What I Did when I Got Templed Out in Siem Reap

— 06 Apr 2019

As much as I loved the temples in Angkor Wat, it was almost impossible for me to not get templed out. In my last post about giving back while traveling, I included three activities that I did in Siem Reap when I was not visiting the temples. However, there are a whole lot of other things I did too, & here are the rest of them!

Exploring Pub Street

Pub Street is pretty self-explanatory, but aside of pubs you can also find a long line of restaurants, street hawkers, & surprisingly, aquariums. It’s one of those places that you can’t escape from when you’re researching about Siem Reap, so I was there just for the sake of checking it off my list.

I knew right from the start that Pub Street is not my kind of place. It was just too much, & although my sensory perception could still process everything just fine, I didn’t really want to hang around there for a long time. The restaurants are, as expected, quite pricey & my guts told me that there are more better-priced restaurants out there that are not necessarily aimed at tourists (& my guts were right).

The silver lining is since I went there on my first night, it turned out to be a great way to get myself comfortable with the city. Pub Street is within walking distance from my hostel, so I got to memorize the streets & just picked up the overall vibe of the city along the way.

Savoring the local cuisine

Raise your hand if you agree that the best way to get to know the city is by its cuisine!

Initially, I wasn’t really focused on finding the best local restaurants. Dishes in most of the restaurants I found would cost me around $5 -$6 per dish on average, so I thought I’d just get by eating some fried rice which would cost me $2 -$3 at most. It seems like on my first few days, I had been looking at the wrong restaurants.

Thankfully, my Airbnb host, Chorda, had really great suggestions on where to eat! For dinner, he suggested me to go to Khmer Kitchen, which is right around the corner of Old Market & Pub Street. The beef lok lak was heavenly, the sauce was to die for, the portion was generous, & the waitress couldn’t stop giving me more rice which I really appreciated (I kept saying “no thanks, it’s okay!” but she went on anyway—apparently my face gave it away). The only regret I had was: a) I wish I knew of this place earlier, and b) I wish I came back!

The next day, he & his nephew (which was my designated tuk-tuk driver for the day!) took me out to a local restaurant: Chep Po Noodles Soup & Coffee. As you can probably tell from the name of the restaurant, we had noodle soup & coffee. I loved the vibe of the restaurant—it was just like your regular restaurant, the kind of restaurant that becomes your day-to-day go-to because it is both cheap & delicious, which is exactly why I liked it.

Another restaurant that I tried was Phanha Khmer, where I tried the chicken amok & green curry. It’s a little bit on the pricier side, but I loved the chicken amok, & now I just miss it so much!

Visiting a super talented local artist

During our lunch, at some point I said that I enjoy sketching. My Airbnb host took the initiative to take me to his artist friend.

Meet Bonhak.

Bonhak sketches, but not just any ordinary sketch, he sketches with iron pencils on palm leaves. For the first ten minutes, I just watched him in silence, too awed by the entire process.

This particular visit is special because I don’t really know many people in real life that I can talk to about sketching. Maybe a lot of my friends actually sketch or paint as I can see from their social media posts, we just haven’t really chatted about it yet. But anyway, this is why I get so excited when I find someone I can talk to about this!

He literally invented this technique—he even has a patent for it!—yet he kindly explained the entire process to me, from getting the palm leaves, drying them for 2-3 days, cutting them into long rectangles, drawing squares on the reference photo, to the sketching process itself.

“When did you start creating these?” I asked out of curiosity, expecting probably a double digit number because he looks so effortless in carving lines using his iron pencil as if he’s been doing this forever.

I got more than a number, though. He proceeded to tell me how it all started. “I was lost, thinking a lot, drinking too much, smoke too much,” he recalled. He had always been an artist, but prior to this he was doing painting with oil paint. He still has some of the work that he did using oil paint on canvas in his workshop.

“One day, I was outside burning some leaves, & I started to notice patterns on the leaves.” These patterns, which appeared on the surface of the palm leaves because of the flames, eventually inspired him to create his very own craft. Nowadays, he makes a living from accepting commissions.

Bonhak not only impressed me with his one-of-a-kind work; he also inspired me with his story—he did, after all, manage to turn his life around with art. His passion & enthusiasm were palpable as he proudly showed me his pictures with the King, his certificate of patent, & even his trophy as a winner of a drawing competition from 1987. “I won this,” he said, beaming. “It’s old & dusty though.”

“1987? I wasn’t even born yet!” I quipped.

I can only hope that one day I get to visit Siem Reap & visit him again. Meanwhile, we all can admire his work by visiting his Facebook page.

Oh & guess what—Bonhak’s first sketch with iron pencils is now displayed at Chorda’s house. :)

Biking around the local neighborhood

For the last two nights of my stay I purposely chose an Airbnb that is tucked away in the neighborhood instead of centrally located like my hostel. The neighborhood is actually closer to the Angkor Wat complex than the downtown is, so it’s actually a great option for people who are going to spend a lot of time exploring the temples.

