Siem Reap: The Clash

Braving the streets on a rusty old bike
Braving the streets on a rusty old bike

We took the bikes. We insisted on them actually. Even when the bellboy said hitching a ride on his tuk-tuk would be cheap, even when the desk girl had to scrounge around in the back to see if any were available, even when the security guard had to go borrow an air pump from a guy down the street, we knew we wanted the bikes.

They were included in the hotel price, for one thing.

For another, what could possibly be more idyllic than pedaling through the streets of the old market—the spice and heat of Cambodia wafting to your nose, the pleasant sweat of exertion dripping from your pores, the kaliedesope of colors flitting past you? Siem Reap—cultural capital of the ancient Khmers, home to some of the largest, impressive-est, glowingest temples our species has ever dreamed up or executed, abode of tropic sunsets dripping down into vistas of palms and flowing rivers, seat of a million dreams of backpackers’ inspirations scribbled into journals while sipping coffee in shade-laden cafes.

Idyllic you say?

Yep, it's still a madhouse
Yep, it’s still a madhouse

The rusted, cantankerous, flat-tire–and-no-brakes bicycles our smiling hotel staff presented us with should have given us pause. From the grimy kickstand to the rusted bell, these certainly didn’t match our notion of a idyllic excursion into Siem Reap.

We should have known what was coming.

What followed was a hoofing of those busted pedals down a street as dusty as Tikrit, as traffic-choked as an internet server on Cyber Monday, and as stressed as a stockbroker sitting through a kindergarten dance recital while the market is in freefall.

Construction trucks rumbled past, tuk-tuks honked and waved and offered rides, veggie vendors trudged their carts right through your path, while the swirl of motorcycles and pedestrians crashed along as if you never existed and the collisions they were provoking were inevitable.

And then, the river.
And then, the river.

But then again, that’s Siem Reap’s thoroughfare. That’s the commercial east-west artery of the city, the business pulse, the practical side of life that fuels all those poetic little notions thriving in the Old Market. We had to get to the city proper.

We survived the scrapes of the veggie market hubbub, plodded through the chicken rotisserie vendors roasting away in a tornado of dust, and dodged through the main intersection of the town and hung a left. South. Along the lazy, muddy little river, through the park-like quiet of giant trees and elderly men chatting on benches.

The clash couldn’t have been more pronounced, nor our surprise greater. One minute ago we were fighting for our lives, scraping along on bikes with one wheel in the scrap heap already. The next we were coasting along the dusky quiet of the river parkway. Shade trees and street lamps, park benches and shrubs, café’s and quiet—our Romanticized notions of Siem Reap came coursing back into through our veins.

Chaos and calm, congestion and quiet, survival-of-the-fittest and radiant bliss—all this is just a microcosm of Siem Reap. If you want to know what this crazy little town is like, you’ve got to be ready for a duststorm of contradictions, a whirlwind of paradox. There’s an international airport sitting just north of town, and herds of crumpled-cash street vendors pushing wooden carts of handicrafts and snacks for sale. There’s a world-class museum, spilling over with ancient riches and surprisingly good English translations, but also a hundred cheap-beer-and-spicy-curry dives for the backpacker hedonist. Upscale boutiques specializing in if-you-have-to-ask-the-price-then-you-can’t-afford-it kind of wares sit next to the ubiquitous one-dollar for everything shacks of Cambodian souvenirs manufactured in China.

Veggies anyone? Visiting the Old Market.
Veggies anyone? Visiting the Old Market.

This is Siem Reap—polar opposites wedged into a mid-sized little berg, somehow coalescing, somehow working together, somehow not only surviving but thriving in Cambodia’s burgeoning current of tourism success.

By the time we reached the Old Market, we’d been accosted by a half-dozen beggars and a snub-nosed by another six cruising by in tuk-tuks and Dior.

That Old Market itself is worth the trip—even aside from the temples from Siem Reap’s northern forest. The Old Market—seat of a thousand scents and ten thousand wide-eyed wanderers. And ten thousand $1 juice stands. Every square inch of a sidewalk is grabbed up—either by souvenir hawkers spilling their storefront out to the curb, or those same guys leasing their sidewalk rights to a neighbor with a juice cart.

