Then and Now:  Angkor and Siem Reap after 25 Years

Stephen last visited Cambodia in 1998.  The Vietnamese occupation had ended four years earlier and Cambodia was just opening up to tourists.  The town of Siem Reap, which lies about 6km south of the ruins, was a backwater of dirt roads and just a handful of restaurants that served tourists back then.  Stephen came with Intrepid, which loyal blog readers will know from our travels in Egypt, Jordan, and India.  His tour leader to the group out to a local bar, but the only bar in Siem Reap had women lining the walls for.... (you get the picture).  Stephen had to keep his head down the entire time lest he accidentally make eye contact with one of the women.  There are a few gay bars in town now, though mostly catering to tourists.  There is a lot more infrastructure here now, too, with a brand-spanking new airport (that opened about 6 months ago) in the farmlands 50 minutes outside the city with a highway built to serve it; roads are paved throughout the city.  "Pub Street," which was probably the location of the bar that Stephen went to 25 years ago now resembles a scene from Nashville or Lincoln Road with overpriced (for Cambodia) restaurants and bars blasting music, tourists meandering down the street, and touts trying to lure them in.

Money here is a bit different now as well.  Twenty-five years ago the largest bill of Cambodian riel was worth basically a quarter and everything here was priced in US dollars.  If you needed $2.50 back in change, you got two dollar bills and two 1000 riel bank notes.  That dual currency scheme is still somewhat in place; some restaurants have prices listed in dollars and some have prices listed in riels.  Grab, the local Uber, prices in riels.  We took riels out of the bank machine (and they now have riel bills that go up to the equivalent of $22) but you can also get $100 bills out of the ATM as well.  We decided against taking out the $100 bill, though, because we figured it would be hard to break it.  We imagine it's used as a feature to pay rent or those kinds of things.  Still, because of the mixed currency, when we pay for something in cash we'll get a mix of dollars and riels back based on what the restaurant or store had on hand (using about a 4,000:1 exchange, which is 10 percent less than the current bank exchange rate).  We stopped worrying about it, though, because things here are still really cheap so that the 10% doesn't mean much to us.

 The expat community here is fairly strong.   Eli went to get a chiropractic adjustment from an American expat from Wisconsin who chose Siem Reap over Phnom Penh for it's laidback lifestyle; he said he pays $250 a month for a one bedroom apartment in an expat building like ours.  We're staying in a new condo complex with a pool and gym about 15 minute's walk from Pub Street that is mostly built for expats, but our flat is across the breezeway from a group of 4 others owned by an extended Cambodian family.  One of the residents who lives in this "compound," a 30something single guy who has one of the units, chatted Stephen up in the elevator on his way back from the gym (the guy was coming back from the gym, not Stephen).  He explained their living situation on the ride up.  His brother and his children live in one of the units, he lives in one, his parents in another, and then his cousin with his children in the 4th.  One thing that hasn't changed in 25 years is the warmth and friendliness of the people here, even the ones not in the service of tourists industry. 

Ancient Angkor: Temples and the Testimony of Time

The temples of the Angkor complex haven't really changed much in 25 years, which is a good thing, other than to get a lot more crowded, especially at the main Angkor Wat temple and Angkor Thom.  With that said, we still had some of the smaller sites where we saw only 3 or four other clusters of people around.  Climate change has made the hot season here, which is the season we're in right now (it runs from March-June and follows the cool season and precedes the monsoon season from mid June-early November) even hotter.  Daytime temperatures reach 104 F at around 4pm.  By noon the temperature is up to 97 F.  We're here 7 days so we bought a 7 day pass and can go sight see a little each morning and still be able to see all we want.  You can see all the things to see here in two days if you go full-on both days.  If you're adventurous enough to rent a scooter yourself, that's the easiest way to get around, but it's not hard to get tuk tuks between sites or to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day to take you to the sites you want to see. 

