DEAR TOURIST, you stood on the corner of Pub Street and within five minutes you were preyed upon by tuk-tuk drivers, little girls, and handicapped men, all wanting something from you. As a first timer, we know you are enjoying the scene, the carnival. l like atmosphere, an evening promising Bacchanalian excess. Please allow us to give you some advice, after all, we have been coming here since 1992. Then, after exploring the tourist side of Siem Reap”s night light, we invite you to come with us and we will show you other parts of Siem Reap. See you at the corner of Pub Street and Thmou Street at 6:30.
As for Donald and I, at 5:00 we pick Tuit up at school and along with our Khmer friend, Cinnamon, we enjoy mixed fruit drinks and study English at the Selantra Restaurant on Wat Bo Street. We return Tuit to the school around 6:00, walk back to our hotel and prepare for our own evening.
Sitting on our patio, we sip French wine, because it is the cheapest. The sounds of the late afternoon have already returned for evening. The monks from the pagoda across the river chant their evening prayers. The sound of their powerful voices floats across the river, momentarily hanging in the air, then soaring away, the product of souls that are peaceful and pure, or so we like to think. The slanting rays of the setting sun have already sliced their way through the palm trees shading our porch, their geometric patterns now lost in the fading light. But we are on time to watch pastel brushstrokes color the twilight sky. Geckos appear, attached to the ceiling awaiting a dinner of unsuspecting mosquitoes. (Yes, it really happens this way.)
Night falls quickly in the tropics and soon the streetlights are illuminating the road below and it is time for us to leave. The night air is pleasant and walking through the gates of the hotel, we are looking forward to another Siem Reap evening.
At the corner, where the tuk-tuk drivers gather, there is only one driver waiting, Mr. Pach. We wave and tell him we are going to walk which is ok with him as he is slightly drunk on the palm wine he drinks every afternoon. Donald buys a pack of cigarettes from the woman on the adjacent corner who just recently set up a small “newsstand and snack shop”. Of course, she is not paying rent, just another squatter on the sidewalk who will remain until the police order her to leave. She and Donald have become friends. He does not ask the price but hands her a $1.00 for a pack of Marlboro. This is less than what the tourists are usually charged, but she accepts. We cross the road and step up onto the charming bridge, guarded at each end by a five headed naga. This is the ancient mystical serpent found in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. When he is not helping Vishnu create the world, he protects Buddha from the rain while his coiled body provides him a place to sit.
Downstream we can see the arched bridge that brings Hwy 6 across the river. Between the two, old weeping willow trees line the banks wrapped in assorted color fairy lights reflected in the water. Here the Siem Reap River, which we have come to cherish, is dark brown, full of silt and whatever else, we do not want to know. At this time of year, by the time it reaches our hotel, it has ceased to flow and seems content to shimmer in the breeze, set on idle. Crossing the bridge, we turn right at the pagoda. We walk with our heads down as parts of the sidewalk are missing. We believe the locals pick up the paving tiles to use in their own homes, not a fact only a thought. The Pub Street scene is getting into high gear and with one more right hand turn we will be right there.
However, walking down Thmou Street, we first have to pass rows of massage parlors. Bevies of young women and katoeys, Thai for transgender, hand out brochures and shout out “massage sir, madame”. For $5.00 per hour, they will rub your feet, neck, back, legs, and shoulders. For an additional $5.00, two will work you over, the traditional four hand massage. They excel in rubbing and scrubbing, applying hot oils and local herbs. Also, for a small price they will happily clean out your ears or remove unwanted hair. Donald and I have never indulged. But owing to the fact the Khmer”s are actually modest and, believe it or not, this is a very conservative country, I suggest you go to Bangkok if you want something kinky. They claim to be specialist in foot reflexology. After massaging the various pressure points on your feet that are connected to other parts of your body, they promise “happy feet for your good health”. At $3.00 for thirty minutes or $5.00 for sixty minutes, what a bargain if you can stand the pain. But the most bizarre type of massage is the “fish massage”. For a few dollars, you sit on the edge of a large tank and place your feet in water and watch as hundreds of hungry fish swarm around nibbling away your dead skin. I understand this tickles and do not look at the bottom of the tank because it must be covered in dead epidermis as the fish bite off more than they can chew.
