what a difference a half-hour makes—seemingly into the jungle, but actually into the heart of civilization itself.

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We had been warned by the guidebooks about the insufferable heat in Siem Reap, especially on the temple tours, but it was cloudy and drizzly—even cool and nippy—for most of the time we were there. Riding our tuktuk around the countryside was thoroughly instructive. Depending on your perspective, it was either reassuring or disconcerting to see so many orphanages and pharmacies along the road. Cambodian People’s Party signs were ubiquitous as well, and a visit to the War Museum proved indispensable in contextualizing the easy comforts of today’s Cambodia.

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Our museum guide Prem was born in nearby Battambang, close to the Thai border, and remembered witnessing battles with the Khmer Rouge as a boy; his parents survived the genocide by feeding on insects. (Angkor Wat is replete with reliefs of battle scenes, a reminder of how often and how strangely beauty and gore come together.) Democracy, Prem said, was a work in progress in his country, and I could only agree and advert to our own situation, although the horrors of the Pol Pot period—with 3 million, half the Cambodian population, killed in just four years—made us, with our mere thousands of largely faceless losses over a few months, appear absurdly civilized by comparison.

We motored to the edge of Tonle Sap—the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and another major tourist attraction—but decided against taking the $20, two-hour cruise, having read on half a dozen websites about how commercialized the package had become. I’m sure we would have enjoyed it anyway, as writers and artists should find something noteworthy in the most trodden of paths, but it felt enough to contemplate the vastness of the lake from where we stood onshore. A pretty sight on the way to the lake was the carpet of flowering lotuses being farmed by the villagers.

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Just like its pinkish earth, which it seems any seed you throw into will explode in greenery, Siem Reap is a testament to the insistence of life itself, to the indomitability of the human spirit against all manner of despotism and despair. We flew home much refreshed, from our brows to our toes.

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