The Khmer civilization was at its peak between the 11th and 13th centuries.  At that point it accounted for 1% of the total world's population.  Angkor Wat, or the main temple complex, built in the early 12th century is almost completely restored and is the iconic one you see in all the pictures (it's our header on this page).  The Khmer artists and architects left practically no surface unadorned.  It was originally a Hindu temple but was converted to Buddhism when the royal family converted as well. It had never really been "lost" as local people and local rulers after the fall of the Khmer empire continued to make pilgrimages to the site up through the 18th century.  Some of the last bas-relief carvings in areas that had none were made during this period to help "finish" the building.   We started here on our first day, an then went back early morning to catch the sunrise.  This temple opens at 5am for those wanting to catch the sunrise.  We got there while it was still pitch black, around 5pm, just as the gates were opening.  The light starts to change around 15 minutes before sunrise time, but the sun is actually visible above the temple about one hour after official sunrise time (by which time the temple and grounds were well overrun with tourists).  We were worried we'd miss it because there was quite a bit of cloud cover the day we chose, but we were able to get some nice shots.

Angkor Thom, includes a number of additional buildings, the main one being the Bayon temple, built about 100 years after Angkor Wat.  It was built as a Buddhist temple, although the 216 faces of the Buddha facing four directions on the stupas of the 3rd level make you think of Brahma.  The top level is in the shape of a mandala, so that's clearly Buddhist.  The Angkor museum in town explains that Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted here in harmony, so maybe it's just allowing anyone to see what they want to see in the images.  The top level has been closed for restoration, but once it's done, you'll be able to go back up and get close to the face carvings. The faces make it quite eerie and evocative.   Apparently the faces were modeled after the face of the king who built it.  This complex also houses the Elephant Terrace and the iconic southern gate with the bridge flanked by statues of men playing what looks like tug-o-war with a serpent.

We also visited Preat Khan, which is one of the less restored temples.  It's crazy to think that Angkor Wat was in this condition before it was restored.  Ta Prohm, where "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" was filmed was even more wild.  Banyan trees with their tangly, massive roots had taken over and sat/stood upon many of the buildings in the temple.  How easily nature reclaimed what was human made.  We wondered what the Khmer would have thought about their buildings now being in this condition and what nature will do to our modern architectural monuments after our civilization disappears.  Could you imagine being a future SCUBA diver diving to the lost underwater city of Miami?

Angkor Wat

Angkor Thom (Bayon Temple)

Preah Khan

Ta Prohm

Meanwhile, someone had their bag lunch sitting in a restricted area.

Our Culinary Chronicles of Siem Reap: Flavors and Fumbles

Our foodie adventures in Siem Reap have been a mixed bag.  We've been doing some delivery just to beat the heat of the day and eat in our air conditioned flat (most of the neighborhood restaurants are outdoors).  Delivery through Grab is usually free, but there aren't a lot of choices in the app as of right now.  We've had a few interesting delivery experiences.  One was when Stephen ordered chicken wings and got just the "wing" portion of the wing (the part that Americans typically throw away)... no flat or drumette.  We had another interesting delivery meal where we both ordered soups.  Like in some fine dining settings, our soup came with some prepared ingredients in the bowl, but the broth had to be poured separately.  It isn't fine dining, though, when you pour your broth into the bowl of waiting ingredients from a plastic bag.

Our favorite dish/ingredient discovery is the Kampot peppercorn, a mild but particularly fragrant peppercorn grown in the Kampot province (which has its own geographical indication in the EU and no one else can call it such).  We ended up picking up some to take home with us.  The Kampot pepper is one of the ingredients in Lok Lak, a (typically) beef stirfry in Cambodia.  Stephen had chicken lok lak for one meal and it wasn't nearly as good as the beef (although it could have just been the restaurant).  Stephen also had Kampot pepper in a special mojito made at Embassy Khmer Gastronomy.  

