Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 20 – Siem Reap An Evening Out

In 1992 when Donald and I first arrived in Siem Reap, the tourists were few and the accommodations almost nil. Our group was billeted into the Grand Angkor, Raffles owned hotel, and the French Conservancy, home to the famous French archeologists of the EFEO (Ecole Francaise d”Extreme Orient). The Grand Angkor Hotel, one of the famous colonial grand dames, had not yet been renovated back to its original splendor thereby giving us an opportunity to witness the ravages wrought during the Khmer Rouge days. Donald found shell casing on the slopping roof outside his room and gunfire was heard in the distance. Downtown Siem Reap was not yet a destination. By 1995, when I brought my parents to my favorite places in Asia, Siem Reap had a few small hotels but not much had changed. We did drive around the downtown area near the river and I remember it being mostly deserted. Before Donald became associated with the Greater Angkor Project, we continued to visit Siem Reap and stayed at the Grand Angkor after it was renovated. As time passed, the Khmer Rouge were finally finished, the gunfire in the distance was replaced by the sounds of monkeys, and the country was declared safe for tourists. At first only the most intrepid independent travelers showed up, usually Western backpackers. Then it was discovered by Asian as well as Western tour operators. The word spread, speeded along by budget airlines and budget tours and today, Siem Reap, once the sleepy French colonial town, has become one of the hottest destinations in Asia.

The recent recession has decreased the number of western visitors but has not impacted the Asian tourists. Today, they are pouring in on budget tours, arriving on budget airlines, or being transported by busloads over the Thai and Vietnamese border. They are filling up the hotels designed for the Asian tourist, especially those built by well connected Khmers that line the airport road. They are fed in restaurants intended for large groups with parking lots accommodating fleets of super large buses. They are swarming all over the temples, leaving officials to comment that Angkor has survived the past and the Khmer Rouge but the temples might not survive the present onslaught of tourists.

At first, they stayed in their hotels, maybe warned not to come out at night. Later the tour companies organized night tours and piled them into tuk-tuks. Donald and I sat with Karl at his Ivy Bar and found an element of humor watching long lines of tuk-tuks filled with Koreans or Chinese parading through town, the group leader waving a flag so no one would get lost. But now, someone has told them Siem Reap is safe at night and they have broken away from their groups and are surging through the streets, crowding into the shops, and pushing their way into the night market. Hard to determine who is the most rude, but popular opinion would nominate the Koreans, maybe because there are so many of them. As the Japanese before, these Asian tourists feel superior to the Cambodians. However, the locals counter their arrogance by over charging them any chance they get and forcing them to speak English, the only possible common language.

By my assessment, the Asian tourists are going shopping while the Western tourists are sitting in the bars quaffing down large volumes of Angkor beer. Their main destination is a small street in the center of the tourist area, about ½ the length of a New York City block (uptown-downtown not cross town) which recently received the sobriquet, Pub Street. The Lonely Planet refers to this as Bar Street, but several days before we left, a banner was stretched across the street calling it “Pub Street”. Just the term, “pub” and not “bar” shows that the dominant English speakers obviously are not American.

This was the original tourist destination. But as the years past, to accommodate the thirsty burgeoning tourist business, the jumble of former shops, offering books, antiques, and souvenirs, reinvented themselves and became bars that served food. Each place opens onto the street. One arrives early, gets a good seat, and watches the evening unfold. Touring temples is thirsty work and the proprietors along Pub Street accommodate the tourists by starting happy hour at 4:00 PM. The competition for the tourist business has set off a race to the bottom and $1.00 beer, if that was not cheap enough, has been reduced to .50 a glass. Not much profit if you consider a glass of draft beer costs .37 to pull, so says our friend Al Sharky who runs Sharky”s Bar in Phnom Penh.

The tourists come in a wide variety. Many are backpackers, wearing tee-shirts from where they have been with Vietnamese and Laos visas patched into their passports. Now that Cambodia is deemed safe, older tourists and those with some money to spend are now showing up.

