If you’re reading along with my eastward tale from London to the U.S., the next stop on our trek was Cambodia. Having just spent the better part of a week in Thailand (Bangkok and Phuket), it was just a hop, skip, and jump away from Siem Reap. Among many other things, Siem Reap is home to the famous and ancient Angkor Wat, but I will save our adventures through the 5,000 year old temple for the next post.
We made it to Siem Reap to one of the cleanest and most organized airports we have ever seen. After seeing the chaos and grit of the Phuket airport, Siem Reap was a welcome sight. The AirBnB we booked for the small city included our own tuk tuk driver, Mr. Narong, to take us from the airport and also anywhere we wanted to go in the city. This was a huge benefit since we had no idea where anything was, what anything said, and, honestly, what to do. Mr. Narong was an asset to our stay, and also incredibly polite.
Our drive from the airport to the Khmer-style, jungle home was about 30 minutes. As we drove through the wide lanes of highway 6, we passed cows grazing on the side of the road, female bicyclists wearing sunhats, and Durian fruit vendors shading themselves under a rusty umbrella. The heat was intense in late-July, so we empathized with the shirtless man taking advantage of his scrap of shade.
We arrived at the dubbed Gekko House and quickly learned why it was given such a fun name: the house was filled with these green creatures. At first, we found it endearing, and then, helpful since the other invasive thing in Cambodia is mosquitoes. Each morning we did the customary Swatting Mosquito Dance when we entered the kitchen to make coffee. But with the geckos in the house, it cut down on the buzzing population.
If you’ve never heard the sound a gecko makes, click on this video so you can hear for yourself. We learned on our first night in the house where the gecko got its name.
After we put our bags down, Mr. Narong took us to lunch at Neary Khmer Restaurant. When Jeff and I travel, we like to go where the locals go to eat, but Mr. Narong had us on his usual itinerary. This restaurant, while lovely, was definitely a place to bring tourists. We ordered fish amok and chicken curry (as traditional as we could get with a menu that also sported cheeseburgers and fries) and had a splendid lunch in blessed air conditioning, but we did make a promise we would find local fare at least once.
Mr. Narong had waited for us while we ate, and then he asked us what we wanted to do. I knew we wanted to see Angkor Wat, but with it already the hottest part of the day, we thought it best to do everything else in the town and leave the ancient temple for our last full days of the trip. So, we boarded the tuk tuk and off we went to the Artisans Angkor Silk Farm. This farm and workshop is one of the only places in the city that guarantees fair wages and employment to their employees. Since Cambodia is still suffering from the atrocities from the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s (more on that later), the people still have a difficult time finding jobs that take care of the worker rather than the corporation’s pockets.
When you arrive, you’re automatically given a free tour guide in your specified language. Our guide was highly practiced in his presentation as he brought us through the full facility from the silk worm hatchery to the weaving room where women sit at looms shooting sharp tools from one end to the other creating gorgeous works of silk scarves, table runners, and neck ties.
The silk worms grow in weaved baskets lined up in small cabinets that look like miniature chicken coops and eat everything they can for about fourteen days. Then, they form their silken cocoon and hibernate before being taken out to dry in direct sunlight for three whole days, essentially baking the worms.
To make sure all of the worms are dead, the now golden cocoons are boiled in hot water and the silk is extracted. Most of the bugs are then consumed for protein. I will later tell you what we thought they tasted like. But then, the women take the silk and pull it gently into spools for dying.
It was truly an incredible thing to see and walk through. We spent a good hour on the compound going from small wooden cabin to another wooden cabin looking at the entire process. Then, we found ourselves in the gift shop surrounded by works of art, and after many minutes of debate, we each bought a scarf and tie to commemorate our time in Cambodia. While a bit more expensive than the wares you’d find with street vendors, we appreciated that all proceeds go to the workers.
After finding a quick dinner in the center of town and walking through the “night market” or “pub street” in the downtown area where you can find thousands of trinkets, articles of clothing, and produce, Mr. Narong came to pick us up for the circus. Now before you scratch your heads and think–circus, in Cambodia?–Mr. Narong gave us the idea to check out this student performing art event that takes place most nights in Siem Reap.