Embassy Khmer Gastronomy a fine dining restaurant housed in a mid-century mansion, was started in 2014 by renowned Cambodian chef Kimsan Pol.  She worked diligently to rediscover recipes and techniques of traditional and historic Cambodian gastronomy that were almost lost during the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge regime and following civil war.  The restaurant, under her direction and with a kitchen and front of house staff of all women, create and serve a monthly changing 8 course tasting menu that highlights local ingredients (like the Kampot pepper) and a mix of fine dining and folk cooking techniques.  This is all for $54 per person plus taxes and drinks.  Check out their menu online to see what kinds of cool things they are doing. 

Our dinner luck is improving, though.  We had another nice dinner at Chanery Tree.  The seafood stir fry with Kampot pepper was great, and Stephen really liked the roast chicken.  We had a desert of coconut and sago (which is like tapioca).

We also stopped in at the Little Red Fox Expresso Cafe for breakfast one morning.  It is owned by a gay Australian expat who we follow on Instagram.  He was traveling in Europe while we were in town (we totally understand why someone might want to skip out on the heat in Siem Reap at this time of year) so we didn't get to meet him in person, but his staff were so friendly and welcoming.  They have award winning flavored expresso drinks including chili and lemongrass.  A portion of the profits from the restaurant go to support development projects in the area.  Definitely worth checking out.  

Culture, Community, and Development in Siem Reap

We took our last day in Siem Reap to explore things to see related to culture, community and development.  We started at Apopo which is a Belgian NGO that trains African pouch rats to sniff out explosives.  Cambodia has one of the largest populations in the world of people injured by mines and unexploded munitions as a result of being in a constant state of war basically between 1971 and 1994.  The rats are light enough that there is no danger to them posed by the landmines and munitions.  The tours of the center run every half our and last about an hour.  It includes information about the landmine problem in Cambodia and a detailed explanation and demonstration with one of the rats in training of the process of clearing an area of land mines (it's a multistep process involving humans who prepare the area for the rats to be able to do their work).  In the end, though, the rats allow an area to be surveyed and cleared in about 1/4 the time it would take humans to do it on their own.  We get why their such great aides in this process; we never once saw their long whiskers stop twitching.

Our next stop was to the Angkor National Museum  where they have exhibits of mostly sculpture from pre-Angkor and Angkor periods.  The narrative at the museum was very clear and it was really helpful in contextualizing what we had seen at the sites.

For lunch we stopped in at Common Grounds Cafe which is billed as a non-profit cafe where 100% of proceeds go to support development programs in Cambodia.  We stationed ourselves upstairs as the tables downstairs were all filled and we overheard a conversation at the table behind us where there was a white guy around our age having "deep" and "spiritual" conversation with 3 or 4 Cambodian youths who looked to be late teens/early 20s.  We did a little digging online, found the supporting organization's website, and it turns out the cafe is affiliated with an evangelical non-profit doing development work here.  The Cambodian youths were all employed in some way by the cafe or the organization (we saw their pictures online).  That doesn't mean to say that the organization doesn't do good work, but we had to wonder about the strings attached when employees might be required to attend these kinds of "meetings."

A more locally generated youth development program is what we attended that night at Phare, the Cambodian Circus.  It was started in 1994 by 9 youth coming home from a refugee camp. They were encouraged by their French art teacher, who was using drawing classes as therapy.   They wanted to do something to support others in their community in  Battambang using the skills they had learned. They founded an art school and public school followed to offer free education. It now includes a music school,  theatre school, and the circus school. More than 1,200 youth attend the public school daily and 500 attend the arts programs.  They alternate the circus performances weekly.  The show we saw was called "Khmer Metal" where all the tricks take place as part of a loose story set in a local bar in Phnom Penh.  The circus tricks were nothing earthshattering, but the youth were a joy to watch, and it's clear that they are doing training in dance, movement, and theater in addition to just learning the tricks.  Think of it like a high school/college theater level production.  As a bonus, we got to see some middle-school and elementary school aged kids do traditional Cambodian dances as a pre-show.  Well worth the $18 a ticket to see.

