With the bus trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap scheduled to take around ten hours it was an early start this morning. The border crossing was reasonably smooth. Having a tour guide certainly aids this process, rather than having to aimless wander around attempting to figure out what to do.
The disparity in wealth between Thailand and Cambodia is fairly apparent immediately after crossing the border. The Thai dual motorways and dual carriageway are replaced with a single lane road where some interesting driving can often be witnessed. However this is still a major improvement to the road that used to be in place not very long ago. Nowadays you can drive to Siem Reap in about three hours from the border. When the border road reopened in the 1990’s this journey would take more like ten hours and be a heck of a lot bumpier.
As with Colombia, Mexico City, Detroit and a few other places I’ve visited on this trip, people have often questioned why on earth I’d want to go to Cambodia. To say its recent history has been chequered is an incredible understatement. Since the 1970’s there’s been a civil war, extensive bombing during the Vietnam War and the horrific rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. During this time an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million people were killed, a figure even more extraordinary within a population of 9 million. Since the late 1990’s, tourism to the country has grown and today it’s probably classed more of an established destination rather than up and coming.
With the staggering number of casualties from the turmoil, as well as the fact that these events occurred relatively recently mean that almost all Cambodians were personally affected. Our tour guide, Panya, must presumably get asked about this a fair bit so to prevent constantly repeating himself he told us his story on the bus. It would be a bit disrespectful to go into too much detail of his life story on the internet. Panya is of a similar age to me, grew up in a refugee camp and lost some family members during the conflict. It was sobering to see how positive he is about life and mentioned how he appreciates life’s simple things such as sunsets and fresh fruits, both of which there are an abundance of in Cambodia.
Siem Reap literally means Siam (Thailand) defeated. There has been historical conflict between Cambodia and Thailand. Siem Reap was once Cambodia’s capital. However due to its proximity to Siam and that it had already been invaded by Thailand, the capital has since moved to Phnom Penh at the other end of the country. Siem Reap is by far the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia. People often fly here, visit Anghor Wat and fly out again, missing out the rest of the country.
Walking around Siem Reap, it does seem extremely touristy. There are hundreds of hotels in the city, many of which of which would be classed as high end. We were staying in the 1-star Victory Guest House, not to be confused with the plush Victory Hotel. That said, the Victory Guest House was perfectly adequate. It was clean and the rooms were air-conditioned. Anything else in a hotel is a bonus as far as I’m concerned!
Unsurprisingly for a tourist hot spot, Siem Reap has a lot of nightlife. Bar Street is more akin to somewhere life Magaluf or Falaraki. Competition between the numerous bars means that draft beers are widely available for 50 cents. In the daytime you can even find a 25c beer. Despite having its own currency, the Cambodian riel, US dollars seem to be the money of choice in these parts. Cash machines pay out both dollars and riels. Prices are listed in dollars and only when change is given in part-dollar quantities do you usually receive riel. With note denominations down to the equivalent of about 2.5p, this is another currency consisting entirely of paper money. Carrying no keys nor coins means that my phone is remarkably scratch-free.
As well as an abundance of bars, Siem Reap also has plenty of restaurants, many of which are fairly chic. Tonight Panya took us to a place serving some excellent Khmer food. While it’s supposedly distinctive to those in the know, to my uninformed palate a Khmer curry seemed similar to most other South-East Asian fare, albeit delicious. In the restaurant there was some sort of dance show by a group of local orphans. I’m naturally quite skeptical about performances involving children but Panya explained that this place was entirely above board and ethical. As an aside, we were advised not to buy items from child sellers walking around. While they may be cute, supporting this industry isn’t really helping the children, especially when they should be in school.