Dear Tourist, we see you waiting for us on the corner. We know you had a wonderful time on your pub crawl. As you walked down Pub Street, young women standing in front of the restaurants waved menus, inviting you to come in. Standing in the middle of the street, they offered wide varieties of Khmer, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, French, Indian, and Italian food and also a proper hamburger if you remembered where we told you to go. But we know, you walked around these lovelies thinking only of cold beer.
As per our suggestion, you sat down at the Angkor What Bar?, Siem Reap”s most famous bar. Located in the middle of this short street, you looked around knowing this is where it all began. When it opened in 1998, it was the first bar in the area. When Donald and I drank there in 2002, it was owned by Miranda, an English woman, who then sold the bar to Alex, from Scotland. Subsequently, he married his American bar tender, Jennifer, who had left her job in New York and was touring Asia. Today, they have three thriving restaurants, other business ventures, and two adorable children.
You then walked across the street and assumed a curbside position at the Temple Club and sipped on another .50 glass of Angkor draft. You were too early for the free Apsara dance show but just in time to watch the show unfolding in front of you. It is hard to believe the eclectic masses of humanity wandering up and down the street, dressed or hardly dressed in bizarre clothing, leading you to wonder literally where on earth they were purchased. A cacophony of sounds permeates the air, languages you have never heard before, and music that maybe sounded familiar but just a few beats off. You enjoyed the carnival like atmosphere and wondered where the people were going, as they were probably wondering too.
As per our other suggestion, you found a seat at the Le Tigre de Papier and watched a little soccer on their wide screen TV. When you arrived at the end of the street, we hope you had one more drink in the Red Piano on the corner. This too is one of the oldest places on the street. The owner, from Belgium, would be happy to sell it and return home if he could only obtain visas for his two children who are part Khmer. Standing on this corner, you noticed the two streets filled with food stalls and crossing over you are again assailed by menu waving young girls offering plates of wok fried food for $1.00 to $2.00. Even though hundreds of people are sitting at the small tables, with hardly a vacant plastic chair, we are not too sure about the hygiene. Please remember, just one tainted finger can send you to your bed for days with stomach pains and other ailments, making an early death seem a viable alternative.
You are close to the night market, another tourist destination that is actually well done. You can buy the usual t-shirts but there is also an assortment of very well made Khmer handicrafts. But do not forget to bargain.
At this point, following our advice, you exited the Red Piano, turned left and walked down Street 11. At the first possible left turn, you immediately found yourself at the entrance to The Passage. This is actually the dressed up name for the wide alley and its warren of narrow side alleyways that runs behind the buildings on Pub Street. Formerly a residential area, its two and three story buildings did not age well. We remember the cracked plaster and peeling paint and its former ochre color surrendering to greenish-black streaks of mildew left by years of monsoon rains. Sunlight never penetrated, allowing the moisture to thrive in the unrelenting humidity. The alleyways were filled with decades of clutter and street children, carrying large sacks, rummaged through refuse filled corners seeking anything of value. Just walking past, you could not avoid the cloying smells of fried garlic, onions, and sewage. It was a place where the tourist never ventured leaving it to the locals, the rats, and large cockroaches.
Then beginning at the corner, The Linga Bar, Siem Reap”s first gay bar, established itself and as the tourist trade increased this alleyway became gentrified step by step. (As an aside, the linga refers to Shiva”s proud member and usually fits into a yoni, but another time for a discussion of Hindu theology.) Tourists replaced the former denizens and today the entire alley and its side corridors are filled with a wide assortment of restaurants. It is a well lit colorful space pulsating with tourists and you must arrive early to find a table.
