Monday, September 30, 2013

Chuseok 2013: Shopping, Drinking, and Dining in Siem Reap

MsC and MrL in tuk-tuk, somewhere in Siem Reap.  This was how they traveled most of the time.
As MsCaroline promised in her last post, she really is going to get to the temples of Angkor Wat soon - just not today (if you really need to see them now, they're a dime a dozen on Google, although MsC bets that none of the other bloggers will have Maharaja faces anywhere near as fabulous as MrL's.)
For those of you who aren't interested in  lengthy rambling blog posts about shopping and dining all the details, let MsCaroline offer an executive summary up front:  Siem Reap was awesome.  Should you be interested in hearing more, read on.  If not, come back tomorrow for temple photos.)

Today's post, gentle readers, is about Siem Reap, which is the closest major city to Angkor Wat and where almost all tourists stay when they visit.  Most hotels have English-speaking staff (and many have staff who speak Korean and Chinese as well, due to the huge number of tourists coming from Korea and China) and every shop and/or restaurant had English-speaking staff.  In other words, Siem Reap is an easy place to visit if you are an English-speaking foreigner.
tuk-tuks - cheap and widely available - were everywhere in Siem Reap

MsC realizes that there are numerous travel writers and travel bloggers out there who are much better at this than she is who have covered most of the basics of Siem Reap, so she will limit her observations to her own personal highlights and encourage those of you who are thinking of taking a trip of your own to check out the Lonely Planet Travel Guide To Cambodia, which really turned out to be incredibly helpful for just about everything from historical information to restaurant suggestions.

Most of the shopping/dining/drinking action for tourists -when they are not clambering around temple ruins in Angkor- happens in and near an area of Siem Reap called Psar Chaa, in the Old Market vicinity.  The Old Market is a sort of a warren of covered alleyways full of booths selling everything imaginable, but heavy on tourist favorites such as t-shirts emblazoned with 'Angkor Wat,' items made out of silk, jewelry, and so many silver, wood, stone, metal, and rattan objects d'art that MsC can't really describe them.

Rice in bulk?

Spices, mixes, nuts, food....anything you can think of.

 Amateurishly painted sunrise over Angkor Wat? It's yours for a few dollars (For you, I make special price, Madam.)  What? You've already bought a traditional Khmer scarf? (You need another one, Madam! I give you special price!) Similar items can also be found at the Night Market (which actually opens at 4:00pm in case one isn't a night owl.)  There are also numerous other shops, galleries, and boutiques in the city selling merchandise ranging in price from  a dollar (most transactions take place in US dollars) to several thousands.

Note:  While MsCaroline (who is an information junkie) realizes that Cambodia is now the fastest-growing economy in Asia (an average of 6% per year), it would be wrong to pretend that Cambodia is not still very much a developing country, due primarily to the 30+ year regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  When one considers that Cambodia really just emerged into the world community in 1997, it is truly remarkable to see how far the country has come, and it will be exciting to see its development in the next few decades.  However, there is still much ground to be covered, and - despite the obvious indicators of modernity - many Cambodians still live in relative poverty.  In addition, scam opportunities for  'voluntourism' have increased in Cambodia, with well-meaning foreigners making donations or paying fees to 'volunteer' for a few days in various institutions, including 'orphanages'.  Many of these turn out to be scams populated by local children who have been recruited to play the roles of 'orphans' for a day and thus diverting resources away from the truly needy.  Adults and children peddle books, postcards and trinkets (many of them made in China) in the streets and at temple sites - and there is no way of knowing where one's money goes if one buys from them - so MsCaroline didn't.  All of that being said, MsCaroline tried her best to spend her money in ways that were guaranteed to support local workers and the local economy, which explains why she spent so much time, money, and- eventually- blog space on these two places:

Artisans d'Angkor  This workshop in Siem Reap near the Night Market provides vocational training for young Cambodians in the traditional Khmer arts, including wood- and stone-carving, silk weaving, lacquering, gold leaf embossing, and silver casting, among others. Proceeds not only go to the deserving craftsmen, but also toward training programs for new students.  Master craftsmen- and women train students in a number of open-air workshops throughout a small campus in Siem Reap, where visitors can take a free guided tour and watch them at work.  Also featured are displays that show, step-by-step, what is involved in making certain pieces.  Arriving visitors are assigned to a guide from the school who directs them through the workshops (at no cost), explains the various processes involved in creating the artwork and answers any questions (tours are available in several languages.) Masters and apprentices go about their work as visitors wander through (note:  all photo credits for Artisans d'Angkor go to Son#2, who actually took photos while MsC just gawped.)

