Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia, May 10th - 14th
I do not like Siem Reap. And I have been here for four days. A low hum that sounds like "get me out, get me out, get me out" fills all of my thoughts and experiences here. The other day I was in a museum and I tuned out my guide to stare at a map, thinking of how to escape and where I could go. But then I realized the map depicted ancient Cambodia. And like someone who is held captive and for a small moment sees daylight only to have the curtains quickly pulled closed - I too found myself without hope and sitting in the dark.
I just googled “I hate Siem Reap” and as it turns out, I am not alone.
People use words like horrible, loathe and dump to describe this town just as fast as other people talk about the charming people, kids playing in the river and tuk tuk drivers who will give you a small narrative of the city as they drive.
To align ourselves on exactly how I feel I’ll say this – I deeeeeply dislike Siem Reap. I don’t enjoy the city, the sights, how I’m perceived and how I’m spoken to. And, guess what! I feel guilty about it. The world does work in special ways. I feel guilty about it all because I wish for something that Siem Reap cannot deliver. This is a place that appears to have no control over what it is, how it behaves and what it can become. And that... that is sad.
LET’S TALK CAMBODIA
Cambodia has had a hell of a time over the last forty years. They are still trying to rebuild and become a modern city.
On quite a serious note, there are also few older people here because of the genocide that occurred under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) when communism was enforced and everyone was forced out of their homes and into the fields to go to work, as “equals.” With the goal to create a “utopia,” the educated were murdered and many tried to disguise their former professions. For four years everyone worked mainly as a farmer, in order to contribute to the “greater good” of the country and survived with very little. Millions died. Some from starvation or disease, others from torture but most from mass executions in locations that people call the killing fields. I’ve been told that if you ask any Cambodian they will tell you, to the day, how long the Khmer Rouge was in control.
Landmines are still in the countryside from the war – when the Vietnamese eventually turned on Pol Pot and invaded. After the war, the Vietnamese who were “liberating Cambodia” took over for about a decade which didn’t go that well and now there is a Prime Minister in power who represents The Cambodian People’s Party but many state that he works for Vietnamese interests and has used force to rig the elections that have occurred over the past thirty years.
What’s even more mind blowing is the Prime Minister of Cambodia apparently was once a leader of the Khmer Rouge. But, when the internal purges began before the Vietnam invasion, he fled to Vietnam and then joined the efforts to defeat Pol Pot’s regime. Members of the Khmer Rouge are current politicos today. That is like the German government employing many high ranking Nazi officials, only taking a select few to trial for war crimes.
Huge swarms of people sit on the street outside the children’s hospital, waiting to see a doctor. Electricity goes in and out. The rumor is that a good living is making $150 USD a month but not many do. White bony cows used for farming eat brown grass along the highway. The police are apparently underpaid, so they are look for ways to scam you for a buck or resell the drugs they confiscate. Rural families are not opposed to selling their children for money, in hopes to alleviate some of the despair.
This is one hell of a shit show.
I had a guide for two days who helped me navigate the city, provide some background about what is happening in Cambodia and show me some of the temples. First, no one needs this. Just rent a tuk tuk. Second, we suffered through the language barrier and the repetition of facts but then came the not-so-subtle request for money. The request for money is on everyone’s lips when they see you. If you look Western in their eyes it means you are rich. Kids run after you with post cards. It takes a solid glare and forceful NO to get them to leave you alone. Men with no legs (a result of stepping on a landmine in the countryside) shuffle up to you in a bar, on their hands. Tuk tuk drivers call after you "LAYYDEEE! Laaaaayyydeeee!" Drug offerings are whispered… "Cocaine? Ice?” (ICE!!!)
You are regularly scammed. Prices instantly triple on almost anything and not only do you need to dust off your sharp bargaining skills, you need to add a helping of aggression to them. It isn’t about the money – a dollar means a lot more to the people here than it does to me --- but it is about things just feeling fair, just and… kind? Perhaps nondiscriminatory?
But, when it comes to all of that – the scams, the begging, the heckling… can you blame the people of Siem Reap? Can you be upset with your guide asking for a big tip (who knows what that even means though) as he tells you about how slow his business is, how he has three kids, that his wife died and oh, that “your hotel is very nice?”
The thing – is that I believe him - whether or not his facts are true. I am very confident he needs money and that his life is one giant struggle. When he tells me that he prays every day to Buddha that the US or the UN will send troops to stop the current government, are you supposed to mad or frustrated at him?
But can I (and my tip) fix it? The answer is no. It is hard to work through the understanding about what is happening here and that the changes required are infinitely larger than you. Money may be a short-term Band-Aid but it really just fuels the cycle and the perception of tourists.
You can smell the desperation and as I like to say – the illusion of movement in this town. There might be new hotels for visitors and we are even told that many piles of rocks have been declared a UNESCO heritage site. Note, these piles of rocks are lacking. (I know, this is blasphemy to some ears. And, to take it a step further I am actually going to say that I don't think it is worth a visit and would recommend going someplace else.) At these sites, for the most part, there are no Buddha statues, or Lingas from when the temple was Hindu, there are no railings with carvings and the faces of demons that once lined a bridge are gone. It is because people realized these could be sold for money so they came and cut them down. This reflects everything - especially the acute need - that can be felt here in Siem Reap. The emptiness of possibility is palpable and it exists prominently on the surface.
As I toured over the past few days and was peppered with details about kings in the 9th – 15th centuries I first started to think “I can’t care about any of this any more.” And then I thought – this is all you have. History about kings, wars, great palaces and greater deeds for the people. Today, I don’t know if "the people" can imagine any of that. I don’t know what you dream about as a child here... is it the 9th century when things were good? It doesn’t seem like most have a way out, they just have the survival skills that have prompted this post.
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, THE THINGS I THINK ABOUT AS I WALK THROUGH SIEM REAP
1. I fucking hate this place
2. Why aren’t there side walks and why is the dirt yellow
3. STOP YELLING "LAYDEEE, HEY LAYDEEE" AT ME
4. What side of my body is my purse on? Good, it is facing away from the street so it can’t be grabbed by a motorbike which will undoubtedly drag me like some of the crazy blogs I have read
5. So hot. Is it only 105?
6. That person has no toes.
7. Why all the dried fish stalls.
8. You can bbq snake and crocodile at this restaurant? Oh.
9. Is my scoop neck dress too low? Is that why people are looking at me? Where is my cardigan? Yes, put it on, it’s only 102 outside.
10. You want to charge me what? Excuse me?
11. You won’t take this dollar bill because there is a small 2mm tear in the corner? All bills have to be pristine? Would you like to be paid today?
12. If I had to fight, what elbow could make a greater impact
13. When do I leave.
14. It is so hot.
15. That child is cute. Wait, that child is following me. Wait, that child is running after me yelling LAYYYYDEEE holding post cards. Man....
LASTLY, A CAVEAT
I realize my opinion on Siem Reap is a pointed one. It, however, is just that - my opinion after having spent a handful of days in one singular town. I am sure there is a great deal of beauty in this country to explore and enjoy. (fingers crossed) So, come to Cambodia or not – the decision is yours and if you do end up here I hope you enjoy, heckle like the best of them and take in the views of Angkor Wat at sunrise. That was cool.