Welcome to Siem Reap.

I needed some R’n’R after Phnom Penh ( a post that is coming soon), and everyone kept raving about Siem Reap, an easy 7 hour bus journey away, so I made that my next destination.
Funnily enough thousands of people aren’t wrong Siem Reap is lovely! Phnom Penh is a busy city that can leave with you mixed, perhaps even confused, sentiments. By contrast Siem Reap is very laid-back, easy to navigate. It provides a comforting welcome the city is simply an easy place to visit, although, as with everything, this has its pros and its cons. The ease and comfort is a by product of the booming tourist trade here.
My first night in Siem Reap, I found my very lovely hostel (really so nice and peaceful, a place called Tropical Breeze. I was going to stay 3 nights, ended up being 6 nights because I couldn’t resist the lure of a roof top terrace to myself every day, and a pristine dorm room); met my equally lovely room mates; and headed out to explore the town (in the dark obviously, the pattern hasn’t changed just because I’m in a different continent. Although, it must be said that night time exploration works much better in South Asia, everything comes alive here at night, and generally speaking the cities look prettier, have more stuff going on, and smell better after sunset). Because Siem Reap is fairly small I didn’t bother with a map, I followed the noise and the lights instead. I found the river –hard to miss because it runs through the centre of town – with brightly illuminated, pedestrian-only bridges providing a safe alternative to the insanity of the motorbike and SUV congested traffic bridges. Further wandering took me through the labyrinth of the art night market where the wealth of talent is amazing.
South Asian art in the markets is an intriguing issue. Many stalls have paintings that are nearly identical, but they are not prints, these are individually painted pictures. I assume that there must be art schools or initiatives that teach students the same styles, and then the artists are able to churn out similar piece after piece, knowing that tourists will want them. The problem with this is that people then get an idea of something being ‘tourist art’ and therefore of lesser value.. if everybody’s doing it then it’s not good enough anymore. That’s an awful shame, because the artists are very talented, they work hard, and they produce art that the rest of us cannot, yet they receive little acclaim because so many people are producing something similar. In so many fields reward comes not for being good at something or working hard at it, but for being different, or for being the first one to have your name recognised.
I digress.
Following the lights and noise method of navigation, you are bound to wander past the old market (a slightly sinister labyrinth of enclosed stalls and narrow walkways, with a fish and meat market at its heart that does nothing to soften the sinister vibe) and end up in Pub Street.
I associate places that are called pub street or bar street or club street, with teen and twenteen binge drinking holidays in the Mediterranean where the whole point of going abroad for two weeks is to wear as little clothing as possible at all times, burn to a crisp during the day, drink yourself into a coma at night, and come home with stories of holiday conquests. Do everything in fact that you could do at home with your mates if you had access to a tanning bed and no fear of consequences. Siem Reap’s Pub Street, whilst not quite like its European counterparts, is evidence that the city is thriving on tourism. The area is packed with barang (that’d be us Westerners), pub street itself is pedestrianised and policed at night to cut down on chaos of all sorts, which enables everyone to wander along slowly and take their pick of the restuarants. Will it be Mexican food, Italian cuisine, American, Chinese, Western Khmer fusion, the wild west bar? Oh the choice is extensive and not at all what I had expected. Outside of the shiny, themed restaurants, are the fruit shake stands that I have come to know and worship for my daily dose of vitamin C; the fried tarantula stands that I have come to avoid; and the shooters stands which made me feel like I’d gate-crashed Spring Break in Vegas. The area is clean though, welcoming of all ages, and predominantly about food rather than getting wasted. Having not experienced crowds like this in some time I was slightly shell shocked by the whole thing, and after standing open mouthed and gawping for a minute or so, I figured out what it reminded me of: Disneyland. Downtown Disney in fact which is a purpose built street of restaurants, bars and Disney shops – the flavour of Disney without having to pay the theme park entrance ticket.
A week later, I am still trying to decide if I like it or hate it.
Like I say, Siem Reap is thriving on tourism. It feels like a healthy, happy town, where there is an atmosphere of optimism and good humour amongst the locals. It also feels like it has a very strong Cambodian identity, so overall I don’t think street of tourist mecca is a bad thing. I think it’s a sign of a town going with the flow and making the situation work for them. I suppose my reaction is merely a case of another traveller having their preconceived notions knocked down. Anyone else got an opinion on this?

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