What better reason to travel than raising funds for a good cause? Last weekend, Anita and I flew to Siem Reap to take part to the 23rd Angkor Wat International Half-Marathon. Since 1996, this internationally recognized half-marathon raises relief for the victims of antipersonnel mines in Cambodia. In addition to its charitable vocation, what makes this great international race so special is that it takes place inside the ruins of Angkor Wat, a World Heritage Site. Visitors come here to see the temples, of course, but there is plenty to do in and around the city. Siem Reap has reinvented itself as the cultural epicenter of Cambodia, and I was eager to finally discover it.
Khmer Mansion Residence
Stepping just out of the plane, we were already charmed by the airport’s regional architecture under a clear blue sky. With our e-visa in hand, we could skip the long line at the landing visa desk and go straight to passport control. The story could have been much different if I had listened to my friends advising me not to bother getting a visa in advance. Good thing I’m an organized man, I could spare an hour to visit the town a bit more. While looking for a taxi to bring us to our hotel, we spotted a tuk-tuk waiting for new clients to hop in. I didn’t have to ask Anita twice if she would fancy a tuk-tuk ride. She was in! So we took place aboard the wooden carriage attached to a motorbike and rode to our hotel. The driver left us in front of the hotel and disappeared in a split second. Turns out we were at the hotel’s sister location. We turned to get back in the tuk-tuk, but it had already left. The staff at the hotel invited us to sit in their lounge-like lobby and offered us fresh towels, a glass of water and some snacks. A few minutes later, their driver transferred us to the right location. To be honest, I was quite happy with the Khmer Mansion Boutique and was hoping that the Khmer Mansion Residence we had booked was at least of the same quality. Luckily, it was even better!
As soon as we reached the right address, our jaws dropped before the breathtaking lobby. We were invited to take seat on one of the sofas and were offered the same treatment as the sister establishment. Who doesn’t like double-dipping, right? Wet towel, glass of water, lemongrass team, spicy peanuts, tarot chips, and homemade chocolate. That chocolate was so delicious that we used every excuse to give hints to the hotel staff that we wanted one more serving. I remember on our third night at the hotel, just back from dinner, I asked the concierge:
Me: “If I recall correctly, you said you made your own chocolate here. Is that right?”
Him: “Certainly, Sir!”
Me: “Do you know if it’s possible to purchase some?”
Him: “Certainly. How much chocolate would you like to purchase?”
Me: “Oh just a few squares… about the same amount you served us when we checked in (Wink, wink).”
Him: “Oh, Sir… in that case, we can certainly offer you some… free of charge!”
Me: “Really? You would do that?”
As much as I was already amused by his overuse of the word “certainly” at every possible occasion, what really extended my joy was to hear the mighty three words: “free of charge”. I mean, who doesn’t like free stuff, right? This was only one example of the stellar service we had at the Khmer Mansion Residence. From the lobby, to the restaurant, to the pool bar (Yes, we had a pool bar!), everyone was so friendly, useful and treated us with good care. We really felt as special guests. Even the hotel manager gave us his business card and asked us to contact him directly the next time we would come back. I definitely recommend this hotel to anyone passing by Siem Reap.
Pub Street & Night Market
If there is one thing I was looking forward to for my trip to Cambodia, it was the food. Although it is using most of the time the same ingredients as the rest of Southeast Asia, Cambodian cuisine has this unique taste that is very different from its neighboring countries. Typically, it contrasts flavors, textures and temperatures within the meal using plenty of herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces, edible flowers and other garnishes and condiments. Simply delightful!
Two years ago, I was travelling to Cambodia for the first time on a business trip from Nuremberg to Phnom Penh. At the time, it was my first travel to Asia altogether. Now that I live in Asia, the short amount of time it took to live through such a sequence of events is hard to believe, even for myself. Pretty crazy, eh? On my first night in Cambodia, I went out to a local pub with the colleagues. One of them, living in Vietnam for years and visiting Phnom Penh on a regular basis, had recommended me the Fish Amok. I had craved this dish ever since I tasted it for the first time. Therefore, now that I’m back visiting Cambodia, it was a given that I had to find that dish on my first night in Siem Reap. After checking in at the hotel, and picking up our bibs for the race, Anita and I hopped on a tuk-tuk and headed to the night market. What better way than shopping to build your appetite! We walked around for about an hour, bought a few goodies including a woven bed cover made out of silk, a few packs of incense, and some cool coasters for my collection.
