11/02/17 – Siem Reap: The Fashion Choices of an Archaeologist Abroad Without His Clothes

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One of the few survivors from my original set of luggage – I wish my duffel bag had that same mentality.

As my once-optimistic hope fades for my sad lost check-in bag, which was either never scanned, stolen, misrouted and put on a flight to Tahiti via Ouagadougou via Easter Island, or stuck in some parallel Airport Hell Universe located only in Terminal 2 in Beijing, I’ve decided to have a bit of fun and buy a new wardrobe.

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Because while I’m happy I’ve still got my down jacket, it’s not quite the right climate.

As of yesterday I’ve unofficially begun my research at Angkor Thom, and there’ll be a lot of writing on that over the next three months, but before I start on the several dozen entries on forests, trees, spiders, and a few Buddhist Terraces here and there, I figured I’d talk a little bit about the city that is currently hosting 90% of the foreign archaeologists in Cambodia as well as any of you who’ve ever been to Angkor: Siem Reap.

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The Siem Reap River on a good day, with a surprisingly few number of local swimmers and bathers.

Siem Reap was founded in the 16th century on the site of a battlefield between Siam and the Cambodian army under the legendary post-Angkorian king Ang Chan; the name Siem Reap means literally “The Flat Defeat of Siam”, so you get an idea of who won. As the majority of Angkor rotted away under jungle foliage and strangler figs, Siem Reap served as the southern gateway to the active temple of Angkor Wat, a monument that was never abandoned even if it was under Thai control between 1594 – 1907. The French explorers and colonial officials who presented Angkor to the world/bought it back from Thailand in the late 19th century built up incredibly lavish infrastructure in Siem Reap, and while Phnom Penh was re-established as the capital and Oudong abandoned, Siem Reap was where ambassadors were brought and vacationers toured; it was like Shimla to British India, and the architecture is still very French in many parts.

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Old colonial houses rescued from destruction and turned into higher-end antique shops and restaurants for higher-paying tourists. For all you intrepid and somewhat unkempt backpackers out there: “and the sign said long-haired freaky people need not apply”.
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The best time to go on a walking tour of Central Siem Reap (usually just on your way to dinner) is between 5-6pm when the sunset brings out all the colours of the buildings.

Siem Reap used to be a pain to get to in the early 1990s when the first archaeologists returned to Angkor from France and Phnom Penh; following their oust from power by the Vietnamese in 1979, the Khmer Rouge heavily mined the western part of the country which made traveling by road extremely dangerous. Angkor and Siem Reap were some of the first places in Cambodia to be completely de-mined, and I can walk through the forests at Angkor Thom knowing that it’ll be whatever’s crawling around that’ll kill me in the end, not anything manmade :D.

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These ones are just for show at the War Museum, but up along the Thai border you find a lot of these signs around.

The roads and highways running through Siem Reap were also poorly maintained until the mid-2000s, and it was only a booming tourist industry to Angkor that set about their paving and repair. Now, Siem Reap is the hub for all tourism in and out of Angkor, with Western and Khmer food, shops and shopping centers aplenty, hundreds of souvenir shops and stalls, and more van-tours than vans available on any given day. This is a town meant for one purpose: to get that tourist money in, and then get ’em the hell out to the temples and back on a plane!

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I learned two days ago that spiders, ants, scorpions, and crickets became a delicacy in Cambodia because the Khmer Rouge sent all of Cambodia’s rice to China in exchange for weapons so people had to eat insects to survive. Now, it’s just a fun little $1 “I dare you”, but you can’t forget the legacy.

Now, the moment you start speaking some Khmer the attitude changes – it’s a mix of surprise and even more surprise, but most tellingly the leniency in bartering. I’ve found that learning one or two phrases (let alone taking a language class) has decreased my starting prices by at least $2-$3 on even the cheapest of things. Alison Carter, one of the better-known archaeologists in Cambodia due to her savvy PR skills (and her wicked blog https://alisonincambodia.wordpress.com/), taught me one phrase that has stayed with me longer than anything I learned in my Khmer course last summer:

==> Knyom dau lang – I’m taking a walk/I’m just strolling.

You say that to a tuk-tuk driver trying to hawk a ride (and there are dozens if not hundreds of them lining the roads off of pub street), they won’t bother you anymore. But you seemingly have to say it to all of them!

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Except Angkor Batman – you always say yes to Angkor Batman.

Siem Reap is a town that is constantly changing and currently quickly expanding – along the main road eastward out of town is a HUGE complex of hotels running towards a brand new ticket office. It’s coincidentally is much closer to the APSARA Authority’s head office and directly faces the new North Korean-funded Angkor Panorama Museum…coincidence as well?

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Ok, so here’s my attempt to reason the existence of the North Korea-patronized Angkor Panorama Museum: North Korea, whose leader is essentially an ancient Khmer despot anyway, decides to commission (with ALL that money North Korea has) a museum filled with painted images of imagined scenes in Khmer history on cheap plaster walls, charge $15 a head to go to this museum, and chip in some of the money for a new ticket office (?). Why? Because Kim Jong-Un is bat-shit crazy and the Cambodian government isn’t dumb enough to actually pay for it…I hope…

But there’s a common core for foreigners here, one that folks on the Banana Pancake Trail from Mandalay to Hanoi seek out as they scatter in before and after the sunset at Phnom Bahkeng temple: Pub Street and the Night Market.

