The Chronicles of JosHan: Siem Reap (Part I)

by smithstandard
river in asia

Foreword: The Chronicles of JosHan (pronounced josh-in, as in “I’m just joshin”, combination of Josh and Han, clever play on words by all accounts. Zero effs given on your opinion of this word fusion, unless it’s a positive one in which case “thank you, and yes, I am a legend for stealing this from Josh”) will entail an honest and over-sharing account of my and my partner’s recent time spent in Vietnam and Cambodia. Thanks for reading, enjoy x

For the record, I went on this holiday with my reservations.

I’ll be honest in saying I wasn’t unbelievably excited about it. We weren’t travelling to Europe or the Maldives or North America – how exciting was it going to be? Yes, that’s the typical behaviour of a spoilt, privileged white female, but it’s the truth. And let me just give you a heads up, a lot of what I say in the next two posts is somewhat shameful. I am embarrassed at my attitude and thought process prior to visiting, and also a little bit at the beginning of our trip. If you had told me this time last year that I would’ve fallen in love with Cambodia and its people, I would’ve told you to shut your pie hole and to stop being a try-hard-mother-earth hippie.

As with my Ho Chi Minh City posts, I’ve split Siem Reap into two parts. I have so much to say about this place that doing it in one go is just not going to be effective. In this post I will cover:

And in Part II, I will be covering our amazing volunteer experience. Let’s get to it.

ARRIVALS

Our arrival into Siem Reap was straightforward and uneventful, and I don’t know about you, but that’s how I like my airport experiences to be. Smooth and quick AF. Whilst waiting for our bags we did notice that there were a lot of signs regarding child trafficking and the penalties that apply if caught being involved in something so horrific. They were heavy reminders of why we were there: to contribute in whatever way we could in the hopes of helping a handful of Cambodians lead a better life, hopefully far away from anything like that.

Now, I knew I was going to love Siem Reap the minute we left the terminal. Why? Because:

  • We were offered refreshingly cold hand towels the minute we got inside our transfer vehicle.
  • We were given re-usable metallic drink bottles which could be filled up with clean water at a variety of places for free in Siem Reap.
  • The man who greeted us asked for our favourite drinks so he could call ahead to the hotel and have them waiting for us on arrival.

Yes. It was at the third point, when Josh and I responded simultaneously with “beer please” that I knew our hotel experience was going to be unlike anything else.

ACCOMMODATION

So let’s cut through the bullshit – Josh and I chose to live like kings during our time in Siem Reap. Great accommodation in both Vietnam and Cambodia is cheap, but we decided to pay that little bit extra and completely live it up in luxury. And yes, maybe we justified our extra spending here because we were going to be doing volunteer work whilst staying in Siem Reap. I completely, 100 per cent admit that. And yes, I am aware of the irony of the situation – that we were living like royalty when the people we were helping barely had a roof over their heads. YES I KNOW.

Trust me, the guilt arrives in all its glory later on.

Our hotel wasn’t right in the centre of the hustle and bustle of the city, but a mere five minute tuk-tuk away. And it was the tits. Seriously. Jaya House River Park is where it’s at, and I won’t hear another word saying otherwise.

We were greeted at the door by a number of staff members who seemed genuinely excited to meet us. They took care of our luggage, offered us fresh juices and snacks, offered us more cold towels, gave us a phone to keep with us in case we needed to call a tuk-tuk whilst out in town, and you know it – our favourite beer. It was the best check-in experience I have ever had.

Man woman beer poolside

If you so desire, you can update yourself on our prerequisites for accommodation in my Ho Chi Minh City (Part I) post. Alternatively, you can just stay here and believe me when I say that Jaya House River Park ticked all the boxes and exceeded every expectation.

They had room service available, TWO sparkly and delicious pools sitting amongst the beautifully manicured grounds, and in-house massage facilities – all of which were used several times. Our suite was fucking ginormous. We had our own private plunge pool (which we never used – go figure), an espresso coffee machine, a complimentary minibar, fruit that was replenished everyday and a bathroom the size of our apartment. Josh actually somersaulted across the king-sized bed with excitement when we first walked in.

The staff

Hotel staff Cambodia

Me – crying – as the staff farewelled us on our last day

Yes, the staff get their own heading. Did you know that I ACTUALLY CRIED REAL TEARS WHEN WE SAID GOODBYE TO THE STAFF AT THE HOTEL?! Oh my god, the emotions. The staff took the time to get to know us; they tried teaching us bits of Khmer (the main language spoken in Cambodia) while we gave them pointers on how to sound more Aussie; they learned that we loved a certain type of tea only served in the massage parlour – so they organised to have it brought to us every morning at breakfast and delivered to our room at night. Nothing was ever a problem. Ever. Their kindness and generosity was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. And that was just the beginning – I will talk more about these amazing humans in Part II of this post, but for now, just know they were some of the nicest humans on the planet.

We also know that the additional attention and kindness may have increased when they realised we were there to volunteer. The minute they saw us in the bright orange and oh-so-flattering t-shirts, they wanted to tell us how grateful they were that we had come “all the way from Australia” to help their country and they did whatever they could to assist us during our stay. But in all honesty, I think their generosity would be like that without us having the volunteer-status.

And look, our time in Siem Reap wasn’t without its hiccups.

