Reflections on Cambodia

On my way out of Cambodia the first time around I exited by land, crammed in a bus with ten others out of Battambang. We slowly jolted our way through another unpaved path of potholes, following a caravan of other unfortunate driving souls, past ramshackle houses and half-naked children. I breezed across the border to Poipet, Thailand but our next van did not show up, so we were left waiting in 95-degree heat literally next to a pile of garbage for over an hour.

Once in Thailand, however, a weight lifted from my soul, as we were moving at a reasonable pace! I never thought how much I would appreciate paved roads! Moreover, instead of passing a series of depressing subsistence plots, I got to witness Thailand the agricultural powerhouse, with varied crops grown at large scale, including rubber, sugarcane and Eucalyptus-type trees used for making paper. The road was busy busy with trucks toting the crops and I could observe in-progress construction work on expanding this highway (though doubted it would get finished in a timely manner in the event of a coup). Soon enough we were on giant mega-highways in Bangkok passing by white high rises. The first thing I did after the nine-hour journey was pop into a random garage and order noodle soup. I enjoyed that there was no romanization on the menu (because they don’t give a fuck about foreigners in Thonburi, Thailand) and the flavors were so complex, so much better than Cambodia! I concluded quickly that Thailand was going to be awesome. If post-Khmer Indochina has been a story of Thailand and Vietnam (and to a lesser extent the Burmese), with Cambodia and Laos mere nothings, saved only by the French and Americans, then I could certainly see why.

I spent over two weeks in Cambodia, the longest I spent in any nation during my nine-week Southeast Asia tour. To be honest I regret spending so much time there when I could have spent more time in Vietnam and Thailand. I had most of my negative experiences in Cambodia: unpleasant bus and boat rides, cheating dishonest drivers, annoying tuk tuk guys and peddlers, frosty people, gross sex tourists and mostly lame food. Despite my pretty pictures, I will not be going back and I will not be recommending it to anyone.

The thing is, I agree with my sister that Cambodia is a culturally weak country. The people there seem deeply unhappy in their poverty, unlike the optimistic, happy Burmese (who are poorer), unlike the villagers I’ve seen in many other dusty corners of the world. In Cambodia, children were always begging with long faces, the whole country was rife with unhappy kids, some of them even brought out on working nights with prostitute mothers. Also, out of twenty countries I’ve visited, Cambodia had one of the worst food cultures. All the good Khmer food was actually a pale imitation of Thai or Vietnamese dishes. Whereas life in other Asian countries pretty much centers eating with family and friends, it seems the Khmers barely know the meaning of love spread through food.

Of course I don’t mean to say their sadness is unfounded, and that I am somehow offended by a lack of cheeriness in a poverty-stricken nation. But I think part of the misery stems from the disturbing combination of poverty and dependence on tourism, and I felt uncomfortable being a part of that tourism. Imagine having to wake up every morning either toiling at subsistence agriculture or practically begging foreigners for money, foreigners on a vacation that you can never have! At the waterfall by the Cardamoms, we had some leftover grains of rice from our lunch. We found amusement in a school of small fish who would dart fiercely, mouths open, at any single grain of rice thrown into the water, some even flipping painfully out of the water in their cutthroat race for the food. Basically, a microcosm of life for the common man in Cambodia, especially one in the tourism industry. I couldn’t walk down any block in Phnom Penh without being hounded by ten tuk-tuk drivers! This situation breeds bad blood on the side of both visitors and locals, creating interactions that are false, difficult, pathetic, depressing.

Meanwhile, the government does nothing. In fact, Cambodia’s leaders have done nothing for the entire history of Khmer culture*, as I learned reading David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia throughout my trip. The country has always been a place of lowly peasants who never expected anything from their leaders and rulers except “protection”, this once resulting in an episode where the people were murdered in mass instead of protected. And today it seems to me the women are not being protected from foreign sexual predators, unscrupulous sex traffickers and a culture that seems to see them as servant-dirt (see previous post on Sihanoukville). Essentially, in Cambodia there has never been a precedent for rulers who bring progress and happiness to their society.

