Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Streets Of Siem Reap

Siem Reap, the closest town to Angkor, was once a village (Siem- Siamese, Reap- Defeated).  Now it has grown into the most frequented tourist town of Cambodia.  For all its development, it remains a small town at heart, with its old market being the hub of life.  Siem Reap has changed much since we last visited, about five years ago.  There is now a gleaming new airport, very creatively designed, and an impressive row of immigration offiicers seated in a kind of panel close to the entrance.  Almost everyone gets a visa on arrival so after each plane load, there is a short flurry of activity and then silence again.  It's useful to keep in mind that one has to pay $25 per person as airport tax while departing (a very large amount compared to local costs) - so one shouldn't spend all one's money shopping!  The currency of Cambodia is Riel but most transactions are done in US dollars.

The city in the winter months (still very warm - in the thirties, but there is no rain and the roads are motorable) is filled with tourists and one sees them everywhere - walking or cycling on the streets, lounging in hotel lobbies, filling the touristy restaurants and spilling out onto the pavements, braving the afternoon heat to do the rounds of the temples.  We were told that initially the tourists came mostly from the West, but now there are plane loads of visitors from Asian countries as well (perhaps as Cambodia is now a Buddhist country). 

Buddhism came to Cambodia in waves, in the 13th and 14th centuries, the last wave being Theravada Buddhism ( a form that is practiced in Sri Lanka).  It is interesting to see the change in the manner of praying over the last few years(sometimes irritating to me because large, often unaesthetic Buddhas are placed in the beautifully sculpted temples, including Angkor Wat) - the transition from individual meditation to ritualistic prayer.  This time in Angkor Wat I saw a large Buddha statue draped in yellow-ochre cloth with all kinds of objects placed as offerings before it including a whole baked pig.  And guides were merrily asking tourists to light incense and bow a certain number of times "One for yourself, one for boyfriend, one for sister, one for ..."  I beat a hasty retreat at this stage.

Tourism clearly is the lifeline of this town now.  The market is full of touristy products, well packaged and attractively displayed.  They cater to all kinds of tourists but on the whole the prices are high, the quality variable and bargaining is often required.  There is another part of the market where locals shop that is quite different but most people there speak Khmer and communication is difficult.  Although we still witnessed the friendly and hospitable side of most Cambodians, there is a clear shift towards commercialization.  This is inevitable, but for a country like Cambodia, I feel it is more unfortunate than everywhere else, as there are very few people still alive who retain a knowledge of traditional skills.  More than ever, it is now that they need help not just with de-mining and conservation projects but with patrons that enable them to keep alive classical and traditional forms of art, craft and lifestyle.  The Khmer Rouge destroyed a whole generation of skilled artists and intellectuals and it took many years and help from the royal family to revive some of their amazing classical dances (and music and art), now being kept alive at Phnom Penh (the capital city).  The tourist versions of these leave much to be desired.

Siem Reap is a mix of French and Khmer influences and the two don't visibly merge.  There are a large number of French hotels and restaurants, these look different from the Khmer ones. It's difficult to describe exactly how.  They seem better turned out in a sense - gleaming on the outside, lots of glass, an airy, arty atmosphere within.  The Khmer places are often constructed with wood and brick and - well- they just have a different, more local feel to them.  There is an underlying current of conflict between the Khmer and the French to attract the common tourist pool.  As of now, the French seem more professional and consistent with quality of services.  The Khmer places are unpredictable - there are some amazingly warm and efficiently run hotels and restaurants in the midst of many places that promise much but don't deliver.  Somewhat like India.  So we are unfazed and realize that we just need more time to explore the area.  But time is something we are short of and the local economy thrives on this.

Our hotel, Hotel Ta Prohm, was an unbelievable creation in teak.  The hotel owner, a very rich local, apparently has a passion for teak.  So, the entire place was lined with strips of teak from floor to ceiling .  This gave it a warm, not very light feel, which some people liked some some didn't.  The floors, perfectly polished, could be a little slippery (especially the stairs) and they creaked - but the experience of having so much beautiful gleaming wood everywhere felt  wonderful to me (as long as I didn't think of all those magnificent trees being cut down).  There were also large sculptures in teak and marble, beautiful reproductions of old temple pieces.  The staff was genuinely welcoming and besides the usual western fare, there was a simple but very satisfying  Khmer breakfast option every morning.  A wonderful pork broth, stir fried greens, noodles and crispy things on the side.  (The French hotels serve wonderful breads, coffee and confectionary, so there are various options depending on one's taste.)

We ate mostly in local places, hired a car and driver who also served as interpreter and explored Siem Riep and neighbouring areas.  We didn't feel the need for a guide, there being sufficient literature available and our being Indian (and familiar with basic Hindu temple architecture).  Besides, several guides that we overheard were merrily mixing up mythological tales, converting heroes into villains and vice versa.  We shopped for food and cooking ingredients (fish paste, shrimp paste, strings of local delicious sausages) in the local market, were ticked off by an elderly shopkeeper as we wanted to smell the different varieties of tea, stopped by the roadside to watch palm sugar being made and taste it in its different stages, bought delicious mandarin oranges, pineapples and bananas (while our driver bought fried crickets).  We looked at blood red rubies, deep blue sapphires in a small jeweller's shop and and bargained vigorously (with limited success) to bring the prices down.

In all this, we were accompanied by our friend, Madhusudan, an enthusiastic photographer, and he managed at one time to record a very interesting street game  - a kind of 'leg tennis' he called it, where people use their feet instead of racquets, to hit a small ball back and forth.  These were just some of the many interesting moments on the streets of Siem Reap- a visit there is highly recommended!

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