a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, an 8th wonder of the world (there are other wonders beyond the official 7 that compete for 8th wonder status), is located in Siem Reap, Cambodia. These ancient ruins are incredible, built 860 years ago! Stephen and I spent three full days driving to different sites and walking around and through the ruins, and still we did not see everything. Stephen's favorite is Bayon. I plan to do a painting (or several) of these towers with carved faces on each of the cardinal points.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat is stunning! Well worth getting up before dawn for. That's saying a lot coming from a person who would much much rather sleep in most mornings. The advantages of the early morning are the picturesque sun rising over the temple (of course), but also cooler temperatures, and (away from the main temple) fewer people. Exploring under these conditions is quiet and serene, magical even.
To save time in the morning, we skipped breakfast at the hotel and instead asked a Khmer woman cooking over coals if we could buy "ansome chake" from her. It's sticky rice mixed with coconut milk laid out on a banana leaf and then rolled around a grilled banana. The whole thing is warmed over the coals in its banana leaf cover. So yummy. Our Khmer language tutor brought some to us to try one day and we have since become fans of this Cambodian dessert.
Siem Reap is my favorite place in Cambodia now. It may even be my favorite place in the world, at least at this moment. As soon as we drove into town, I started to fall in love with this little city in Southeast Asia. Actually the attraction started a few kilometers out, where the road is tree lined and smoothly paved.  Phnom Penh has recently hung banners calling it "the charming city" but I think that title more appropriately goes to Siem Reap. The streets feel less cluttered and chaotic and many of the store fronts are inviting. In Phnom Penh and in Sihanouk Ville, two of the other big cities in Cambodia, it's often difficult to tell what is inside until you actually go in.
Our "boutique guesthouse" was a sanctuary with a most pleasant salt pool that we swam in every night after trekking through the ruins. To accommodate the tourists, there are many restaurants with tasty food. Even Mexican. But I find the Asians really make Asian food the best. :) Loc Lac is a Cambodian dish with cubed beef over fresh tomatoes served with rice. The pepper lime sauce that comes with this dish make it crazy delicious.
The informal economy supports the majority of Cambodians and Siem Reap has an abundance of informal workers:  tuk tuk drivers, night market sellers, people walking around with baskets of goods. I bought paintings from a man in a wheelchair, cards from a seventeen year old boy on crutches, more cards from a man who lost his leg because of a landmine. Stephen and I also bought clothes, seat cushions, and coasters at the night markets. I feel like I've become a decent bargainer, generally getting the price I have in mind. My most effective technique is to say, "I'll have to think about it," and then start to walk away.
The drive to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh is 6 hours, mostly because roads are narrow and rough and cannot support the high volume of traffic. Because of the intense flooding in recent months, the roads are even rougher. Also because of the floods there were make-shift shelters along the roads. People and their animals were temporarily displaced to higher ground, which is next to the roadway, until the flood waters abate. As we passed these temporary structures sheltering people and their animals, my predominant thought was "what a lot of work".
I look forward to our next trip to Siem Reap. Stephen is designing a project for a province just north of Siem Reap so it's likely we will have ample opportunity to enjoy this little gem of a city in Southeast Asia.

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