A day of real contrasts as we spend a bit of time in Siem Reap, a once small sleepy Cambodian village, that when the Temples of Angkor were discovered grew quickly as the gateway city to one of the Wonders of World.
Our time so far in the centre of the city has not been one that we had been overly enthused by, as bars and restaurants line “Pub Street” (not a particularly Cambodian sounding name) with flashing neon lights, happy hours, and pounding music, and night markets selling everything that you don’t really need. It is the ugly side of tourism, seeing the true nature of a place overcome by the desire to extract more and more tourist dollars.
It takes a little bit of effort to go beyond the Benidorm style area, but thanks to the wonderfully friendly hosts from our accommodation we do get to see a little of the Cambodian Siem Reap. Cess (Dutch) and Rahim (Singapore) moved to Cambodia a few years ago and set up their guest house (which we would highly recommend).
Keen to try and help the people of Cambodia where they can they have got involved in a number of local projects, including a soup kitchen (from which some of their staff have been recruited) and a local orphanage. It is the latter that we pay a visit to this morning on (as they will admit) not the greatest bicycles in the world.
The orphanage is home to 30 children, and Cess and Rahim come along when then can with provisions and help prepare the children’s food. We are there willing (if not able) assistants and along with some of the girls prepare a sweet and sour for lunch whilst attempting to improve their English.
Totally captivating and smiley children enjoy the run of the rather small and basic site, which includes a small school room and an area dedicated to growing some of their own food. They also have 2 mushroom sheds that they grow to sell (earning around $10 a day), the latter of which was courtesy of a micro-credit from Cess and Rahim. They are very careful that they support them to support themselves, particularly as they have experiences of straight donations to other orphanages ending up in the wrong places, and from what we can see it appears to work so far here.
Back in town we experience the other side of Siem Reap. A new complex is in the final stages of construction that will provide tourists with local staples such as a Hard Rock Cafe and Costa Coffee (the latter is already operational and guiltily we avail ourselves of some much needed A/C and an iced coffee).
In the evening Cess offers to take us out for possibly the best soup in Siem Reap, so following a frenetic nighttime cycle (on the same wonderful bikes) without lights – nobody seems to use them – we end up out on the road to Angkor Wat. You know it’s this road because it’s the only one with street lights, because that looks better for the VIPs who come here and head out to the temples.
The locals have made good use of the unexpected lighting and it plays home to markets, a fairground and street side restaurants (which despite the fact you have to add the volumes of ingredients yourselves still delivered on Cess’s promise of great food).
We head back via the bustling fairground speckled with coloured light bulbs, amusement rides from 1950s English Piers and target shooting games that include washing powder as prizes! We win a can of beer, a packet of biscuits and some sweets that we donate to the orphanage.