Last week, I went on a trip that would forever be etched in my heart and memory. I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia after a comfortable three-hour flight direct from Manila c/o Cebú Pacific. I must reveal that after flying with Cebú Pacific for years, finally, this was my first trip ever with them that was on-time! Not a single delay! We even arrived a good ten minutes before our ETA.
Anyway, we landed at past 10 in the evening (Cambodia is one hour behind Manila, fyi). We were fetched by the tuk-tuk driver of Mom’s Guest House Hotel (99 Wat Bo, Siem Reap) and finally arrived in the clean and simple guest house after 15 minutes. Welcomed by the manager himself, Mr. Chhay, who speaks good English, and who seems to have a permanent smile on his face, our first few minutes in Cambodia sent a very good feeling that the trip would be a successful one. Here is their website: http://www.momguesthouse.com/
And surely it was.
My trip to Siem Reap once more opened my mind and heart to the great possibilities of cultural heritage preservation and tourism.
The very first thing that caught my attention was their aesthetically Khmer international airport. Small and well-lit, it was designed featuring both Western and distinctly Khmer styles tastefully integrated into a cohesive whole. Immediately upon arriving, you could see that culture plays an important part in the lives of the people who reside in Siem Reap province.
Secondly, there was Pub Street, which featured the French-colonial history of Cambodia. One shouldn’t forget that the Westerner who popularized Angkor Wat was the French naturalist Henri Mouhot. Although Mouhot was not the first Westerner to have seen Angkor, he undoubtedly popularized it with his evocative writing. Indeed, the entire time I was there, one thing was running in my head: how did Mouhot actually feel when he accidentally encountered Angkor Wat and all the other temples, which were then found deep in the jungle? A little bit of trivia: Mouhot’s own tomb in modern-day Laos was “lost” in the jungle and was accidentally discovered again in 1990! When Cambodia was made a French Protectorate and colonized by France, indeed, it adapted many of the French’s ways including the preference for baguette and yes, the café culture.
One thing I will associate to this point is the revered state of the French language and culture in Cambodian society (well, as I saw it in Siem Reap at least). Upon arriving at the airport, signs and instructions were written in Khmer, French, English and Chinese. Along Pub Street, the cafes and restaurants not only offered a wide array of continental cuisine; they also gave off the French-colonial vibe. Housed in charming, colorful and creatively reused colonial-era shophouses, the furnishings were also reminiscent of old Cambodia. One could just imagine early French settlers fanning themselves in the Cambodian heat while enjoying a fruit juice and reading a French newspaper.
Undoubtedly, the local Cambodian leaders know how to utilize (even exploit) their colonial heritage by still using French in signboards (some schools still bare French subtitles below Khmer characters) and other visual effects. Although a small percentage of the population still speak French (but there were A LOT of French-speaking tour guides! There were also Russian, Chinese, Spanish and English-speaking Cambodian guides!!!), including the “mom” in our guest house, it is still used not only to reconnect with their French heritage but also use it for practical ends (such as accommodating French-speaking tourists). This was the same observation I had in Macau, where Portuguese is everywhere. Unfortunately, here in the Philippines, Spanish is already practically absent in the daily lives of people. There are no signboards in Spanish and many of the Spanish-sounding streets have been changed (e.g. Avenida Rizal is now more known as Rizal Avenue). Sadly, our narrow-minded, American-educated politicians have nothing else but American English in their feeble minds.
Pub Street is an amazing and tangible example of how modern meets old and how heritage can be utilized for very modern ends. Tourists of all races flock to the shop houses, some chic, some sketchy, to have appetizers and drinks and also brunch and dinner. Some of the shop houses have also been transformed into art galleries and stores which sell artisan crafts. Tip: one should save up on good silver, exquisite silk and fantastic sculptures as these can be bought in abundance in Siem Reap. Skip the cheap souvenirs such as table runners and scarves for Greenhills!
Finally, the temples spoke so much about the potential of local cultural heritage in international commerce. One cannot discount the fact that people go to Siem Reap for one thing: to visit the ancient temples of Angkor. Now, one must not be mistaken into thinking that the temples are mere structures or worse, ruins. No, these are living proofs of human history. What do I mean? They are tangible expressions of the triumphs of the human spirit, of the human abilities for art, architecture, style and even, transcendence. As these were temples and not necessarily residences, they express the ancient desire of human beings for unity with the higher forms of life. One must remember that Angkor Wat is the biggest religious structure in the world. Hence, one must take into consideration the driving spirit behind the construction of such world wonder.
