While Siem Reap is known for its temples, you can discover another side of
the city if you travel off

the beaten path.

HONESTLY, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I bought my flight tickets to Cambodia. I went there without any expectations, and with last-minute planning and minimal research. Only equipped with wanderlust, I ventured into a country brimming with stories to tell.

Cambodia isn’t just about historical landmarks and architectural wonders; there’s more. It’s about children growing up with a thirst for adventure. Instead of being bothered about the existence of gadgets, they spend their time pretending to drive cars under coffee tables while their parents look after food stalls.

It’s about teenagers on the streets turning to the performing arts as a form of healing and now making a name for themselves by being stars of Phare, the Cambodian Circus.

It’s also about my tour guide, Sam, who wants nothing more than to see his country flourish and prosper.

“One day, I wish Cambodian riel will be used all over this country instead of US dollars,” he says.

Although the US dollar is used because people find it hard to calculate prices in riel – US$1 is equivalent to 4,000 riel – he hopes that one day others will acknowledge the existence of the riel when they travel in Cambodia.

Watch youngsters dance, sing and contort their bodies at Phare, The Cambodian Circus.

The first thing that really struck me upon arrival was how safe it was. I was not constantly looking around, clutching my bag a little bit tighter or fidgety when things seemed dangerous. Even if the country is still developing and the people use all the tricks in the book to get you to purchase souvenirs, including begging, but never harming you.

If that isn’t convincing enough, the tuk-tuks are the best form of public transportation here. Granted, some of these drivers think that they are in a Formula One race, swerving in and out of junctions, so you have to hang on tight. Riding in a tuk-tuk also allows you to interact with the locals; if you’re lucky, you’ll witness 20 guys trying to squeeze on top of a pick-up truck as though they were trying to break a world record!

My first time riding a tuk-tuk was to our first destination, Phas Chas (old market). It is the place to go to if you’re looking for local goods, souvenirs and affordable dishes. You’ll see vendors sitting on counter tops in the middle of the market selling fresh poultry and vegetables.

One of the bars situated at Pub Street with graffiti on its walls, inviting you to sit down for a drink.

When night falls, you can just walk over to Angkor Night Market. Just step into this place and you’ll fall for its rustic charm. It’s similar to the Old Market, just that you can get a massage at a mere US$1 (RM3.20)! Sit back and relax while the masseuse – some of whom I suspect are still in primary school – twist your limbs and relieve the tension from your body. It’s also the best way to unwind after a long and tiring day.

If you’re rejoicing because you can get a glass of beer for less than a glass of water in Cambodia, Pub Street is the way to end your night!

True to its name, this street is filled with pubs packed with people enjoying a few glasses of beer while swaying to the music. It wasn’t my scene, but I had the most bizarre meal throughout my entire trip there.

My travel buddy (aka boyfriend) and I dined at Easy Speaking Café Pub & Restaurant. Since we felt like splurging a little, we ordered the couple degustation set – which includes beef, crocodile, shrimp, snake, frog and side dishes. We added on ostrich meat just for the extra kick!

I was expecting a grand explosion of tastes in my mouth, but most of the time, I was just munching on tough meat, and trying to figure out if it was crocodile or snake. Nevertheless, it’s an experience to remember! The food in Cambodia is similar to that of its neighbours and it doesn’t disappoint.

While we were there, we did plenty of exploring on our own – and I highly recommend that. A simple Google search (preferably done weeks in advance) and being buddies with the hotel staff can get you anywhere.

Try exploring on your own. It’s just something else altogether. Because we did that, we found the Old Market, Angkor Night Market and Pub Street. That’s where we discovered the existence of Phare, The Cambodian Circus.

It’s my dream to see the Cirque Du Soleil live one day, and although Phare is just a small show in comparison, I was really awestruck! These teenagers had a knack for bending their bodies, swaying dangerously on a trapeze and captivating the audience with their energy. It was worth the US$15 (RM48.15) fee!

You could get the front-row VIP seats for US$30 (RM96.30), which guarantee interaction with the cast members and a goody bag given as a token of appreciation. However, since it was a small confined area, sitting in the cheaper seats was good enough. Everything is spoken and sung in Khmer, but there’s a TV screen showing the English translation. You’re bound to bob your head to the music even if you are completely clueless.

The highlight of this had to be the background of the circus. About 20 years ago, eight young men whose lives have been changed, thanks to art therapy, founded Phare Ponleu Selpak. What first started off as an art school has now developed into a music and theatre school. These youngsters, who could have ended up on the streets, found their way out through the performing arts instead. Now these individuals have a chance to shine on stage while also earning decent wages to get them through life.

Still, I did the touristy things. In addition to travelling around on our own in tuk-tuks, we paid US$110 (RM353.15) per person for a two-day tour to experience Cambodia’s culture with live commentary. Our tour guide, Sam, who is fond of Khmer songs, was ever ready to endure the blistering heat to show us what Siem Reap has to offer.

With day one of our tour spent mainly visiting temples, Sam took us to the floating village the following day. I expected to see a busy village, with people going about their daily routine, selling their produce on the water. However, it was pretty disappointing. We had to endure the stench coming from the lake, although it was an exciting 10 to 15 minutes on the boat to the village. Upon arrival, I could only visit a souvenir spot for photo opportunities and a Catholic church. The journey to and from the floating village lasted way longer than the time spent at the floating village.

Another tourist attraction we checked out was the Cambodian Cultural Village, the one-stop destination for learning about the history of Cambodia and its different cultures, and watching short cultural shows.

If you’re hankering for more history, the Angkor National Museum provides just that. You will be transported back in time. And a walk around the museum is enjoyable. You start off at a briefing hall, then you get to explore the various sections – for instance, The Gallery of One Thousand Buddhas, Khmer Civilisation and Angkor Wat, just to name a few. Some sculptures are slowly wearing out, but still well preserved. Not only that, you get to sit at different galleries while enjoying a short video presentation, which is available in different languages for everyone to enjoy.

I would definitely travel there again, maybe even take the bus to Phnom Penh and explore what it has to offer. There’s just so much more to discover. Right now, I’m wishing for more US$1 massages to soothe away my backaches!