They had bicycles that guests can use for free, & in the morning I used it to bike around the neighborhood. If you ask me, it felt a lot like biking in an Indonesian neighborhood, but still I loved biking past school kids & watching people doing their morning activities.

Exploring the local markets

Aside of through its cuisine, I strongly believe that exploring the local markets is one of the best way to get to know a city. Thankfully, in Siem Reap, you’ll never be short of local markets.

The first market I explored was the Angkor Night Market because it is located conveniently near my hostel. The market primarily sells local-made handicrafts. You can find pretty much everything here, from shadow puppets to paintings of various Siem Reap landmarks.

The next one was Old Market near Pub Street. It was more chaotic than Angkor Night Market, but I found it livelier too.

I was actually much more excited about the local wet market, Phsar Leu Thom Thmey. It’s located on National Road 6, the road that connects Siem Reap & Phnom Penh.

Phsar Leu was one of the highlights of my visit to Siem Reap! Again, nothing like you’ve never seen in Indonesia, but still. The market is enormous & pretty much sells everything, from the most exotic fruits to jewelry. It’s truly the market that the locals go to, & where chefs shop for local produce to be cooked at their restaurants & hotels. At night, the parking lot turns into rows of food stalls. Those who know Pasar Modern BSD might find this bit familiar. :)

Of course, it’s not the most hygienic place as expected from local wet markets. Did I get myself some local snack & ate it, only to realize that flies would drop by the sticky rice every now & then & the lady who sold it would do nothing about it? Yes. But #noragrets. If you’re not squeamish, can stand dirty wet markets, & would love to have insights on the local life, this is definitely one of the places you must go to.

Snacking on bugs at Road 60

Road 60 is a bit far from downtown, which is probably why it’s not really talked about very often. However, if you have bought yourself an Angkor Pass at the ticket center, I’m sure you must have passed this road. One thing that you may not realize is this seemingly ordinary road turns into a lively local night market at night.

I found Road 60 to be even livelier than Pub Street—the difference was, instead of being crowded by tourists, it was full of locals. It had the atmosphere that I had been looking for since the day I arrived in Siem Reap. I got to see people taking their kids out for fun, people having great conversations while picnicking on the riverside (not the kind of riverside with clear water that you’re thinking of, though)… just locals having a night out. I was there on a weekday, & I could imagine it would be way more crowded on a Sunday since it’s the holiday.

I took the opportunity to try out some weird bugs here. The most surprising part of my trip was, it turns out silkworms taste just like peanuts with a texture of meshed potatoes. If I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to tell that I was actually chewing silkworms. Other insects such as beetles weren’t as bad as I thought they would be too, but my still skeptical self is guessing that they were saved by the cooking & seasoning.

Catching sunset at Phnom Krom Hill

On my last day, I went to see the sunset at Phnom Krom Hill. Actually there was no sunset though because it had been raining for two days straight, but that’s okay!

Phnom Krom is about twelve kilometers from Siem Reap, & luckily my Airbnb host could get me his friend that would drive me there with his motorcycle. I loved the ride to Phnom Krom Hill because I got to get a glimpse of the countryside too.

Phnom Krom is not just an ordinary hill—there is also an Angkorian temple on the top of the hill, which is also part of the Angkor Wat complex. If you get there midday, they will ask for your Angkor Pass, but since I was there past 6 PM, I wasn’t asked to show my Angkor Pass.

I thought I had to hike my way up to the hill, but don’t worry, the road was already paved & you just need to hike a short flight of stairs before eventually arriving at the hilltop. Despite the clouds, the views were magnificent—I could see the rice fields stretching all the way to the horizon. There were not so many people around, so it was very peaceful. I spent almost 1.5 hours there, just listening to the birds chirping & having a chat with the friend of my Airbnb host—him talking about his life in Siem Reap & me talking about how it feels like to live in Indonesia.

Doing nothing (or not really)

This is actually the first time I’m traveling in a city for more than four days (with the exception of Edinburgh - but even then I was mostly holed up in my room preparing for my talk). Previously I was always moving, catching trains & flights from one city to another, losing sleep & barely having any downtime. Spending almost a week in Siem Reap allows me to cover the must-dos in a slower pace, so that leaves a lot of time for impromptu visits as well as time for… doing nothing.

Well I did something, though, just not really related to traveling—I spent the day reading Emily Chang’s Brotopia while having a home-cooked breakfast in my balcony. At first I was guilty for doing something that I could be doing at home, but hey, it was nice to get away from everything for a while, to process my thoughts about the trip so far, & just take in the fact that I’m really here, right here, right now.