Thursday, September 18, 2008

Days 24-25: Siem Reap and Angkor Archeological Park, Cambodia

Siem Reap (literally "Siem Defeated") is a town some 314 km (5-6 hours on a bus or boat) from Phnom Penh with a population of about 85,000 inhabitants--and between 1-2 million tourists per annum. Nearly all without exception come to see Angkor Archeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that can surely be touted as one of the 7 new Wonders of the World.

Seam Reap is booming as a result. This town is one large construction site, with signs in all types of languages (generally English, Japanese, Korean, Chinese). There are some 90 bars, 200 restaurants, and more than 100 hotels/guesthouses here so far--and more are opening literally every week. Bars and restaurants have interesting names, too, such as "Angkor What?!" and "Burgers Without Borders." Unique.

Angkor Archeological Park covers a large land mass and has roughly 5 dozen temples of various sizes and interest to tourists. It is just outside Siem Reap itself. Almost all tourists come to see the largest temple, Angkor Wat. (Wat, by the way, appropriately translates as ""temple" in Thai, Lao, and Khmer.) Today, numerous Asian countries, such as Japan and India, donate money to fund the restoration of many sites in the park.

Although it's the rainy season in Cambodia right now, there were many tourists nonetheless, but many times less than in the high season (i.e. March-May). Most of the tourists were from Japan, but there were many from Europe and all over the world.

Entry to the park is $20 for one day, $40 for three, or $60 for one week--and one's pass cannot be resold to another person, for it constaints a photo snapshop of the person. Smart.

This was one amazing place for sure. ... Some of these temples took hundreds of years to build. Angkor Wat, being the biggest temple, is the prime attraction. It was built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as both his capital city and state temple. The temple was first a Hindu temple and then a Buddhist temple--and still maintains a significant religious center to this day, or so it is said. The temple is the pride of Cambodia and even appears on the country's national flag. In fact, the words Angkor Wat and Cambodia are nowadays virtually synonomous, especially as word of these great site spreads to backpackers and other travelers around the globe.

Perhaps the only real minus, besides the weather during the rainy season (indeed, it rained for about half of the first of two days I was there), were the ubiquitous child hawkers that wait for tourists at the entrances of all the temples. They usually are accompanied by their mothers and other siblings, who offer to buy a "cold drink, sir!" or "postcard, sir!" Then they beg for you to "please buy a book, sir" (always in several languages--Japanese, English, or French--depending on the tourists), which are really photocopies in those languages of various books related to the Cambodian genocide or the Angkor temples. Since Cambodia doesn't acknowledge or observe any copywrite laws, the copies come in abundance: there are high-quality ones, which cost more, and the cheaper low-quality photocopies. The guards and ticket inspectors do not chase these illicit sellers away. It is probably a good way for these families to make a living, but constantly being harrassed at every temple to buy something gets annoying very fast for me as a tourist--especially on a hot and humid day and after wandering around the park for hours. The park's authorities should allow these impromptu sellers to work outside the park's main entrance in an official market of sorts; that would be more civilized and responsible too on both sides' behalves.
Other than the park, there's not much to see during the day in Siem Reap itself. There is a large night market and a very good nightscene, but because I was the only person in my guesthouse, the Korean owners waited for me to return home before they locked the gate. As a result, I didn't feel comfortable making them wait into the wee hours of the morning while I party away at clubs or bars, so I didn't go to any of those places, despite spending three nights in Siem Reap.

While I was reading a local guidebook, I found out about a $25 foreign citizens' depature fee from Cambodia, which surely wasn't accounted for in my budget. I have a feeling that after visiting Cambodia, my total budget deficit for Southeast Asia will be closer to $150. What was convenient, though, was that Cambodians largely eschew their national currency in favor of the U.S. dollar. In fact, all food prices and entry fees are quoted in dollars; riel are only given generally as change. Even ATMs almost exclusively dispense U.S. dollars. Even in Vietnam and Laos, where they accepted U.S. dollars in most places, they preferred the national currency--but not in Cambodia. Strange... but I won't complain. :)
The good news is that Cambodia is blessed to have such a unique tourist attraction. While the visa fee is cheap ($20-25), the depature tax of $25 and the steep entry fees for the Angor park provide much-needed revenue for the Cambodian government. This is a bright spot in Cambodia's history, for now many more people will finally start to, slowly but surely, emerge from both rural and urban penury. Most urban Cambodians already have a mobile phone or two.
Anyway, enjoy the pictures. And leave comments. I always read them. :)

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