Updated: May 28, 2020
Siem Reap is the first place I’ve had truly mixed feelings about in my first six months of full-time travel. At least at first. My immediate impression was that the tourism aspect was overwhelming. In the little core around the river, everything is completely geared towards tourists and as far as South East Asia goes, its kind of expensive. I had a similar feeling when visiting Angkor Wat and the rest of the temples. The endless selfies and bus loads of tour groups grated on my nerves quickly. It sounds a little hypocritical to say because I am also a tourist visiting for the same reasons as everyone else, but some of the beauty of the temples is lost in the chaos of groups yelling at each other to organize photos and blocking off any path around them.
That being said, the more time I spent in Siem Reap and got to know some of the people and history, the more I grew to like the city. There are a ton of really interesting social enterprises and projects happening that are absolutely worth learning about and experiencing. They also offer more interaction with local Cambodians to better understand the culture and life outside of the tourism bubble.
THE WAR MUSEUM
As a 30-something Canadian, armed conflicts are relegated to the history books. For anyone over 40 in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge occupation and genocide is a living memory. For anyone over 30, they still know what it is like to live in a country occupied by a foreign military. Regardless of age, everyone feels the effects of the past. Wanting to know more about it, I paid a visit to the war museum. The museum itself mainly consists of old artillery and tactical vehicles. A guide isn’t required but its free to walk through with one and is well worth the experience. My guide for the visit was very knowledgable about the history but also very candid about the lasting effects and reality of living in a country with such a recent genocide. He was also quite open in sharing his own family’s story. His parents were lucky to have both survived and credit their survival to being able to find enough insects to eat to stave off malnutrition and starvation. They were also lucky enough to not get caught doing it. His grandfather and uncle were not so lucky. His family still does not know what happened to either of them.
For anyone who plans to visit Siem Reap, I think this museum is one of the most worthwhile stops in the city. It gives a better understanding of what you are looking at when you pass through the area too. The injuries from landmines are quickly visible within a few minutes of walking through town. There is no government support for landmine victims so many people loose their livelihoods after an injury. If they are mobile enough, maybe they are able to become a street vendor or find some way to make a small income. Others form bands, playing traditional Khmer music. The musician's injuries seemed to be more extensive but the music was quite good. It is impressive to see people trying to make the most of what they’ve got but also quite jarring to see so many people with such significant injuries.
THE LANDMINE MUSEUM
The landmine museum is a little further out of the city but is another interesting stop. It’s an easy one to fit in too as it is inside of the temple circuit. The museum was created by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier. He initially began removing landmines on his own as away to use his skills for something positive and help to rebuild the country. Eventually, that evolved into specializing in removal, creating an NGO to benefit victims and also running a school to support children who would otherwise have no access to education. Admission and donations all go to supporting these efforts.
ANGKOR NATIONAL MUSEUM
The museum focuses on the development of ancient Khmer civilization and the influence of Buddhism in architecture. The museum is really well laid out and has lots of short videos and interactive exhibits to help explain the history. A visit to the museum compliments the temple tours as it features a lot of smaller and more detailed pieces removed from the temples and shows some of the better preserved elements of ancient Angkor society.
POTTERY CLASS AT THE KHMER CERAMICS & FINE ARTS CENTRE
This was kind of a random stop but one but I really enjoyed. The class was just about two hours of proper lessons on a potters wheel. The instructor made it look easy but my pottery skills definitely need improvement. As part of the class price, you get to keep one of your pieces, which they glaze and fire for you. The one I had help with was the only one worth keeping. The other pieces all had ‘quirks’ - not in a cool, unique way, more in a ‘wow, you are hilariously bad at this’ kind of way. At the very least, I was comedic relief for the instructor. The courses are also good example of social enterprise and boosting the local community. All of the instructors are hearing impaired but it really didn’t feel like there was much of a communication barrier. They are extremely talented and have no problem teaching. I just wasn’t a very good student.
SMILE OF ANGKOR
This one was a pleasant surprise. The 75 minute show depicts the divine history and creation of Cambodia through traditional and modern dance. The production value is quite good and its an interesting look into Cambodian culture.
PHARE CAMBODIAN CIRCUS
The Phare circus was one of the best experiences while in Siem Reap. The performers are incredibly talented, the show tells a story while mixing in acrobatics and traditional circus acts and genuine love of performing. Its also pretty funny. Phare is another great example of projects working towards rebuilding communities. The performers are all from backgrounds where opportunities are few or nonexistent. The organization focuses on building arts programs and provides creative vocational training and real employment options for around 1,700 students. Outside of circus training, they also offer programs in illustration, design, animation, theatre, music, and traditional visual arts. The programs are offered for free and funded by the circus performances.
APOPO VISITOR CENTRE
My final stop was the Apopo Visitor Centre. The centre is part of a larger project based in Tanzania that trains African Pouched Rats to detect landmines. I knew the project existed but it was really interesting to see how it actually works. The facility houses 30 rats who have been highly trained to sniff out explosive materials. Jones, one of the ‘HeroRats’ as they are known, was brought out to demonstrate how they are trained to move back and forth on a tether, sniffing for explosives. It only take about 5kgs to set off a landmine but since the rats are much lighter than that, they can easily and safely pass over a section of land the size of a tennis court and clear it in within 30 minutes. Because of safety concerns, a person clearing the same area with metal detector or dog could take up to 4 days. The rat’s sense of smell is so accurate that their success rate so far is 100%. At the time of my visit, the project had cleared just over half a million meters of land inhabited by about 3,000 people and removed close to 100 unexploded mines and other ordinance from the war.
Overall, Siem Reap was not what I expected. I think I expected it to be a lot quieter and more remote. It is not. Once I got over that initial expectation, I did really end up enjoying my time there, will probably be back at somepoint and checked on more thing off the travel bucket list.