Having been engaged in some bit of moutaineering in my collage days, I am familiar with the term “base came”. Apart from just being the lowest camp, base camp is where the party plans the climb up. Assessments of the weather, provisions, logistics, security, and other risks inherent with venturing into the wilderness are all made here. And upon completion of the descent, base camp is where the partying takes place. Food is carefully rationed during the climb, but once base camp is reached, all remaining food and booze are wiped out with no regard. Base camp is a serious place before a climb, but there will be nothing but fun there after.
Visiting the temples of Angkor in Cambodia requires some planning too, though not as rigorous as going up a mountain. And at the end of a day long tour, everyone will be thirsting for an ice cold drink. When visiting Angkor, your base camp is Siem Reap. The place is serious business in the morning, but it’s all fun and eating and drinking in the evening. It may be a medium sized town (it’s not even a city), but “sleepy” is hardly ever a word you could associate with Seam Riep. From the airport, to the temples, to the hotels, resturants and bars, there’s almost always a flurry of activity somewhere.
As most people are out “Tomb Raider-ing” during the day, it’s in the evening that Siem Reap is in its most vibrant. The town is still devoid of malls and large commecial establishments, so most of the shopping is done at the night market (below). From souvenirs, to cheap clothing, to duty free items, to counterfiet watches, you can find them all here.
Right next to the Night Market is Pub Street. This is where you find many expats, especially westerners who like to bask in the warm evening air, hanging out. What is most unusual about pub street is the proliferation of small, mobile cocktail bars, such as below. These motorcycle-pulled carts park by the streetside to sell shots of liquor. Add some funky neon lighting, and put some plastic stools out infront, then you have an instant outdoor bar.
At the edge of Pub Street is an alley lined with restaurants and cafes. Imaginatively called “The Alley” (below), it’s a rather quiet corner with a Bohemian feel to it. If you’ve been in Cambodia long enough and would like to have a rest from Indo-Chinese cuisine, this is a good place to get some Western food.
Though quite obviously touristy, restaurants serving dinner buffet and cultural shows are still very popular among visitors. The Koulen restaurant, right on the town’s main street, is a good place to spend an evening in. Food is good, though the place is almost always packed to the brim so be prepared for long queues at the buffet tables. A reservation is also very much recommended, which your hotel or tour guide should have no problem doing for you. The highlight to an evening here is the dancing of the Apsara, Cambodia’s traditional dance.
Among South East Asian countries, in recent times, Cambodia had the unfortunate distinction of being the one at war for the longest time. From suffering the spill-over of the Vietnam War, to the terror of the Khmer Rouge, to the invasion by Vietnam, it seems war made a home on their land. But even before the recent troubles, the Khmers, as they were then known, had a troubled past. Being sandwiched between two influential neighbours, Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam, whose relationship with each other swung back and forth from cordial to confrontational did not help, and indeed some say repeated intervention by both neighbours led to the decline of the ancient Khmer empire.
As such, the scars of war is embedded deep in the Cambodian psyche, and war museums like this one in Siem Reap (there are several all over the country) tell as much of their story as the temples do. Though they are in no way aesthetically comparable to the well funded museums of the west, they tell a very rich story. And here, stories are not just printed on walls, they are told by people who lived through the horrors.
And of course a visit to a place is not complete without tasting local cuisine, and given there’s dearth of western chains in Siem Reap, you cannot avoid local cuisine. Khmer food is surprisingly simple. Being a neighbour of culinary giants Thailand and Vietnam, I half expected their elaborate cooking, but to my surprise, I find Khmer food more similar to Southern Chinese, with simple cooking methods highlighting the fresh ingredients. They do borrow from their neighbours too, like the use of currys and coconut milk, and even some dishes like the Tom Yum Soup and the Fresh Spring Rolls. Fish is their primary source of protien (very healthy!) and their national dish is the Fish Amok, fillets of fish in curry and coconut milk. Other notable dishes are the Lok Lak (a sauteed beef dish) and their own version of the steamed fish.
*Photos taken March 2016