The Road to Siem Reap
The road to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh is National Highway 6. It is a pretty straight shot from our little place by the riverside to the highway, and it was not too much trouble to escape the city at 6 AM. Had we left any later we would have been threading a needle between a sea of motorbikes and tuk tuks. As we got onto the highway, I was delighted to see that there were two lanes going in both directions with a substantial island in the median. This (mostly) protects drivers from oncoming traffic. Occasionally there will be a motorbike that has decided to go against the grain and ride down the wrong side of the road just to add a modicum of challenge to the commute. In general, however, it is much less threatening than having an SUV come straight at you and drive you onto the soft shoulder.
A few hours up the road, there is a fancy, almost European-style rest stop with a diner and a coffee shop. There we had breakfast and continued on. Unfortunately, this is where the fancy highway stopped, and we were back to traversing rice paddies with buffalo and cattle on the side of the road. The traffic was far lighter than we had found on the roads in the south, although there were still dangerous head-on overtakes from time to time. We stopped one time for gasoline only once and then continued on our way. It was relatively uneventful, but that one fuel stop got me thinking quite a bit.
Back in the US, as I rode my Triumph Tiger around San Francisco and Oakland, I would constantly have the same thought rushing through my head: This is unsustainable. I am not an active environmentalist, but I try to be conscious of the impact I have in the world. The roads in the US are seas of cars, and I have particularly seen the roads in the San Francisco Bay Area reach maximum density. Twenty years ago, there were two hours in the morning and two hours at night where one could expect to be significantly delayed. Today one can expect to be delayed if they are driving a car across the bay bridge at any time within a 24 hour period. So what got me thinking about this? Cows… The cows in the picture below.
What you see in the above picture is a Cambodian farm truck hauling a livestock trailer with three cows. The “truck” part is a little 125 cc motor scooter, and the trailer is something locally fabricated out of handy bits of metal and recycled wheels and whatnot. At first this seems a totally absurd agricultural implement. In fact, it appears laughable. Then you have to use a frame of reference; the Khmer farmer needs a tiny motor scooter and a makeshift trailer to haul around his life’s work, namely cows, while the American needs a Cummins diesel 4×4 truck to haul around, well, nothing at all most of the time, and maybe a jet ski on the weekend and an AM/PM Thirsty-Two ouncer full of Mountain Dew during the week.
Again, I don’t mean to be pointing fingers, and I am sure I am a hypocrite in my own ways, but really, which is more laughable? How long can US society keep giving every sixteen year old a car for their birthday? When is the point of critical mass? The funniest thing is that the Khmer farmer is far more practical and efficient than virtually anyone I know in a “developed country,” myself included, and I have never even bought a new car, choosing to ride motorbikes instead. Here’s the thing; if you were to work at an engineering firm and told your boss that you were going to invest 40,000 dollars in a machine that will only run 2 hours out of 24, your boss would laugh at you. If you told your boss that this machine depreciate by 20% in the first year, and another 10% every year thereafter, your boss would indeed be right to fire you for buying this wingless albatross of a machine! Now which is more laughable? The point is, I think we have to meet in the middle somewhere.
I apologize for my digression, but the rest of the ride was really quite lovely as I contemplated my culture’s wastefulness. As we went further north, the air became cleaner and the fields and aromatic rice paddies so much greener than they are in the south. There were several weddings happening in the small villages along the road, all of which were far less congested than the southern villages. At one point, I nearly crashed because Shalma got so excited about one of the Buddhist weddings that she began ululating in typical Persian fashion. I appreciate the beauty of Shalma’s native culture, but it truly frightened the Jesus out of me! I will take an oncoming Lexus SUV (in beige with gold trim) aiming to collect me head-on over the fear of that noise directly in my ear while riding a motorcycle!
We arrived in Siem Reap after a total of 6 hours on the road, including about an hour of rest stops. We checked into a lovely little place called Velkommen Boutique Villa. Our $15 room was comfortable, well manicured, and included air conditioning, cable TV, and a delightful little balcony. There is a quiet patio area where they serve three meals a day. Most of the food is quite decent by the standards expected here, but we did have a hamburger, and they put a ton of ground rosemary in it, which we both found to be a little off-putting. However, that was really our only complaint. The staff was friendly and very helpful. The place even has a very nice pool that we never bothered to use.
