Published on :   07/30/2015

Discovering Cambodia in Siem Reap

I’m in Cambodia!

I have been dreaming about this day for a long time, and to finally have my feet planted on Cambodian ground is incredible. Driving from the airport to my hotel, I was launched into a whole new world, and it was absolutely everything that I have always pictured in my head. The chaotic mass of tuk tuks rushing through the crowded streets, colourful carts packed with displays of food and fresh coconuts… My 18-hour commute has bought me someplace completely new and unfamiliar, and in the excitement of it all, I had a giant smile plastered on my face for the entire car ride. 

This leg of the Photo Tour is my last, and combines both a river cruise with an organized tour from CroisiVoyages. This means that before cruising on the Mekong on board the Toum Tiou I, I will be staying in a hotel while participating in guided tours of Siem Reap and Angkor.

Despite an excruciatingly long travel day crossing time zones and hopping planes, we jumped right into action in Siem Reap. “Today is a shopping day!” exclaimed my guide, and a short drive later, we found ourselves at the shop Senteurs d’Angkor.

Pulling into the parking lot, I was greeted with the curious sight of sugar palm leaves drying in the sun, while to the side, chatty women happily weaved colourful gift boxes. I knew right then that this was no regular gift shop. Senteurs d’Angkor invites visitors directly into their production facilities so that you can see exactly how the products are made. With a diverse set of offerings ranging from tea and coffee to candles and scented oils, all their products make use of local materials. As I was brought through the workshops, my nose was filled with the fragrant mix of lemongrass, mango, spices and more that floated through the air… a great pick-me-up for my tired self!

After some time browsing the finished goods, we indulged in free samples of their spiced coffees and teas. This is where, just as we were about to leave, we got our first taste of Cambodia’s rain season. Without warning, a ferocious blanket of rain began to pour from the clouds… but while this flash storm was heavy and unexpected, it wasn’t enough to shake my happiness. To me, there was something terribly romantic about sipping cinnamon-spiced coffee under a grass roof canopy, as heavy rain pierced through the warm air. Cambodia has its fair share of charms, and I would say the unpredictable weather is one of them.

As the skies cleared, we boarded our bus for the next stop: Artisans d’Angkor, a social enterprise that sells traditional Cambodian crafts.

What sets Artisans d’Angkor apart is its unique two-fold mission to 1) preserve the legacy of ancient Khmer art and 2) economically empower young people living in rural Cambodian communities. Today they employ over 1300 workers while providing vocational training and job opportunities for these youth, who often come from backgrounds that make it difficult to find work. As our guide explained, the ability to work here as artisans therefore helps to lift them out of poverty and gain self-sufficiency. During our tour, we were led by a guide through different on-site workshops, where we saw stone carvers, silk painters and many more diligently at work. Our tour was incredibly informative, and it was a real pleasure to see artisans at work, creating unique, one-of-a-kind products. In a world where most things are mass-produced, I could really appreciate their meticulous craftsmanship.

After witnessing the Khmer culture through art, we were off to explore the city’s market culture at the town’s Old Market, known in Siem Reap as a treasure trove of souvenirs and fresh produce. With our free time here, I lost myself in the labyrinth of stalls selling everything from backpacks and headphones to leather goods, patterned dresses and beaded jewelry. I could have spent hours here, easily. My senses were absolutely overwhelmed by the smell of spices lingering in the air, the sound of fresh coconuts being cracked open to sell, the persistent voices of bargaining customers and salespeople… It was all so wonderfully chaotic!

Our evening concluded with dinner at a local restaurant, which, I kid you not, looked like this:

Our meal was made up of 8 courses: to start, we indulged in two appetizers: a crunchy green papaya salad tossed with roasted nuts and a creamy pumpkin-based soup. This was followed by a few main courses like pan-seared fish filet with Khmer spices, banana leaf-wrapped mushroom amok, stir-fried vegetables and fragrant jasmine rice. Of course, we ended the meal off with dessert, which was a mouthwatering assortment of dragonfruit, pineapple and mango. Mmm!

After just one day, I already know that this trip is going to be one the highlights of my summer. Tomorrow we’ll get a chance to visit some of the area’s most well-known attractions – its temples, and I can’t wait to share the photos with you!

Update you all soon.

- Christina