Before I moved to Asia, the only thing I knew about Cambodia was that it was often featured in World Vision commercials. I remember them vividly; the emaciated dirty children playing in puddles, the cheesy voice-overs reminding you that for only a dollar a day, you could change someone’s life. To be honest, they were lumped in with all the commercials about African countries, so I actually thought Cambodia was in Africa.
The vision most people have of Cambodia is not one of regality and wonder; it is one of poverty and disarray. And I mean, why wouldn’t it be? Cambodia has gone through a lot in the last century. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia was taken by the Khmer Rouge, a communist party that grew from the Vietnam People’s Army. They ruled from 1975 to 1979 and during this period some of the world’s worst human rights atrocities were committed. The Khmer Rouge’s leader, Pol Pot, implemented a process of social engineering which led to widespread genocide. The reign also induced famine and diseases due to its reliance and insistence on self-sufficiency. The vast majority of Khmer culture was destroyed, and people accused of opposing the reign were routinely tortured.
My impression of Cambodia was not one of grandeur, to say the least. However, when I moved to Japan I started talking to people who had been there on holiday and I learned Cambodia had way more to offer than I had previously thought. Not only was the economy bustling since the nation’s return to monarchy, but they were cashing in on tourism now more than ever. Upscale resorts and hotels were popping up by the dozens in Siem Reap, the gateway town to the Angkor region, to accomodate the thousands of tourists headed to explore the ruins of Angkor. Little did I know it at the time, but in a few months I would be one of them.
At its heyday, Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, which covered present day Cambodia and parts of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and even Malaysia. Hundreds of temples were built around the vicinity of the capital, which at its largest was much bigger than even London was at the same time. The city itself, Angkor Thom, no longer exists; however, the temples inside it are still moderately intact. The main draw is Angkor Wat, which is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and the largest religious structure in the world. It is also the only temple that has been in continuous use since it was built, and is incredibly well maintained.
I found all of this out through the Lonely Planet guidebook I used, as I was planning my backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. I had convinced my friend George to come with me, and I decided that Cambodia, Siem Reap specifically, was a place I had to venture to. In August, 2012, armed with my bright purple backpack, a British travel companion, and my guide, I flew into Phnom Penh and took a bus to Siem Reap, nervous and excited at the same time.
The first thing I noticed was that neither the World Vision nor the resort ads seemed to be entirely accurate. They both offered up very different visions of present-day Cambodia, and the reality was somewhere in the middle. On the six hour bus ride I saw uncountable houses on stilts made of wood and straw, but in the town itself I saw development and prosperity. New places were popping up. People had work. Times were good. The tourism the newfound interest in Angkor had brought was having a positive effect on the economy and the community as a side-effect. It was great to see.
I pondered this until we arrived at the bus stop where we were picked up by a good-natured man in a tuk-tuk and carried all the way back to our hotel. He smiled, tossed our bags in the back with us, and without securing anything started driving down the unpaved road. With every bump I feared I would lose my bag, but somehow we made it with everything still intact. Exhausted, we promptly relaxed, played some pool, and went to bed. After all, in the morning we were in for a busy day of exploring Angkor.
We woke early and headed down to borrow some bicycles from the hotel. We hopped onto our barely working one speed bicycles and headed into the crazy Cambodian traffic. As with most places in the world drivers are slightly more insane in Cambodia than in North America, and George hadn’t been on a bike in a while. Once again I found myself fearing for our safety, but after a wobbly start we were out of the city and cruising down to the temples. We found the ticket booth, bought three-day passes for forty dollars each, and continued on our way. We rode and rode, pausing frequently to guzzle water and wipe the sweat from our brows. Soon enough, we had arrived.
Angkor Wat. The symbol of Cambodia. The largest Hindu structure in the world. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but I was taken aback by the size of it. The scope of the project. The idea that this had been built in the 12th century. As I stood there I realized this was what drew everyone in. The chance to experience something bigger than themselves. I walked across the path and through the main gates, and started to explore.
The temple is huge. It has a moat that is wider than a football field, and that is just the beginning. The walls around the temple could be enough for a day of exploring all by themselves, but we were on a time budget so we gave them a look, then walked all the way over to the real thing. We feasted our eyes on the murals intricately carved into each and every wall. We walked and walked until we could walk no longer. We took photos and talked to other like-minded tourists. One thing was for sure. We were definitely looking at a piece of history.
On the bike ride back we didn’t talk. Whether it was heat exhaustion setting in or cultural exhaustion it is hard to say, but we were both satiated. We headed to our hotel, ate dinner, and promptly rested our heads.
Although our first day had been more than epic, we had a three day pass that we didn’t want to waste. The next day we were scheduled for a cooking class in the morning. We met up with our Cambodian teacher bright and early. George and I hadn’t had our coffee yet, so we mumbled incoherent answers as she asked us questions and got us checked in. We started to wake up a bit more as we got into the tuk tuk to head to the local market.