After we checked in and had lunch, we decided to see the town of Siem Reap. We headed over to the downtown area and a street that has now been dubbed Pub Street. After searching my memory over the past week, I cannot think of a more touristy place on the face of this Earth. Maybe New Orleans is as touristy, but I have never been there. I guess Disneyland is the closest I can think of. It was so American/Euro/Australian-centric that it was almost a joke. It felt to me that there was a subtle bigotry and ignorance in the way that this area seemed to teeter between exploitation and apathy. This was a town within a town, one that is especially for privileged white people. Maybe I just felt like there were a bunch of white Americans and Europeans capitalizing on an ancient and beautiful culture. It felt like neocolonialism to me, and there I was, drinking a fifty cent beer and feeding it.
The prices were closer to US prices, and most of the food was either a poor take on American food or set to exploit Western prejudices about Asian foods. At the time we were there it mostly reminded me of a drunken sorority block party. I say sorority because the foreigners I saw there were overwhelmingly white women with expensive sunglasses who were often wearing the same baggy cotton blue trousers with elephants on them. Many of the establishments appeared like any of the little bourgeois boutique-style overpriced restaurants that pepper every Western urban area on the planet while offering avocado on toast for $9.
The next day Shalma and I decided to go and see the famed Angkor Wat. This isn’t exactly as easy a task as it seems. Although the temple is only a couple kilometers from our hotel, one can no longer pay at the gate. You have to go to a separate destination that is several kilometers away from the temple grounds. Also, this past February, there was a price increase from $20 to $37 per person. I have to admit, $74 for two seemed like a hefty price after being in Cambodia for a month. Nonetheless, it became immediately obvious why they had to sell tickets at a separate site; there just isn’t any place to stage all the tour busses near the temple itself, nor to have the 15+ windows open to sell tickets to the throngs of tourists. After all, roughly a million tourists pass through the temple in a year. While in Siem Reap, I learned that the rise in tourism has something to do with a movie called Tomb Raider.
The great thing about the million tourists who go through Angkor Wat every year is that they all pretty much leave by 11 AM. We arrived at about 9:30 that morning, and you’d think that it was Coachella by the masses of people in their cultural appropriation costumes; one woman was even dressed in what early 20th century orientalists might describe as a genie costume. They rushed to the most prominent features of the monument and began their photo shoots. Again, it appeared that the majority of tourists were women, and when there was a boyfriend around, he seemed like little more than an attention-starved tool whose only purpose in life was taking Instagram photos. I understand how this may seem like a sexist trope, but I arrived at Angkor Wat to see a monument and strangely got sucked into the sociology of 21st century tourism and its repeating patterns within this setting. Someone should write an ethnography!
Angkor Wat is an extremely large 12th century compound sitting on more than 400 acres. In the middle is the largest structure, a temple built for the Hindu god Vishnu. The compound is surrounded by a wide and perfectly square moat that stretches for almost 4 kilometers around the temples. The main temple is a massive structure that one can walk around in for hours. It is multi-storied with a galleries of intricate stone carvings in halls that run the circumference of the outer building. In the centre is a large structure. Upon it is built a massive tower. Only 80 or so tourists can climb to this tower at a time. Before 11 AM, the queue wait is up to an hour long. Shalma and I decided to pass on this and went to explore the surrounding jungle inside the compound.
There are hidden temples around the compound. Subsequent kings also built temples there, and they are serene and interesting–and completely void of tourists who tend to go for the big and obvious stuff that lies right in the middle. Shalma and I walked around and found ourselves all alone. We ventured down a dirt path and found a quite little temple. It was green, the birds were singing, and insects were making all kinds of buzzing and chirping noises. It was peaceful and almost as if were weren’t at the same Angkor Wat where everyone else was. But Shalma did get bit by ants, and that was a bit of a bummer for her.
