After making it through the notorious land crossing from Thailand to Cambodia—where the air is thickly pungent with the odor of decaying fish and travelers who do not stay vigilant may well have their passports taken and visas processed by superfluous agencies for a special fee—I was soon staring through the bus windows out over the Cambodian landscape.
Rice stretches out for miles, as farmers donning sun hats strolled along the banks of paddies and herds of cows and oxen waded neck-deep through the water beneath flocks of birds soaring in formation overhead. It might have been all too easy to dwell in a romanticized reverie about “Cambodia” as represented by these picturesque scenes had the signs of real poverty not quickly grown increasingly evident. For considerable stretches on the way to Siem Reap, small homes patched with multicolored tin sheets and dirt floors lined the sides of garbage-strewn streets. This isn’t the whole picture, of course, but it is considerable, and noted among the contrasts of what I had witnessed passing through Cambodia as opposed to Thailand—at least along this route. I know there is much more to both Thailand and Cambodia than the small fraction I have encountered, so these first impressions can hardly be taken as representative.
The sun was setting as I arrived in Siem Reap and gratefully took a complimentary tuk-tuk ride to my hotel. As I got settled into my dorm, one of my roommates—Rory, a traveller from England—just arrived back in. Dark outside now, I went out to join him for dinner. As we turned onto the first nearby street, I couldn’t help but burst into delighted laughter. For a powerfully nostalgic instant, I truly felt as though I were back at Burning Man, walking the playa at night time. Brightly lit and colorful signs stretching off into the distance. The lights of passing bikes as people on foot walk atop the dusty ground. Rows of open-faced buildings granting those strolling the streets a view to the inside of the many bars and restaurants so they might be enticed to join the festivities.The feel of this part of the city bore some striking similarities to Black Rock City.
After an incredibly satisfying meal of tikka massala and garlic naan with a 50-cent pint of beer, Rory and I continued to wander the streets for some time.
I got up very early the next morning at 4:30 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, hailing a tuk-tuk driver named Luy who chauffeured me around the various temples over the next three days. I will hold off to devote to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples a post of their own.
Luy was a very kind man with generosity shining from his eyes. He makes a living as a tuk-tuk driver working every day, often getting up very early to do so.
The evening before my final temple visit, I went and visited a Buddhist pagoda near the center of town. There I met a monk named Kounsrem. When he found out I am from the United States he explained to me that he likes Donald Trump because he is a “sexist man.” I stared blankly, unsure whether this monk was a trickster attempting to get a rise out of me. “Sexist man… You know, business man? I also study to become a business man so I can help my people.” Apparently the term he first used contained a Khmer word that just sounded remarkably like the English word “sexist.”
Kounsrem then took me by the arm and ushered me around the temple, telling me the story of the Buddah’s life as illustrated by a series of painting surrounding the courtyard, after which brought me into the temple to give me a blessing—reciting a chant and using a small brush to splash water from a silver bowl upon my face—after which he gave me the honor of giving a donation to the monastery and thereby making karmic merit toward achieving a more favorable rebirth in my next incarnation.
After seeing the sunset from a mountaintop temple on my final evening in Siem Reap, Luy, rather than dropping me off in front of my hotel as he had done the days previous, took me back to his neighborhood to join him at a friend’s home for dinner. There I met his wife and five-year-old son, as well as his close neighborhood friends. Fortunately, I was informed beforehand which of the dishes contained dog so I could politely avoid it.
“Jul muoy!” The Khmer phrase for “cheers!” An easy one to learn, since in contrast to the custom at home of toasting once and then putting it rest, the Khmer initiate another toast every minute or two, it seems. “Jul muoy!”
Luy dropped me off back at my hotel. I told him “Aukoun” (thank you) and promised I would recommend his services to any friends of mine who make it to Siem Reap. So if you want the contact info for a great driver, get in touch with me!
Siem Reap is a fascinating place to travel. The locals are incredibly sweet. I also met diverse array of travelers coming from places like the Netherlands, Russia, Tonga and one nationally itinerant individual who was born in Saudi Arabia, spent many childhood years in Sudan, has lived most of his life in Malaysia where he studies architecture and from where his passport was issued, but doesn’t really tie his sense identity to any one these particular countries. The infrastructure in Siem Reap is a minor challenge to navigate at times, and dealing with money is tricky because not every establishment will have enough change to give you. In most cases it’s easy to let go, since what does a small ways in the U.S. goes much further out here, and most of my interactions were with kind and beautiful people simply doing the best with what they have got. I would have loved to spend a bit more time there (and in Cambodia, generally) if I could. I have not ruled out returning in the future.