Siem Reap is the hub, the meeting place, the stop off or whatever you want to call it for backpackers, tour guides and an increasing number of ‘grey with highlights’ mature travellers like me when wanting to see Angkor Wat.
It’s a town that has grown ten fold in recent years as Angkor Wat is firmly placed on the hippy trail and the backpacker trek. But I found it hard to grasp its identity or sense of place. It is reminiscent of a colonial past with hotels such as the grand Terrace of Elephants where you can sip a cocktail on its terrace (obviously!) and watch the army of mopeds and tuk tuks race down the street.
Equally you can indulge in Khmer culture with street food and foot massage. The foot massage is as cheap as chips on the street side with a tin of beer thrown in for $5.
Cambodian massages are a little rougher than other Asian massages as they really seem to pull your toes apart but …..they are always smiling when they do it! So is its identity still very much Cambodian?
There are the obligatory street markets and steaming hot food stalls that you expect to see in Asia but tucked behind the Old Market are alley ways stuffed with spas, cafes, bars and the delightful Miss Wong which has more than a hint of old Shanghai about it with red lanterns and a every cocktail you can think of. Confused? you should be!
But the biggest surprise was an alleyway called Penny Lane…….and so I can faithfully say with all credit to Lennon and Mccartney that Siem Reap is in my ears and in my eyes when I look back at the photos and hear a moped rev albeit on an English street. Am I losing you here? because Im still lost on its identity.
On the outskirts of the town are Western chain hotels, offering tours and taxis and so Siem Reap has a little bit of a lot of cultures rubbing shoulders which I suppose is typical of many a town or city across the world.
So a sense of place? am I asking too much to understand it? A mish mash, a melting pot where locals strive to earn a dollar. Young people from Phnom Penh are continuing to come believing Siem Reap has streets paved with gold or in this case yankee dollars if you can drive a tuk tuk or massage a tired tourist foot. It will continue to grow and I believe slowly or not so slowly lose its identity to the corporate western ideal of flashy hotels and brands, so go…before its too late. But I’ll tell you something……the lovely people of Siem Reap won’t lose their smiles which identify them as some of the kindest and friendliest people that I have met.