If one is properly oriented, thus the act of visiting the temples wouldn’t be cumbersome despite the heat and humidity. When I visited, it reached 40 degrees. That was hot. Extremely hot. And yet, I managed to enjoy myself because thinking, reflecting and observing the small details of each temple I visited made me more appreciative of the human search for the true, good and beautiful.
It can get boring and really exhausting but one should surely visit Angkor Wat, Bayon with the faces and Ta Prohm with the gigantic trees as well as Bantay Samrei temples if one shall visit Siem Reap. There is no denying that the ruins as well as the restored/preserved art works related to each of the temples touch the very core of a human’s spirit. They are simply beautiful. Beauty, on the other hand, inspires us for the search of truth and goodness.
And of course, the temples speak of the great potential of local heritage being utilized fully. For example, Khmer cuisine was totally absent in my consciousness. Before I left Manila, I had no idea what Cambodian food would be like. But the very first time I tried Shrimps Amok, I fell in love with their light food. Their food isn’t as overwhelmingly spicy or complex as other Southeast Asian foods are. They are starkly different from Philippine dishes too. Their curries aren’t too heavy while their stir-fried noodles aren’t too convoluted as compared to others. Their food, in short, is simple, light but healthy. I had the best spring rolls during this trip and also the freshest freshwater fish too.
Anchor Beer came cheap with it ranging from 50 cents to 1.00 USD. Some foods can be expensive but these are all worth it. In my hotel, after spending hours of walking in the temples under the unrelenting sun, I enjoyed cold fresh watermelon shakes for only 2 dollars a glass. Now that was cheap!
Finally, local crafts and products are heavily marketed for souvenirs. Again, local heritage is tapped whenever local products or traditional crafts are sold as the primary forms of souvenirs. Obviously, there were the shirts, key chains and magnets, which are Western kinds of souvenirs, but what sell more, are the wooden carvings, the heads of Buddhas, the scarves, local coffee beans and other local products. This is something we need to learn here in the Philippines. We need to study, research and utilized what is ours so that tourists do not feel frustrated.
Why would they be frustrated anyway? Well, because what they are looking for (in general) is the local and genuine. They are looking for the culture and not some massive airconditioned mall (ehem, SM). Yes, comfort is a big thing (almost every restaurant and hotel in Siem Reap has wi-fi) but what is more important is the cultural uniqueness of a place. That is the bigger come-on, the more profitable product worth marketing.
For me, one of my best experiences in Siem Reap was biking from my guest house in Wat Bo all the way to Angkor Wat. I woke up at 5:30 AM to catch the 5:50 AM sunrise. I arrived in Angkor Wat soaking wet from sweat (as compared to the clean-looking tourists who came in aircon buses and tuktuks) but when I saw the sun rise majestically over Angkor Wat, that small irritation of walking around in a sweaty polo was forgotten completely. That entire day, I biked a total of more than 20 kilometers and on my last hour, the rain fell like cats and dogs. I was soaking wet and the only thing that protected my cellphone, wallet and camera was a plastic bag and my straw hat. But when I came back to my guest house, I was ecstatic, happy and filled with gratitude.
A FEW TIPS:
What to bring: Siem Reap trades primarily in US Dollars. Be ready upon arriving with small change. A tuktuk trip from one point in the city to another should only cost you a dollar or two. Also, bring sunblock and mosquito repellants.Luckily, I barely saw any mosquito during my visit. Wear light clothes and use a hat.
Where to stay: Stay in the Wat Bo area, which is relatively near Pub Street, the Old Market and the Night Market which serve as the lifeblood of Siem Reap’s small downtown area. Staying in guest houses too near Pub Street means security risks. Again, I highly recommend Mom’s Guest House. For 28 $ a night (room for two-four), it offers free breakfast, free airport transfer, and it shares a pool with another guest house. The staff is very, very friendly and helpful.
Where to eat: Eat in local restaurants as well as side kiosks. The stir-fried noodles are good in the small, mobile kiosks. Have your coffee in classy cafes like the Red Piano and at the FCC Angkor. One should try beef loklak,
any variant of Amok (which has curry), Khmer Kurry as well as their Khmer barbeque. Try having their seafoods too which are freshly caught in Tonle Sap lake (which I do not recommend visiting)
What to visit: This one, I cannot dictate. But if you’re pressed for time and only have two days for Siem Reap, you must visit Angkor Wat (do catch the sunrise but you have to beat the bus-loads of Chinese and Korean tourists who are generally unruly), Bayon Temple, Ta Prohm and Bantay Samrei. Also, if you still have the energy, try to catch the sunset at Phnom Bahkeng or Pre Rup. Likewise, if you have time, try visiting the temples by biking. It is a truly memorable experience!
By the way, my total budget was just 275 USD. That was from Sunday evening to Thursday evening.