Carving display from step 1 (far end, raw wood) through priming and lacquering to final product.




Reproduction in early stages



Carving in progress.


Silver molds



Artisans d'Angkor are also responsible for much of the restoration and all the reproductions found throughout the temples of Angkor (many priceless items have been stolen, damaged, or simply removed for safekeeping, and subsequently replaced with high-quality reproductions.)



At the end of the tour, visitors are invited (not pressured) to visit the gift shop, which features finished products ranging in price from a few dollars for smaller souvenirs and spice mixes up to thousands of dollars for enormous stone carvings or temple statues and archways that MrLogical was too cheap to consider shipping felt would be too logistically difficult to transport back to Seoul.  MsCaroline ended up with far less than she would have liked because MrL is a meanie and thinks that a full-size Buddha won't fit in the apartment a few nice pieces similar to those she had seen in the workshops and could have spent much more than she did.  She was very happy to note that the Artisans maintain a gift shop at the Siem Reap Airport, which - shockingly - features exactly the same prices as the workshop (MsCaroline doesn't even know if this is legal in airports and hopes she didn't get anyone into trouble.)  If you don't have time to visit the workshop while you are in Siem Reap, spending a bit of cash at the airport can still support a worthwhile program.

Fortunately, MsC did not spend all her money at Artisans d'Angkor, which gave her a chance to spend the rest of it some at the next stop, Senteurs d'Angkor, which specializes in products that are both locally sourced  and which provides employment to over 100 Cambodian workers, 10% of whom are handicapped.


 Their serene and tastefully-appointed shop in Siem Reap is a nice change from the crowded and overflowing marketplaces.  It sells much of the same merchandise (at very reasonable - although just slightly higher-prices, and also supports and stimulates the local economy.  Win-win.

One of the showrooms

Wood carvings



Silk:  scarves, tablecloths, pillowcases...

And more silk...

Handmade soaps in exotic fragrances

At a very reasonable price!

Exotic teas...



Peppercorns and spice blends

One may also tour the Senteurs d/Angkor workshops (a shuttle will take you from the store) but unfortunately, MsCaroline did not have enough time to visit.





MsCaroline is happy to say that she saw Senteurs products for sale in a number of places in Siem Reap, including in her hotel's gift shop, and that the prices were (once again) not artificially inflated.  You can also order their products online, should you wish (catalogue PDF and order form links are on the left.)

Lest readers begin to roll their eyes at all of MsCaroline's earnest do-gooderness, let her quickly move on to a different topic:  drinking. This particular incident (there were several) took place on a late afternoon in an eye-catching - but nearly empty - bar in Pub Street called  'Linga', which MsC vaguely remembered as getting quite good reviews for its cocktails in her Lonely Planet Guide.  As it turned out, the cocktail menu was, indeed, extensive and interesting,

This is the 'G'-rated part of the drinks menu
and MsC and MrL seated themselves streetside for prime people-watching (next to a lovely French family with three busily-coloring children) and drank Singapore Slings, which seemed like just the sort of thing to drink in a former French Colonial city in Southeast Asia.



In fact, the Slings were so good, that they had a 2nd, which resulted in a certain amount of high spirits.

obligatory maharaja shot at Linga Bar.
It was sometime around the 3rd Sling after a random comment from a fellow drinker that MsC muzzily recalled a few more details about the origin of the word 'Linga,.'  This included the fact that the place had been referred to in her guide as a 'chic gay bar.'  She subsequently turned her attention to the nearby poster highlighting the regular Ladyboy drag show that would take place that very evening:


At this point, MsC and MrL were faced with a terrible dilemma, because the Ladyboy show did not begin for a good 3-4 hours, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the bartender was pouring quite generously:  could they - two middle-aged persons who normally were in bed by 10pm - possibly continue to sit there and drink for the next 3-4 hours in order to see what would surely be an outstanding performance?

The answer was - sadly - "no."  It was absolutely necessary for them to find food as they were, by that time, both on what Son#1 the University Student coarsely refers to as  'the Struggle Bus."  They decided to get some dinner and, should they find themselves feeling alert enough afterward, consider a return to see the show once they had absorbed some of the alcohol in their stomachs and decided whether they could stay awake or not  assessed their levels of fatigue.

