‘Sus day,’ Siem Reap!
WRY BREAD - Philip Cu-Unjieng (The Philippine Star) - January 23, 2016 - 9:00am

If you say “Sus day” like you’re speaking Bisaya, you’ve just learned one valuable lesson for visiting Cambodia: saying “hello” in their own language, and putting a smile on the faces of the locals you’ll encounter.

With over three million visitors yearly to Siem Reap alone — the northern province (and similarly-named capital city of the province) where one gets one’s fill of temple overload — Cambodia remains one of the Asian tourist destinations that genuinely charms, thanks to the warmth of the people, and the curious mix of staggering 12th-century Khmer dynasty architecture and the French-colonial Old World remnants that still dot the city landscape. With the looming Angkor Wat temple as the best preserved among the vestiges of its dynastic period, one can only be impressed by the strides this once beleaguered ASEAN nation is now taking, prompted by tourism.

For the prospective traveler, I would dare to suggest that three whole days is just about right for that first visit. Arrange for a guide beforehand, and recommendations from friends who have visited would be one good course to take. The Siem area is rightly proud of the official guides they have on call — uniformly, they have been trained extensively before being given official status and I noticed how they are a polyglot bunch, with an impressive array of languages to cater to most tourist groups from all over the globe. I overheard one with an impressive command of Spanish. It was easier to understand him than some of the ones I encountered speaking English. The US dollar is in popular use and one can survive without converting to the local currency — just have bunches of 10s and 20s on hand.

The weather is much like ours, just be forewarned that it can be very dusty at the temples. And please respect the fact that you are visiting places of worship. The Cambodians are much too polite to outright refuse entry except for extreme cases but do show respect for their culture and their customs. They have bent rules to say shorts below the knees are acceptable (only Cambodian schoolchildren wear short shorts) but clearly possess some sense of decorum, treating the tours as we would be attired if visiting a Church or monastery here in the Philippines. And get ready to be impressed by the Siem Reap airport.

While the splendid Angkor Wat is a given, do make the trek and climb to the highest central tower in the inner courtyard, a mere five-minute drive away is the royal city of Angkor Thom and its Bayon Buddhist temple. Also dating back to the 12th century but not as well preserved as Wat, Thom impresses because the scale, civic organization, architecture, intricate artisan work and pomp that one easily can imagine bring home how so advanced a feudal civilization existed at that time.

A visit to Ta Prohm on the outskirts of Siem Reap will inevitably have the guide mentioning Angelina Jolie and the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie. When discovered, Ta Prohm was so overrun by the vegetation and trees in such a unique manner, that much of it was left untouched, and efforts were primarily made in uncovering enough of the temple to showcase the curious interplay of nature and the man-made. In a manner, it reminds us of Shelley’s Ozymandias poem, and how ephemeral political and religious power can be.

Similarly found in the Siem countryside is the Hindu temple Banteay Srei. This temple dates back to the 10th century and its unique feature is the Rose Pink sandstone used in its construction. In a miniaturized fashion, it predates the grander temples of Bayon and Angkor Wat but also has exquisite carvings that astound given the workmanship and the date of construction.

During our stay, we pretty much stuck to Khmer cuisine,  which I can describe as being more closely related to Thai cuisine than to Vietnamese. Amok, a mild curried fish preparation, and Lok Lak, a sautéed beef dish, are the popular ones. I also loved the Tonle Sap fish, succulent filet mixed with vegetables. The Sokkhak River and Chaney Tree restaurants lie side-by-side facing the main river, while one specializes in French fusion and the latter Khmer cuisine, one can sit in either, and order from the two menus.

Angelina Jolie was apparently in town, directing her new film. While my guide was guessing she was staying at the Aman resort, and would make forays into the Central Market when not working on the film, there was no Jolie sighting during our stay. But the sights and sounds (and tastes) of Cambodia were more than enough, as given its recent tragic past. Here was a nation ready to put its best friendly face on, proud of the sustained curiosity its ancient history has engendered. For now, there still is an innocence and naïveté that translates to genuine enthusiasm to present his marvels and culture to visitors.



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