Impressions of Phnom Penh: The City During Khmer New Year

Our experience in Phnom Penh started off on a low note.  We had booked an Airbnb months ago and the night before we're supposed to arrive in the city, our Airbnb host cancels on us.  Needless to say, any of the other Airbnb's we had favorited when we were making our selection weren't available.  The first place we ended up booking, once we saw the actual address, was nowhere near where the pin on the map was.  We think they put in just the city name so the pin would appear in the center of the city where we wanted to stay, but the flat was 1.5 kilometers from the pin.  We had to go back to Airbnb and complain about that.  Luckily they refunded our money from that booking and we were able to book a third place.  It's probably the worst that we've been in since traveling, and we had to have the building staff collect some of the basics that we should have had provided like spoons, dish soap, and toilet paper, but we're here now and enjoying our stay.

Stephen remembers Phnom Penh as a much grittier city 25 years ago.  There were many people living on the streets with tarps hung between trees as their shelters.  There were cupping practitioners (a traditional healing technique) practicing right out in the street as well.   We haven't really seen any of that since we've been here.   We also haven't seen many of the plaid scarves that were typical of agrarian dress in Cambodia (the Khmer Rouge made the red checked ones infamous) that were ubiquitous in the city 25 years ago. There were a number of tall modern buildings now, even if the skyline isn't quite what you would see in Bangkok.  We're staying in BKK1 which is the district where most of the expats live, and it's convenient to restaurants and sights.

We're here during the celebration of Khmer New Year, which is also celebrated in Thailand as Songkran, and in Laos, too, but not in most of Vietnam (they do Chinese Lunar New Year).  Appropriate to the constant heat during this time of year, the New Year celebration involves lots of water fights and powder throwing.  Most people return home for the long 4 day weekend, so we were worried about how closed the city would be.  There definitely are some restaurants that are closed for the weekend but just as many are still open.  Blue Chilli (yup, two Ls), the bar we went to on our arrival night, was their last drag performance for the weekend and they'll reopen next weekend.  We'll have to see about closures at tourist sights.  On that note, the drag show at Blue Chilli was one of the best we've seen in a while.  The lip synching was spot on, the material was much more contemporary, and the costuming was pretty outrageous; it was much closer to our preferred style of drag than what we saw in Thailand.  

Stephen is working this weekend, but Eli went out to the official government celebration at Wat Phnom on Saturday.  Water guns were everywhere, making it challenging to navigate the city without getting wet or muddy once the evening starts.  He tried staying near the vendors that lined the street as he tried to make his way back toward the flat; he figured people would be less likely to squirt a vendor who was working and he'd maybe stay a little bit drier.  He ran into a women we had seen at Blue Chilli the night before and chatted up a guy from Manchester who he ran into at a hole-in-the wall bar run by a Swiss guy where everyone there was just trying to stay dry.  There was a guy with a car wash hose just down the street from the bar blocking Eli's path home, and he was indiscriminately spraying passing pedestrians and cars.  Both the guy from Manchester and the woman from Blue Chili were in Cambodia on a visa run from Thailand.  They agreed that holding up in a bar was the best way to avoid getting drenched.  We ended up heading back to the celebration on Monday because Stephen was off.  Eli tried his best to hide out from the water.  Stephen just gave up and embraced it after he had been powdered once; after that it seemed that it just attracted more powdering.  He actually had a couple of very warm interactions as people rubbed talcum powder in his beard and wished him Happy New Year.

Someone hit Stephen with a supersoaker just as the selfie shot was being taken.

Foodie Adventures in Phnom Penh

About half of the restaurants have closed for the four days of New Year, so that's been complicating our culinary journey a bit.  We keep forgetting to call before heading out and have arrived at restaurants that said they were open on Google but were closed.  

Our first food experience in Phnom Penh happened by accident.  We had wanted to go to this French bistro, but they had no more tables for the night, so we decided to check out a restaurant serving Wagyu beef, 306 Wagyu.  It was expensive (as Wagyu should be), and probably more than we wanted to pay, but we had a lovely evening chowing down on some really tender and flavorful ribeye, while chatting with the owner and chef, a former member of the Israeli Defense Force who ended up settling here and opening up this restaurant.  He does a free Shabbat dinner (no wagyu for that) every Friday night and invites any visiting or resident Jews to come eat.  He didn't end up doing it this Friday as everyone was disappearing for the long weekend.  He does make a mean challah in addition to some excellent beef. 

