Siem Reap (part one) – two slow weeks teaching yoga

Siem Reap is a small town located just a few kilometres away from the world-famous ruins of the Angkor Wat complex.  Siem Reap has a strategic location making visiting not just the Angkor Wat itself but also other angkorian ruins, Phnom Kulen National Park and Tonle Sap lake easy (do not confuse with affordable). It is the major tourist hub in Cambodia, which has little to do with the peaceful and authentic rest of the country. 

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We started our journey around Cambodia in Siem Reap. While still preparing for our journey in Kolkata, I had come across an opportunity to teach yoga in exchange for accommodation at one of numerous yoga schools in Siem Reap. I had successfully gone through a Skype interview and agreed to teach for two weeks. I didn’t want to stay any longer than that since I wanted to have time to explore the whole country. It was the first ‘work away’ type of experience in my life and in fact the only one I had during the whole 6 month journey.

SIEM REAP AIRPORT

We came to Siem Reap by plane and I immediately concluded that the airport was the prettiest one I’d ever seen. It was small and consisted of buildings imitating traditional houses.

The visa on arrival process was very smooth and quite funny to watch. There was a counter behind which around 10 officials were sitting. I had to hand to the first one of them my passport, photos and a $30 fee. He then slid the passport along the counter to the next official, who in turn passed it along the counter to next and so on. Two minutes later, I received a shiny new visa from the person at the end of the row.

The airport was a short ride from the city centre. I strongly suggest downloading Pass App (Cambodian version of Uber) as soon as you arrive to avoid being charged extra for the tuk tuk.  We were lucky to get picked up by a tuk-tuk sent by my employers.

PROS AND CONS OF STAYING IN THE KHMER NEIGHBOURHOOD

Our visit to Siem Reap was unusual insofar we didn’t need to worry about the accommodation- it was arranged by the yoga school managers. We spent the first few nights in a posh hotel with a swimming pool and then moved to a house rented by one of the two girls managing the business. The house we stayed at was deep within the Khmer neighbourhood, overlooking a pasture where cows were grazing.

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Our free luxurious accommodation for the first few nights in Siem Reap

As it was away from the touristic city centre, the roads weren’t covered with tarmac anymore. The dirt roads were very uneven, making for a very bumpy scooter or bicycle ride. Things were getting complicated after a heavy rain, when maneuvering between massive puddles and mud required quite a skill. The street lamps were missing, too so it was pitch dark after sunset.

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Playing with the dogs of the yoga manager at her house deep in Khmer neigbourhood

The benefit of staying in that locality was the ability to watch the local life. During our two week stay we witnessed two weddings. Both were an elaborate, three-day long affairs, involving blocking one of the alleys by a tent, building a make-shift sitting platform across the street from it and blaring slow-paced Khmer ballads from 5 am till late at night.

SIEM REAP ON A BUDGET

Buying at local shops and from mobile street vendors was also pretty much the only chance to get something for a real, not tourist price. Shopping options downtown were limited to posh, air-conditioned supermarkets for tourists and expats with prices higher than Thai’s 7/11 (7/11 doesn’t operate in Cambodia) or a small and very smelly fresh market with equally inflated rates.

We were already missing Indian and Western food a bit so decided to use the opportunity to cook at home. The dining options in Siem Reap were limited to three categories: street stalls and cheap eateries serving $1-$1.5 dishes (usually just noodles or noodle soup – rather uninteresting and very small sized), cheaper restaurants (where you could get a decent Khmer food such as fish amok or beef lok lok for $2-$3) and cosy, lovely restaurants serving either Indian or Khmer and Western dishes for $5-$8.

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yummy vegetable Khmer curry at a backpacker restaurant in Siem Reap

As Khmer people speak incomparably better English than their Thai neighbours and Siem Reap is flooded with tourists, it’s very easy to get a veganised version of traditional Khmer dishes. Just remember that all the broth for soup is boiled on meat and bones and you’ll be fine. Some guides warned from drinking water or having ice from cheaper eateries but I did that many times without paying any nasty consequences.

Siem Reap is small enough to walk everywhere but if you don’t fancy roaming in the scorching sun you can just catch a tuk-tuk on a street – most of the routes within the town should cost you a dollar (certainly so if you use a PassApp mobile application).

FIRST TRAVELLING AND WORKING EXPERIENCE

I was quite excited with the opportunity to exchange my yoga skills for accommodation and food. However, I didn’t know it would be so boring and frustrating to stay in Siem Reap for two weeks. The most positive thing of overstaying for at least a week was that I had plenty of free time to catch up with writing the travel diary (later converted to this blog) and I could use a fantastic venue for practicing yoga and meditation.

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A perfect yoga space

Initially, I thought I’d be really busy, teaching two classes a day, five days a week, plus two charity sessions a week for local children. As it turned out, there was another teacher to share the classes which enabled me to have quite a few days off (absolutely necessary for exploring Angkor Wat). Furthermore, it was already low season which meant there were fewer tourists around. As a result, many times nobody turned up for the morning class, leaving me on my own at the beautiful yoga shala located in a banana grove.

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Teaching yoga to kids was a real challenge

The greatest challenge for me were the classes for local kids since I didn’t have much experience in this field. I was grateful for the presence of a local teacher who helped to translate, if necessary, and, more importantly, who kept the kids disciplined.

What I learned from this experience is that if I ever thought of teaching yoga abroad again, I should choose a place at the seaside or in the mountains so that I would have something to do and wouldn’t feel trapped in a city.

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