Apparently Siem Reap wasn’t much of a place – just a collection of hotels to house the couple of million tourists there to see Angkor Wat. But guide books now tout Siem Reap as a destination worthy of a visit if you happen to already be there. Definitely a back handed insult. We went to check it out anyway.
The food market was bustling. The night art market smelled like a tourist trap from even across the river, besides Evan was done walking and hungry by then. So we walked to Pub Street for a cold beer, hamburgers and wood fired pizza, all three of which were pretty good.
We sat on a open wooden veranda in the coolish night air above the street and watched the crowds. One group of black clad hip looking teens walked up the street rolling a giant speaker and amp. They set up shop below us at the crossroad and performed some dance moves to thumping music. A crowd assembled to watch. Then the kids distributed cards – probably invitations to a longer length event, we wondered – and rolled their act to the next intersection.
Besides Angkor, I knew of three other phrases that I associated with Cambodia – Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, and the killing fields. During our few days in Cambodia I tried to piece together what Jack and bartenders and tuktuk drivers said about them.
The history of modern Cambodia is very complicated because of the large number of actors: French colonizers exiting stage left, the Americans in a loosing war with the Viet Cong in neighboring Vietnam, China striving to counter Soviet influence in South East Asia, the Cambodian royals, Vietnam itself post American war (as they call the Vietnam war over there), Marxist-Leninist communism, and Thailand. Everyone partnered with and (not or) fought each other in various permutations. They managed to kill millions of Cambodians over the course of two decades through civil war, coups, political purges, carpet bombing, infighting, land mines, old fashioned war, forced marches, torture, famine, and mass killings. During Pol Pot’s reign as Prime Minister in the later half of the 1970’s it is estimated that one in four Cambodians lost their lives. The population from the cities were forced to move to the countryside and work in farms. The sudden shift to agrarianism ironically led to massive food shortages. Everybody had to work very long hours in rice fields and money was abolished. Teachers, doctors and scientists were executed and every else had to undergo reprogramming. Nowhere else that we’ve travelled have we heard of such diabolical social experiments. Mugabe’s reign in Zimbabwe comes closet to the Cambodian disaster but falls well short by any misery index.
On our last morning I’ve gotten more used to hearing my name when people say good morning in Khmer. “Arun suasdey”.
Jack is on time at the lobby, again. Three pick-ups on the dot. Whether he’s an exception or not, we now think of all Cambodians as very punctual people, which isn’t a common trait in south east or south Asia. Today Jack is taking us to a neighboring village. Our driver drove up a long winding dusty mountainous road which is one way towards the village in the morning and then at noon becomes a one way down from the village. We climbed a lot of stone steps to the top of a rock which has been sculpted into a giant reclining Buddha. Then we walked to a clear shallow mountain stream whose rock bed had been inscribed with a thousand Shiva Lingas. We saw Hindu pilgrims from India worshiping on the banks of the sacred stream. Then we walked downstream to a water falls where locals and tourists were changing into swimsuits and enjoying a swim. Vivian and Evan had enough of sightseeing and we headed back to town, but first stopped to buy some sodas and dried jack fruit. The Cambodian boy in the picture looks like he’s Evan age but he is the same age as Vivian. His mother was chatty but he blushed red and got very shy when his mother asked him to talk to Vivian.
We stopped at a nice roadside restaurant for lunch. Evan surprised the waiters by trying to eat all the rice he could get (he swears it’s the best rice he’s ever tasted). Then we headed to the airport and off to our next destination, Vietnam.
In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled the terrible Pol Pot regime. They were welcomed by the people. But they stayed on as unwilling occupiers for the next ten years and soured their welcome. Add that to their historical enmity back from the times of the Cham kings invading Angkor Wat when the Khmers ruled over most of what is now Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and parts of Thailand. And so it appears that Cambodians don’t like their Vietnamese neighbors. They see Vietnam’s rising prosperity and tourism, and they recognize their demographic inequality (their 16 million to Vietnam’s 95 million), but almost everybody I spoke with didn’t like that we were going to Vietnam next.
Cambodia, even outside Angkor Wat is interesting. The people are super nice. Things are ridiculously cheap. We didn’t have to get any Cambodia local currency (Cambodian Riels). For transportation in tuktuks and street food, a dollar bill usually suffices, with no change offered or requested. Food is more difficult than Thai or Vietnamese cuisine with which we are more familiar. But hey, ask Evan and he’ll be happy to tell you the rice and chilly fish sauce is the best.
Cambodians seem to be at a restive peace with themselves. They have one of the longest ruling non-monarch head of state in the world – their Prime Minister has held that office since 1985, not without controversy. People, especially the young, are looking for change and opportunity. But the horror of modern Cambodia is a stark reminder to most that an unfulfilled peaceful existence is better than returning to a bloody strife.