Fortunately for them, directly across the alley was a Cambodian Barbecue establishment.  Being familiar with Korean-style barbecue (where the meat is grilled at the table on a portable tabletop grill and accompanied by a number of side dishes,) they were starving and it was the closest restaurant curious to see what the Cambodian version looked like.  They walked the few meters across the alley and ordered dinner, which turned out to be fantastic:  meat cooked on a tabletop grill surrounded by a deep well full of hot broth.

As the grill cooked the meat, the juices ran down into the heating broth, which was full of a variety of vegetables and noodles.




Once everything was cooked, diners enjoyed steaming bowls of meat-and-vegetable noodle soup.  

Obligatory maharaja-at-the-bbq-shot.  Most likely a direct result of all those Singapore Slings.

Had they been aware of its existence, they would most certainly have followed their meal with a stop at  The Blue Pumpkin, a French bakery and ice-cream parlor, which they (sadly) only discovered on their last day and which would have been just the thing to top off their evening, featuring, as it did, pretty much the Best Ice Cream In The Entire World, including all the standard flavors as well as many more exotic ones:

caramel and cashews, ginger & black sesame, khmer fruits...how to choose?
Passion fruit? Banana? Or just vanilla?
The Pumpkin also featured a cool lounge upstairs, as indicated by this sign:

Yes, the lounge was, in fact, cool.  
It is probably just as well that they did not visit at that point, since the Cool Lounge included a sort of reclining couch-and-table arrangement, which might have led to someone falling asleep and embarrassing herself  themselves.

Instead,  MsC and MrL - as much as they prefer to think of themselves as the sophisticated and worldly clubbing types - boarded a tuk-tuk and headed back their hotel, where they lounged around the Maharaja Suite dozing through watching Tomb Raider (DVD thoughtfully provided by hotel - nice touch, eh?) with Son#2, and turning in just about the time the Ladyboys were probably starting to do their thing. 

As it turned out, it was a good thing they got their rest, because they would need it the next day when they started visiting the temples of Angkor.


6 comments:

Trish Burgess said...

I'm going to have to steal 'the struggle bus' phrase. That did make me laugh. We never have enough stamina for late night entertainment, especially if we have imbibed! We do like our sleep.

I love the two shopping suggestions - a clever, sensible way to help the local economy and get some wonderful souvenirs, even if they were only the portable ones.

Donna said...

As usual per reading your blog, I have added a couple new words and phrases to my vocabulary. Love it! I am really enjoying my armchair view of all these places that I know I will never go. And it is amazing to me that English is so prevalent wherever you go. Thanks for the detail you put into each blog. I am still waiting for the book... ;)

Stacy said...

More crazy eyes! Yay! Another awesome post, Carolyne. You make me want to go back all over again to do some shopping. That was definitely not on our agenda after all-temples-all-day-all-the-time. Perhaps I should have scheduled more time in Siem Reap but we also did Phnom Penh in the same trip. Yeah, I've always been an overachiever. :)

MsCaroline said...

Donna - awwww, thank you! I'm actually really thankful I don't blog professionally, because I understand that the best bloggers keep things short - and that (as we all know) is NOT my specialty! Cambodia has probably been the easiest place to get around (as far as the language goes) that we've been to yet, with the exception of Belize ( a former British colony.) Even Hong Kong wasn't so easy! Of course, I think the sheer number of tourists to Angkor probably has a lot to do with it...

MsCaroline said...

Stacy - Oh, yes, the eyes - just wait, we've not even gotten to the temples yet! Ordinarily, I am not much of a shopper (and I still am not - especially the clothes-and-shoes type) but I had 'Christmas presents' in the back of my mind, so I was more motivated than usual - also, the prices were soooo incredibly low, it almost seemed wrong not to take advantage of them! We had a 3-day temple pass (and 5 days in Cambodia) so we had time on both ends to spend on shopping and relaxing. We also found it was pretty easy to get 'templed out' after about the 3rd or 4th temple in a day! We didn't make it to Phnom Penh this time - can't imagine squeezing that in along with Angkor - my hat's off to you!

BavarianSojourn said...

I too am stealing "struggle bus"!! Hilarious post... You have definitely inspired me to put Cambodia high on my list! :)