Meanwhile, the unforgiving climate translates to “farm rice or die”, so Cambodia has never had much of a history of technological experimentation or valuing education (long ago, the Vietnamese thought the Khmers barbarians because they did not know how to store rice or irrigate crops). As a result, the country has still not developed much productive agriculture, manufacturing or professional services. With a do-nothing government, no social safety net and an undeveloped economy, the people have no choice but to subsist or face starvation.

So… Cambodia was not the most interesting or enriching place (bus rides through all tropical/subsistence farming land are not very interesting), just a stagnant jungle of poverty without pride, without much to share besides temples from 900 years ago.

I’m not so cold-hearted to think that an impoverished country should be ignored because it is culturally weak. Still, why did I spend so much time there rather than just making a quick stop?

I guess I just didn’t know; people never say “you’re better off spending more time in Vietnam.” I’d heard good things from my parents and others, and never heard any bad reports or even tales of Angkor annoyance. Lonely Planet really talked it up, obviously overrating just about everything and not talking frankly enough about its uglier aspects. Since the country is small, it seemed easy to cover a lot of different ground (and I did!) without sitting on the bus for toooo long. Plus, I was enticed by the cheap prices. I was excited to check out the beaches at Sihanoukville, stay at a bungalow resort for just $10/night, see the wonders of Angkor, see what is the fuss about the old “Pearl of Asia.”

Looking back, I enjoyed many things about my time in Cambodia: wandering around mysterious Bayon and Ta Prohm, exploring the graceful and whimsical architecture of Vann Molyvann, discovering hidden bars in Tonle Bassac, eating Blue Pumpkin ice cream, hiking in jungles, swimming by a refreshing waterfall in the remote, deserted Cardamoms, watching Beyoncé on the bus, watching movies and TV at night with loved ones, windy but calm mornings at Oasis Bungalow Resort, hearing old-school Cambodian rock n roll music, a cold Anchor draft beer, white-sand beaches on perfectly sunny days (no rain or clouds ever!), finding serenity in a neon Ferris wheel after ingesting “happy” spring rolls, the light shimmering on the water in the late afternoon, bright orange sunsets. I had tons of fun.

But I’m still not going back and if you’re going to Southeast Asia you are better off spending your precious time and money in Thailand and Vietnam.

*Flippancy and uselessness includes Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled 1953-1970 and left a lasting legacy despite very low expectations for the young king. While Sihanouk is beloved by his country and lauded for the lovely-fication of Phnom Penh, in my economist opinion he spent too much time hobnobbing with celebrities, personally designing dining rooms and making short films (seriously) and not enough time actually guiding and bringing about real economic development and poverty reduction. While limited progress was made in encouraging education and building some fixed capital during the Sihanouk era, the fact is Cambodia never even came close to modernization. One decent road does not a modern infrastructure make. Many would point to Sihanouk’s role in the renaissance in building that occurred during this time, but construction alone does not necessarily raise worker productivity. Projects like copious sports arenas are not transformative infrastructure; in fact you could argue that they are a waste of public money which could have been spent on other development needs. Sihanouk did not set a precedence of poverty reduction or build viable export industries. He never addressed the reality that most Khmers continued to generate their livelihood through back-breaking subsistence farming, and so they remain in a society of poverty and corruption today.

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Koh Kong and Sihanoukville

cardamom mountains
Tranquility

After a week in Burma, I returned to Phnom Penh with Keala, where we met up with Alicia, my BFF from Cal. I had enjoyed my recent visit to PP with Daniel and was excited to show my sister and bestie the sweet bars I had found, ideal for a hangout and a drink! Riding in the cab down the Russian Boulevard felt comfortingly familiar. This time we would stay right on Sisowath Quay.