Our next meal was at Eleven One Kitchen.  Eli's dish, beef with crispy red ants (yes, that's right) was very good.  It had some good heat (from the peppers we think, and not the ants).  We were wondering if the ants were there for the crunch (although not very crunchy after hanging out in the stirfry sauce) or the protein (which would seem silly because they were cooked with beef).

The few days were again complicated by restaurants we wanted to visit but were closed.  We had good non-Cambodian meals at Elia Greek Kitchen (they also have an outlet in Siem Reap) and La Croisette.  One night we went out for dumplings at Mama Wong's once they reopened after New Year.  We also had a great Cambodian lunch at Sleuk Chhouk with the standout being fried frogs legs with a peppery-garlicky sauce.   Another great Cambodian dinner spot we stopped at was Malis.  It was a bit pricier than our other meals (except for the Wagyu) but we both had dishes we really liked.  Stephen's was his starter of scallops with Kampot pepper, and Eli's was the Saraman beef curry with a rich dark sauce that reminded us of a Mexican mole a bit (without the chocolate). 

We couldn't resist stopping at one of the food stalls at the central market for some soup for a late breakfast as we had finished our sightseeing for the day at around 10am (we're trying to beat the heat).  Eli had the crab soup and Stephen had chicken.  The guy sitting next to us had some interesting garnishments on his soup, so Stephen asked what they were.  It turns our the guy is from LA but is from a Cambodian family and is touring around for a few weeks.  His soup version was chicken, but it includes the chicken offal with the unfertilized egg yolks... We'll have to try that next time (maybe).

It's hard to see the red ants in the picture.

Of Demons and Kings:  Visits to the Historical Sites of Phnom Penh

You cannot visit Cambodia without confronting the very grim history of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and the preceding and posthumous civil wars and occupations  (well, actually, a lot of people do who just jet in to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat for 2 days and leave).  Our visit to the Apopo landmine center in Siem Reap was a part of understanding that.  In Phnom Penh, it's visiting the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek and the notorious prison, S-21 (Tuol Sleng).  They are each moving in their own ways.  Choueng Ek is centered around a memorial stupa (which is a shrine that holds remains of the dead).  Some of the remains, bone fragments and skulls of those who perished at this site, are contained and visible within the stupa and you are invited to enter and pay respects.  Because people were buried without much thought, remains still come up to the surface through shifting soil and erosion caused by wind and rain.  Stephen remembered this vividly from 25 years ago, and Eli noticed it a few times as we walked the paths among the mass graves.  

We tried to avoid taking pictures of sensitive things that might be disrespectful of those who died there, but we also wanted to capture their existence as a memory.  Like in Rwanda or Mostar and in other ways like the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg or the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, we are reminded now easily it is for humans to turn against one another and our conversation on the way out was about how we were feeling with the pending election.  We also talked about how easy it was or wasn't for people to really know what was going on.  We vacillate between feeling like when we have these feelings we're overreacting and then being confronted with the reality that we see at sites like these which are all to common around the world as we've traveled.

The next day we headed to some of the royal sites in Phnom Penh.  The National Museum had quite a bit more than the collection at the Angkor museum in Siem Reap, but we definitely felt that the $10 entry charge was steep for what was on offer.  The same for the Royal Palace.  If you hadn't been to Bangkok, it would be somewhat impressive.  Unfortunately, though, you can't really go in to anything, including most of the great halls.  You can get close to the emerald buddha here, though.  We would say to skip these sights if you've been to Bangkok to see the royal palace there.  The Central Market was our other stop for the day.  It has a cool art deco look to the building and the ventilation is well done, so it's always cool in there, even with all the activity on a hot day.