The moment I landed in Siem Reap at the lovely airport, I immediately felt relaxed. There is something about the statues in meditation pose that look over you as you await your luggage that is instantly calming.
I arrived in Cambodia following a busy and tiring tour of Vietnam. I was ready for some rest! As we drove the short drive to my hotel, I realized quickly that Cambodia has a much quieter vibe. Siem Reap in particular is a smallish city of less than 200,000, and is geared for tourism.
As the gateway for Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (about 6 km north of Siem Reap), you immediately notice you are one of thousands of tourists in town to visit the ancient temples. As one of those tourists, you also notice the commerce that is directed totally to you:
– the US dollar is the most popular currency accepted and everything is listed in US dollars and the Cambodian Riel;
– Tuk tuks are everywhere (carriages pulled by motorbikes), and every five feet someone is asking you if you need a ride anywhere for a dollar;
– The center of town is clearly marked as “pub street” or “market” and at night is colourfully lit up and flooded with tourists seeking fun and/or a bargain.
I really enjoyed the Siem Reap shopping, restaurants and nightlife. I happily succumbed to being “just another tourist” and just went along for the ride.
Whenever you are in a new exotic place, the market is always a fascinating visit! Here, I saw many things you just don’t see in Canada (like chickens with their feet still attached!). The smell was pretty overwhelming and I didn’t last long in the sweltering and crowded indoor market, but I am glad I ventured in there.
The people in Siem Reap are incredibly friendly, and always greet you with a smile, quick bow of the head, and hands pressed together in prayer-fashion at the chest.
I found this sense of calm and friendliness amazing, considering the brutal history of Cambodia. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot drove most people out of Siem Reap and into the countryside, and killed about 1 million of its own people across the country. Anyone considered an intellectual, and their families and children, were brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge. In some cases, people were killed for even just wearing glasses or knowing how to read or multiply. People today surmise it was directed to ensure there was no opposition to the Khmer Rouge, but no one really knows the reason why. You are reminded of this horrific past if you visit one of the killing fields (now a memorial in town) or strike up a conversation with someone about how that time affected them or their family. Truly heartbreaking stuff.
Siem Reap is growing and rebuilding, and it will take time for the city and country to fully recover. It is on its way. But, as my wonderful tour guide Solty told me, “if you want to really help Cambodia, it isn’t about money. Give us your knowledge. Teach the people something that you are good at. Most of our intellectuals were wiped out in one generation, and we need others to teach us now. We can learn. I tell people in my village to learn english. If you learn english, more rice will come.”