Funky bars in Cambodia…that’s not what I expected!

Our last day in Siem Reap was spent in the city centre – well I say city centre but Siem Reap is more like a big town than a city, without the soulless noise and mess of places like Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Minh. We had quite a lot to do to prepare for our departure from Cambodia, as well as fitting in visits to the Central and Night markets that we hadn’t had time to visit yet.

First stop was lunch at a restaurant called Khmer Idea, where the food was cheap but slightly overkill on the shredded ginger with my Chicken & ginger dish! Next we headed off on our mission to buy bus tickets for our journey to Lao – we had decided not to take the easy route (i.e. a bus straight from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh to Pakse) which everybody seemed to do and instead wanted to get out and see more of the parts of Cambodia people generally miss out on the way.

We opted to go from Siem Reap to Kratie, via a place called Kampong Cham and from there get a bus across the Lao border. From the border we planned to go to Si Phan Do – known as 4000 islands and stay in a quiet, traditional island village on Don Khon. It took some hunting around as most travel agents or bus companies were selling the direct tickets and others were giving us some funny quotes for the route we wanted – one place told us it would cost 45$ to get to Kratie! We settled on paying 7$ – the cheapest we could find with a company called Neak Krorhorm. The fact that it was so cheap didn’t really phase us as we were happy to go with a lower level of service instead of settling for the big, comfy, air-con bus option.

So, plans sorted we then went to the Central Market to have a look around and try to find a place to get Richard’s watch fixed – he’d dropped in on one of the tile floors in our last hostel. Not holding out much hope due to the fact that the market seemed to specialize in cheap silver jewellery and clothing, we were surprised when one guy said, “I can’t fix it, but my brother can” and pointed to another stall. Sure enough, his brother took one look at it and said “okay, one dollar”? Wow, it would have cost about 20 quid in England – finally, we found something in Cambodia that’s cheap!

The next couple of hours were spent in the internet café looking for a place to stay in Kratie overnight and also going through the hundreds of photos that Richard had taken of the Angkor ruins! It was hard-going remembering which stone temple was which, but with the help of the photos in our guide book, we managed to decipher them! Note to self, don’t take hundreds of pictures of the same sort of stone buildings, or at least think of some sort of prompt to remind you what’s what when you’re looking through them.

By the time we had finished it had started to get dark so we went to have some dinner in a little alley behind Pub Street. I think it’s known as Pub Street Alley (imaginative, hey?) and is more ‘upmarket’ than it’s big sister. There is a long row of funky-looking cafes, restaurants and wine bars and sitting in them you really wouldn’t think that you were in Cambodia! It’s got more of a Covent Garden vibe than third-world country vibe! Was really nice to have a bit of a break from the dusty roads however so we sat and ordered pizza and beer to round off our stay in Siem Reap.

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Once we’d eaten we headed to the night market – about 2 minutes walk from Pub Street. There are actually a couple of night markets here – Noon Night Market, which is undercover, and the Angkor Night Market just past this, which is out in the open. In the middle of Angkor market, there is a really cool cocktail bar (Island Bar) which again, is not really in-keeping with Cambodia, but is a great place to chill out in-between looking at the stalls. The market itself has a bit of a funky vibe and we saw loads of traditional paintings and statues that would have looked at home in any swanky London apartment. You can also buy the usual clothes and jewellery here, but they all looked pretty nice.

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We couldn’t stay for too long as we wanted to go and do some shopping for our bus trip the next morning, as well as stock up on essential toiletries before we hit Lao. After that, it was time to head back to the hotel to pack up and go to sleep, ready for our 5.45am start.

Siem Reap was a great place and we could have seen ourselves staying there longer – certainly longer than we wanted to stay in Phnom Pehn – but we were quite glad to be leaving Cambodia as a whole. It’s not that we haven’t enjoyed it, but it’s not quite what we expected. For a start, it’s more expensive than it should be! Their obsession with the US dollar has really pushed the prices up and you end up paying US prices for things which surely can’t help the local people who can’t possibly earn that much money.

Passing between cities, it’s obvious that the country as a whole is still very poor and the streets are constantly littered with people and children who don’t work or go to school – many people, outside of the cities especially, just sit around on their hammocks all day or lie on the floor of their makeshift shops and it seems like they are just waiting to die.

The other big issue with Cambodia is that once you get to the few towns and cities that have now been opened up to tourism – e.g. Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap they don’t really seem like Cambodia anymore. Take Siem Reap as an example – you go into town and are faced with a huge choice of funky Western bars, cafes and restaurants – great for tourists who want to sample a ‘home away from home’ and great for the economy, but not really the reason you visit a place like Cambodia!

People want to visit Cambodia to experience a different way of life and possibly ‘see how the other half live’, but instead you are thrust into a tourist trap where it’s so easy to eat Pizza and Chips, drink cocktails and take comfy, air-conditioned buses everywhere. This tourist mask hides the true essence of Cambodia and you can be here for weeks and still not experience the country as it really is.

The major cities and tourist hubs have been completely ‘Lonely Planet-ed’(no offence to Lonely Planet) and previously unique, undiscovered places are now filled with eager tourists all following the same itinerary. They flock to ‘traditional’ fishing villages etc where rather than fishing, the locals are now selling Pringles and Oreos to people who will never get to sample a taste of real Cambodian life.

It’s such a shame as we know that many people, like us, want to get engrossed in the culture and way of life for the people who live in countries like this, but as soon as it goes into a guide-book, the ‘magic’ is taken away. We know that all countries need development, but sometimes it seems like this can change the whole structure of a country and actually makes visiting it pretty unrewarding.

To experience a country properly we’ve learnt that you need to really make an effort to get off the beaten track. Turn a blind eye to the tens of tourist bus companies lining the streets and go ‘local’. Pick a place on the map and find a way to get there – the same way that the local people would. Don’t just follow the established backpacker route as you’ll find yourselves becoming very disillusioned by the contrived tourist traps that spring up in every town you visit. But you’ll have to be quick – as Cambodia in particular seems to be catching up fast and it’ll soon be hard to find anywhere that’s authentic! Before you know it you will have Intercontinental and Sheraton hotels popping up on every fishing village from north to south!

Wanting to practice what we preach, we’ve gone right off the beaten track with our planned route to Lao (Laos is the French spelling) which you can read about in our next blog…

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