From the early 1970s into the mid-1990s, Cambodia was an unlikely tourist destination, as it endured a U.S. bombing campaign, a war against the Vietnamese, a civil war and the genocidal brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, though, peace has thankfully returned to the country and it’s a fascinating, if occasionally disquieting, place to visit.
The Cambodians are a devout people and there is a certain spiritual charm that pervades the land. When we were there, the streets of Siem Reap teemed with monks, strolling through town in their orange robes and sandals. At various temples the monks would interact freely with visitors and answer questions about Buddhism or the monastic life. Cambodian Buddhism, in fact, seemed very much like what we’d experienced in Thailand. Perhaps for good reason, since Cambodia, Thailand and Laos were all historically affected by India and the traditions of Theravada Buddhism, whereas Vietnamese culture (which did not have the same palpable sense of faith) absorbed more influences from China.
We also found the Cambodian people to be open and sociable. Perhaps it was the elation of being at peace and of finally being able to welcome tourists into their country, but it seemed a genuine part of who they were. They greet visitors in the same gentle way the Thais do, which is to place their palms together at chest level and then bow slightly from the waist. This greeting (the wai in Thailand) is called a sompiah in Cambodia.
There were, though, enough captivating quirks about the country to make it obvious that we were in an alien and unfamiliar culture. We marveled, for instance, at the women who sold baskets of fried crickets, spiders and cockroaches by the side of the road. They apparently flavor the insects by putting a peanut in their bodies before frying. We also smiled at the incongruity of some cars being driven from the right side, while others were driven from the left. The traffic flowed along the right half of the road, but there was no pattern as to which side of the car the steering wheel was placed. If you’re buying an automobile in Cambodia, apparently, you have to take what you can get.
As in Vietnam, we were also astonished by the dexterity of the motorbike drivers and the people and items they carried with them. I made a list of some of the more peculiar items we saw being transported around town by motorbike:
- A crate of chickens.
- A half-dozen pigs, tied upside down to the back of the bike.
- A piece of furniture strapped to the front.
- A large mirror, balanced between the driver and a second passenger.
- A bag of fish in water, hanging from a pole attached to the bike.
Then, of course, there was the one unique feature that interested only me. In Cambodia, I had my first experience spending Riels. Since the national currency is called the Riel, if you ever go to Cambodia you too can spend my last name.
On the other hand, not everything is gentle or delightfully different in Cambodia. The country has suffered greatly in recent decades and is quite poor compared to some of its neighbors. Thailand is the wealthiest nation in the region and Vietnam is making significant economic progress, but Cambodia and Laos lag further behind. This was evident just from wandering the streets of Siem Reap. The infrastructure was barely developed, there were few street lights, the roads were rough and scarred and the sidewalks were crumbling. The river, meanwhile, was a murky brown and there was trash and sewage floating in the water.
Equally distressing were the beggars, many of whom were amputees and victims of land mines. Wherever we went, we were inundated by individuals who pleaded for cash. A few of the more enterprising ones would sell postcards and trinkets with a sign on their cart saying, “I decided to stop begging, please help support me.” Whichever way you cut it, though, it’s heartbreaking.
One night at a restaurant, after watching a one-legged person appeal for bits of change, Lisa went over and gave him a few bills. As soon as she did so, several other people immediately descended on her and asked for assistance. So what to do? Does a single small donation really make a difference, we wondered, or does it perpetuate the cycle of begging? Are we giving these individuals a reason to not seek work, or merely recognizing that job opportunities (particularly for amputees) are severely limited in this impoverished economy? They asked for so little money that it seemed like an easy gesture to help a few people who were less fortunate. Then again, there were so many of them that it sometimes became overwhelming and it was easier to just ignore everyone.
The paucity of the local economy was also driven home to us by the way the tuk-tuk drivers would battle ferociously over small fares. One evening, leaving another restaurant, we were overwhelmed by at least 10 drivers all vying for our business.
“I saw you first.”
“You come with me.”
“Ma’am, not fair. No go with him.”
They encircled us and shouted for our business until we were finally seated and on our way. And what were they battling for? A $1 fare to our hotel. To be fair, it could have turned into more than that, since the drivers would often take customers on other days to local tourist attractions. But many times it was just for that $1 fare.
It was unsettling, frankly, to have individuals fighting so energetically for a dollar here and there, when we were thrilled that a multi-course restaurant dinner for two only cost us $10. What is more, although Lisa and I stayed in a locally-owned budget hotel in Siem Reap because we had to keep expenses down for a longer journey, there were no shortage of five-star accommodations in the city. There aren’t many greater contrasts between the Western and the developing worlds, since some of these high-end hotels, complete with luxurious bedding, spa services and gourmet meals, were literally situated next to rickety street stalls, unpaved roads and muddy fields.
We did have a chance to put more of a human face on our Cambodian experience through some conversations with Jorani, a guide whom we hired for one of our visits to the Angkor temples.
One day, when she wasn’t working, we invited Jorani to join us for lunch and she suggested that we eat at a small, family-run restaurant in town. We sat on bamboo chairs, at tables with pink and white checked tablecloths, next to maroon and gold walls that were decorated with artistic photographs of local scenes. The dish that I ordered, Khmer curry with fish, was the best meal I had in Siem Reap.
I was intrigued when part of our conversation with Jorani turned out to be remarkably similar to the one we’d had with Linh, a female guide on a Halong Bay boat in Vietnam. That is, about the expectation that all women would get married and start a family by the time they were in their early 20s. As in Vietnam, the majority of married women in Cambodia did not work outside the home.
“When I begin work, I was the only woman in my class at tourism school,” said Jorani. “And even now, there only five other female guides, I think, in Siem Reap.”
Jorani had the same inner conflict that Linh did. She wanted to have a career but also recognized that she lived in a traditional society in terms of gender roles. Hence, she was expected to choose between devoting herself to work or to family. That is, if it were even still possible for her to be married.
“I like to be married,” said Jorani, “but I am 25, so I think maybe no one interested in me now. Men sometimes call me ‘tough chicken’ or ‘left over food.’ ”
I was sad for Jorani, as I had been for Linh. Although, as Jorani also noted, the corollary to this is that there is an evident value for the extended family in the Cambodian culture. “Cambodians have three rules for life,” she said. “Eat well, grow up, and take care of family.”
Photo credits: All photos by Bob Riel.