In Khmer, the main language of Cambodia, ‘chum reap sour (choom rep soor)’ means hello and is said with both hands together palm to palm in front of one’s mouth, as in prayer. Stepping off the plane at the Siem Reap airport you feel this same feeling of peace conveying in Cambodian greetings . Off in the distance, palm trees and jungle extend to the horizon. From the outside, the terminal looks more like a spa or resort than an airport, and the interior with its stone statues and tropical flowers maintains this relaxed atmosphere.
Though Siem reap has only recently become a bustling tourist destination, the town still has a relaxed atmosphere, like any beach resort. In fact, spending an evening on the upper level of any of the restaurants on pub street, enjoying the gentle breezes and a cold beer, you may forget you are in Cambodia and not in some small coastal town.
Siem Reap is located almost in the center of Cambodia and has a population of 171,800. The other major industries in the province, also named Siem Reap, are fishing and rice-growing. Though the reign of the Khmer Rouge has long since ended and Pol Pot died in 1998, reminders of this dark time in Cambodia still exist. Victims of land mines panhandle, sell postcards or tourist books, or form bands to play traditional music for money on the streets of the city. Visitors are warned not to stray off marked paths for the fear of undiscovered land mines, and museums on the history of the Khmer Rouge are not hard to find.
Other than Angkor and the outlying ancient Khmer temples, Siem Reap has plenty for visitors to take advantage of during their stay. The Old Market is just off the river and is open from about 9 a.m. until approximately 6 p.m. but varies between individual stalls. The Night Market is just off Pub Street and opens around 5 p.m. and continues until the wee hours of the morning. Cambodia is on the American dollar except for change smaller than a dollar, which they give in Riel. There are approximately 4,000 Riel to the dollar, so instead of a quarter in change, visitors receive a 1,000 Riel bill. Bargaining is typical in both markets for any of the goods from silk pillowcases, tablecloths, and scarves, to wood or metal carvings, and spices and teas.
The entertainment center of Siem Reap is Pub Street. The street and its adjoining alleys are jam-packed with everything from tapas bars, Irish pubs , and discos to restaurants featuring French, Continental, Khmer and many other types of cuisine. Just off the street are more opportunities at the more upscale hotels on the river and hawker-type stalls with super affordable Khmer cooking.
The dollar is good in Cambodia. A good dinner with drinks and an appetizer or dessert for one will run you only $10. In the market, spices and tea are less than a dollar per sachet, pillowcases for as low as $2, silk scarves for only $3. More wily bargainers may find even lower prices than these!
A strange sight unique to the streets of Siem Reap are the fish massages. At first glance it may appear dozens of storefronts are attempting to sell tourists small pet fish. Upon further inspection, the fish tanks are actually aquatic massage tanks, where participants dip their feet in to have hungry fish nibble away the dirt of the day’s adventures. As one vendor posted on the tank, “never try, never know,” and so it is, tourists are drawn in less for the relaxing experience and more for the great story to share with friends once they return home.
Real massage parlors are not hard to find. It is almost impossible to walk down a street without hearing “Massage lady?” at least half a dozen times and eager masseuses will attempt to hand out fliers of their services.
It is likewise impossible to walk around without solicitations of “Tuk tuk lady?” Tuk tuks, motorcycle-powered passenger carts, are the main taxi of Siem Reap. They will take you anywhere, whether it be a hotel for dinner, temples for a whole day, or the airport for your return flight. They also all have their own unique drivers and paint schemes. I spied quite a few Batman carts, and one “party” tuk tuk complete with bumping music and flashing lights.
It’s hard to leave Siem Reap but it is possible. Saying goodbye in Khmer is done in the same peaceful way as hello, with joined hands and the words “chum reap lea (choom rep ley-ah).” So with newfound peace, take your goodies from the markets, board the plane, and plan another visit.