Thirteen years ago, I decided not to go to Cambodia. I was backpacking solo through Southeast Asia. Getting to Cambodia back then was dicey, but doable. Sort of. There were travel agents in Bangkok who could arrange a visit, but you had to go through their hotel and guide, wait a few days for a visa, and fork over a lot of cash. Getting to Cambodia on your own wasn’t easy. But then again, the country was just two years removed from the death of Pol Pot and decades of civil war. The roads weren’t paved, ATMs were unheard of, and removing landmines (millions of them) was the country’s top priority. Today, it’s a different story.
A few days ago Christina and I flew to Cambodia.
The flight from Bangkok takes about 50 minutes. It’s just long enough to sort through a questionable box lunch and fill out your arrival card. And yes, the plane is prop-driven, not a jet.
When you land in Cambodia’s Siem Reap International airport, you can get a visa. But Christina and I bypassed the line by arranging e-visas online for 20 dollars, U.S.
U.S. dollars are, for all intents and purposes, the currency here. There was a currency exchange at the airport, which quoted a price of 3,700 riels to one U.S. dollar. But there’s really no point in doing the math. You can pay for everything in dollars and get change in dollars too. If you need change that’s less than a dollar, they’ll give you riels. As it stands now, we have enough riels to start our own version of Cambodian Monopoly, but we estimate that the bills are worth about four or five dollars.
Things are cheap here. Very cheap. Drinks for two cost about $3. A liter of beer for me; something with gin for Christina
Things are cheap here because Cambodia is a poor country. The per capita income is about $2,400 per year. It’s probably more here in Siem Reap, which is the jumping off point for Angkor Wat and the hub for Cambodia’s second biggest industry — tourism.
The best way to get around town is via Tuk Tuk — a metal carriage towed by a motorcycle. Here’s a Vine I made of our drive into town.
Navigating traffic is surreal. Cambodians drive on the left, but that just means they import cars with left-side steering wheels. In reality, traffic is a bizarre ballet.
Rule number one is that you always yield to the bigger vehicle. Rule number two is that there are no rules. Strangely, there is a driving school in town, but I think it’s there to teach you how to turn into oncoming traffic without hitting someone.
I’m sure there are accidents, but we haven’t seen any. Cambodian drivers embrace the chaos with polite patience. They also honk periodically. But it’s a friendly honk, one that says, hey I’m over here, just FYI.
There are six stop lights in the whole city.
Siem Reap is something of a boom town. Tourism means jobs here, and those jobs pay substantially more than working in a textile factory or farming. Of course, the better your English skills, the more money you can make. Not far from our hotel, there are two huge language schools and at night they’re packed with young Cambodians. Everyone we’ve met speaks a little English, and many Cambodians speak excellent English.
It also pays to know Chinese. Tourists come from all over, but the Chinese come by the busload. There are mixed feelings about that, though. On the one hand, Cambodians like the idea of Chinese tourists, but they are wary of Chinese real estate investors. On our drive out of town one day, Christina spotted a posh district. Our guide told us that nobody lived there. Turns out Chinese investors had built it before the economic meltdown in 2008. Speculators had driven up real estate prices, but now that the buddle has burst, the preference is to let the property sit empty rather than leasing or selling at lower prices. Turns out, that story is somewhat common around Cambodia, where land is often too expensive for the locals to buy. In theory, foreigners aren’t allowed to own land, but our guide told us that you can bribe your way around that with about $75,000.
For the most part, tourists stick to a part of town known as Pub Street, where there are restaurants with English menus and an open air market that sells everything from funny t-shirts and cheap sunglasses to Beats By Dre. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a Doctor Fish, which is a tank filled with fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. There are also a few Western spas. As Christina put it: “The Cambodian Burke Williams, except it costs $70 for both of us to get a 90-minute massage.”
It’s tourist-oriented, but not especially touristy. In other words, Siem Reap has everything a traveler needs, but it doesn’t feel cheesy. Maybe that’ll change in a few years, but I hope not.
We came to Cambodia for Angkor Wat. The Khmer built tons of temples in the area, but Angkor Wat is the granddaddy of them all. It’s big. Really big. A million people lived around the temple when it was built in the 12th century. By comparison, the population of London back then was about 50,000. It’s actually the size of Angkor that I found most impressive. One look at the place back then and it wouldn’t take much to convince you that the Khmer Empire was the most powerful thing around.