“Hey Ladyyy!” the calls rang out into the night. “Ladyyy you want buy some thing!”

Of course we stopped for a fruit juice from lucky number 168.
Of course we stopped for a fruit juice from lucky number 168.

Andy gritted her teeth and squeezed my hand—we’d long since chained the bike up to a harmless tree in the riverside park and ventured into the crowd on foot. “Hey Ladyyy! You want buy T-shirt yeah?”

“Ladyyy!”

We skirted the Frenchman with one-dollar crepes, ignored the one-dollar margaritas, said no-thanks to the one-dollar fried cricket man, and strolled slowly on, sipping at our mango and cashew smoothies. Frat-style guys in tank-tops were sizing up a one-dollar liquor cart, hippy chicks in elephant-print pants rifled through head scarves, and middle-aged archeology nerds kept fidgeting with their under-shirt money-belts, and in the midst of frying curries and steaming jasmine rice came the crazy serenade of the Siem Reap market.

The juice vendor smiled at us. We returned the next night. And the next. We met her daughter—grown up and no job to speak of, slinging juice and waiting for her boyfriend to propose. She shrugged and glanced wistfully down the county-fair-meets-Vegas-strip feel of the Old Market. “It’s OK. Yes, I think I am happy.” The vendor’s husband popped around the corner, gregarious, fidgety, and hungry to inflict his English on fresh victims.

“Hello my friend how you doing we very happy you come here!”

Plenty of options to grab a bite.
Plenty of options to grab a bite.

Now it was our turn to shrug and glance wistfully down the street. Before we could make our escape, he had regaled us with stories of his son enrolled in the local international school, then told us the salaries of all the teachers, wanted to know how much I made teaching in Indonesia, and invited me to teach at the school here.

“Would I have to meet you during parent-teacher conferences?”

“Oh yes very much you see I go school often and talks with teachers!”

Right.

Number 168 is lucky, by the way, in Cambodia. The juice stand was named 168, every other Chinese shop bore the numeral, and our hotel across town proudly proclaimed its location 168 meters off the main drag. The fruit juice husband filled us in.

Not in the mood for veggies? How about some fish?
Not in the mood for veggies? How about some fish?

“Yes yes very lucky in fact my other store also name 168. Very lucky number I sell jewelry you want but some thing maybe?”

“Lucky number?” I raised an eyebrow. “How’s business?”

“Oh very bad you know I almost have to sell out and now I not know how pay school fees for son and then I also pay here for place selling juice and nowdays all very ‘spensive here very ‘spensive local people buy place here in Old Market.”

And that’s the local side of the jangling neon gangplanks of Siem Reap—vendors crowding each other out, rental prices spiking each new tourist season, skinning the vendors who still keep prices fixed at $1 not to get undersold by the hundred other identical vendors. More tourists arrive in Siem Reap every season; more green-back dreaming village folk arrive too—settling in for a gig as a tuk-tuk driver or a market hawker or a dish washer.

I shrugged and glanced wistfully–one more time–at the cashew smoothie sweating fat drops of condensation into the jungle night. One dollar. So many lives held in the orbit of that little dollar.

Or stop by for a fish-nibbling foot rub. Weird.
Or stop by for a fish-nibbling foot rub. Weird.

We snooped around purported factory outlets and tried to sniff out the real-deal goods from the fakes. We gorged on spring rolls and amok, the curry look-alike and local heavyweight for favorite Khmer dish. We priced glitzy village-crafts and pottery outlets and snagged another fresh juice. Perused smoky tattoo parlors and family kitchenettes. Lemongrass and herbs. Cigarettes and street rats. Hollywood pop cranked under neon signs, barefoot men in bamboo rice hats parted the crowds with wheel-barrows full of recyclables, and a thousand discount-for-you-only-dealers wink through transactions and counted their stained bills.

The Night Market was something special all right. We came back every evening for a lucky juice 168. And for the feeling of a comfortable chaos.

More of the midnight dining. Well, almost midnight.
More of the midnight dining. Well, almost midnight.