We found this small restaurant right in front of the market and by the Pub Street. The staff seated us on a table on the patio, and we ordered. Of course, Fish Amok (without even looking at the menu), Green Curry Chicken, and Beef Lob, accompanied with an unlimited supply of steam rice included with any main dish. To wash all of this down, a cashew nut smoothie. During our meal, I felt someone tapping on my elbow to get my attention. I turned, but couldn’t see anyone. It was a man on the ground - an antipersonnel mine victim using a piece a wood on four wheels to carry himself around - who was selling books to try and make a living despite his disability. I got interested in a book about Pol Pot and bought it. On the way out of the restaurant, we walked the so-called Pub Street only to get stopped every inch by some backpack workers inviting us to their bar for happy hour. That was an immediate no-no since we were running the next morning at dawn. What a crazy contrast… between that disabled man and backpackers coming to party, I don’t know where to turn my head.
Kampong Phluk Floating Village
We had agreed with my a few coworkers, also running the next day, to meet at the bib collection point and then head to the Floating Village. After a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride, we reached the ticketing center. We paid 25 USD, which allowed us to hire a boat with driver and ride another 30 minutes to the floating village. The whole village consists of houses built on wood pillars. Riding through the village, we could clearly see how people lived. While men go fishing in the open sea, women gather at a station to bring travellers into the flooded mangrove forest. Apparently, woman from this village have been entertaining the tourist industry since 2006. We couldn’t be happier but to have a local show us around the ponds, and encourage the local economy at the same time. About 10 meters after the embarkation point, a few boats were trying to sell us all sorts of goodies, going from notebooks to sour cream & onions Pringle’s. I’m a sucker for the ladder, so Pringle’s it is! To be honest, I was afraid that this tour was a whole scam to push goodies on tourists at exuberant prices. Turns out it was only at the beginning of the ride. We rode in a calm environment for the rest of the tour.
Angkor Wat International Half Marathon
The main purpose for my travel to Siem Reap was to take part to the 23rd edition of the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon. On Sunday morning, it was time to fulfill our promise and run to support a ban on the manufacture and inhumane use of antipersonnel mines. So, we woke up at 4:00am and rode with a tuk-tuk to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap. With thousands of participants rushing to the starting line, it took around an hour to reach the site because of heavy traffic. The road infrastructures are not designed to sustain such a high amount of drivers. The first ones to start were the half-marathoners on wheelchair, followed by the half-marathoners on foot. And then, it was us, the 10 km runners. Typically, I run half-marathons, but since this race was my first run ever in Asia, I thought I’d play it safe and test my body on a shorter distance before ramping up. Luckily, I felt great throughout the run and even finished in the top 1% of participants. Indeed, I ranked 25th out of 2604 runners on that day, with a time of 00:46:00. Not bad at all! I am still debating whether next year I should ramp up to the half-marathon or attempt to win the race. To be continued.. The race itself was absolutely delightful despite the extreme heat increasing by the minute. Nothing compares to the experience of competing through such a mythical setting that is the Angkor Wat temple. After the race, runners could enjoy complimentary cold draft beer, as well as a foot massage. A nice touch from the local organizing committee!
Angkor Wat Temple
The day before the race, after visiting the floating village, we all went to the Angkor Wat ticketing center. It was 4:00pm, and Danielle and her two colleagues had decided to purchase a ticket anyway despite the site closing at 6:00pm. Anita and I had our reserves as to whether it was possible to visit the whole World Heritage Site in two hours only. When we let the girls go forward and went back to our tuk-tuk, the driver told us that tickets purchased after 4:30pm will grant us access to today’s evening plus tomorrow all day - a useful tip that changed everything. Thanks to our tuk-tuk driver, all we had to do was to wait 30 minutes before enjoying a beautiful sunset from the temple, and the whole day after the race visiting the whole site without having to go back to the ticketing center and queue up for hours given the major event taking place that weekend. Sometimes patience does pay off!
