Siem Reap: A Much Needed Temple Break

Trip Start Jul 01, 2011
Trip End Dec 25, 2011

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ankor is probably the best place to introduce a new set of vocabulary that I think should be essential lingo when talking about this part of the world.

Temple- 1. noun, a structure used to worship certain deities or other culturally important figures.  Thommanon is a temple devoted to worshipping the god Shiva.;  2. verb, the act of visiting, clambering over or exploring a temple. Asked where her husband was, Jane said bitterly, while hissing through her contractions, that John was still templing in Angkor.

Temple mania- noun, a state of euphoria and psychosis, where the sufferer feels a photographic spiritual awakening at a specific temple and subsequently goes on a multi-gigabyte phototaking rampage.  This commonly leads to a very long tedious night of slideshows for family and friends at dinner parties upon return.  Buoyed by coffee and an obscenely large SLR camera, John developed a full case of temple mania at Bayon, where Cambodian officials had to finally resort to tranquilizers to get him to relinquish his hold on the Churning the Sea of Milk statuary.

Temple Tolerance-noun, the state in which a tourist becomes accustomed to the magnificence of the many temples to the point he or she is unable to generate surprise or enthusiasm.  Staring up at the thousand carved figures fighting an endless bloody battle, John, suffering from temple tolerance, could only  manage a feeble, 'Oh, isn't that nice?’  The Cambodian guide was much offended.

Templusion- noun, a state of exhaustion where it is impossible to remember which photographs or memories are attached to which specific temple, or even country.  Jane was found suffering from templusion, muddy and disheveled in a remote section of Ta Prohm, yanking tufts of hair from her head and repeatedly reciting the kings of Angkor in chronological order.  The doctor’s prognosis was not optimistic.

Temple Coma- noun, the state that is derived from being templed out.  The sufferer no longer has any interest whatsoever in temples and is trudging through each temple like a zombie, only capable of managing single syllable answers to complicated questions.  Halfway through the Grand circuit, Jane found herself walking alone; backtracking, she found John in a temple coma, repeatedly walking into the temple wall, in a futile effort to exit the complex.

Templed Out- adjective, describing a terminal state, where the prospect of seeing more temples causes a psychological short-circuit, with a concomitant psychosomatic sense of weariness and occasionally, nausea.  Blitzed on 50 cent Angkor beers, and up to his knees in muddy floodwaters, John declared himself utterly templed out and proceeded to rip his Angkor visitor’s pass into expensive confetti.

Temple Break- noun, the presence of non-temple related activities in between days of templing, in an effort to prevent being templed out.  With the oncoming rains, Jane decided to take a temple break and instead hang around Siem Reap doing some shopping, some eating and a lot of drinking.

Drive-by- noun, derived from gang related vocabulary.  Bypassing a temple by bike, tuktuk or car, but still managing to rapid capture its image on filmJane was late for her five star lunch at the hotel and decided to finish off the minor temples with a drive by in her tuktuk.  Unfortunately, she did not account for the traffic and ended up in temple gridlock instead.

Templevention-noun, a protective move, where family and friends refuse to indulge in excessive templing for the sake of box checking.  Molly assembled the family at the airport to stage a pre-emptive templevention and hopefully wrestle the many memory cards of pictures from Jane’s bag before she could get them printed.

Now with that vocabulary established, I can start this blog in a way that is totally clear.  The forecast said there was going to be heavy rain later in the day today.  That in combination with being in a temple coma by the end of yesterday, I thought I’d take a temple break so I could avoid being completely templed out.  Hopefully after a rest today, I’ll be up for some more templing tomorrow and really explore the places rather than do a drive by.

So I thought I’d see what Siem Reap had to offer in terms of ‘cultural’ activities.  And the answer I think, on the whole, is surprisingly sparse.  There’s the Siem Reap museum, which by all accounts in a good introduction to Angkor and the timeline of the Khmer empire.  But as much as I usually love to learn about the country I’m in, after 2 days of templing, the thought of delving more into the Gordian knot that is the many Angkor kings and the even more complicated story of just when each temple was Hindu or Buddhist or both.

So the museum was out.  That left eating, shopping and doing the real tourist trap events.  So I though I’d take one from each column and start with a cooking course, then dally about window shopping and end with attending an Apsara dance show, which no self respecting backpacker would do, both for cost ($12 for buffet and show) and sheer cheesy value.  But for some reason today, I really wanted cheesy, if not to break up the monotony of being a ‘serious’ studier of the temples.