We also enrolled in a cooking class—my first ever. Here’s how it works: you sign up with a local restaurant who, when you show up in the late afternoon, pushes you out the door to a freelance chef who waltzes you through the pig snouts and chicken guts and shrimp in triple digit heat of the local market. You buy veggies. You try to keep up with the tiny chef who somehow keeps disappearing in the crowd, leaving you to elbow the teeming masses aside, squeeze through spots too tiny for anyone over a toddler’s size, and try not to trod on sleeping babies somehow dozing through the shouts and hacking and prodding. Andy had the Canon working overtime, shutter clicking like a stopwatch on espresso, and we nearly lost the group a half dozen times.

It was pretty cool.

feeling a little artsy in the market
feeling a little artsy in the market

Then came the cooking. We arrived at an upstairs kitchen across the Old Town where we found that the assistant had all our ingredients washed and prepped and laid out nicely on the cutting board. “Cut them,” the faithful freelance chef nodded.

“Oh,” I said.  “They’re kind of cut already.”  That comment earned me some strange looks. “OK, I guess I can cut them a little more.”

With all the ingredient ready already, I didn't have too much to do.
With all the ingredient ready already, I didn’t have too much to do.

Then mash them in a mortar. Then fry up the paste. Then the same with the veggies. Then spread these over the rice. And that’s it. Meanwhile the assistant fixed anyone’s chopping who fell short and returned their veggies to the cooking line, then she washed all the dishes and bleached the kitchen, so now by the time we were ready to eat and we had barely even stepped in the kitchen in the first place.

It was strange but fun, and I’m happy to report that my banana-flower salad turned out tasty indeed, thanks to my small contribution to its success.

I did learn something quite useful about cooking, though, as a result of this little adventure.

Hire an assistant.

Great teamwork
Great teamwork

Aside from the wonders of Angkor and of clowning around the Night Market’s obvious rip-offs of Lonely Planet and possibly authentic North Face, there are a few other excursions popular around the majestic Siem Reap. Some involve visiting rural villages and stepping through the local life; others, tearing through the foliage at breakneck speeds mounted on a 4-wheeler. A “pink temple” lies lost in the woods an hour or two north, famous for its sensual adult carvings, a waterfall splashes somewhere thereabouts, as well as a monument-garnished valley where the Khmer prince officially began his empire way back when the Khmers finally tossed off their Javan overlords.

Sound pretty awesome?

Yeah, we missed them all.

Sorry—Angkor came calling, and Siem Reap itself took a back seat. But we did escape the orbit of the temples for a day at Ton Le Sap.

Want some bacon with that amok?
Want some bacon with that amok?

Ahh, Ton Le Sap, the lake of a thousand nightmares. Why we ever agreed to go near you baffles me. Why did we ever miss out on those vacation gems to sully ourselves with the Ton Le Sap experience?

But in case you’re as ignorant as we were, here’s the process in a nutshell.

First, you pay a tuk-tuk to scoot you through a dozen kilometers of tourist cafes and rice paddies and muddy swamps to land you at a squat building sitting out at the far end of peninsula. Here they sell you tickets—twenty bucks a pop.

Don’t do it. It’s not even worth five.

But if you’re crazy or cursed or just not reading this blog, you’ll hand over the money, fully expecting in return to get a world-class jet-set boat out to the mystical floating village gliding across the ever-clear and mirror-glistening Ton Le Sap Lake.   And then your cute little wife will ask the ticket-hawker whether or not you’ll get to see the sunset, and he will pause a moment and stroke his mustache and size you up before deciding that, what the heck, he’ll say yes anyway, and will say yes, of course, sunset included.

The ride out there isn't exactly scenic
The ride out there isn’t exactly scenic

What you’ll find next is even more uncanny: a sweaty man at the bottom of the staircase barking orders at all the pitiful ticket-holders filing his way. Lambs to the slaughter, my friend, lambs to the slaughter.

The sweaty man with shove you off into a boat mostly reminiscent of a crippled cockroach, conveniently piloted by tattoos-and-smokes-please teenagers mostly reminiscent of Beavis and Butthead, who will fire up the deafening motor and pull out into water so muddy that you might mistake it for Hershey’s syrup. Dry season means the water level is about 200 kilometers lower than its glory moments, and you’re reduced to Beavis scraping his moldy old hull through channels narrow as a catwalk and spilling over with boatloads (literally) of frowning tourists returning from their gouging.

