Siem Reap, I’ve come to realise, is an onion town (or a cake town, depending on whether you prefer the philosophy of the ogre or the donkey). It’s all about the layers.
I’ve been there a few times over the last months and at first I didn’t like it that much. Drunk backpackers, persistent tuk tuk drivers, over-priced beers… all the trappings that come along when a sleepy little town realises it’s sitting next to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world and gets over-excited in its bid to cater to the influx of foreigners.
But, over the months, I’ve realised that I was too hasty in my initial judgement. There are some lovely parts of Siem Reap, and I’m sure that the longer you stayed there, the more layers you would peel back, the more surprises you would find. Here are three little experiences that have inspired me in Temple Town.
I’ve done the full Angkor Wat circuit on two separate occasions and, yes, it’s stunning. The mind boggles at the feats of engineering and artistry imbued into stones that have stood there for more than 900 years. But, it’s sort of hard to get a sense of the majesty of the place when there are SO MANY PEOPLE talking loudly, posing for selfies and dropping rubbish. It’s definitely still worth it, but if you’re looking for a moment of calm, you will not find it here. You might, however, find it later in the day, as i did. I cycled out there after work one day, enjoying the shady roads and the breeze coming through the forest. I arrived at the big lake that surrounds the temples just as the tourist buses and shiny SUVs were leaving in their ubiquitous cloud of exhaust fumes. The temples close daily at 5:30pm, so the tourists leave and local families start to gather for picnics on the grass, watching the sunset over the lake. I sat there until it got dark, reading, meditating a little, watching the sky. It was glorious.
Since moving to a town with an average humidity of 80% and temperatures that sit pretty permanently in the high 30s, I’ve become quite the swimming pool connoisseur. Siem Reap has a few goodies to offer on this front. The best I’ve found is River Garden Resort, where you can swim for free if you buy food or drink. The pool is on the small side, but located away from the road in a peaceful garden. Peace Garden Cafe is another leafy gem. No pool, but there is a tranquil outdoor space with comfy chairs for lounging. I may have even dozed off there a little… Tasty juices and vegetarian food too.
On one visit to SR, I paid a call to 60 Road Studios. I spoke with Clive, the manager of the business, and Steve, the head sound engineer. The studio has a dual focus. The first is offering a professional recording facility to visiting musicians. They can come to Siem Reap, experience the temples, immerse themselves in a new culture and make a high-quality recording at the same time. Clive feels that all of these elements are important to the experience of recording music. “Musicians and artists, they like this link with rich culture and spirituality. And here we are, in this amazing place with such and amazing cultural, spiritual aspect to it. So we knew it would have to be a winning combination.”
The studio is certainly impressive. It’s a big, welcoming space which has been acoustically treated to perfection. The equipment is slick and professional, and has me itching to get behind the mic. I can certainly see the appeal for musicians to spend the money to travel here, especially seeing as prices for recording sessions are very reasonable compared to back home.
The second part of the business has a social development focus. 60 Road puts a portion of its income back into helping to develop the contemporary music scene in Cambodia. “The arts and music are very strong here, but we’re aware of the fact that it’s not seen as a career,” says Clive. “There are professional wedding musicians but they make very little money. There’s very little formal training, and there’s certainly no international recognition of Cambodia as having rich culture.”
So the studio seeks out promising young talent and attempts to foster it by offering support, training and access to resources. For example, one young singer on their books is paid a good, regular wage to come into the studio each week where she works on her material and develops her performance skills. “It’s to make her actually understand that it’s a full time job. And then as we help her to develop her talent, we’ll eventually help to support her as a label. We work in very practical terms, facilitating the musicians to grow, helping them to make money through their music.”
Music, like all the arts, suffered immeasurably throughout the years of the Khmer Rouge regime. Artists were persecuted, and most either fled the country or did not survive. The contemporary arts scene is still recovering from these devastating losses. They are particularly poignant when considering the state of the music scene pre-1975. Steve describes it as “world-class, interesting, and ground-breaking”, with artists such as Ros Serey Sothea and Sinn Sisamouth creating fabulous pop and rock ‘n’ roll music that was unmistakably Khmer. Both of these artists, as well as many others, disappeared during the Khmer Rouge period.
Today, it feels as though there is a quiet, persistent buzz coming from the contemporary music scene that grows louder by the day. The hip hop scene in Phnom Penh, for example, is gaining huge momentum (you can read a post about that here). Many artists are beginning to move away from the saccharine pop ballads that dominate karaoke bars across the country, and experiment with fusions of traditional instruments and contemporary styles (look out for a post on some if these artists, coming soon). Things are moving. Steve and Clive feel it too, and this seems to be the underlying reason behind the creation of 60 Road Studios. “We want to be part of something that’s starting to happen already. We’re not going to change the music scene, but we can be part of it, we can help it.”