This is the third time we’ve been to Siem Reap in the last decade. We thought it would be an easy place to sit down for a while and ‘wait for our souls to catch up’. Apparently a soul travels at the speed of a camel so we figured it could take a few months.
We’ve been here a couple of weeks now and have started to settle into a routine. I wake up around 7am, have a quick cuppa and walk the 10 minutes to the closest upmarket resort. I go down Bakheng Road (pronounced Bakine for some reason) and turn left at Noodle Corner, then down to the big road and turn right.
I’ve got a membership card to use the resort’s gym and pool facilities. I haven’t actually used the gym yet. Sometimes I sneak in and look at it but get intimidated by the occasional over-muscled hairy gorilla and all the heavy machinery that I don’t know how to drive. I turn around and slink back out to the pool.
At that time of the morning I usually have the pool to myself. All the rich guests are sleeping off their hangovers from slumming it last night in Pub Street. The pool is pretty lush, with a jacuzzi at one end. I probably didn’t really need to buy a membership. I could have brazenly waltzed in and pretended to be a resort dweller as well as anybody else, but I seem to be pathologically honest.
Walking back through the streets everyone is starting their day, pulling up the roller doors on their shops and setting up their roadside stalls. I have to weave in and out of the swarm of motorbikes, carts and tuk tuks to cross the road. It feels great to be alive.
My morning routine is so very different to how it was just a couple of months ago. Then, I would crawl out of bed bleary-eyed, drink three or four cups of coffee and sit at the computer for the next seven to eight hours doing meaningless, but inexplicably high-pressured (although admittedly well paid), busy work for a big organisation that didn’t even know, or care, that I existed.
Anything else we want to do has to be done before noon, when the heat arrives in full force. A mission to buy a single item or find out a snippet of information can easily fill up a morning. We’ve pretty much done all of the tourist things around Siem Reap before – Angkor Wat and the amazing temples, museums, floating villages, wildlife sanctuaries and so on. So, for now, we’re just ‘being’.
Once rivers of sweat start dripping in our eyes it’s time to retreat to the safety of our air conditioned apartment. We live on the fourth floor, up 88 steps, with a peaceful little balcony and a view over the rooftops. From our balcony we can watch both the sunrise and the sunset. For $290 USD per month we’ve rented this tiny little oasis of calm in a quiet neighbourhood, a 20 minute walk from the craziness of the markets and bars. When I say ‘quiet’ I mean it in Cambodian terms. Everything is at full volume here. Karaoke starts early in the morning and even the primary school in the next block uses a powerful PA to sing ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands’ in unison.
In our first few days here a big marquee was set up across the entrance to our apartment. Complete with a team of caterers cooking up a feast, and hundreds of chairs all covered with shiny satin bows, we thought it was a wedding but it turned out to be a funeral. The Khmer customs surrounding death are quite beautiful. When a person dies they are cremated and a funeral is held, they are honoured for seven days, then another ceremony and feast is held. After 100 days there is another feast and ceremony. All is presided over by the Buddhist monks who chant for two days. If a family can’t afford to pay for everything at the time, it can be postponed indefinitely until such time as they can. This means that there is always a funeral feast happening somewhere. It’s not unusual to come across three or four a day.
Our apartment is simple but has everything we need – a fridge, washing machine, gas cooktop and tepid shower. We bought a few basics – kettle, toaster, frying pan – so we are pretty self-sufficient. Visitors have to sit on the floor or the bed and take it in turns to drink as we only have three cups and three chairs. Whether or not we should buy some $3 stools is a regular topic of discussion.
Cambodian toilets can’t handle toilet paper and there’s quite an art to using the high-pressure hose spray thing instead (no idea what they’re called). We’ve got the hang of it now and figure we’re saving trees and not having to collect bags of used toilet paper to carry down the 88 steps and contribute to the mountains of trash. Probably not helping the water situation though. Sadly the tap water is undrinkable here and poor JH has to regularly carry the huge $1 refillable container along the road and up to the 4th floor.
In the afternoon I write and work on setting up a freelance career that will hopefully allow me to be a digital nomad and work (not too much) from anywhere. I haven’t actually earned any money yet but I’m sure it must be possible. It’s been quite a leap of faith to resign from a secure job with an organisation I’ve been with for 16 years – but if I don’t follow my dreams now, then when?
When it cools down in the evening, it’s quite pleasant to go back out. Siem Reap really comes alive at night. There are blocks and blocks of night markets, a variety of entertainments and cultural performances happening all over the place, everything lit up with pretty coloured lights and so much food. The food has really improved in the last few years since we’ve been coming here. You can still eat street food for less than a dollar but there are multiple vegan restaurants and other multicultural choices like Indian, Mexican, French, Italian. A typical delicious meal in a lovely restaurant costs $2-$6 USD plus $1-$2 for a fresh juice and $2 each way for a tuk tuk to go further afield. Sometimes we stay in and eat 2-minute noodles. Occasionally we go to the bars and drink $2 cocktails and dance to Asian Pop with the locals. Many stay open 24 hours per day. It’s not wise to do this very often.
Settling into Siem Reap is such an easy transition. It’s grown from a sleepy town into a small but busy city. I wake up each day feeling excited, relaxed and full of happiness.