Downtown Siem Reap: The Fast And The Furious

Driving in downtown Siem Reap reminds me of an episode of ‘The Fast and Furious’.  We keep our arms and legs well within the tuk-tuk as it makes its way between motorcycles, cars, bikes and pedestrians, who seem to enjoy the thrill of victory in crossing the street.  One of the main attractions in downtown Siem Reap is an area simply called Pub Street.  It is a few blocks wide, full of restaurants, pubs, and old-fashioned drinking holes.  Why not!  The beer is only $2USD and served cold.  You can have your legs massaged for less than $3USD or better yet, try the fish massage for $2USD where you stick your feet in a large glass fish tank, along with the feet of strangers, while fish nibble at your heels. Before indulging, (please) consider the cleanliness of the stall and the tank.   This is not for the faint of heart or those who are very ticklish, but it is much less expensive than a pedicure!

While walking along Pub Street working up an appetite, you can always try one of the many trays of crickets, snakes or beetles. The cost is $2USD whether you want to try one of these delightful creatures threaded like a kebab, or if you just want to take a picture.  I paid my fee to a man sitting in front of the cart, snapped my photo and continued to walk through town. A young boy ran after me demanding his $2. I explained that I paid my fee and pointed to the man who took my money.  Apparently, he wasn’t part of the bug cart but took my money anyway. I couldn’t help but laugh at how this played out but that’s entrepreneurship at its best!  I paid my dues knowing my money would make a difference in this young boy’s world.  As he turned away, he gave me a sly smile—lesson learned.

On the outskirts of Pub Street, you will find the night markets which are great fun for any tourist searching for a bargain.  Looking for a souvenir t-shirt, ball gown or bag? How about sketch books or pants made of local fabric complete with designs of elephants, monkeys and trees. Hundreds of stalls line the night markets and the vendors are looking to deal.  Be prepared to walk away and have the vendor follow you while continuing to barter. If you are looking for more than t-shirts and souvenirs, cross the footbridge footbridge over the Siem Reap River to the Siem Reap Art Centre Night Market.  Cambodian artisans come together to sell hand-made creations, including jewelry, leather goods, and carved wooden items from pens to statues.  Know what you are willing to pay before your start the conversation.  The women I met are part of fair-trade organizations and share the profits made from the market.  I felt comfortable paying more, knowing the money was being re-invested in their businesses.

As I was interested in getting away from the touristy areas of Siem Reap, I paid a tuk-tuk driver to simply show us his town.  It took a while to convince him that we didn’t have a destination—we just wanted to go off the beaten path. So, we set off down side streets and along main streets.  Our driver, Leang, stopped several times to explain about the area, how people make a living and introduced us to some of his friends.  What an opportunity!

When Leang’s friends asked where he was taking us, he just replied, “I don’t know”.  Along the main street are numerous fruit carts selling mainly to the locals. You can find a wide variety of fruits, both grown in Cambodia and imported. We stopped and sampled the kiwis and bananas (less than $2USD) shared amongst ourselves and Leang.

Leang drove us by many restaurants that are set back from the main street, each with their own specialty. One common meal, both at home and in restaurants is ‘fish amok’—an authentic steamed fish curry.

Apparently if it isn’t steamed, it is just called curry. Fish Amok is often referred to as Cambodia’s national dish and is served for special occasions. The secret is in the sauce which is a hand blended (mortar and pestle) combination of lemongrass stalks, galangal, kaffir lime zest, turmeric, garlic and shallots. The galangal is sometimes substituted with ginger, but the taste is different. Galangal tastes more like pepper, is denser and has a whiter flesh.  It has an interesting taste and as a local specialty, I highly recommend you give it a try at least once on your next visit.

While driving through the streets of Siem Reap, a home-grown solution to the cost of electricity continued to pop-up on every corner.  I don’t know how legal this solution may be, but the closest power pole appears to be fair game.

When I asked Leang what the story was with the fancy wiring, he went quiet and just kept on driving.

No matter what you are interested in, Siem Reap appeals to the masses.  Whether shopping, sightseeing or mingling with the locals, it’s worth getting lost in the side streets, waving to the locals or admiring the craftsmanship of the local artisans.  As always, it’s ‘buyer beware’ but there are some great treasures yet to be found.

Siem Reap is sometimes referred to as a resort town and is the gateway to the ruins of Angkor.  It is also home to the royal residence of the King of Cambodia, when he is not living at his palace in Phnom Penh. There are also many heartfelt museums that display the history of the Khmer people in a very visible manner As a general warning, the Genocide Museum can be disturbing, with the visible remains of the Khmer people on display, all of whom were murdered during Pol Pot’s dictatorship. This dark period of time was brought to the forefront in the movie/book, “First They Killed My Father”.  If you visit, please make time for the tour to fully understand the struggles of the Khmer people during this period. Siem Reap has a smaller monument than the one located in Phnom Penh, but it is still very poignant, and I am thankful I paid my respects as it opened my eyes to a period of time that I was not familiar with.  The Land Mine Museum is about 30 kms outside of Siem Reap, accessible by car or a long tuk-tuk ride. This museum contains more visible reminders of the history of Cambodia that is not well known.

In all my travels, one thing I know for sure is everyone has their own unique story. Whatever your pleasure, be sure to get to know the locals, listen to their stories, ask questions, embrace their culture, and spend some money to help raise their standard of living. Everyone I encountered was more than willing to help, or just sit with me, and together we found a way to break through the language barrier. I loved to just sit and listen.  Cambodia left me with the impression of a very friendly people, with wide smiles and a strong sense of entrepreneurship.   But all good things must come to an end and as the night fades on the city, I will leave you with one reminder…..keep your arms and legs in the tuk-tuk at all times and continue to make memories!

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