Our bus from Phnom Penh was met by a driver proudly holding a sign saying “Ganiel.” From the moment we got into the car, the driver started his selling pitch as the perfect guide and driver to the Angkor temples. Maps circulated like popcorn inside the car as the excitement level in his voice rose audibly.
What he didn’t realize was that our gut reaction to a hard sell is to run as quickly as possible in the opposite direction of the pitch. We disgusted him when we told him we planned to rent bicycles to view the temples He gave up. Little did we realize at the time how unrealistic that was given the vast spread of the Angkor temple complex…in the baking heat of the dry season.
We disappointed business owners at every turn in Siem Reap. Guesthouses and restaurants are accustomed to tourists flying into Siem Reap for three days, spending loads of dough at restaurants and spas, and arranging tours to take care of every last whim and care. Unfortunately, we don’t fit that bill. We prefer to figure things out on our own, make arrangements on our own, and customize. We also prefer to stay flexible. We have time. We have a budget. We like to ask questions.
Who Hid the Poverty?
While walking around Siem Reap that first day, we were surprised that almost every street was taken up with surprisingly well appointed restaurants, bars, hotels, souvenir shops, tour operators, internet cafes, massage parlors (both real and fronts for brothels), as if the whole town existed only to serve foreign tourists. There were a few kids selling postcards and landmine victims selling books, but we didn’t see any of the begging we’d heard about, nor any of the pockets of poverty we’d seen in Phnom Penh. We were curious. Had poverty really had been alleviated through the tourism boom? Or was it being hidden so as to not tarnish the tourist experience.
Some friends who had been coming to Siem Reap for six years told us that local officials had cleared out the homeless who lived by the river and moved them to the outskirts of town this past year. There was also a crackdown on begging, which is why kids were selling postcards instead of begging outright. Selling instead of begging is not a bad thing, but it really doesn’t solve the problem of poverty or address its root cause.
Of course some local people are benefiting from the tourism boom through more and better paying jobs, but most of the wealth from the tourism boom seems to go to foreign business owners. They are the ones who own the big hotels, restaurants and tour companies and benefit financially from large tour groups (of which there are many).
We spent a week in Siem Reap, much longer than the town’s average visitor. It has more to offer than just a jumping off point for the Angkor temples. We saw another side to the town, ate at the market, lunched with tuk-tuk drivers and left feeling that the town still had a pulse and soul. Unfortunately, the tourism industry seems to want to make the town generic but with enough of a “Cambodian” look to appeal to mass tourism.
Video – Back Streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia
Practical Details – Accommodation in Siem Reap, Angkor Temple Tours
How to get there: Flight from Bangkok (or other destinations), bus or boat from Phnom Penh, bus/train to Thai border and then a bumpy ride from Poipet to Siem Reap.
When to go: High season is December to February when the weather is slightly cooler (although still hot) and dry. The down side is that most tourists come at this time, meaning that prices are higher and the temples are crawling with tourists. We’d look forward to returning in the rainy season, when there are fewer people and the landscape is lush and green.
Where to stay: There are literally a hundred options of where to stay, from the luxury room at Raffles Hotel where Angelina and Brad stayed to hostel-like accommodation. We were able to find standard A/C and fan rooms for $10-$18 per night at Ancient Anchor and Two Dragons Guesthouse. Even if it seems like everything you see is more expensive, keep looking.
Where to eat: A plethora of restaurants near the old market offer western, Thai and Cambodian fare. We enjoyed the fresh spring rolls and Khmer curry at Khmer Kitchen. Singing Tree Café is across the river and offers reasonably priced Khmer dishes and a very tasty vegetable burger.
What to do: The reason most people come to Siem Reap is to visit the temples of Angkor. A tuk-tuk driver costs around $10-$12 per day to take you around the temples, though we’ve heard people admitting to paying as much as $60/day! Cars and motorbikes are also available, as are official guides. Pick up a copy of Stay Another Day to learn about responsible tourism activities (blind massage, dance show that supports a local orphanage, fair trade lingerie shopping, etc.).