Despite the tourism takeover of Siem Reap, you don’t have to go very far to see real people living their lives. Ayca and I fancied a bike ride to Prasat Bakong one day, but we got a late start because of the high temperature and underestimated the trip.
We hadn’t biked more than ten minutes down Highway 6 before we decided that it wasn’t worth risking our lives on that terrifying road. We weren’t sure we felt safe turning back the way we came either. I noticed some motorbikes turning off a little further down the way, so I made the decision to follow them and see what happened.
We lucked out and it did turn out to be a road although lane might be a better description. We were only blocks from the main part of town but the change in environment was striking. Red dirt roads, children playing, chickens running free. Everyone smiled and waved as we biked by, and the children yelled out “Hello!” and giggled. When we briefly paused to get our bearings, a young woman working nearby asked us if we were lost and directed us back to the main road. It felt like a softer side of Siem Reap.
A few days earlier we had taken a longer bike ride as a group, on a quest to visit a lake. We never made it to the lake but we did get to see some rural life. On that ride as well we received plenty of friendly smiles and waves.
The houses along the way were a very different style then what Westerners are used to. Many are on stilts, or the top floor overhangs the lower floor with double the area to create a covered patio. Much of life seems to be lived in these patio areas, as nearly all were occupied by children at play or adults at work. It’s fascinating to watch people doing laundry, cooking meals, watching TV, or even making the short trip from the shower clad in a towel. I felt like a bit of a voyeur, but it seems unlikely that they share the same expectations of privacy that I’m accustomed to.
Both experiences made me wish that I had made a greater effort to visit a smaller village. I would have liked the opportunity to meet more locals and learn their stories.
It was not until the early 90s that Angkor Wat entered the world stage as an attractive tourist destination. The Paris Peace Accords marked the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and the country was finally able to begin healing after decades of violent conflict. With the resolution of fighting, countries from around the world pitched in to help restore the dilapidated structures that make up Angkor Wat Park.
The restoration process is still ongoing, but it hasn’t stopped visitors from flocking to the region. The number of international visitors has grown from 100,000 a year to over 4 million in the last 20 years, and it has made a profound impact on the lives of Cambodian People. Siem Reap has been the epicenter of all this change, experiencing massive growth with hotels and businesses catering to foreigners popping up everywhere.
Cambodia is an extremely poor country with over a third of the population living off of less than $1 a day. The tourist boom provided many people with an opportunity to improve their lives, and many have left their hometowns to seek out greater opportunities in Siem Reap. A young hostel worker who watched the World Cup with us told us of how he left his family in Phnom Penh because all the jobs are in Siem Reap. He had to leave a city with a population of 1.5 million for one that more closely resembles a small town.
The heavy dependance of the locals on tourists creates a very off-putting experience. It feels like they see you as a walking dollar bill. You can’t walk five feet without someone honking at you, calling “Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk?” or trying to sell you something. If you are a woman, they will often make comments about your looks. Make eye contact with someone in a store front and it’s “Lady, massage?”, “Lady, come eat here!”, “Lady, fish massage!”, and they will continue to yell at you as you walk away.
If you do enter a shop or restaurant, someone will hover over your shoulder until you are ready to order or buy something. If it’s a stand in the market, they aggressively try to sell you all sorts of things you probably don’t want. It’s very exhausting to constantly work to avoid eye contact or ignore people or say “No!” over and over again.
This is all in stark contrast with Cambodians you meet in any other setting, who are incredibly warm and friendly people. It’s a huge shame that the majority of visitors will never have the opportunity to get to know the locals better. There are plenty of exceptions (the man who invited us to watch the World Cup for example), but they are almost completely drowned out by hustlers.
Summer coincides with the rainy season in many parts of Asia, and while some cities have been worse than others the intense storms are inescapable. I was wandering around Hongdae looking for lunch when a heavy rain hit. The fried chicken restaurant I had in mind turned out to be closed, but I happened to notice a familiar face across the street. My cousin’s friend Art was sitting in the window of a coffee shop with some friends. I went over to say hi and they invited me to join them. The rain didn’t let up for ages so I spent a comfortable few hours just chilling in the window while my cousin wrapped up his work.
