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Siem Reap: More Than Just Angkor Wat

We spent over a week in Siem Reap and got to see a bit more of the city than the typical one to three night stopover meant only for visiting Angkor Wat. The touristy part of the city is quite small; almost everything is within walking distance. And walking is exactly what we did, due to the fact that tuk-tuks charge absurd prices just to take you around the corner. 

“Pub Street”, the busiest street in the centre of the tourist area is lined with pubs and restaurants and is crawling with people all evening. The night markets that open around 6PM are packed with people and goods alike and everyone is enjoying themselves. Massages are cheap, food is delicious and you can usually find a bar or restaurant that has draft beer on special for $0.50 USD. The cuisine offered is everything from cheap Cambodian street food to Japanese and sushi to Korean BBQ to high-end Italian places serving all imported ingredients. 

Our first night out we went to X-Bar for a couple drinks. Just off Pub Street, this two story bar/club has a rooftop patio, live music and even a belly dancer!

Another night we opted for a bar that offered free pool. We went upstairs with our beers to the empty pool table. It wasn’t long before two curious little boys appeared in the corner watching us. We exchanged smiles and they came a little closer and started cheering when one of us sunk a ball. When the game was over and Dan went downstairs to get more beer, I offered one of the them a pool cue to see if he wanted to play. I half expected him to be a young expert given that it appeared he spent a lot of time in this bar. Turns out, the two boys weren’t very good at all – and didn’t understand the rules whatsoever – but were happy to be given the chance to play. The staff at the bar looked to us to see if we approved of the kids playing and when we happily nodded the kids were allowed to continue to play with us. When we had to leave, the kids knowingly put down their cues and disappeared.  

Playing Pool in Siem Reap

A couple of little boys took over our game!

A lot of clothing sold at the night markets is low-quality mass production pieces from China but there are some good finds (beautiful Cambodian silk) – and then there are some items that are so cheap that quality can be ignored. Such as the elephant patterned ankle-length dress I purchased for $4 USD which was perfect for Angkor Wat where your knees are supposed to be covered but it’s too hot to wear long pants. 

My favourite find at the night market was a stall selling handcrafted jewelry made from found (and decommissioned) brass landmine, bomb and bullet casings leftover from previous conflicts. Not only is the jewelry outstandingly beautiful and supporting local artisans but it’s about as environmentally friendly as jewelry gets. 

 found brass bomb & bullet casings jewelry

Handmade jewelry made from decommissioned brass ammunition casings

After a few weeks in Turkey and India where Airbnb has yet to catch on, we were happy to be back in a Airbnb in Cambodia. In Siem Reap we rented a studio apartment that we had to ourselves. The newly renovated place was beautifully decorated and had a small but fully equipped kitchen so we could finally get back to cooking some of our own meals again.

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Comfy bed in our Airbnb

Although we spent most of our time at the apartment cooling off inside with the A/C on, we did enjoy the view from our small balcony.

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View from our balcony

And we made friends with the husky living in our apartment complex. At first she was pretty timid but what dog can resist bacon?! However, I don’t know what a husky was doing living in Cambodia where it is 30 plus degree weather, especially when I don’t think her owners had A/C.

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Made friends with the husky living below. Everyone loves bacon.

On another note, if you’re wondering what the used glass alcohol bottles filled with yellowish liquid that line small street stands everywhere in Siem Reap are (especially on the rural roads around Angkor Wat): it’s cheap gasoline. I never did figure out where they get the gasoline from, although I saw people siphoning from large drums.

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Cheap gas sold in used whiskey bottles on the side of the road

Angkor Wat

Selfie in front of the famous Angkor Wat temple

We spent three amazing days at Angkor Wat, which are detailed in a our post “ANGKOR WAT IN 3 DAYS: A PHOTO GUIDE” which I highly suggest you check out, if you haven’t already!

My favourite day of the three was when we rented a scooter and explored on our own! It’s the least common mode of transportation, read more about how to do it in our Angkor Wat post.

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Scooter that we rented to explore the Angkor complex on our own one day

One thing I can’t help but adding is a slogan (from a campaign launched by ChildSafe) you see all over Cambodia: “Children are not tourist attractions.” Cambodia has well-known and large-scale problems with sex tourism and even more horrifyingly, pedophile sex tourists. The situation is far better than it used to be – there are no longer child brothels – but, as described in this Washington Post article, “The fight against child sex trafficking in Cambodia is far from over.”, there is still work to be doneEven more widespread in Cambodia are child street beggars and workers. Children selling small goods – bracelets, water bottles, snacks, etc., are a common site on the streets and throughout the city including inside Angkor Wat. Tourists who wouldn’t give money or buy a cheap bracelet from an older woman, usually will purchase one from a the child because they feel bad – and often the purchase is accompanied by photo-taking which is what really makes the child into a tourist attraction.

