Postcard from Siem Reap



(Editor’s note: This was scheduled to be published on a blog to which I regularly contribute, but the blog no longer publishes original content *sad face*. So, here: notes from a trip we took on National Day weekend in August!)

Siem Reap has long been on our list of destinations to hit while living in Southeast Asia, and I would have been heartbroken had we left Singapore without seeing the city and its resplendent temples. So, we took advantage of a rare four-day weekend—Singapore recently celebrated its Golden Jubilee, or fiftieth year of independence, and the government declared an additional public holiday—to visit this glorious river town.

As much as I appreciated the ease of traveling with a young toddler, I much prefer the companionship of my three-year-old traveler. When I told A that we would be waking up at sunrise to visit some beautiful temples, she asked, “Mama, will Ganesh be there?” The elephant-headed deity is her current favorite of the 330 million gods and goddesses in her pantheon. So, I opened our guidebook and read her descriptions of Angkor Wat’s bas reliefs—the Battle of Kurukshetra, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, and the Battle of Lanka, among others. These are stories with which she is familiar, and it was a joy seeing her recognize Hunuman or Krishna on the walls of these majestic structures. (The apparently is a Ganesh bas relief in Angkor Wat, but we did not see it!) As cliched as it sounds, journeying with a preschooler’s sense of awe and curiosity has allowed us to slow down and be present—to look around and really see things for the first time in a long time.

To Do

Siem Reap’s temples are as spectacular as I had imagined them to be. We hired a car and driver/guide, and while this was far more expensive than hailing a tuk-tuk to the sites, it allowed us to make the most of our visit with a young child. We spend the morning of Day 1 exploring Ta Phrom, which has been left in much the same condition in which it was found with trees growing out of the ruins, and the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, whose towers are carved with 216 gigantic faces of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

On Day 2, we visited Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest religious monument in the world. Cambodia is wet and sticky in the summer months and receives far fewer tourists than it does during peak season (November to March) when it is dry and cool. So, though we traipsed about the complex under a steady drizzle, we had the temples practically to ourselves on that morning.

If you can (and the weather is in your favor that day), wake early to catch sunrise over the complex and capture the best photographs during the “Golden Hour.” We were not that ambitious, but were on our way home as throngs of tourists in tour buses arrived around 9:00am.

All the temples that we visited had boardwalks and railings and A LOT of narrow, steep staircases. Bring a carrier if your child is small enough to be strapped to your body or be ready to carry your older child once he/she gets tired of walking! Don’t forget sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, an umbrella, and a water bottle. Two- or three-day tickets to the temple sites are US$40.00 (adult) and can be purchased along the way.

Phare: The Cambodian Circus (Lot A, Komay Rd.) was a real treat! This wholly modern, yet wholly Cambodian, circus, staged by students and graduates of Phare Performing Social Enterprise’s Battambang school which provides free arts education to economically challenged Cambodian youth, thoroughly enchanted A. That night’s show, Eclipse (Sokrias), addressed disability and discrimination through traditional Apsara dance, theatre, and circus arts. While the performance’s themes were “adult,” much of the narrative—and innuendo—flew above A’s head. Sensitive children may be frightened by the circus’ loud music and effects (fire, strobe lights, etc.); know your child and use your discretion. Performances are nightly at 8pm and tickets cost US$18.00 (adult). Shows change monthly.

To Shop

I bought a beautiful hand-screen printed satchel (US$18.00) at the Made in Cambodia Market on the grounds of Shinta Mani Hotel (junction of Oum Khun and 14th St.). The weekend market gathers vendors from around the country and offers a wide selection of textiles, art works, and food items.

I also purchased In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia by Frank Stewart and Sharon May (Eds.) (US$10.50) at Monument Books at Siem Reap International Airport. It was one of few English-language books by/about Cambodian literature I could find. (So many other books were by White/Western writers and were rather Orientalist.) The anthology, published on the 25th anniversary of the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, presents poetry, lyrics, short stories, interviews, and memoirs by Cambodia’s most celebrated names.

To Eat

Excellent traditional Khmer food, such as fish amoc, a fish coconut milk-based curry flavored with lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric, shallots, and garlic, and kuy teav, noodle soup made with pork broth, can be found at Amok (The Alley) and The Sugar Palm (Taphul Rd). However, if your child craves a bowl of handmade spaghetti in pomodaro sauce (*ahem*), make your way to Mamma Shop (636 Hadgang St.), a small family-owned Italian restaurant in hip Kandal Village. The pasta here was delectable and the desserts here, notably a gooey brownie-like chocolate cake, were divine.

To Stay

We stayed at Viroth’s Villa (14 23rd St., Wat Bo Village), a boutique hotel that wasn’t particularly child-friendly, but was affordable and conveniently located. Rooms started at US$51.00 per night during off-peak season, and included breakfast, free Wi-Fi, and one airport transfer.