Eventually my cousin freed up so he found me and we went out for jeon which is a traditional rainy day food. It’s basically a selection of meats and veggies that are battered and fried. We sat and talked for a long time, and then continued the conversation over a glass of wine at a nearby bar.
After we finished our wine he wanted to take me to a favorite bar of his, a craft brewery named Magpie. Unfortunately they were closed for a company party, but while we were chatting with a friend of his who works there I heard a voice directed at me: “I know you!” There were no familiar faces so I just sort of gaped at the speaker waiting for forthcoming explanation.
It turned out this guy Tyler had met me years back at Blackbird in Ballard when I brought in a friend to upgrade his wardrobe. He was friends with Jon and had recognized a photo of me on his Facebook wall, but hadn’t gotten around to asking him about me yet. Once he explained it immediately clicked since he’d been super helpful that day and I remembered it well. Who would have thought that I’d be recognized by a person I’d met once, halfway across the world!
We chatted for a bit and I ate one of their pork sliders before moving on. While walking to our updated destination Jon recognized a familiar face on a bike, and talked him in to joining us. We headed over to a cute little bar that his friend Song works at. Art showed up, and then Mark and Mary whom I had also met at the coffee shop that afternoon. We did shots of soju and drank many gin & tonics.
After a few hours Jon needed to leave to meet up with Sehee, but the rest of us moved on to a tattoo parlor to continue drinking. There was a hyperactive puppy waiting for us, and two new people whose names I can’t recall. It was nice to let loose a bit and made for a very memorable final night out.
Saturday evening there were plans to see Jon’s band perform, but he was free to hang out during the day. We had hatched plans to go on a long bike ride with his friend Justin, but Justin was too hungover so we took off on our own. Fortunately I was able to borrow his roommate Natalie’s bike, at the cost of replacing her flat tire. It was short and the gears wouldn’t change but it did the trick.
Seoul has an amazing bike path running along both sides of the Hangang river. It is reminiscient of the Burke Gilman trail with less foliage but better supported. There are many bridges spanning the river so you can effectively ride a loop with the distance of your choosing. The total distance is 80km– 40km on each side of the river.
The entire distance is packed with activities and supporting shops. Bikes are available for rent at many points along the river for about $3/hour. There are numerous parks situated along the river, with great play areas for children. There are also many fitness centers where people can play croquet and use exercise equipment that freely available to the public. I made Jon stop so I could test my pullups and knock out some bench presses to the effusive praise of an elderly gentleman. According to Jon he was sure I had to be Korean because I was so beautiful and tall.
By the time we returned to the apartment it was getting close to dinner. Luckily we had plans for BBQ that night. It was a nice group of me, Jon, Sehee (his girlfriend), Natalie and Justin. I love Korean style BBQ so this was definitely one of my favorite dinners and it’s very cheap in Korea. After dinner they bumped in to some friends across the street so we were standing outside chatting when the makgeolli man came by.
Makgeolli is a rice wine similar to nigori sake in look and taste with a reputation for causing the worst hangovers. The makgeolli man is a local character who wanders around the city on a mission to supply the world and it’s hard to say no at $2 for a liter. Rumor has it that he doesn’t need the money, he just believes it’s his mission to spread joy and makgeolli. He has an infectious cheerfulness about him, and if you buy a bottle he will hug you and tell you repeatedly how much he loves you. I tried to get a photo but was too slow, but search Facebook for Makgeolli Man and he comes right up.
Justin bought a bottle of Makgeolli to share and after the Makgeolli Man was done thanking him we headed over to the venue where Tierpark would be performing. In all the years we had been cousins, I had never seen Jon perform. When I asked him about his music he described it as “experimental post-rock.” Sehee is the singer and they both play guitar. The show was running late and I was getting pretty tired but I managed to stay alert for the whole performance and enjoyed it thoroughly. After the show I grabbed a kabob with another friend Elise and then headed home to pass out for the night.