And it’s honestly heartbreaking when a little kid grabs your hand and pleas with you to buy something or give them spare change. Or worse yet, when their innocent eyes look up at you and they say something along the lines of: “no money, no money, I only want food”. However, no matter how desperate they look, do not give children money or buy anything from them.

I knew better, but caved once (on my past trip) when a young girl – maybe six years old – carrying a very small baby grabbed my hand and said, “no money, no money, just food for baby”. I mean how can you say no? She tugged on my hand almost dragging me towards the corner store and showed me the powdered infant formula, which was surprisingly expensive (but I had never really looked at the prices of infant formula beforehand). She tried to get me to buy the largest container which cost $50 USD and I finally agreed to buying a smaller one for $20 USD. Once we left, I stuck around and watched her. She returned the baby food to the store. Supposedly, it’s a common scam. The store keeps a profit and gets to resell the unopened food, the girls parents (or whoever she works for) make a profit and neither the little girl or the baby see any food or money as a result. I also noticed that the baby the little girl was carrying never once made a sound. It hit me as odd and over the next couple of days I looked out for it and not a single baby (many of the kids and adults carry them) ever cried. Although, I can’t confirm if it’s true, I read that most of the babies are drugged to stay quiet. 

Overall, by giving money to begging children you are supporting a vicious cycle that keeps kids on the streets. As long as parents recognize that sending their kids out to beg for money is more likely to bring in revenue then begging themselves or that tourists are more likely to buy a bracelet from a little kid selling them from a basket, kids will be forced to work the streets instead of going to school or playing with their friends. It also exposes them to a huge range of dangerous people and increases their chances of getting hurt, abused or forced into the sex industry. 

Another shocker: orphanages aren’t always as positive as you may think. For more information on the topic, ChildSafe as an interesting video on their page: “Don’t Create More Orphans”. It’s extreme thinking – I know – how can one small donation that’s meant for good do something like create more orphans? In one of the temples at Angkor, an American tourist asked if I had any small bills I could give him, he wanted to pass them on to the little girl begging for money. I abruptly told him there wasn’t a chance I was giving him money to give to a kid, with little explanation. In retrospect, I was really harsh. If you’ve only been travelling in the developing world for a limited period of time, your mind set probably hasn’t adjusted. If a kid came up to be needing money in Vancouver I wouldn’t hesitate to buy them a meal. But in a undeveloped county where the rules are different, life is different. There is a whole other world out there and sometimes wrapping your head around is really difficult. Many families living in poverty are led to believe that their children are better off growing up in an orphanage away from their parents. Orphanages accept donations and more children equals more donations. Children once again become tourist attractions. I can’t think of how many travellers I’ve met that have talked about visiting an orphanage to play with the kids and take photos. Of course, their intentions are good, they love seeing the smiling faces, and in some instances they really are doing good, but it’s just another situation where you have to be twice as careful as you thought. 

If you do want to give, there are many organizations in Cambodia that help street kids, promote education and work to keep families together. Give to a recognized organization, not a street kid or an orphanage. It may seem counter-intuitive that giving to someone else more directly helps the children in need, but it’s the truth. 

Check out more photos on Flickr

How did we get there: Bus from Phnom Penh
Transport cost: $22 CAD per person
Recommended nights: 3-5 nights

Accommodation: Airbnb at $38 CAD per night
Average Cost per day: $106 CAD/day for two people (Note, this includes a three-day Angkor Wat Pass)

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2 thoughts on “Siem Reap: More Than Just Angkor Wat

  1. Anna Jean Mallinson says:

    Like you, I am very attracted to the jewelry made from discarded weaponry. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis of the complex problems of child poverty and the exploitation of children in Cambodia. I can see that you have had to educate yourself to understand the situation and try to respond in a useful way. by the way, when do we get to see a photo of you in the elephant- print dress?

    • Kyra & Daniel says:

      It’s hard to tell but if you look closely at the black and white dress I’m wearing in most of the Angkor Wat photos, the dress has an elephant-print! The purple dress is the same style (and price) , but a different print.

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