When the throngs of tourists leave Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is about the only place to go. It’s a small town turned bustling city by a steady flow of dollars from eager travelers putting checkmarks on their bucket lists. That influx of cash has made Siem Reap something of a boom town where luxury hotels rise from dusty streets and waves of scooters break around Range Rovers.
For tourists, most activity centers on Pub Street. Located a short walk from the river, Pub Street loosely defines a collection of restaurants and shops that spill into side streets and line pedestrian alleyways. French, Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian restaurants compete for diners and proudly display their specials on chalk boards. “Free beer after 3:00.” “Buy one cocktail get one free.” “After they taste our food, they come back.”
I’m not sure that last one was a special, but it might have been. On the roads around Pub Street, tuk-tuk drivers prowl like sharks circling a school of fish. “Helloo sir, you want tuk-tuk. No? Maybe tomorrow? Very good price.” This ritual repeats every few feet, only punctuated by the occasional offers of having tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet. In case the thought of putting your feet in a fish tank is unappealing, most have “no piranha,” written on the side. How comforting.
If real rides in a tuk-tuk aren’t your thing, there are shirts with “No tuk-tuk today, no tuk-tuk tomorrow, no tuk-tuk ever,” and “No tuk-tuk, no money,” screen-printed on the front. People actually buy these shirts and wear them. Unsurprisingly, it has no effect on the drivers.
There are also shirts with a skull and cross-bones across the front. Under the skull, it reads “Danger!! Mines!!,” below that “Cambodia.” I’m not sure I would feel comfortable wearing one of those shirts, especially not when I’m turning down a beggar who walks on his hands because everything below the waist was blown away.
There is kind of a sick dehumanization through dollars here. A mutual objectification between foreigner and local. The tourist becomes a dollar sign, the locals an annoyance. One always on guard while the other presses the attack. Who can blame them?
In some ways I felt more distant from the Khmers than I did the Thais. When every conversation becomes about money, it’s sometimes more pleasant to avoid talking. But because most of them speak some English (and French and Spanish and Italian…) the urge for conversation is often too hard to resist.
Even with the trinket hustlers there were some genuinely human moments. One girl with a basket of something I didn’t want wouldn’t give up. She kept walking beside me and talking up her product, despite being visibly embarrassed at breaking with non-confrontational Cambodian culture. She would break down into a fit of giggles, then take a deep breath and launch into another spiel.
I looked her in the eye which caused another round of laughter, I laughed too. It was nice to remember that we were both human beings, both with real lives and individual stories. When we stopped to think about it, we both knew this whole thing was kind of ridiculous.
Siem Reap’s old market takes up the block next to Pub Street, closer to the river. The outside is lined with trinket shops and stores full of prepackaged spices ready to be slipped into carry-on luggage. The exterior shops are full of everything the modern traveler could want to take home. There are silk scarfs, wood carvings, and even bottles of “snake wine” with cobras suspended inside amber liquid.
Deeper in the market the tourist shops begin to wither and are soon absent. The center of the market is buried so deep that sunlight barely seeps in and it is lit only by the harsh glow of neon tubes.
Here there are long rows of tables stacked with fresh fruit and big cuts of pork hanging from hooks. The first time I walked past the butcher shops and the tables where women cleaned freshly killed fish, the smell was almost overwhelming. The odor of salt and blood hung thick in the air.
The market’s heart is also where the Cambodians eat. The meals on Pub Street start at $3 a plate and can go up to almost $20. In the market, people sit shoulder to shoulder on low benches and eat from small stalls serving a single item. By the fruit someone has a tray of fried chicken. Next to the butcher shops noodles are served in foam to-go boxes.
The food in Siem Reap was, for the most part, very good. Much Khmer food would be almost indistinguishable from Thai, were it not for the slightly muted flavors. The meals I enjoyed the most were breakfasts when the French influence on Cambodian cuisine was most obvious.
Crepes stuffed with caramelized bananas, baguettes served with ground pork in a vinegar dressing, beer-battered fish on toasted sesame buns, and homemade granola with tropical fruit were among my favorites. Colonialism had a lot going against it but the fusion of Asian and French cooking that occurred in Southeast Asia is not one of them.
Sonya and I also tried the Khmer BBQ place across the street from our guesthouse. I had eaten at a cook-it-yourself restaurant twice before trying Khmer BBQ. Both times were with people who knew what they were doing. This time I was almost completely in the dark. The room was filled with smoke from cigarettes and the charcoal fires burning at each table.
With a large tray in hand I had to pick my way through a counter of foreign meats and strange side dishes before returning to the table to cook them. I’m usually open to trial and error when trying new foods but when the food in question is raw pork, I can get a little nervous. Fortunately combining fire and meat works the same way no matter where on earth you are. The next day my stomach did feel like it was trying to perform gymnastics, but I blame that on an incredibly hot pepper I ate on accident.
The last thing I will say about Siem Reap is that our guesthouse was incredible. We’ve stayed in a couple of dumps on this trip but the $20 a night Seven Candles Guesthouse was not one of them. We had a balcony, big clean bed, air conditioning, a restaurant guide, a free map, free water bottles, warm shower, free wi-fi, free books, free DVDs, and the people were some of the nicest we’ve met on the trip.