On our second night there I woke up gasping for air at around 11pm and reached for Josh, wondering if I had been infected by some foreign virus and was actually dying in a pool of my own sweat. Turns out our air-conditioner had inexplicably stopped blowing cold air out of the vents and I was clearly not coping with the 1000 percent humidity.

The staff were mortified that it happened. I mean, I have never met a group of people so apologetic. They did eventually fix the issue and we were like “awesome, it’s all good, not your fault, it’s fixed now”. Apparently they didn’t believe us because the following day every single staff member knew what had happened and were apologising/checking in on us and we were offered a complimentary one hour couple’s massage for our trouble (and can I just say the massage experience was also NECK-LEVEL). I should also add that the air-conditioner mishap happened a second time (much to their despair) and more complimentary massages followed. We even tried to refuse those ones, but this time the General Manager had come down to meet with us and bloody hell, it was bigger than Ben-Hur.

And yet, it was a great thing to happen. Speaking with the GM gave us a better insight into how the staff work, where they had come from and just how much their jobs meant to them. Some of them live in tiny houses on the outskirts of town, with their entire families and limited power. Getting employment at such a high-end establishment meant more to them than we could ever really fully understand, but by the end of our trip, we were a little bit closer to getting it.

While I may have battled internally with staying in a 50-star resort in a third world country, I don’t regret our decision to stay where we did. I would, and will, stay at this exact same place when we return. Maybe some of this stuff seems a bit hypocritical or contradictory, but I stand by my decision. I think it’s normal for those of us living in the first-world to think and act this way sometimes. We choose to stay in the nice chalets in the French countryside, and the expensive villas in Bali. We want nicer than what we’re used to at home and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that … as long as you can appreciate the situation you are in, appreciate just how fucking LUCKY you are and where possible, give something back, then for me, it’s okay.

THINGS TO DO

Our time in Siem Reap was mostly spent doing volunteer work (which I will talk about in Part II) and if you get the chance to do something similar, I could not recommend this enough. It was an experience unlike any other and not one part of you will regret it – but more on that later.

If you’ve got some time free in Siem Reap, I would recommend the following:

Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon Temple

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Okay look, I ain’t going to pretend like I completely understood the history behind Cambodia’s many temples. Because I didn’t. I’m just not that into temples. I get that you’re meant to go and see all that sort of historic stuff when you visit far away lands, but honestly, I can only take so many before becoming completely disinterested. Judge me all you want, but when it’s hotter than the surface of the sun at six in the morning and you’re experiencing chafe in places you never knew existed, you’d be the same.

Some people we spoke to spent weeks exploring all of the temples. Weeks. Uhhhh no thank you please. Not only did we not have the time, but we certainly didn’t have the inclination to do such a thing. We went with the recommended “top three” temples – Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon Temple – which generally takes up half or most of the day.

We got up at crazy o’clock so we could watch the sun-rise over Angkor Wat (this was also the same night the air-con broke for the first time, so we were a barrel of laughs). Despite that speed-bump, it was worth it. Honestly, if you get the chance to do it, peel yourself out of bed, organise a tour guide to collect you and get your ass to that temple before the sun does. It’s a magical few moments. Woman large tree

We then visited Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple – Angelina Jolie made that site famous for us Westerners. It was pretty cool learning about how much money and energy she poured into helping that community. I also took the opportunity to flick my hair around and pretend to shoot bad guys like she did.

When it came to visiting Bayon Temple – we were done. It was only 9am, but we had been up for about six hours, Josh wasn’t feeling well and I was once again, sweating my vagina out. We gave our guide a full day’s pay and asked if instead of walking through the temple, could we just go past it on the tuk-tuk instead, and then head back to the hotel. Yep. We did that. And I have no regrets. It was way more fun talking to our tour guide about his family and his interests than walking through a temple we couldn’t fully appreciate.

Pub Street

Pub Street and the surrounding streets are filled with bars, restaurants and market stalls. It’s a hustling place filled with excitement and electricity, and I highly recommend checking this area out for some cheap food and cheap massages. Home Cocktail Restaurant on the corner of Street 7 and Hospital Street serve $1.50 cocktails. ONE DOLLAR AND FIFTY CENTS PER COCKTAIL. If you get there early enough you’ll get a sweet table and can people-watch to your hearts content. You will almost certainly leave the restaurant pleasantly buzzed/blotto. Pub Street Siem Reap

This area is also where you can eat scorpions, crickets and and tarantulas off of sticks. Personally, I did not participate in this activity, however I enjoyed watching Josh try to get through a scorpion without screaming. Our friend Kara ate a spider like it was a chicken kebab FFS. The stalls are filled with typical souvenirs for home, weapons that you definitely won’t get back into Australia and those super comfy Cambodian-style pants everyone wears. Hot tip: get the genie-style ones that hang low, because they are WAY comfier than the tight-fitted ones and don’t let them charge you more than US$3 a pair. I would also highly recommend getting yourself an awesome henna tattoo and a pedicure at the same time.

Siem Reap is struggling, but it’s still a great place to visit.

Yes – you’re going to see poverty as you make your way around town. Some of what we saw will stay with me until the day I die. But the majority of locals are lovely and want/need tourists to visit. I guarantee no matter where you stay, your hotel experience will be enough of a reason to make you want to come back.

That’s it for the touristy stuff. My next post will be talking about our volunteer experience which, quite frankly, changed my life.

As always, thanks for reading.

Han x

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