Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Downtown Siem Reap

Peering out of the window as you descend in to Siem Reap airport, a most peculiar sight greets you. Instead of buildings or patches of green, you will see miles and miles of tea coloured water littered with bits of green here and there. This is the Tonle Sap and its unusual vegetation known as indundated forest.

Covering 2,500 square km during the dry season, but expanding up to 12,000 square km at the peak of floods, the Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.
Padi field.
Indeed, life here revolves around this all important lake.  Five provinces with over three million people live around the lake and 90% of them earn a living from fishing and farming off the water-logged plains. I have written about life at Tonle Sap here.

Each year, more than one million travelers visit Siem Reap to explore over a thousand years of Khmer heritage built near Tonle Sap Lake. The primary attraction is the Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temple Region, which blankets more than 300km of northwestern Cambodia. I visited some temples during my first trip to Siem Reap in 2011 which you can read here.

If you're not keen on the Lake or the temples, you'll still find plenty to see and do in the city. Maybe city is not the right word to use because it really is just a small cluster of shops built along the main road. The heart of Siem Reap’s tourist district is known as Old Market,  home to an eclectic mix of restaurants bars and shops geared towards tourists.

You will be amazed at the kind of cuisine you can find in the downtown area. In the 2 nights I was there, we had dinner at Mexican (Viva) and French (Abacus) restaurants that served excellent food. And the desserts at Blue Pumpkin are so good , we indulged in ice cream and cakes there every night.

My favourite place to stay is the chic Villa Medamrei boutique hotel. It is conveniently located opposite the old market, away from the crowded roads and merely a short walk to the downtown area.

If you're not bothered by the heat (it's always scorching hot) and dust (it's either muddy or dusty depending on the weather), you can practically walk everywhere within the downtown area. Because I like walking, I always return to the hotel covered in a layer of dust and sweat. This might explain why spas like these are popular here.

It is safe to walk (even the babies do it) but it is twice as fun to take the tuk tuk. The drivers are so enterprising, the moment they sense you're near, they will look up from whatever they're doing to ask "Need tuk tuk?"

They can bring you around the city for a dollar or two, or take you on a long bone-rattling journey through the village tracks to see the sunrise, sunset, river village on stilts or temple ruins. There is always something out there that is worth seeing, according to them that is. And they're happy to wait on their tuk tuk for hours while you're out exploring the ruins or on a boat ride.

The common folk here move themselves and everything else on their two-wheelers.

The biggest draw in Siem Reap are the markets.  The Old Market and the Night Market are located right smack in the heart of the city while the New Market is just a short tuk tuk ride away.

The New Market was teeming with people when we arrived on Saturday morning. Unlike the one in the city, this is the market where the locals go to for groceries, fresh produce and provisions.

Not many tourists venture out of the city to visit the new market because the sprawling Old Market or Psah Chas downtown sells just about everything!

At the fresh food section, you will find the local folks haggling over fish, meat and vegetable or bent over a bowl of steaming hot noodles.

The other half of the market is dedicated to selling souvenirs like scarfs, handicrafts and jewelry to the tourists. Everything here is sold in US dollars.

I like roaming around the smaller alleys along Pub Street in search of funky shops and boutiques.  One of my favourites is the Australian owned Wild Poppy.

You can find a list of shops here. Some are run by NGOs to help the underprivileged.


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