Unfortunately, we arrived with terrible stomach illnesses acquired in Burma. We trudged up to our fourth floor walkup and I endured another sleepless night of vomiting and diarrhea, then was awoken by the screams of children at the school outside our guesthouse in the morning. I had to walk to the US Embassy to get more pages added to my passport, and was harassed by about 50 drivers on the way. I finally acquired some Immodium and goddamn antibiotics but still could not properly eat or drink without vomiting and diarrhea for our day and a half in Phnom Penh. We noshed on some yummy banh xeo-style spring rolls (with vermicelli!) at the Central Market and visited the stadium, but my hopes to show Keala and Alicia a good time were dashed: Gastrobar Botanico was closed, the block housing Public House and Bar Sito had no power and the FCC was full of gross old white men with tiny prostitutes that night. Keala was so sick she could scarcely do more than sit all day. The owner of the hostel was a creepy fat Kiwi who fancied himself a job-creating savior to these poor unwashed Khmers. He took us to a creepy Christmas party at an Irish pub full of boorish Anglos crowding around a laptop to play pop music videos on YouTube and Khmer girls wearing clothes that would definitely get them barred from any Buddhist temple.

We took the bus from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong. I had now been on three harrowing bus rides in Cambodia already (Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh to Battambang, Battambang to Poipet) and this one brought no improvement. Though this road was touted as being paved and in good condition, in fact once we passed the junction to Koh Kong we spent a lengthy amount of time carving in and out of potholes, going about 5 squiggly miles per hour. They blasted shitty Khmer karaoke pop and country almost the whole time, though at one point we got all excited when the conductor put in a Michael Jackson DVD. But after “Billie Jean” it started to skip, so he eventually abandoned the thing to our great disappointment. Luckily, Alicia let me watch all the Beyonce videos on her iPad during this journey. What a good friend! Once in Koh Kong our data stopped working and the scenery became lush mountain jungle.

After finally arriving in Koh Kong City, only two or three hours late, a few dirt roads brought us to Oasis Bungalow Resort, run by the jolly blond Jason. He quickly learned our names and showed us his book that served as our “tab”, saying we could take any drink out of the fridge and write it down if he weren’t there. We discovered that Jason built the resort (“I’m a civil engineer!”) but was leaving soon after nine years to go to Sri Lanka. He had been all over the world but spent his time in Cambodia exploring on his own, traveling to undiscovered islands, carving new paths for those eco-inclined. He said we’d never get malaria, and warned us of the nighttime winds. He told stories of summers so wet that one’s clothes never dry and local Khmers getting electrocuted and knocking out the power on the block. He usually wore some form of pajamas and could be seen watching Animal Planet.

koh kong island
Christmas on Koh Kong Island

Our stay in Koh Kong turned out for the most part a pleasant Christmas vacation, save for some onerous infrastructural constraints. After crowded Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, I particularly enjoyed relaxing at Oasis Bungalow Resort, a collection of maybe five or six bungalows scattered around a lumpy blue pool on the outskirts of small seaside Koh Kong City. There we enjoyed morning poolside lounges, afternoon swims and DVDs from Jason’s collection before bed (Tropic Thunder on Christmas Eve and Only God Forgives on Christmas). Nights we spent in “town” at Cafe Laurent, a leafy restaurant perched on stilts over the ocean. The place has strong drinks and decent WiFi, which we needed sorely since our data plans disappeared and our hotel had none – a perfect place for Christmas Instagramming.

I came to Koh Kong to get a taste of Cambodia’s natural beauty, having seen its historical and cultural sites in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. This western province sits on the ocean near Thailand and is home to miles of undeveloped jungle. Of course with jungle allegedly comes malaria; I took Malarone though I probably threw it up each morning with a wave of Malarone-induced nausea.

On our first day with Ritthy at Koh Kong Eco Tours took us to Koh Rong Island. Of course, this was Cambodia, the land of slow boats, so this involved a 2.5 hour boat ride going 10 mph over choppy waves. Unfortunately in my morning delirium I forgot both my iPod and a book and ended up having to pass the time by drinking Angkor beer and singing to myself (though Alicia came to the rescue again with her iPhone and Aaliyah). But when we finally got there we were treated to a strip of private white sand against a backdrop of dense forest, and everyone in our party of about twenty was smiling. The day consisted of many Christmas selfies, lots of lounging, a group lunch of grilled prawns, chicken, veggies and fruit with rice, kayaking and snorkeling around a bit. We also stopped by a mangrove forest on the way home and caught another whiz-bang Cambodian sunset on the water.

