I’ll be honest: I chose Siem Reap as the city I would visit in Cambodia because I wanted to visit Ankor Wat. But I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who only goes to the city for the ancient temples, without experiencing anything of the culture that is still very much alive. I gave myself a few extra days in Siem Reap, and planned the three days in which I was at the temples so that I only needed to be at the Ankor Complex in the morning, and could then explore Siem Reap in the afternoon.
Traditional Cambodian or Khmer Culture was very much at risk of being destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, but it is slowly making a comeback, and many claim that Siem Reap is the center for the revitalization of the arts and handicrafts for which Cambodia is so famous. I was thankful that I was able to explore so much without needing to go to another city.
I love to explore fabrics in the various places I visit, and this led me to Artisans Ankor, which, while also a higher-end shop, is also a workshop and training center for handicrafts and arts. Local Cambodians from the surrounding villages are brought to the training center and educated in the arts of metal work, stone carving, and weaving, among others. Artisans Ankor also has a silk farm, to which it offers daily free tours. It was fascinating to see the silk-making process from beginning to end, and our guide and the women weaving were terribly patient as we asked endless questions.
I was also interested in seeing traditional Cambodian dance, and was able to see two shows during my time there. Temple Bar, in the more touristy part of Siem Reap, offers free dance performances on their second floor every night, so long as you order food or drink. Bars are not usually my cup of tea, and I tend to avoid them, especially when traveling alone, but I made the exception in this case, and I am glad I did, as the performance was quite good, and we were able to meet the dancers afterwards. In between numbers we were able to hear the dance music from the bar below, which made for an interesting contrast with the performance, but I embraced it as part of the experience.
I went to another performance later on at a restaurant near my hostel. This time, the performers were children from a local NGO, Krousar Thmey/Nouvelle Famille, which seeks to provide education opportunities for children with hearing and seeing impairments, as well as low-income children from surrounding villages. The performance began with shadow puppetry, which was very similar to the wayang I am more familiar with in Indonesia. The children were incredibly talented, and the people running the show even let us take a peek at the behind-the-scenes. The shadow puppetry was followed by several dance numbers, which were especially amazing to see as one of the dance troops was made up of children who were all deaf or hearing impaired, which meant they followed the signing of one of their teachers in order to keep time. It was truly a privilege to see such talent.
The performance with Krousar Thmey was made even better by happening to meet an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) alumni from my first cohort that day. She was also traveling in Southeast Asia, and my last day in Siem Reap happened to be her first day. It was absolutely wonderful to catch up with her, reminisce about our time as ETAs together, and share this new experience in Cambodia.
I spent many of my evenings wandering the streets and markets of Siem Reap, admiring the handicrafts and, of course, eating the delicious food. Because I loved all of the food that I tried so much, I also took a cooking course at Le Tigre de Papier, during which I learning how to make Cambodian-style fired spring rolls and Cambodian curry. I can’t wait to see if I can replicate the recipes at home with my family.
I truly am glad that I took a little more time in Siem Reap, to explore all the city had to offer. In truth, I probably could have spent more time there. But eventually it was time to board a bus back to Thailand, and I had to bid farewell and give a heartfelt aw kohn (thank you) to Siem Reap and Cambodia.
 It was actually fascinating to me just how similar the traditional performing arts in Cambodia were to those in Indonesia: not only was there shadow puppetry, but the dances were also very similar in form and costume. This probably shouldn’t be so surprising, as both countries are part of the Southeast Asia Region, which has a long, shared history. The Srivijaya Kingdom, for example, covered much of Java and Sumatra, as well as parts of what is now Thailand, and also extended its influence over parts of modern Laos and Cambodia (if what I have read it correct). That Indonesia was once a majority Hindu and Buddhist land, and much of mainland Southeast Asia remains so, is also most likely a reason why these cultures are similar.