Shalma and I spent a bit of time by the little temple and continued to walk around and quietly converse for a while. There are beautiful green swamps in the jungle, probably part of the original moat system judging by their squareness. After a little while, we headed back toward the temple. We were walking toward the west side of the main temple, and I spied the most beautiful view. I don’t use Photoshop or filters when I take pictures because I am just not that much of a photographer, but once in a while I do like to capture something that I think looks nice. And here it was, a completely unobstructed view.
As we approached, I pulled my camera out and was about to take this amazing photo. Right then, a young American woman came into the frame with her boyfriend. They walked up onto the steps and she began to pose in front of one of the seven-headed cobra statues that are situated on either side of the staircase. She then engaged in contorting herself into ridiculous yoga-style poses while quietly barking orders at her photographer. Her most favorite pose appeared to be the kneeling position on one knee in front of the statue with her hands in a Y formation as though she believed that she was some Hindi goddess presenting the multi-headed cobra god. We stood and watched this go on for at least ten minutes. All the while, we were amused if not slightly embarrassed for them. We did end up taking a picture from this perspective. It is the one just below this paragraph. It was even better than originally intended because this colorfully clad woman zoomed through on her motorbike! Braaaaaap!
After capturing this photo Shalma and decided to seek some lunch and a bit of water. It turned into lunch, water, iced coffee for Shalma– she is a huge fan of Khmer iced coffee and never drank coffee before–and I had a Cambodia beer. We both had a delicious noodle plate for lunch. The whole thing cost $18, which again is really expensive for that kind of food pretty much anywhere in Cambodia aside from Angkor Wat. Despite being expensive, we met a young kid called Thai who was selling Angkor Wat pins for a dollar. He spent some time talking to us about his life in spite of the fact that we weren’t buying anything from him. By the time we finished lunch it was almost noon. I looked over my shoulder and witnessed an exodus reminiscent of a California nightclub at 2 AM. I leaned over to Shalma and asked, “So, want to try this again?” She replied with a yes, and we headed back to the main temple. However, first I wanted to go down one of the dirt paths on the other side of the temple.
As we headed toward the dirt path, we spotted some critters, Macaques, actually. As we were observing them from a respectful distance, some young Spanish lads happened along and decided to taunt the monkeys with coconuts. I told them that they shouldn’t do that. One of them sincerely asked me, “Why, are they dangerous?” I said, “Yeah, dude, one of those monkeys has the strength of a two-meter-tall man and has teeth like daggers.” The monkey started coming toward the Spanish guys pretty aggressively and insisting that they give them coconuts. The fellows decided that maybe they shouldn’t try the will of the monkeys and conceded the fruit. Here is a picture of one of the monkeys enjoying a refreshing beverage.
After seeing the primates, Shalma didn’t want to walk into that part of the jungle anymore, so we headed to the main temple.
We wandered around the entire thing and looked at all of the detailed reliefs on the outside walls. Many are original, but there is a lot of restoration going on as well. Fortunately, 19th century French archeologists took plaster castes of the artwork, which allows them to be accurately restored today. The most damage had come to the site during the 20th century. Cutting back the jungle had led to much of the degradation through erosion. The Khmer Rouge didn’t help, nor did American artillery shells that had fallen within the temple grounds.
Shalma and I took our time. Sure, there were a few stragglers, but very few. We decided to go back to the tower in the center of the temple, the one I mentioned before with an hour wait. When we got there, it was like being there after closing time; the line was gone and we could just ascend the extremely steep stairs. At the top there are more carvings and depictions of gods as well as intricate filigree. The views from the highest point in the temple were absolutely stunning.
When we were up there, we could really take time to look at the intricate details. I found a not-so-obvious bit of graffiti that was scrawled by a French Legionnaire in 1929. I have included the picture below.
Shalma and I spent the the next several hours walking around the temple in relative peace. It was hot and humid, but an overall wonderful experience. For the most part, Shalma and I have climatized well to this environment. For example, we have an air conditioner in our apartment that we never really use anymore. Walking around in the heat was really no big deal to us and worth it for the solitude. Overall, we really enjoyed having a chance to see the temple, but decided that we wanted to head somewhere far from tourists the next day. We decided to head to a remote village without any formal hotels. My next post will be about staying with a Khmer family in a small village. In the meantime, I have posted a gallery below with a few more of the photos from Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.