LP suggested among others Le Papier Tigre, a French owned empire in Siem Reap that operates three restaurants.  Like in Chiang Mai, the foodie craze has meant that many different restaurants offer cooking classes, and they probably all are similar in content, but the experience will vary by your instructor.  In the case of Le Papier Tigre, they offered three sessions, a morning on at 10 AM, a lunch option at 1 PM and a dinner on at 6 PM.  Obviously, I couldn’t do dinner, as I was booked to go see the Apsara dancing.  And since the course is 3 hours (it includes a spin through the local fresh market), the 1 PM course would be for sitting down and eating at 4, which makes no sense if you plan on having dinner after (or lunch before, for that matter).  Which meant leveraging myself out of the comfy chair, crossing the river that is the flooded main street of Siem Reap and seeing if the restaurant was running a session this morning.

Luck would have it, there was one other woman, Rhonni, who was doing the cooking class, so it was not entirely awkward being one on one with the instructor, Seovum.  The class structure was pretty informal—you ask for a cooking class at the restaurant and they give you their menu to look through and you choose a starter and an entrée and then the group as a whole chooses a dessert which they will communally prepare.  After you put in your orders (tom yum soup and fish amok for me, and prawn salad and chicken curry for Rhonni), you start out on a market tour for about a half hour to 45 minutes, which gives the kitchen time to gather the ingredients for your class.

The central market in Siem Reap is actually located inside, deep within the bowels of the main building by the river.  We started by looking through the many fruits on display, a very similar spectacle as a Thai market, but definitely a lot less variety to choose from.  But more eye opening is the fish and meat market, which does not breed confidence with its slightly sour smell and profusion of fly swatting rotors flapping overhead.  But here you can see split chickens, organs and all to show off its freshness and also river fish, including one that walks along on its fins.  It's like eating our missing link on the evolutionary ladder.

In all it was a 30-45 minutes spin through the market before we ended up at a rooftop instruction kitchen at the second Le Tigre Papier restaurant.  Here, all our ingredients were assembled and all our tools saran wrapped (which was bloody annoying to get off in one piece).  We actually did the recipes in bits and pieces--actually quite logical, but a bit hard in hindsight to really separate each action and group of ingredients for which recipe.  But I can summarize that Cambodian cuisine does use lots of spices like Thai food, but is on the whole, not as sweet nor spicy.  Also the amok is finished off with shredded cauliflower leaves, so keep those random leaves and use them in your next fish curry.  Also, you'll find the same ingredients used over and over again--fish sauce, cilantro, onions, lemongrass, ginger and fresh tumeric.  In fact, the amok is based on a paste that has copious amounts of tumeric mashed in.  And this in turn involves cutting the root and staining your hands a bright yellow, which stays for the next few days. No amount of soap and water will get the color out, but I did have some luck with alcohol--specifically antibacterial sanitizing gel, but maybe something like Vodka would also work. 

Either way, two hours of chopping, pasting and stirring and we had a lovely (and ridiculously huge) meal in front of us.  Unlike when I took the cooking course in China and Vietnam, I can't put down the recipes here, only because we didn't get any.  I suppose one complaint I've seen online with the restaurant is that the recipes appear proprietary, meaning that the instructors tell you that you can find all the recipes online on their website, but all you get are links to other sites that have some but not all of the dishes that you've cooked.  Plus, whether they taste the same is a whole other matter.  However, for the fun and interest (and cost) of the course, I can't really complain.  Just pop over the website, try out a recipe and adjust the seasonings from there.  After all, the many amok I've had here have all be pretty different and tasty in their own way.  But if it's really important you get the exact recipe or some printout, find another cooking class.