Angkor is built from stone, and it was built to last. The craftsmanship is impeccable. And if you look closely, you can see that the Khmer architects were incredibly gifted surveyors because the angles throughout the sprawling structure line up perfectly.
Angkor is a Hindu temple, but there are Buddhist elements too. To vary degrees at various times over the years, the Cambodians have fused the two religions. Almost every wall has a carving that tells a Hindu story, and the carvings are incredibly detailed. A lot of the Buddhist elements were either removed during periods when the king favored Hindu gods, or they were stolen in the last 100 years.
Angkor was my favorite temple. But I think Christina preferred Beng Melea.
Unlike Angkor, Beng Melea was pretty much swallowed by the jungle. You can still appreciate the skill that went into building the temples, but Beng Melea lets you channel your inner Indiana Jones.
The floating village
We spent two days visitings temples. We could have spent a third day doing the same thing. Like I said, there are a lot of temples, and each one is worth a visit. But I’m glad we took some time out to see the floating village on lake Tonle Sap.
Lake is kind of a misnomer. It’s actually a lake and river system, the largest in Southeast Asia. The lake rises in the rainy season, but we saw it in the dry season. To get out to the lake, we took a small boat down a muddy, narrow channel that was so shallow that we practically bumped oncoming boats because even canoes had to stick to the middle of the waterway to keep from running aground. Sort of the aquatic version of driving in Cambodia.
Oncoming boats pass very close. In the distance, a poll marks the channel’s high-water mark during the rainy season.
Out on the lake, it’s a different story. Even in the dry season, the lake feels like an ocean.
One of many small boats that ferry travelers out to the floating village on lake Tonle Sap
The floating village is one of those things you have to see to believe. Hundreds of boats of all sizes anchor in a cluster that is, well, a village. Most of the boats are homes. But there’s a school boat and even a church.
Impossible to reconcile
Most of the pictures in this post came from three days of touring with a guide and driver. They were two friendly guys in their early 30s. But in Cambodia, that’s not all that unique. Cambodians are incredibly friendly. They’re also very young, on average. Life expectancy is improving in Cambodia, but aside from the usual things that plague developing nations, Cambodia has suffered a horrendous genocide and decades of civil war.
For most of the past forty years, fighting has been as common in Cambodia as breathing.
Outside the land mine museum (yes, there is a museum about land mines), our driver pointed to an unexploded bomb that had been dropped from an American B52.
“This comes from America,” he said.
Christina and I were horrified. But he wasn’t upset. He was laughing a little as he pointed to the USA inscription on the bomb. It wasn’t nervous laughter, or the kind of laughter you’d expect in a black comedy. It was friendly, the way we might laugh after dropping a drink at a party.
The history of war is just part of life here, but there’s no room to be bitter. Later, our driver told us that he had been shot in the leg when he was a boy.
Our guide grew up in the Eastern part of Cambodia, not far from the Vietnamese border. Both of his cousins and his uncle were killed during the war. Invading Vietnamese soldiers forced his father to work in a mine. Our guide didn’t see his father for six years. But he says his family was “lucky” because his father was one of only two men who survived working in the mine. His parents don’t like the Vietnamese, which he understands. But our guide has Vietnamese friends. Life goes on. As our guide put it: “Six years ago, you’d hear crews exploding mines three or four times a day, then once a day, now maybe once a week, but only in very remote areas, so life is getting better.”
Life is getting better here. But it’s impossible to reconcile the atrocities that have taken place in Cambodia. Millions were murdered. Every person in the country has a horror story to tell. They don’t dwell on it. But we do.
We keep asking the same question: how could this happen?
Maybe that’s a little trite. Cambodia isn’t the only country to suffer genocide. But there’s something especially barbaric about the Cambodian experience. Families literally murdered each other. The founder of the landmine museum, a former child soldier, tells a story about recognizing his uncle in a fire fight. He chose to fire over his uncle’s head, but his uncle shot at him. Amazingly, they both survived, lived to tell the story, and love each other.
The Cambodia we saw and the Cambodians we met simply don’t track with this country’s awful history. Logically, you can’t reconcile the past with the present. But they coexist here in a land of ancient temples, recent horrors, a delightful present, and what looks like a promising future.
Cambodia is an easy country to love, and a hard place to know.