By day Siem Reap’s muddy, uneven streets are a web of fascinating intersections.
Streets meet alleyways. Old meets new. Tuk-tuks meet luxury sedans, travelers meet locals, and past meets present. A short way out of town these roads lead to the temple complexes at Angkor. At night, neon signs hanging over potholed and dimly-painted gravel point the way, and the city becomes a different animal, born afresh out of the heat of the day.
Tucked away down an alley, our small hotel was at a short remove from the main action of the town, though once we had spilled out onto the wet, uneven streets of Siem Reap, the world would come to life. We’d pass school classes with children belting out recitals in an open-air hall that backed onto the street (one night, even a disco of sorts with the children singing and bouncing along to various hits). Sing-song requests to eat at every restaurant we’d pass. Endless cries of “hello massage”. And, everywhere, “yes? Tuk-tuk! Yes? How about tomorrow?”
Onto the main streets, the neon signs point with arrows to “Night Market” or to “Pub Street” — a pedestrian precinct where, as the name suggests but understates, cheap beer and thirsty tourists converge nightly in a street-long hedonistic drinkfest that gathers in intensity as the night unfolds. It’s a great city for people watching, day or night, and for simply walking around to ‘feel the vibe’ of it all.
Though the allure of inexpensive beer is ever present, this alone is not why anyone is in Siem Reap. They’re here, as were we, to use it as a base from which to explore the temple ruins at Angkor. Over the next three days we took in our fill of temples, from the mighty and indomitable Angkor Wat — the largest structure of its kind in the world, to the eerie Bayon, from the turning spires of Pre Rup to the jungle-strangled remains of Ta Prohm and many, many others.
Each ruin, each still standing temple, is a wonder in itself, and to walk among the fallen stones is to hear a voice from the distant past, uttered on crumbling relics of a once-mighty empire that is no more. The temples, more than a thousand years old, were built at a time in history when a mere fifty thousand people called London home, by a Khmer empire that counted more than a million souls in its domain. Here we were, an American and a South African — our nationalities byproducts of the British Empire in a very real way — exploring the ruins of a bygone Khmer Empire and wondering who will be visiting what a thousand years from now.
It was food for thought at night, as we followed the neon signs to a place where our thirsty stomachs and aching feet were soothed by cheap beers, foot massages, and foot massages while drinking deliciously cheap beer.