Having eaten our fill (and over-fill in my case), it was time to waddle back to the hostel, rest a bit and then get ready to go to the Hotel Mondial for the nightly tourist trap Apsara dance show.  Now, this is not going to be a blog in defense of the show, saying it's not a tourist trap--it is.  It couldn't be anything else, with a buffet, an audience entirely of tour groups (and the occasional single traveler like me or couple) and a stage with a Angkor painted backdrop.  But if you put yourself in this mindset, it was actually pretty OK.  I had a tuktuk bring me over to the hotel, which was great because that section of road was really flooded, and I remember thinking, 'Oh, how lovely I get to stay dry.'  That of course was a setup by karma to come and ambush me.  No sooner had I sat down that I realized I didn't have enough cash in my wallet to pay for my meal and show (originally the hostel put the bill on their tab, but they changed their mind and my brain did not change along with them.  So, there's me in the parking lot looking for my tuktuk driver to no avail and then having to just say Screw it and wade through the knee to mid thigh level flood waters back to the hostel to get some more money and then back into the water back to the hotel.  Thankfully, I had arrived really early so after this half hour jaunt through the Siem Reap river, I managed to get back with 30 wet minutes left to finish my meal and get myself back into a relaxed, touristy frame of mind.

As far as food goes, it wasn't bad.  Having to accomodate the many tourist groups do mean having Khmer dishes next to western dishes next to Chinese dishes.  Suffice to say, I kept to the Khmer food, if only to feel a little less of a cliche tourist, lining up for the spaghetti bolognaise.  The only thing I didn't quite enjoy were the desserts--the fruit was fantastic, but all the tiny colorful cakes were in fact very solid jellies.  Not Jello, not even gummy, but agar based, which is a bit grainy and very bland, except for the huge amounts of sugar in the confection.  My recommendation is to stick to the fruit and have a super sugary cup of coffee for dessert.

At 7:30, the dancing began and this is where you truly assess whether this evening was worth it or not.  Now having seen the worst combination of apathy and bad training at the Emperor's memorial in Xian, I can say this was miles better.  Though Apsara dancing has been a hugely prestigious traditional art form for the Cambodians, many of the dancers were eliminated during the Pol Pot regime, and only now is the art form starting to come back as a serious pursuit.  Now, I can't say the dancing was of a professional dance troupe--you can certainly find dancers with clear proficiency versus others who take shortcuts, but the best of the group have fluid, graceful movements (the key to Apsara dancing tends to be towards slow, balance requiring movement of legs and arms) and intricate hand gestured, with really extended fingers (actually, I looks a bit painful, as you have to bend your four fingers back almost 45 degrees from your palm.

Interspersed with more esoteric Apsara dancing are group numbers that seem more folk-like, centered around not religious worship, but everyday events like rice cooking and fishing.  Here, there are both men and women and despite doing this everyday, you can actually see some of the dancers smiling as they go in circles with the group, so at the very least, I feel like it's not entirely a burden for the dancers.  And that in turn makes the experience touristy, but also entertaining.  No, it will not be the highlight of your visit to Cambodia (and if it is, you've missed out on what Cambodia has to offer), but for a random 'cultural activity', it's a pleasant way to pass the night.  Incidentally, if you don't want to do something so on the tourist trail or spend $12, then there are Apsara dancing in some pubs in town (which I hear have very bored looking dancers) and there's also an informant dance show put on by children at the local hospital on Sundays (which I hear is actually great fun and free, but I was here at the wrong time of the week).

Finally with the dancing over, all the tour groups clap politely and mass up at the front where you can clamber on stage and take your picture with the assembled cast.  Sadly, this might be what everyone really waits for--the photo with the dancers in traditional, glitzy dress.  And here is also where you can really see the dancers in unease.  They have this deer in the headlights look among the barrrage of flash and weird tourists coming up and putting their hands over you.  And by the end, when the line hasn't dwindled at all, they have this look of 'how much more do I have to take?'  so I forewent the photo and called it a day.  Luckily, the tuktuk was still waiting outside, so at least I could arrive dry at the hostel.

So today I had my 'cultural' day out in Siem Reap, which did not blow my socks off, but was a pleasant rest day between templing.  Of the two, if you want to see a dance performance then the Mondial one was fine, but if you're on a budget crunch, then skip the dance and do some cooking.  At the very least, cooking will get you a hands on introduction to Khmer food and you can eat your tasty efforts afterward with a very cheap beer (from 50 cents to a 1 a pint).

But tomorrow it's back to the grind.  We're hitting the northern temples of the Grand circuit that I've missed out on, but first we're hitting the supposedly amazing Banteay Srei, a temple that is not massive, but whose carving and ornamentation are arguably the best in all of Angkor.  So we'll see if the hype is well deserved.  Last day of templing here I come...
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