The floating village is about as traditional as a kangaroo in a tutu.

You’ll pull in to the constellations of thatched shacks somewhat in awe that people can spend their entire lives out here, gleaning a simple living with their nets and their hooks, perpetually working the ancient fisheries for a humble livelihood.

Yep, exactly like it sounds: a floating village.
Yep, exactly like it sounds: a floating village.

What you’re more likely to find in the first house is a man who switches off his 50” flat screen—powered by a diesel generator out back—to spin you a tale about how you can buy a bag of rice at exorbitant prices and cart it on over to a school or an orphanage. When you leave to visit the school, you’ll be accosted by a handful of ladies paddling tubs around after you, pointing to their infant and toddlers and reaching for some dollars.

The school also floats, and the kids seem attentive, despite tourists strolling around the outskirts snapping photos and whispering.

Next stop is a souvenir shop. It smells like rotten pickles, if that’s scientifically—or culinarilly—possible, and features cheesy wares, fired snacks, and cold drinks.

Beavis and Butthead actually will wake up at this point—they will rise from their dormant, listless states and show themselves able of quick movement and speedy speech and snap-snap energy.

Sitting through class in a floating school. At least she got a window seat.
Sitting through class in a floating school. At least she got a window seat.
Mamma in a boat
Mamma in a boat

That’s right, they chase the waitresses around. The victims in turn coyly squeal and slap Butthead’s arms and act as if they somehow are offended by the pinches and the prodding and the jokes.

Out back are the fish pens—mesh nets affixed to the underside of the rafts keeping quite a stock of fish ready to be scooped out the moment a tourist comes calling. Interesting. Next to that is the alligator holding tank—much like the fish farm, except with a half-dozen full-grown, honest to goodness alligators milling around all over each other. For a dollar the waitress will scoop a fish from the pen and chuck it in for the gator to gobble up.

“Now this is fascinating,” I stroked my chin, “how the people have learned to catch these alligators and keep them ready for eating whenever they need meat. Perhaps for a special feast day. It’s quite the—”

“Crocodiles, actually,” butted in the cigarette-smoking man on the other side of the crocodile-filled hole in the boat. “And no one eats them.”

“Are you sure? Then why would they keep them in a pen here on their boat?”

Alligator or crocodile? And more importantly, are they tasty?
Alligator or crocodile? And more importantly, are they tasty?
Feed me.
Feed me.

“Eh. Tourists like them. We go to the market in Siem Reap to buy them. They’re expensive. That one there, that old one, she cost five hundred dollars.”

“But traditionally, the villagers, I mean, you guys, you keep them here for—”

“No no. I’m from China. I’m part owner here. No, we buy them so the tourists will come here and eat something and watch them. They are expensive, but they live many years.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and flicked it into the sloggy pond. “Unless they get sick or start biting each other. That happens a lot. Their cage is small.”

I stared at the ugly, scarred, infected reptiles sloshing around in the stinky water beneath me.

“Not much of a life, I suppose,” the shareholder concluded fatalistically. “But good for business. Would you like a drink?”

Just a quick trip for groceries
Just a quick trip for groceries

But Beavis and Butthead had worn out their welcome with the waitresses and were pushing us to go.

We went.

“Where to now?” Andy asked, hoping against hope that the next stop would be less depressing.

The non-driving one pointed to the shore. “Go back.”

The sun hadn’t set. Andy’s eyes sprung wide and she pointed to the rosy orb dropping down over the village. “But it hasn’t set yet. Not sunset yet!”   Then she turned to me. “Tell them we’re not going back. They told us till sunset.”

Fishing nets always need a little mending.
Fishing nets always need a little mending.

“You really want to stay out here longer?”

“That’s not the point. The sun hasn’t set. We paid twenty dollars each for this, and I’m not going back yet.”

And then she started in on the drivers again. I sighed and joined in a little, for good measure. We turned them around, went back to the Crocodile Man and snacked on some watermelon and observed a fairly routine sunset. Our grumbling drivers contented themselves to smoking and sullenly flirting with those waitresses—who didn’t seem especially thrilled about a surprise second visit.

