Gill England and her son Micheal visited Angkor Wat together. Gill England photo

Englands in Asia: exploring Cambodia

Follow their travels from Angkor Wat to the floating village

“Excuse me, sir,” a woman to my right exclaims.

I ignore her. I’m busy filling in my Kingdom of Cambodia Visa form in the Siem Reap Airport.

“Excuse me, sir!” This time a little louder.

I continue to ignore her.

The third “excuse me, sir” is accompanied by a hand on my shoulder. I swivel to my right to face the voice.

“Sir, you are bleeding. Do you need some assistance or help!” She points at my right hand and sure enough, a steady stream of blood is trickling across the top of my hand and dripping onto the bottom of the visa form! (I had scraped my hand on a sharp seat-belt edge) “Gill, you need to get me another form from the officer. I’ve destroyed this one and have to start over.” I have yet to make any trip in Southeast Asia without a mishap! And so begins our adventure in Cambodia.

We left Foshan for Saigon on January 21, the beginning of the three week Chinese New Year holiday. A short 40 minute flight on Cambodia’s newest airline, Cambodia Angkor (started operating in 2017 and has a total of 3 Airbus A320 jets) delivered us to Siem Reap International Airport in the heart of the jungle by noon the next day.

Although Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, was partially destroyed by the murderous Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in the late 1970s, new construction for the booming tourist trade has created one of the cleanest, most progressive towns that we have visited in Southeast Asia. Buildings are limited to a maximum of 5 stories. Aside from a Burger King and small Starbucks cafe, the big franchise North American fast food eateries have thankfully yet to appear. Somehow the “Golden Arches” would be a blight on this tropical paradise.

Our hotel, the Sokha Angkor Resort, is located a mere 5 minute tuk tuk ride (a two wheeled buggy hitched to a motorcycle) from the bars, bistros and restaurants on Pub Street and the Old Market that borders the Siem Reap River. We were greeted by the concierge and doorman with a humble greeting; the Sampeah. The Sampeah is the traditional way to greet or say goodbye to someone. Both palms are placed together in front of your chest and accompanied by a slight bow of the head. It is a sign of respect and politeness and it is considered impolite not to return the greeting (akin to refusing a handshake in Western culture).

While traditional Khmer is not our favourite cuisine of Southeast Asia, Vietnamese and international fare abounds in the plentiful eateries. We found street food stands and open air restaurants to be generally hygienic and safe; we usually selected those with a mix of locals and tourists.

Cambodia operates an unofficial dual currency system. The “official” currency is the Riel which is pegged at a value of roughly 4,000 Riel to the US dollar. The Riel (which is only available inside Cambodia) is only used for minor purchases in convenience stores and change in restaurants. The vast majority of transactions are in US dollars which is the currency dispensed at numerous ATMs in the tourist zone.

Siem Reap’s main tourist draw is Angkor Archaeological Park that stretches over 400 km2. It contains the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century, the most famous being the largest religious structure in the world; Angkor Wat (City Temple) located just 7 km north of Siem Reap proper.

Heeding the advice of our hotel concierge, the day tour of Angkor Wat for Gill and our son Michael (I was down for several days with an intestinal bug) began at 5:30 am in order to avoid the worst of the scorching mid-day heat and the tour bus crowds. A car and driver had been hired for $35 US for a six hour tour of Angkor Wat and nearby Angkor Thom. Both were suitably attired for the visit; a dress code of covered shoulders and knees for both men and women is strictly enforced out of respect for the religious values and monks who still inhabit the temples. Both Gill and Mike were amazed at the massive size and intricate sandstone carvings on the temple walls but did find their explorations a somewhat grueling endurance contest given the uneven paving stones and countless steep steps.

Now the troop of macaque monkeys (about 60) that inhabit the grounds around Angkor Wat have been given a bad rap! Stories abound of the aggressive, conniving little bandits stealing scarves, watches, bag lunches, and even cell phones. Yet countless tourists continue to buy bananas from onsite vendors to feed the beggars. Kinda reminds me of silly tourist behaviour in Banff and Jasper National Parks! Once the food runs out the aggression begins. Monkeys and dogs are known carriers of rabies in Cambodia; a simple scratch or shallow bite from the primate will result in a emergency visit to the Louis Pasteur Clinic in Siem Reap for a series of rabies shots!

The next day found us visiting the Killing Fields complex right in Siem Reap; the Buddhist complex which houses a school and outdoor museum in memory of the nearly 2 million Cambodians executed or starved to death by the genocidal regime of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970s. While certainly not as large as the Killing Fields in and around Phnom Penh, the graphic displays of the genocide in the Siem Reap area was a very disturbing and moving experience.

Our third attraction visit was to the floating village on Tonie Sap Lake, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. After a 30 minute boat trip down the river by the same name we entered the lake. Approximately 1000 families migrate on their pontoon houses to the lake for the winter months when the lake is at its lowest level. Our guide was very animated with his commentary until we refused to go to a floating market to purchase supplies to donate to the school (I had read about this scam in advance). He then insisted on stopping at a floating restaurant/souvenir barge anchored in the lake. He “encouraged” us to buy some beers and souvenirs. We didn’t. Realizing we were onto him, he became very sullen and spoke nary a word to us on the return trip.

According to recent visitor blogs and internet articles, and commented on by several locals, a disturbing phenomenon known as “orphanage tourism” is on the rise, particularly in the Siem Reap area. Orphanages for profit are on the rise due to the “light” regulation of the Cambodian government. There are reports of “orphan” children being basically rented out by parents to so called NGO entities; parents feel an orphanage will provide a better education and life for their youngsters. We were cautioned not to give money or treats to begging children, no matter how hard they tug at your heart strings. Handouts only encourage the begging behaviour.

In the next issue: Nha Trang, Vietnam for the Tet Lunar New Year

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