We decided to go to Cambodia as a bit of a last minute decision. I didn’t know much about the country and neither did Nate, but after visiting Thailand we didn’t feel convicted to go anywhere else in Southeast Asia specifically, and so the allure and pull of the famous Angkor Wat beckoned us into this country we were clueless about.
From the moment we arrived in the tiny city of Siem Reap, we were amazed at the ease of travel here. Yes, it is dirty and dusty and for the first day our street didn’t have running water, but aside from that, this city is building itself into a dreamland for tourists. You don’t even have to change your money – the US dollar is the main currency but you’ll get anything less than $1 back in Cambodian Riels. Since the Khmer Rouge was either ruling or fighting for power here until the early 1990s, Siem Reap didn’t have a chance as a tourism haven until very recently. Two decades ago there was intermittent electricity, two stop lights, and nothing but a few NGOs and locals here. Now it is a bustling mini-city. You can still walk across it in the course of a morning, but the streets are decoratively lit up at night and the guesthouses are filled with millions of tourists a year, all to see Angkor Wat and the temples around it. Though it’s a pleasantly small city, there are plenty of restaurants to satisfy any craving and tuk tuks abound so that you’re never without a ride if you need one. On our first day, I saw a guy wearing a shirt that said “No tuk tuk today or tomorrow” and was thoroughly confused; by the end of our week I fully understood: the drivers are incessant about asking if you need rides as you walk down the street and once they get you in the wagon, they want to book your business for the next day, too (“Where you going tomorrow? You need tuk tuk tomorrow?”). Apparently in the nascent tourist economy, Siem Reap has ended up with way more tuk tuk drivers than people could ever need, but that’s good news for the tourists.
Our guesthouse was incredible. Though it was rustic and old, the staff was the warmest and most helpful we’ve ever seen. These guys could train five-star hotel staff in America, I swear. Our only complaint isn’t actually a true complaint because it makes for a great story: our room had a little critter problem. For some reason, crickets of every size were all over the hotel halls, meaning they were all over our floor when we woke up in the morning (or got up to use the bathroom at night – eek). Since they crawled in under the door at night, we made a successful barricade by stuffing our towels there. We couldn’t figure out, though, how to get the lizards out of our room. They were small enough and didn’t bother us much, but once they started making their creepy calls (they are loud for little things!) and showing up next to my headboard, I was…mildly uncomfortable.
Pub Street is the place to be in Siem Reap. Walkable from any point in the city, it was about a 10 minute jaunt from our guesthouse. (Bearable at night but during the day we took a tuk tuk so we didn’t melt before we got there). After experiencing the insane “place to be” streets in Bangkok, Pub Street was a breath of fresh air. Neon signs from the surrounding two- or three-story buildings lit up the dusty road, but the atmosphere was mild-mannered and invigorating. No clubs blasting techno and no barely-clad young things here. Most nights we walked over and checked out different restaurants, enjoyed people-watching from a second floor balcony, and grabbed a fresh smoothie or cheap foot massage on the street afterwards.
Of course we did what everyone does when they come to Siem Reap: see the temples. We also went on an awesome and enlightening tour of the Cambodian countryside where we ended up in a private tour with just one other person: another University of Rhode Island alum! Though Siem Reap is lovely, we thoroughly enjoyed getting outside and learning how the majority of Cambodians live: on very little but with remarkable innovation and resilience.
On our last full day in Siem Reap, we went for a two hour horseback ride outside the city. My horse constantly stopped to snack and then would start running with no warning and Nate’s was painfully slow but we enjoyed our time a lot – mostly because of our young guide. Johnny grew up in the countryside – “I am not a city boy,” he says. But the rice yield has been down country-wide for two years, so he had to get a job in the small city of Siem Reap. As we were talking about school and learning English, I asked him if he liked his job. “Noooo,” he replied. “Working with animals is not good. I want to work with tourists as a temple tour guide – they make good money from tourists.” But his English is not good enough and his schooling ended around age 10. Working with animals is something he looks down upon but it is a steady income he can bring back to his family. He pointed out the big, new concrete houses that are being constructed among the rice paddies. The owners come from China, Japan, the US and typically own the new hotels going up in the city. I asked Johnny what he thought about this and his answer supported my assumptions: “It’s ok for the city, I guess, but the poor people just stay poor. It doesn’t help them.”
Johnny wasn’t the only interesting person we came across that morning. The owner of the ranch left Cambodia and sought asylum from the Khmer Rouge in 1975. He lived in California for 36 years, working for the embassy there. He came back a few years ago and decided to open Happy Ranch, which now employs many locals and has 42 horses. Johnny says he treats everyone well and helps the children of his employees go to – and stay in – school. Many of the schools in Cambodia have some degree of corruption within the staff. Teachers will sometimes charge students to take the tests they need to pass the grade, though they’re not supposed to. They make so little as teachers, it’s their way of improvising to meet their needs. But in the shuffle, a lot of kids get left behind.
With all the positives of Siem Reap, there is, of course, a darker side. When I began traveling, I assumed that a rise in tourism would be healthy for the whole economy, but I’m now learning that it tends to only benefit the middle-class and up. Outside Siem Reap, people with no English skills, unreliable transportation, and little education aren’t able to tap into this new stream of tourism dollars. With two recent dry years hurting the rice crop, the poor are becoming poorer while a new influx of Lexus SUVs (double the price you’d buy for in America) zoom down the dusty roads. My stomach turned at this astounding dichotomy. It may have been the biggest blatant display of inequity in our travels so far: a $100,000 car driving by crumbling wooden shacks, children without clothes or shoes, and their parents working all day to make a basket they’ll sell for $3.