Dear Tourist, as you walked through the alley, once again, you ran the gauntlet of young women waving menus offering a variety of Asian and International food. A word of caution, do not sit at a table close to the walkways because you will be accosted by every Khmer with something to sell. Our favorite restaurants, Aha, are located next to an interesting art gallery. Here you can sit inside, in air conditioned comfort and enjoy small plates of tastefully prepared Asian fusion food.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
By the time you walked through the alley, stepped back onto Thmou street, the little girls selling post cards, who cannot be avoided, have become annoying and you wonder why they are not home doing their homework. You think every tuk-tuk driver possible has offered his services. Now, I think you are ready to leave this strip and see another side of Siem Reap.
THE OTHER SIEM REAP AT NIGHT
It is the tourists who flock to Pub Street and to the Passage, as rightly they should. But there are other parts of Siem Reap that can be enjoyed without the tumult. If you want to enjoy a Happy Hour, follow the Australian archeologists from the GAP Project and go to the Victoria Hotel and sit poolside under their veranda or hike up to the Grand Angkor and enjoy a drink in their famed Elephant Bar. For Khmer food, we suggest a visit to Veroths”s on Wat Bo Street or the Sugar Palm on the other side of town. Located in a beautiful Thai style wooden building you can feast on the best spring rolls in Siem Reap and enjoy a grilled eggplant with ground pork, marveling at the wonderful smoky flavor. The restaurant in our hotel, the Bophar Angkor, offers excellent Khmer food even though it is filled each night with small tour groups. These three restaurants are so popular that you must make reservations. When you become a little more adventurous, you can venture down Strang Siem Reap, cross over Hwy 6, turn right at a pagoda, and travel down a dirt road until you come to a delightful thatched hut. You will have found Touich, a new restaurant opened by a couple from Battenbang. The owner, a delightful young man, speaking perfect English, will guide you through the menu and offer you tropical drinks made with ginger. If you like your Asian style food infused with other cuisines, we suggest dinner at The Nest. Located on Sivatha Boulevard, another main street, you enter a garden like setting under artfully constructed tents. After all this Asian food, it is ok to want a taste of home. We suggest you visit the Bistro at the Victoria Hotel, here you should order the onion soup covered in puff pastry and the grilled New Zealand lamb chops. We also suggest Abacus, where Reynaud, the delightful Frenchman, offers excellent Australian beef and wonderful lamb shanks cooked with lentils. Ok, if you are really desperate, there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Sivatha. They are working with poultry growers and producing chickens just like back home. This is necessary because who wants to eat a scrawny Khmer free range one that has been pecking in the dirt and drinking sewer water.
Now it is time to visit a bar, for a night cap or some conversation. All of the places mentioned above are located on the periphery of the central tourist area so we have to come back to the alleyways. Since our friend Karl is no longer holding court at his Ivy Bar, we suggest a visit to Ms. Wongs, located on the opposite side of Pub Street in The Lane. As if stepping back into the days of old Shanghai with all the possibilities of intrigue, this place, with its muted red walls, is a haven of quiet sophistication. An eclectic collection of Chinese decorative accessories and black lacquered furniture contributes to the charm. Dean, from New Zealand, is a delightful host. We enjoy his conversation as strains of jazz and music from the 1940″s contributes to setting the tone of opulent decadence, any moment expecting to be offered a pipe of opium, which of course does not happen. His three young Khmer bar tenders can prepare most any drink you suggest. As for us, we drink a few rusty nails.
By now, it is 10:30 and your tour guides are ready to find a tuk-tuk and head back to our hotel. But as for you, dear Tourist, the night is still young and it is time for you to seek out the late night bars, which are not located on Pub Street. We suggest the Laundry Bar, the Warehouse, the Linga Bar, and the X Bar. Again, you are on your own. No need to report back, we have been there before.