Check out Tierpark’s soundcloud: soundcloud.com/seoul-tierpark
On Friday, Jon had to go in to school again so it occurred to me that it was the perfect day to check out a Korean bathhouse. I got a recommendation from his roommate, packed up some toiletries, and headed out.
I’ve been to Russian co-ed bathhouses, all-women bathhouses, and even a Korean bathhouse in America but the ones in Korea are on another level. You can opt for either just the hot tubs and sauna or the entire package which is called jjimjilbang and costed me about $9. A good bathhouse is equipped with a restaurant, TVs, a computer room, an exercise room, spa services, and heated floors for sleeping on.
That’s right, many people go to the bathhouse to nap and you can even spend the night. Since the trains shut down around midnight so partiers will pay the entrance fee just to have a safe place to crash. One of Jon’s friends told me that he had slept in a bathhouse for several weeks while in between apartments.
On entry, you are issued a pair of pants and a shirt, two small towels, and a locker key with an RFID tag. You lock up your shoes at the locker room entry with the key, and use the RFID to access your locker. One towel is for drying off and the other can be used to wrap your hair or to sit on.
I’m pretty comfortable in a locker room but I get a little paranoid about etiquette so I went through some confusion over whether I should don my issued clothing to enter the baths. The solution: spy on the other ladies to figure out how to behave. I quickly confirmed that the outfit is for the lounging part of the experience. Unfortunately, I hadn’t googled how to wrap the hair towel so I gave up on that pretty quickly. Now I know to use the sheep head method– look it up!
After finishing my bath, I wandered around to experience the rest of the jjimjilbang. Sure enough, there were nappers everywhere. I arrived around 1pm and probably saw 40-50 people sleeping on the floor. I found giant saunas that looked like kilns, one of which had a floor of rock salt. There were also massage chairs and books available for reading. I didn’t get a chance to eat (they were out of everything I wanted) but I later found out that they slow-cook eggs in the hottest sauna and sell them for eating. Jjimjilbang is truly a Korean tradition worth experiencing.
Months ago I downloaded a PDF titled “Learn to Read Korean in 15 Minutes” and the flight to Seoul seemed like the perfect time to give it a read. It would be more accurate to say you can read the PDF in 15 minutes, but it’s actually a surprisingly simple alphabet to pick up. I spent the train ride to Sangsu-dong practicing reading by comparing the Korean and English names for each station as they were displayed on the electronic display.
Just learning to read it won’t take you too far of course, but it can still be very useful. Google Maps was only giving me the station names in Korean, so it was a big help for buying my tickets. I was also able to read English words written in Korean such as “Beer” or “Wine”. Important stuff like that.
With the help of free airport wifi and my new language abilities, I was easily able to navigate the transit system to the neighborhood that my cousin resides in but that is where my navigation skills became insufficient. It turns out that Korean addresses are very confusing. The address I received had no street name. Wandering around the neighborhood I could perceive no clear pattern to the numbering, and ended up far astray.
My confusion stemmed from the lack of a grid system. A major road will have 20+ smaller streets in the area awith the same name appended with a number. The layout somewhat resembles half of a disorganized spider web. Most addresses are located on roads that would more aptly resemble alleyways, and some have no name at all. Houses are identified with their house number and neighborhood, but house numbers are assigned based on which buildings were built first. The official looking sign on his apartment wasn’t even the address – rather the numbers were scratched by the gate in pen. Even Koreans use the popular search app Naver to find their destinations.
I walked about fifteen minutes off target with my bags before settling in at a cafe to message my cousin on Facebook to let him know I was lost. After killing the hours until he returned from his teaching job, I met up with him at Sangsu station. Only to have him lead me exactly to the spot that Google had pinpointed in the first place.