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Lights, cheap beer, and loud Top 40 music – if it wasn’t for the food I’d avoid this place like the plague like I do Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Pub Street sprung up along an old French road during the mid-late 1990s, and is now the home of Siem Reap’s trendy restaurant scene. While geared towards backpackers and Westerners, the influx of both regional tourists (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and even Indian) and Khmers from Phnom Penh have augmented menus and turned the cuisine even more global. Other restaurants have opened down the small alleys branching off Pub Street, including the always-delicious Il Forno, but my favourite has always been The Paper Tiger (Le Tigre du Papier). Great staff, great food, and they’re always able to cure my homesickness with a giant thin-crust pizza.

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Map of the Old Market and Pub Street areas.

The Old Market, (psah jah), is old. Dating back to the French Protectorate, it serves locals and foreigners alike. While foreigners attempt to barter for souvenirs, t-shirts, the trendy and famous “elephant pants”, and anything else that might’ve gotten lost between Beijing and Phnom Penh (thanks, China Southern Airlines), locals shop at Siem Reap’s largest seafood market, get their hair done at a variety of barber shops, buy clothes that won’t fall apart in two weeks for cheaper than the prices foreigners pay, work at stalls selling trinkets to tourists, and stand outside making mango smoothies and banana pancakes to passers-by.

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Holy consumption, (Angkor) Batman!
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Every corridor is different, but it somehow feels the same.
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From Siem Reap’s obsession with Angkor comes an eclectic collection of Khmer-inspired souvenirs…wait, is that a set of Chinese ceramics bottom-center?!
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Siem Reap’s largest fish market – it’s usually a good idea to buy clothes from the stalls furthest away from here because the smell carries a long way.
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I’ve had bad luck with coconuts in Siem Reap, but the smoothies have always been delicious!

The Night Market is a really fun and unique place, and while you’re likely going to get ripped off in some way, shape, or form if you choose to buy something, remember that a $3-4 t-shirt is a pretty sizeable amount for people who could really use the money. The mark-up is sustenance, not greed-driven profit, and it’s a well-needed boost for a town that profits almost solely on tourist dollars.

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Shopkeepers and backpackers alike are always on the move.

Through the temporary renewal of my wardrobe, I got to experience what is probably my favourite part of the Night Market: the absolutely amazing and eclectic collection of clothes made for less than a dollar and sold for less than five:

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The t-shirts are the real gem – I’ll post more as I see them out and about.
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Women’s clothing is most often made of really pillowy thin fabric, which is cheap to manufacture and is also designed to keep you breezy while still adhering to Angkor’s dress code (long pants/skirt and covered shoulders). You’re also hard-pressed to find one in muted colours – make a statement or go home!
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And these are known as “Cambodia Pants” or “Elephant Pants” (depending on the design), made from the same material as the dresses above. They’re cheap, unisex, durable, make your butt look really good, and are extraordinarily comfortable. I bought my sisters and my girlfriend each a pair the last time I was in Cambodia in 2016 – they’re now a staple of each of their wardrobe and one of them (not saying who) actually wore them underneath a blazer during a Skype interview.

And while I didn’t go Cambodia-crazy with everything I bought, two t-shirts from the Night Market and at some point a third

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My childhood French Class hero: Tintin.
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My obligatory archaeology purchase of the trip. From recent experience, though, people like to use this shirt as an interactive map while I’m wearing it, Erin.

I was able to replace approximately 1/5 of my clothes with temporary ones for under $70 USD (which China Southern is apparently compensating me for, yay!), and $25 went to a proper pair of field pants because I didn’t want those ripping on my first day out in the woods. In the Night Market you can get a good-enough t-shirt for under $5, a pair of khaki or basketball shorts for between $5 – $10, socks for less than $1, and boxers for between $2-$5 each. I assume that the Khmers shop elsewhere for discount clothes or are able to get local  prices, but for the sake of my place as a foreigner, being able to get clothes that fit me (the average Cambodian is 5’1″) and simply just getting some clothes on my back I didn’t bother to push more than $5 under their starting prices.

The whole area around Pub Street and the Night Market is bizarre and creative, with modern Western pop-culture references abound inside old French houses and shops with the Khmer vibe ever-present. Some call it kitsch, some call it a detriment to traditional Khmer culture (and many Khmers would agree with that), but I love it. I’ll be spending a few dinners every week at The Paper Tiger, as I’ve asked the staff to only speak to me in Khmer and they’ve kindly obliged, so if you see a pasty blond barang in a Tintin shirt stuttering through the semantics of one of the world’s most complex languages, join me for a drink!

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Would the real Angkor Batman please stand up!

Next entry: prepping for survey and the best sunset spot at Angkor – hint: it’s not the one your tourguide says it is.

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Andrew Harris

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