We’ve been surprised at how close we came to blowing our daily budget here. Siem Reap is no longer a backpackers haven thanks to rapid development over the past ten years. It is very easy to have a high-end holiday here, staying in five-star hotels and complete with health spas, shopping in boutique stores, drinking in bars stocked with imported French wine, and taking helicopter or balloon rides over the temples. There is a fantastic supermarket here stocked with imported French cheeses and pates, expensive cars to rent (lots of late model European cars, especially Lexus), and a sprawling night market with clean gravel paths, twinkling fairy-lights and rustic stalls. All this makes staying here very easy, convenient and luxurious, but you definitely pay for it.
Such luxuries are a world away from how most of the locals live their daily lives. The gap between the have’s and have-not’s is very noticeable. There are beggars and landmine victims, although not as many as I had anticipated. The most visible indication is the many children on the streets – children who should be in school, but have to help their families earn a living by selling water, fruit, postcards and handmade bracelets outside the temples. Many of the local people are clearly very poor. The photo below isn’t very good photographically, but it shows a local woman on her bicycle loaded up with plastic bottles to sell for recycling, with a Hummer in the background.
The Temples are obviously a boon to the local economy. Local businesses have boomed, and have made some Cambodians very wealthy. People come from all over Cambodia to work here in the hotels, or as tour guides and tuk-tuk drivers – earning good incomes, by Cambodian standards. However, all this development made me wish, just a bit, that we had come here ten years ago. While we’ve loved the Temples and other attractions, some of our most memorable experiences have been slightly off the beaten track – experiences that have given us a taste of how local people live, and what is important to them.
After a day visiting temples, our tuk-tuk driver, Mr Bora, invited us back to his house for a drink to celebrate the Cambodian New Year. We sat around a table in his backyard, drinking the local Angkor beer out of mugs (with ice added to compensate for the lack of refrigeration). Mr Bora and his friends, including the village chief, made us very welcome, providing food (e.g. fresh mango salad) and constantly topping up our glasses with beer, and later, a homemade whiskey.
It wasn’t long before I restricted myself to small sips of beer (I was very conscious of the fact that Cambodian women generally don’t drink), although Colin quickly learned to say “Chol moi!” (sp? roughly “cheers, drink up”). While we were there we were invited to the balcony of Mr Bora’s house to see the family’s New Year shrine and light some incense.
It was great fun, and several people had enough English to make conversation flow pretty well (I was a bit embarressed when we were asked how many languages we spoke…). We stayed for several hours and, amidst much laughing, were doused with powder (for luck) before we left.
Another memorable day was our trip to Kulen Mountain, accompanied by Mr Davuth, the assistant manager at our hotel, who had a day off. Technically included as a temple site, few tourists visit the mountain because of its distance from Siem Reap (about 1.5-2 hours drive). Kulen is another site traditionally visited by Cambodians at New Year, and out of the thousands of people there, we saw maybe 8 other western tourists all day. The mountain is very important to Cambodians because the stone used to build the temples was mined there and (it is thought) floated down the Siem Reap river (which has its source in the mountains). People go to Kulen to see a massive Buddha carved on the top of a rock, to drink water from a holy well, and pray at the many shrines scattered through the trees.
They also go to see Kbal Spean (the “River of a Thousand Lingas”), with carvings all along the stone river bed. The river banks were crammed with people having picnics. Many were swimming, or just sitting in the river. It was such a hot day that I was tempted to join them, but I only had my bikini, and was too shy to wear it away from the hotel pool (Cambodians are very modest and adults are usually well covered-up when swimming – only small children strip off).
Further downstream there is a waterfall, as well as a small temple in a very ruined state. The river banks around this area were also packed with people. There were thousands of people up the mountain that day, and it is impossible to portray the intensity of such a mass of people in a relatively small geographical area. The photo below gives a sense of this.
While not the most visually spectacular place we visited, the cultural and religious significance of Kulen Mountain was clear. It’s sort of like a place of pilgrimage, although out of reach for those who cannot afford transport to get there. We paid $30 US for a car, $30 US for a driver, and $40 US for two tickets to get up the mountain.
We left Siem Reap today, bound for Battambang on a pink bus with people sitting on bags of rice right down the aisle. I kept expecting someone to load on a few chickens – definitely not in Kansas anymore!