Siem Reap is a cauldron of conflicting emotions.
I went to see Angkor Wat. I had no idea that a single day here would be a roller-coaster of human experiences.
Morning began with watching sunrise at Angkor Wat, a showcase of humanity’s incredible capabilities.
By lunchtime, another side of humanity had emerged: our willingness to kill and maim. Siem Reap is home to limbless veterans of Cambodia’s wars, consigned to a lifetime of begging.
The day finished in a drunken haze on the hedonistic Pub Street, a monument to inebriation.
Siem Reap was uplifting, absurd and perverse.
And, like every good drama, it was also damn compelling.
I arrived from Thailand in Siem Reap on a balmy evening. The first thing I noticed was the calm.
The town was quiet and dark, owing to a lack of streetlights and glowing signs.
The streets were dusty, giving off a frontier feel. There was fewer cars, and they all moved slowly. People walked all over the road, their body language suggesting that the vehicles had intruded on the pedestrian’s domain.
Siem Reap had a noticeably different vibe to Thailand, surpassing even the placid Chiang Mai.
As I passed a gang of tuk-tuk drivers, one asked me, “you want some weed, bro?”
This question could be Siem Reap’s soundtrack.
Despite being laid-back, Siem Reap is very much a tourist town, with all the trappings required.
Hotels litter the land, some squalid, others in grand French style. There are restaurants from all over the world.
With Angkor Wat on Siem Reap’s doorstep, this over-development is no surprise.
Superlatives can’t do Angkor Wat justice. You can lose days exploring the temple grounds. Although it heaves with tourists, Angkor Wat is an unmissable experience.
The temples are awe inspiring at every turn. Its towers evoke harmony and the bas-reliefs seem to run forever. The skill and patience required to construct it defies belief.
And, although chronically hungover, witnessing the sunrise at Angkor Wat is a memory I’ll savour (but not repeat!).
Yet there’s more to Siem Reap than just Angkor Wat.
You can have a great time without even visiting the temple grounds. I spent a few days just wandering Siem Reap and enjoying the lifestyle it offers.
There’s the excellent War Museum, or maybe spend the afternoon with a Buddhist monk.
There’s also the Old Market, where hundreds of Khmer woman sit and shout as they sort through veges to sell. Pots of curry simmered, while a dead pig’s head stared back at me, pleading to be bought before the flies consumed it.
There’s a good chance I ate this pig later when I dined at the myriad of restaurants in Siem Reap. Hidden down alleyways and sidestreets are little cafes and restaurants, all offering good food at good prices.
Highlights included a five-course degustation of amok curry, Cambodia’s national dish. The more adventurous can order a “happy pizza”. There’s even eggs benedict at the Australian-run cafes, a sign of the strong foreign influence in Siem Reap.
Indeed, as I sat at a French restaurant watching the afternoon pass, it was impossible to ignore the whiff of colonialism that lingers in the air.
The effects of which still run deep today.
This reminder of Cambodia’s past manifests itself in the poverty that plagues the land. As a tourist, who’d come to Cambodia for a good time, this was a wake-up call.
Siem Reap has many beggars, some who carry signs bearing their stories in English.
It’s heartbreaking reading, “I lost my hands fighting the Khmer Rouge and now all I can do is beg.”
Other sit on the ground or in rudimentary wheelchairs, their legs shorn at the knee. Landmines cover Cambodia’s countryside, and still wound people.
A few are even less fortunate. These are blind who, with shrapnel scars covering their face, are led around by young boys who plead for money on their behalf.
Their plight is the legacy of Cambodia’s tragic history. The grave injustice contrasts with the tourists having a merry time.
And it’s hard to reconcile humanity’s capacity to destroy, with its ability to create the architectural marvels which lie just outside Siem Reap.
In need of a drink, I went to Pub Street.
Pub Street is a short road of bars and restaurants that loses its mind come nightfall. It’s incredibly lively, with people everywhere. Music blasts at deafening volumes. A red glow bathes the street from hanging lamps.
It’s very hard not to get drunk here with each bar offering tempting drink deals. $2 cocktails and 50 cent beers are impossible to resist. My most memorable night was one I couldn’t remember at all.
Cunning street vendors take advantage of this, making what would be a tough sell to sober customers: fried grasshoppers, tarantulas and snakes. Half-eaten arachnids litter the ground with a frequency rivaled only by empty beer bottles and cigarette cartons.
Pub Street even has two nightclubs, Temple Bar and Angkor What? Being directly opposite each other, they compete sonically. It’s possible to stand in the middle of the road, and feel the bass from both coursing through your body.
People dance on the street. Others are passed out. One-night romances blossom. The desperate slink off for “boom boom” with a hooker.
All of this debauchery happens right on the outskirts of Angkor Wat, the eighth Wonder of the World. In a land both sacred and war-ravaged.
Yet, it’s this contradiction that defines Siem Reap. It’s a town with a foot in the tumultuous past, and another moving towards a promising future.
The bizarre results of this mix is what makes Siem Reap such a fascinating place to visit today.
Do you want to visit Siem Reap? Or does only Angkor Wat interest you? Leave a comment below