While visiting Angkor Wat, one can’t help but to feel a bit like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. In fact, the 2001 Tomb Raider movie featuring Angelina Jolie was indeed filmed in one of the temples of the site. We were totally charmed with the complex architecture of some of the temples. It’s crazy to think that the Champa civilization was able to build such elaborate structures with (granted, free labor… but also) very little technology. Of course, today’s experience of the Angkor Wat Temple also features an army of Chinese tourists with dangerous umbrellas. Your mission should you choose to accept it will be to succeed in taking pictures without even one umbrella in the background. Luckily, the experience was much more enjoyable in other smaller temples in the area. We spent the whole afternoon riding the tuk-tuk from one temple to the other, and enjoying the extreme hot weather. Anita didn’t enjoy the heat as much since she was, as a woman, required to cover her arms and legs before entering the temples. She had forgot to bring any long clothes with her, so she bought a few pieces that served the purpose despite being way too warm for the weather. She was a good sport nonetheless, and we truly enjoyed our visit.
ASPARA DANCE PErformance
On our last evening in Siem Reap, our initial intention was to attend the Phare Circus some friends had told me about. Unfortunately, with the high amount of tourists for the run, the show was already sold out for the night. So, with the recommendations from the hotel staff at Khmer Mansion Residence, Anita and I went to a fancy dinner featuring a live Aspara Dance Performance. It has been a tradition since the earliest days of tourism in the 19th century to treat visitors to Siem Reap with an Apsara Dance Performance - a taste of classical Khmer culture. To the benefit of the travellers visiting the region, this tradition is still well-alive today. No visit to Cambodia is complete without attending at least one performance.
Folk Dance come in two forms: ceremonial and theatrical. As a general rule, only Theatrical Folk Dance is presented in public performances, with Ceremonial Folk Dances reserved for particular rituals, celebrations and holidays. Theatrical Folk Dances such as the popular Good Harvest Dance and the romantic Fishing Dance are usually adaptations of dances found in the countryside or inspired by rural life and practices. Most of the Theatrical Folk Dances were developed at RUFA in Phnom Penh in the 1960s as part of an effort to preserve and perpetuate Khmer culture and arts. As for us, we got to see the Fishing Dance, a classic drama between men and women showcasing the pride of the Khmer woman. It was a little bit like watching a soap opera, but in much better!
On our last day in Siem Reap, we woke up, had breakfast at the hotel and headed directly to a silk farm located about 45 minutes outside of the city. The entrance is free, and a guide is included in the tour. We could learn about the full end-to-end process to make silk products from the mulberry tree harvest, to the feeding of the silk worms, all the way to the finished product displayed in their boutique.
As we were moving from one process step to the next, I couldn’t help myself but to identify inefficiencies in the value chain. Then, I thought: “How is this any different from a factory walk-through at work?” I have touched on this topic before, when I changed industries from aerospace to sporting goods. I strongly believe that “a process is a process”. It doesn’t matter what the final product is, every process can be broken down into sub-process steps including suppliers, inputs, process, output, and clients. I kept geeking out for the rest of the visit while Anita reminded me that we were on vacation. I guess it’s just part of who I am: a geek at heart.
Phare PONLEU SELPAK Circus
In Cambodia, children and families face many social problems. Children drop out of school, experience domestic violence, drug abuse, and migrate illegally to work in extremely poor conditions in Thailand where they face exploitation and abuse. Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) means “The Brightness of the Arts”. It’s the name of the non-profit Cambodian association which mission is to improve the lives of children, young adults, and their families of the Battambang region with art schools, educational programs, and social support. Since 1994, they believe passionately in the power of the arts as a tool for human development and social change.
A few hours before our flight, we could still catch the circus show we had missed the previous night. Luckily for us, the Phare Circus had two shows scheduled on our last day in Siem Reap. So, we reserved two seats without hesitation and we couldn’t be happier about it. What better way to end our travel than by being amazed by an animal-free acrobatic circus helping less fortunate communities? I was already delighted that the circus was animal-free, but on top of it, the show was so amazing that we would have never guessed that the performers learned their art over a few months only. The performers were highly professional and were so talented that we could have easily guessed they’ve been developing their skills their whole life. It’s impressive the things humans can do when they put their minds into it. To the sound of claps, laughs and gasps, we ended our journey in Siem Reap. After the show, we went back to the hotel, picked up our luggage and drove to the airport.