Siem Reap is the city closest to Angkor Wat. It is a boom town. With peace in Cambodia and the demand to visit these ruins at an all time high, new hotels, restaurants and internet cafes are mushrooming. They are rising all over and are shoulder to shoulder with shanties that house most locals. We arrived during a bit of an off period as the rainy season is gearing up so it is a buyers paradise. The locals are vying for our business and you can’t walk anywhere without being offered tuk tuk rides, water, postcards, or simply begged for money.
So there is still a flavor of being in a third world country but it is fading before our eyes. They are enamored with tourists, especially Americans so much that US currency is accepted everywhere, above even the Cambodian Riel. It really seems to irk the Europeans and Australians to have to convert their currency to dollars. The Riel cannot be exchanged once you leave the country so foreigners avoid it. The ATM even dispenses US dollars. How convenient.
1) Be prepared for the children
One of the first things you will notice is the little people acting like adults. They are used to shill water, postcards, scarves and other trinkets and are posted at the entrance to every ruin. They are adorable and cute but your reaction soon turns to depression and sadness that they are being used this way and then annoying when you are asked for the 27th time in a hour “You want cold water one dolla???” In town it is just as bad as I found out when a boy whacked me with one of his crutched when I did not respond to his request for reil.
But you will mostly encounter the “temple kids.” They are very eager to engage in conversation, most will ask where you are from and when we said New York she said “Albany!” She also told us there were 300 million people in the US and that Washington DC was the capital. She told us she went to school in the morning and could speak seven languages and then proceeded to count to ten in all seven for us. At Angkor Wat one little boy asked if if we knew his father. And who would that be? Barack Obama. While it is quite depressing that these children on the other side of planet earth likely know more about America’s geography than most students from Arkansaw, its even more saddening when you realize that they are taught these facts in school for the purpose of assisting them in sales at the ruins.
My humble advice is be kind, have conversations, smile freely but follow the advice of the involved organizations in the area and try not to buy from kids so hopefully eventually the facts learned in school will be used for a nobler cause then selling postcard packs to tourists.
2. Decide about a guide
We decided to forgo an official guide, and instead I relied on my Dad’s encyclopedic memorization of Lonely Planet’s Angkor Encounter guide to give me the backstory. If you aren’t a big reader or traveling with your own built in history buff, I would probably recommend a guide to get the historical background and significance of what you see. I’m sure we still missed out on something things going the DIY route, but it was made up for in the ability to go our own pace.
3. Don’t get templed out
I did some research before we arrived to figure out what temples I wanted to spend my time seeing. Its worth it to look into it yourself a bit and not just go along for the standard tour, since you will have your own driver anyway. And there is more to Siem Reap then temples (well, some) so take in some of that. We were a bit too lazy to peel ourselves from the pool but if I ever return I plan to take in the Tonle Sap river and other attractions. One thing we really enjoyed was the Apsara dancing at the Dead Fish Towers. Enjoy!
(Parts of this post are abridged from an email by my Dad. Yup, I’m a plagiariser with a blog.)