For the past few days, I have been in Siem Reap, home to Cambodia’s famous historic site, Angkor Wat. I haven’t visited Angkor Wat yet because I am waiting to enjoy it with friend Carol, who is arriving tonight from Ho Chi Minh City (yippee!!). In the meantime, I haven’t had a hard time entertaining myself.
To get oriented, I started with my usual walking around. What is most obvious about Siem Reap is that it is sort of a tale of two cities — one for Cambodians and one for tourists. The center of town is full of lively bars and cafes and boutiques that Cambodians don’t patronize. The river running through the center of town is lined with trees and small parks, and the city has some lovely French and Khmer architecture. In the rest of the city, many roads are unpaved or rutted, and there is plenty of evidence that the standard of living is very low. Women sit on street corners trying to sell a few bananas. Tuk-tuk drivers seem desperate for $2 fares. Shacks are common dwellings and some of the children have obvious signs of malnutrition. Still, Siem Reap has a feeling of prosperity by Cambodian standards, and the feeling here, as in Battambang, seems to be that the economy and social policy are moving in the right direction.
Because it is such a popular tourist destination, Siem Reap has many great accommodations and food venues of all kinds, and it’s easy to get around on tuk-tuks or motor bikes. My hotel, The Moon, is downright luxurious even though it is among the least expensive accommodation of my last three months. And I have easily kept to my commitment to eat at restaurants run by nonprofits, which seem to be among the best places to eat in Cambodia. I am so not roughing it here!
Because my other bike tours were great for getting off the beaten path, I spent yesterday riding through the countryside with Samath from Butterfly Tours. Samath grew up in Battambang Province on a farm and just got his degree in business from the local college. He plans to expand Butterfly Tours and is interested in working for government. He is very committed to supporting the people of the countryside, many of whom live on less than $500 a year. As we rode through dusty, unpaved backroads, we talked about politics and world cultures and our lives. Children waved and yelled “hello hello” with laughter and smiles. The day felt like scenes from a movie made by me.
And then and then I took another cooking class, which is another great way to learn the local culture and support local small business. Today’s class took place at a small resort in the countryside. Instead of visiting a market, we visited a small farm where the family grows herbs and vegetables (in addition to rice and children). In a moment that is surely common to all cultures, Grandma scolded the young men who were making a racket with their motor bike engines while we were learning about growing ginger and basil.
A few generalizations about Cambodia…Many Cambodians speak English, including young people in the countryside, and there seems to be a big emphasis on teaching English, probably because the urban economy is increasingly focused on tourism. The official Cambodian currency is the riel but the preferred currency is the US dollar. And from a tourist’s perspective, the whole country seems to be run by 20-somethings! The ones I have met have all been charming and cheerful and engaging.