We really weren't expecting Siem Reap to be so built up. I don't know about you, but when I think of Cambodia, streets lined with bars, Mexican food and super cheap frozen margaritas are not the image that springs to mind. We wanted to come to see Angkor Wat, like everyone else, and we were bracing ourselves for hardship, but our experience of Siem Reap has been that of cheap boutique spa hotels, cocktails, pub street and great tasting aromatic food, all for very very low prices. This post is about some of the things we did outside of seeing the temples.
The food in Cambodia is by far some of the best we've had so far in SE Asia, such delicious flavour combinations, packed with herbs like sweet basil and amok leaf, papaya and other tasty and fresh ingredients. The dishes are always presented very well too. For example, curries come in banana leaf baskets or with pretty flowers cut out of vegetables, and salads are colourful combinations of things like banana flower. Best of all, you can eat all this for just a few dollars. We were in food heaven.
Some of the most well-known dishes are Amok and Lok Lac, and we weren't disappointed. We also tried a Cambodian BBQ, which was a bit like a Chinese hot pot, but with an area at the center of the hot pot to grill meat. The meat we were given included crocodile and kangaroo, so it was certainly an experience. There is lot of choice in Siem Reap for international food too, from crocodile pizzas to tex mex, you probably won't get bored food wise.
Inspired by these culinary delights, we decided to enroll in an afternoon cooking class for $15 (not bad considering you get to eat the three course meal at the end too) in the hopes of being able to reproduce these dishes in the future.
The first step was a tour around the old market in Siem Reap (Psar Chas). We'd seen most of the unusual fruits and what not by now in our travels, but it was interesting none-the-less. Live eels squirmed in bowls, poor snakehead fish jostled for air in enclosures far too small for them, and elsewhere live crabs scutlted around. We bought the ingredients we needed for the afternoon's meals such as Amok leaves, turmeric root, finger ginger and lemongrass.
After the market tour, we got back to kitchen, and I learned how to make fresh spring rolls and a fish Amok (Cambodian curry), whilst Louise made a Papaya salad and a chicken Amok (most people chose to make Amok).
For dessert we made a kind of coconut milk based custard baked inside a blue pumpkin. It was a lot of fun and the kitchen area was really clean and air-conditioned (we went with Tigre de Papier), I'd definitely recommend it as a respite day between seeing the temples. You'd probably spend at least $10 on eating the three courses at the restaurant anyway, so to pay $15 for the class seems like a good deal to me.
Pub street is the central hub of the evening activities in Siem Reap. From only a handful of hotels a few years back, Siem Reap now has a burgeoning party scene to rival a Thai beach resort. Multiple bars such as the infamous "Angkor What?" line the road, offering draught beer from $0.50 and $1.50 cocktails during all day "happy hours". The street gets rather lively later in the evening with the bars over spilling and tourists and locals alike bouncing around in the streets. The tuk-tuk drivers even get a bit more adventurous in their offerings, with two asking if we wanted a ride before leaning toward us in a clandestine manner and whispering "Marijuana?". It's quite a contrast to the Buddhist serenity of the Angkor temples during the day time.
On our final day, we booked a tour to go and see the floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake. This involved taking a tuk-tuk ($10 there and back) followed by paying $20 for the boat trip, through the "Boat Association". I'm not quite sure what we were expecting, but it was a major let down. We visited in June, only the very beginning of the wet season, and the river and lake were very shallow and muddy. Moreover, the tour to Chong Khneas was just one big money extraction scam. As soon as we got to the lake, the tour guide showed us the children's school and how we were going to go to the floating market to buy food for the children (this wasn't a question of "would you like to..."). We docked at the building that housed the bags of rice nearby, and were greeted by a guy who wanted us to buy $50 bags of rice to present to the children. At this point we were feeling very uncomfortable, the guide stood looking over us, and we were told how poor and disadvantaged the kids were. Don't get me wrong charity through certain channels is something we're of course in favour of, but these kind of pressure tactics and guilt trips were not good, how could we even be certain the children would get the rice, or they don't just sell the same bag over and over and split the money? We gave the few dollars worth of change we had, and left. The mood had instantly changed now between us and the tour guide (it was just Louise and me on the tour with the guide); before he had been all smiles and little jokes and now he knew we were annoyed, and maybe he was annoyed we didn't give more, I don't know. It was a car crash.
Next, he told us if we wanted to go around the actual village, we'd need to pay another $20 each to hire the small boat capable of traversing the shallower waters. What a joke. We declined instantly. Next was the floating crocodile and catfish farm. This was just another restaurant trying to sell us things, with a tiny pond with crocs in. We looked around for five minutes at the crocodile skulls and snakes in jars on sale, got back in the boat, and that was it, tour over! The driver took us back, and we all sat in silence for the 30 minute ride, yay.
Just as we were were getting over how terrible this tour was and the anger at being guilted into charity that way, the guide told us we were back, and asked if we would like to tip the driver. We walked out without tipping the guy, and ran over to us again saying "Don't you want to tip the driver? he's the boat driver?", we politely declined and continued walking. The tour guide looking angry, and did not even acknowledge our 'goodbye'. Finally, just as we were about to get back in the tuk-tuk and head back to the hotel, a girl of around 5 ran over to us, offering to sell us plates with not less than our pictures printed on the front! We couldn't help but laugh, when did she snap these pictures? How did she..?
I've been on some pretty rubbish tours, but this really was one of the worst. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I've since read that the villages a little further away from Siem Reap provide a more authentic experience however.
I'd be interesting in hearing other people's experiences with these tours. Did you go on one that worked out? Did you get scammed too?