In many places in Southeast Asia, the markets are more tourist traps than actual markets. They sell souvenirs and clothing for cheap, but they are frequented by few locals. This market was nothing like that. We instantly brightened as we walked into the colourful chaos of the local market. We saw women bartering over strange, exotic vegetables. We saw fish being gutted by women sitting on tables. Naked toddlers were running around followed by their older siblings. It smelled like a mix of spices, raw fish and meat and sweets, overpowering and complicated.
We walked around and were shown what everything was. Our guide joked with the vendors in Khmer. They told me I was beautiful. I was flattered. It was very exciting. We finally left with our purchases and headed back to the hotel to use them. Our guide told us along the way that most people visit the market every day for fresh food, since they have no refrigerator to store anything in. At that point the vast differences in class really started to sink in. I was sitting down in a four star hotel, learning how to cook local food from someone who didn’t even have the most basic of appliances at home.
This thought mirrored my impressions of the entire town. The place was lively, having been recently caught up in the backpacker mania that swept through all of Southeast Asia. There is an entire street, called Pub Street, where you can buy beer for thirty five cents and party the night away. There are beautiful hotels on every corner. However, there are also ‘gas stations’ made of pop bottles filled with gasoline for Cambodians who are too poor to fill up their motorcycle or tuk tuk with gas from the station. There are little girls and boys walking around selling cheap souvenirs trying to earn enough for their family to eat. The gaping hole between the two lifestyles is vast, and ever widening.
Later, as we explored some more of the smaller temples, I found myself face to face with some of these kids. I was walking along, admiring the more run-down temples and humming the Indiana Jones theme song to myself, when a girl popped up in front of me.
‘Lady, what’s your name?’ she asked me.
I was startled, but replied with ‘Jeri. What’s yours?’
She looked up at me, giving me a shy smile and said ‘Pao. Where you from?’
‘I’m from Canada,’ I replied, continuing to walk to try to catch up with George.
‘Ah! Canada! Capital city Ottawa! Big city Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver. Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Speaks two languages!’ She looked up at me expectantly.
I had no words. She had just schooled me at my own country, and she had probably never left her town before. I was impressed.
‘Uhh, yeah,’ I replied.
‘Listen, when you come out of temple, you buy from my store, okay?’
‘If you buy from someone inside, I will know and be very sad, k?’
Pao walked away and we walked further into the temple, exploring the ruins.
Most of the temples are not as well kept as Angkor Wat, although restoration efforts are taking place every day. Honestly, I liked them even more because of that. The fact that they were so run-down made me feel like I was discovering them for the first time, even though there were at least ten other camera-toting tourists in my visual field. No matter. There were trees growing over moss-covered stones, ancient carvings almost invisible after years of disuse. It was fascinating. George and I explored the small temples for about an hour.
When we walked outside the gates, sure enough, Pao was there waiting for me.
‘Hi Jeri! You buy from my store, yes?’
‘Sure, Pao. You have impressed me,’ I said, smiling and digging out my wallet.
‘Good! You want bracelet? Make good present for sister!’
‘How much?’ I asked. I knew the other kids were selling three bracelets for a dollar, and I expected the same deal.
‘Two dollars for one,’ she replied, smiling her innocent smile.
I was shocked! That was six times the price of the other kids! I tried to explain this to her. We bartered and ended up deciding on a bracelet and a big bottle of water for two dollars. I walked away feeling like she had done well to earn my money. After all, I’m sure that two dollars will buy her family much more than it would have bought me.
I had a few more adventures while I was in Cambodia, but in the interest of brevity, I will not recount them here. If you are interested in visiting this wonderful part of the world, keep the following things in mind:
First, pay attention to the local way of life, and try to do things in a similar way. Respect local customs and dress code. Be polite and friendly. In this way, tourism doesn’t have to have the damaging effect it has had in many places. The locals will inwardly thank you, I promise. On a similar note, support businesses run by locals. The service is often great and you know the money is going somewhere it is needed.
Second, try not to get taken advantage of by people trying to sell you things, but also keep in mind that they are trying to earn a living. Don’t get mad at them, even if it seems like what they are asking is preposterous. Khmer culture is one based on saving face, so as long as you don’t embarrass them publicly or get noticeably angry, you will both be fine.
I loved everything about the town I visited. I loved the temples and the history. I loved playing pool and eating local food at the hotel bar. I loved the market and the local town culture. I even loved the street vendors. I don’t think there’s a choice but for me to go back. Get ready Cambodia, because I’m coming for you again!
‘Kids @ Angkor Wat’ photo by Chem7. All other photos by Jeri Knopp.