Because most of the country is so poor, many children end up in orphanages because their parents or family simply can’t care for them. These children often make up up to 50% of an orphanage population. Orphanage tourism is such a problem that UNICEF’s ChildSafe campaign has these posters plastered in all restaurant bathrooms:
Intrigued by why this campaign would be so widespread, I did some googling. Apparently if you’d like to play with some cute kids, tuk tuk drivers know exactly where to take you. Once you arrive, the orphanage will charge you around $15 to hang out with the kids for a few hours, then you get to go back to your comfy hotel room while the kids are left wondering where their new friends went. It’s a great source of income for the orphanage (or for the people who pocket the money), but doesn’t usually translate into any material benefit for the kids and it’s downright exploitative.
Corruption is also rampant in Cambodia. The country is no longer under a communist murderer-dictator, but that doesn’t mean its systems are healthy yet. Police often pull people over for no reason and demand money. You can buy almost anything for a price in Siem Reap, including babies – typically about $100.
We have learned so much about the Khmer Rouge during our time in Cambodia and continue to by reading The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer and Alive in the Killing Fields: Surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide. We also watched The Killing Fields on Netflix while we were there which helped shape our understanding of the 1970s in Cambodia – I’d highly recommend it. You get to see a very young Sam Waterston before his Law and Order days and the actor who plays his Cambodian colleague is actually a survivor of the Khmer Rouge himself – his own story is just as chilling as his character’s.
For those who need the Cliff Notes version of Cambodian history: The Khmer Rouge were followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, led by dictator Pol Pot, which reigned in Cambodia from 1975-1979 and struggled for power for over a decade thereafter as well. Confusingly, Pol Pot’s new country was known as Democratic Kampuchea – yep, still communist; not actually democratic. (Note: Khmer isn’t a negative term in itself. Khmer is simply the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia. They speak Khmer. They eat Khmer food. The Khmer empire built the temples). In the “killing fields” era, 1975-1979, two million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and/or in the agrarian camps people had been evacuated to. It was Pol Pot’s intent to create an agrarian socialist utopia, forcing people out of the cities and into the fields into concentration camp type situations. Khmer Rouge soldiers often buried people alive in the killing fields to follow the “no bullets are to be wasted” directive. Learning about all this seemed so surreal to us; but it was very real indeed.
We visited the Killing Fields Museum in Siem Reap, which was mostly focused on telling the stories of people taken and killed by the Khmer Rouge from the perspective of their families. We loved the focus of this tiny, outside museum: tell the stories. Telling the stories will help us make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Telling the stories is a way we honor those who have died. Telling the stories makes it real.
The Khmer Rouge’s rule and the related conflicts were characterized by massive amounts of landmines. It’s impossible to walk the streets of Siem Reap without seeing their victims. Outside the temples and in the busy streets at night, groups of men disabled from landmines play beautiful traditional Khmer music for tips. Their signage is clear: they don’t want a handout and they wish they didn’t have to beg, but this is their reality, they are unable to do much else. I think it is profound that victims of such ruthless violence have found a way to tell their story so publicly and so beautifully. Their music is peaceful, light, contemplative. We also had the opportunity to have lunch with a man who was in a wheelchair due to his landmine injury. He rolled by our restaurant, and after we chatted for awhile we offered for him to join us at our table. It was a quiet affair due to his limited English and our very limited Khmer but we enjoyed sharing a meal and learning a bit about him and his family.
We got to learn all about landmines at the Landmine Museum, about 45 minutes by tuk tuk outside of Siem Reap. Aki Ra, named one of CNN’s Heros, was recruited by the Khmer Rouge as a child solider and landmine planter at age 10. Later, he defected and fought with the Vietnamese against the Khmer Rouge. In the early 1990s, he began returning to the villages he planted mines in and clearing them by hand using a stick and a shovel. He disarmed over 20,000 mines himself without being injured. In 2005 this approach to demining was deemed illegal and Aki Ra got training to legally demine using new, safer techniques, starting his own NGO is 2008. His group has cleared more than 50,000 mines, but there are still an estimated 5 million left in fields and roads throughout Cambodia.
Aki Ra also started a school and a home on the Landmine Museum property after he noticed many of the children who were injured by landmines in the villages he was demining couldn’t be properly cared for by their parents. When he first started the school, all the children were landmine victims, now, thanks to the demining work, none of them are injured from mines but all of them are disabled in some way that makes their care a challenge.
The museum is incredibly thorough and included a free audio tour in English. We learned about where mines are made, where they are now, and the many different kinds. We were surprised to learn there are still a fair amount of landmines in the Balkans, where we were a few months earlier, from the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. There are mines made specifically to destroy tanks and others made specifically to wound but not kill, the idea being that a wounded soldier takes more resources to care for than a dead one. These mines were created to literally disable both individuals and an army itself. We were thankful for this glimpse into Cambodia’s dark past but saddened that these mines continue to wound or kill people each year. Mostly, it is farmers and children who are the victims. It reminded us that war often hurts innocent victims the most, and the carnage can continue long after the cease-fire.
Though we only spent eight days in Cambodia, we enjoyed our time there so much: the mystery, the history, and the beauty of the countryside. The people of Cambodia have weathered so much in the last 50 years. Two million people were killed under Pol Pot’s regime in a country smaller than Kansas. The influx of tourism and development may be a welcome economic change, but we pray that corruption would be exposed and that the hardworking people of the Cambodian countryside would find abundance and wealth, too.