At night, Pub Street is closed to all kinds of traffic. You approach, navigate your way through the collections of tuk-tuks blocking the entry and step through the barrier. As a first timer, you will be amazed at the vast number of people filling up Pub Street and the surrounding area. There are thousands of people, maybe more. You think you are unique, but seen through the eyes of the locals you are like all the others; you are the prey and they are the hunters. You are the fodder upon which they are determined to dine. You have taken only a few steps when you hear ” Tuk-tuk sir”. Your reply of no thank you leads into “later sir, tomorrow sir, where you want to go?” You reply, “No where, thank you again.” I promise you this small scenario will be replayed many more times before you reach the end of the street. The tuk-tuk drivers have a problem, there are just too many of them to earn a decent living and after all, these young men already have a wife and several children to support, along with an ailing parent or two. The problem for you, many of them are from the countryside and speak very little English. They may have arrived in Siem Reap not much before you and therefore, do not know their way around.

Suddenly someone is pulling on your arm, you look down to find a small girl selling post cards and woven bracelets. Not trying to sell you anything at first, she asks “where you from”. When you tell her America, she is happy to tell you the capitals of all the states she knows. Your first response, isn”t she adorable, and you pay a dollar for her postcards and another for her bracelets. Suddenly, you are swarmed, encircled by more postcard sellers, aggressive little girls shouting out state capitals and offering their wares. The price of the postcards as well as the cost of the bracelets now drops to .50. You say “no thank you” but as you move forward, they follow, determined to make you buy more. Ok dear tourist, this is longer Kansas.

On the side of the street you see a nice wooden cart, painted blue and fitted out with wheels. It is filled with books, neatly arranged, specializing in a variety of stories from the “killing fields” along with a good selection of Lonely Planet tour books. The bookseller, sitting on a stool, smiles and says “book sir”. When you look at him, you realize he has no arms. He nods his head toward a sign enclosed in plastic that reads something like I used to be a beggar so please help me now that I am trying to be a business man. The plucking on your heart strings tells you to buy a Cambodian tour book. You take one and ask how much. He tells you $ 8.00. You leave him ten dollars, do not wait for change because you do not want to see how he will find the needed two dollars. You walk away and before you can become pleased with your generosity, you are surrounded by a small mob of men, they too are selling books. The group is all on crutches, each one missing various parts of a leg. Plastic baskets attached to kramas hang from their necks, each filled with the same selection of books as the man with no arms. They balance on one leg, shoving books at you. A man in a wheel chair rolls into the center of this group. He too is a bookseller but has no legs at all. The price now is $6.00 per book. A few seconds ago, you left $10.00 for the same book. You speak to the youngest one, his name is Kim, and you marvel that he can speak perfect English. You tell him maybe you will buy later but he argues with you. You begin to walk away and the entire troupe follows you down the street joined by the little girl postcard sellers who have not yet given up. Ever felt like the Pied Piper?

Back in your hotel room later that night, depending upon if you are still able to think, you begin to rationalize. You paid $10.00 for a Lonely Planet tour book that would have cost you $23.00 in the United States. Even though you could have paid $6.00 for it, you feel good about helping the man with no arms. Tearing the plastic wrap off your book, you realize it is a photocopy of the original. It is a bootlegged book, stolen from Lonely Planet with no royalties paid. One of the largest problems in Asia and you contributed to it. By the way, dear tourist, I recently paid Kim $4.00 for the same book. You see, like everywhere else in Cambodia, you need connections. We have known Kim for the past ten years. Today, he is sixteen years old and like everyone else in Cambodia, he too has a story.

BACK TO PUB STREET: You look at your watch, it has been only five minutes since you crossed the barrier and you are still standing on the corner. Welcome to Siem Reap at night.

In the past, handicapped people who lost limbs, causalities of land mines or Cambodia”s many years of war, were brought to Siem Reap and placed on the sidewalks to beg from the tourists. Many believed they were part of an organized syndicate that took from them most of the money they collected. Then as the tourist business developed, it was thought the beggars gave a wrong impression and they seemed to disappear. They were returned to their villages, sent to NGO organized rehabilitation centers, or turned into booksellers with the aid of other NGO”s. Young children carrying babies were often seen begging and pointing to their mouths to let you know they were hungry. Often, we ate dinner in restaurants open to the street and sitting in front of us on the sidewalk would be women holding listless babies. They would be begging and we would be eating. Many times when we offered them food, they would refuse it. Where these scams or were these people genuinely hungry? The first time I saw Kim he was playing with other children having a good time. When they saw me coming, they ran up to me crying, pointing to their mouths, rubbing their stomachs, and begging. Kim did it the best, he was on crutches and could make the most pitiful sounds. All this is in the past and let us hope those truly in need are being helped by the 3,000 or more NGO”s operating in this country.


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