The Phare Circus was established to help children and young adults cultivate their skills in music, acting, and acrobatics. For just $18, we booked tickets to see the show Influence that night. The room was a covered tent, but it was by no means indoor, so I will warn you now to dress accordingly. There were at least 100 people in that room with bright lights on the performers, and it was the middle of summer. Everyone was handed a small hand fan, but it was still quite warm in the rotunda. However, after the first few moments of the show, you barely notice the heat because the show is spectacular.
The story of Influence is about survival of the fittest with the first performance showing what looked like frogs eating each other and growing larger. The actors jumped around with bamboo mats covering them and bent to form the characteristic face of a frog and then melded one-by-one into a single creature as the largest predator. My imagination was completely captured. Then, the story shifted to villagers being overtaken by other tribes in an acrobatic show of strength and dominance. Then, the story progressed to an interpretation of communist rule in S.E. Asia with flipping actors, intense emotions, and incredible storytelling without saying a single word.
At just an hour, the whole performance flew by in a matter of seconds. It was truly one of the best experiences we have had in our travels, and we loved seeing a local show. I took some very shaky videos of parts of the show to share, so please click here to get a glimpse of the magic we witnessed that night.
I have many more tales of Mr. Narong as we drove and meandered through Angkor Wat, so his name will keep appearing on the blog, but we did ask him for a couple of restaurant recommendations since we wanted to experience true Khmer cuisine. One place he did recommend was Marum. It was just down the street from our AirBnB, so we walked over to it with no problem to enjoy one of the best meals we’ve ever had in our lives.
Marum is a part of the Tree Alliance Organization that gives back to the Friends International charity and also is a place where teachers teach students how to be waiters and restaurant staff. We were waited on by young adults with a teacher shadowing them. Most of the students did not know English, but they were clearly trying to get a grasp on the language as they took our orders and helped us pick from the menu of local delicacies, one of which was silk worms.
After being told by our tour guide at the Silk Farm that they tasted like a peanut, we had to give it a try. Marinated in lemongrass and spices, they actually tasted like lemon Skittles. I can’t explain it, but that was the first and lasting memory of the famous little workers. The restaurant also had incredible cocktails. I enjoyed a tropical pineapple and chili margarita while indulging in some truly awesome Khmer cuisine like mango salad, jasmine tea smoked chicken leg, and their take on fish amok soup. Everything on the menu is meant to be shared in a tapas style, so we were able to taste a multitude of things.
The other restaurant Mr. Narong took us to on our last night was a family-owned stall just called World Food. You’ll never find this place on a map, but if you locate Pi Phop Aha, it’s tucked in the back of this strip center, but when we asked to be taken somewhere to enjoy traditional Cambodian BBQ, this is where we went.
A massive hot pot was put in front of us, and Mr. Narong ordered for us prawns, squid, pork, and veggies to enjoy with my Thai wine cooler and Jeff’s local lager. A waitress stood by and cooked for us with a simple pair of chopsticks while we watched 1990s music videos streamed from YouTube on the big screens above the cash register.
The tropical rain finally unleashed as we dodged drips from the tarp ceiling and the hoses snaking under the picnic tables, but it was a perfect local meal that Jeff and I had craved since we landed in the country.
We stayed in Siem Reap for three days, and the vast majority of our time was spent in Angkor Wat, so you do not want to miss the next entry where I talk about thousands of years of incredible religious history, who actually owns the temples, and following the footsteps of Lara Croft.
Some Helpful Hints for Siem Reap:
- Bring toilet paper with you as you walk around. It’s typically not provided, so it’s best to bring your own stash.
- They use the American dollar as currency, so you don’t have to worry about conversion.
- Do not drink the water or use ice cubes. The Tree Alliance restaurants boast using filtered water, so always ask.
- Bartering is expected in the markets, so don’t shy away from it.
- It’s hot, so always, always bring bottled water and sunscreen with you.