We harried the dynamic duo into giving us a little spin through the town–apart from the tourist bombshell.  It was a lot more of a lot of the same stuff.  But at least our trip back took place in the pink glow of that hard-fought sun-setting.  We got our sunset.  We took our pics.  But it wasn’t quite Venice.

Ton Le Sap was a bust, alright—tourist trap in giant blinking neon lights. The only traditional thing about that village is that it’s still on the lake, and that it’s still got inhabitants. But the fishing has all but disappeared, the local flavor reduced to canoe-borne begging, and the economy to fake crocs, and the overall impression it leaves on you is something like, “well I’m glad that’s over,” or, “how much did we pay for that again?”

My sentiments exactly.
My sentiments exactly.

Please, never go to Ton Le Sap.

The rest of Siem Reap—at least the parts we sampled—were a treat: a colorful little menagerie of pottery wheels and art vendors and museums and cafes. More than a few sun-burned gringos go pub-hopping through the streets each evening, dragging soles worn raw by long hours of temple plodding during the day. More than a few museums draw too-few visitors; I blame that on the ATV excursions and village cooking classes. That’s OK too, though—I mean, how many people will actually fly thousands of miles to peruse a museum?

Ceramics shops are a treat—a quick class and you’re ready to spin some amateur pieces. Andy sculpted flower-engraved snack bowls. I painted mugs with buffaloes and Vishnu.

Spinning out some pottery.
Spinning out some pottery.
Taa-daa!
Taa-daa!

An enterprising local eatery has pulled a page right out of American tourism and puts on a buffet dinner with a show—local foods and local song-dance numbers played out before a dozen picnic tables as long a basketball court. Buffet dinner and AC? I’m in. We pulled in sweaty and famished and set to work demolishing that buffet and chugging glasses of ice tea. Food coma followed, then Drum-beats quick-stepping through Ramayana ballads. Our favorite was a crazy little number with a fish-costumed maiden bowing and squatting on one leg—the other held precariously out behind her. But I only saw part of that dance—the other moments I was gorging on amok and pork-garlic noodles.

It was a great way to spend an evening.

Hanuman is here in Cambodia too? That crazy guys really gets around.
Hanuman is here in Cambodia too? That crazy guys really gets around.

Another night found us fighting off the sandstorms and traffic brawls just to stop in at a roadside flower peddler. We turn the typical Buddha lotus offerings into a plucky little room-freshener for the hotel.

By the time Andy and I had sipped down our last one-dollar slushies, and got a free mango for being repeat customers (lucky 168!) and given up on the North Face outlet store, the night was winding down to midnight, and our rusted bikes were growing lonely, chained to that spindly tree by the lazy river meandering through the ancient town.

Humble homes
Humble homes
And sprawling museums
And sprawling museums

We unchained, we sighed, and we pedaled slowly past the dying markets, down the boulevard of now-closed restaurants, and through ghostly intersections of sandwich wrappers and plastic cups flitting in the midnight breeze. Still the river slid softly by.

Midday, you can watch the children at play here: carefree splashing, squeals of laughter, white smiles flashing under hair plastered to scalps. It’s summer, and it’s hot, and no one on earth can fault someone for dropping down to their skivvies and diving into the slow current.

Nothing better than a quick dip in the shade of the palm trees.
Nothing better than a quick dip in the shade of the palm trees.

Most of us are jealous that life eventually steals those moments away. We’re left watching as the river rolls by.

This same water of Siem Reap, I thought through the midnight pedals, flowed through these banks in the ancient days—back when Pol Pot was slaughtering millions in his Khmer Rouge paradise, back when the French came and conquered, back further when the kings reigned and temples sprouted from the fertile earth, back even further to days when Siem Reap was merely a few scattered bamboo dwellings on stilts. This same muddy water of Cambodia, this same clash of the clear and polluted, come rolling gently through.

No—I corrected myself—not the same water. But the same river.

Who knows where those individual droplets are that carried the sweat of temple builders and the joys of children at play? Those droplets are flung wide to the whole oceans and the deep earth and a world of clouds.

But the river remained right here in Siem Reap. It’s still the muddied flow of humanity. It’s still the mix and the clash, the paradox.

What did you find in Siem Reap?
What did you find in Siem Reap?
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