On our second day Rithy picked us up for our jungle tour, first pioneered by none other than Jason. To my dismay we ended up sitting in a goddamn boat for an hour, first paddling through a still estuary and then using the motor but still slowly over the open ocean. Finally we ended up on a grassy bank at the foot of the Cardamom Mountains. After walking through some tall grasses, we hiked uphill to a vista of the vast green mountains. The rest of the day we spent hiking through fairly easy terrain through thick bamboo forest, our guide often stopping for several minutes to hack at the drooping trees with a machete. We stopped at a waterfall with clean fresh water, where you could slide down the mossy rocks to swim in the refreshing pools. With no one around, I sat there sunning, enjoying the tranquil scenery of trees, boulders and forest and later did a little swimming. Our guides gave us a lunch of tasty pork fried rice, and led us to walk all over the waterfalls. We did some more hiking through bamboo and yes a little cardamom, and took another waterfall break. Unfortunately the Khmers had hunted all the animals, so the only creatures left in the forest seemed to be giant spiders.

cardamom

All in all, except for the sand flies on the beach, one prolonged power outage and painfully slow boat rides, Koh Kong proved a fairly relaxing stop. I had been running around for a month on my trip already at this point and I was happy to take a moment to relax and enjoy Christmas with loved ones.

Sihanoukville, however, alternated between relaxing beach time and hot mess. It started with a hot mess:

I booked a later bus with a change of “lines” so we could enjoy one last morning at lovely Oasis Bungalow Resort. Jason said the bus would be waiting for us and we could transfer easily. Of course, our bus was most certainly not there and we were let out to sit at a random junction in the middle of nowhere waiting for it! It was 3:45 and the men sitting in the dusty triangle with us said the bus wouldn’t come until 5. What??? I had nothing to do, I could not take out my electronics at the junction and I had no phone service still. I was just stuck there with a bunch of guys muttering to each other in Khmer (I did learn the proper pronunciation of Phnom Penh and Kampuchea at this time). This was one of the only times during this leg of the trip that I could not fight back fear and a bit of anger. All kinds of minibuses crammed with Khmers and the occasional unfortunate whitey came by, the mototaxi drivers swarming them whenever one stopped. One or two big buses blew by, ignoring us. I feared our bus would never come!

Luckily it came at about 4:15, and the ride was relatively quick. I sat next to a displeased-looking Argentinian (my guess) and in front of a gross obese young white guy with his Khmer girlfriend. Jason had warned us that Sihanoukville was creepy sex tourist central and this was just the beginning. Why don’t the guidebooks warn you about these things??

displeased after bus ride
The facial expressions say it all after that bus ride

Sihanoukville is resort town built in the 1960s-70s overrun by many Cambodians, loud Russians (my first experience with them on my SEA tour), Chinese, backpackers and did I mention old white men accompanied by maid-girlfriends and/or prostitutes? There, we argued with drivers, gave said old white men dirty looks at every occasion possible and were basically ignored by all female staff at foreign-targeted restaurants (who would then light up with doting smiles for male patrons). We visited many bizarre places, both colorful and seedy: a sunset beach full of Khmer families launching paper lanterns into the sky, and also full of elderly men with prostitutes. A bright carnival, ferris wheel turning. A “happy pizza” place on a dusty but crowded street where a guy with a distant cart played Gangnam Style on repeat.

What we enjoyed was cheap barbecue washed down with Anchor draft and lovely Otres Beach, where you can lounge with mostly normal people on big bright chaises, sip a cocktail and even eat panini while soaking in the sun. We escaped there each afternoon.

otres beach
Lounging at Otres Beach

Wandering Phnom Penh

buddha workshop
Finished Buddhas at an all-Buddha workshop, Tonle Bassac

The sun was lowering in the sky, now about 4 PM outside the White Building. We were supposed to be meeting our driver, who was shifting around restlessly by his tuk-tuk, perhaps displeased to be standing outside a housing project. After all, this dude had the guanxi to be a top-choice tuk-tuk driver for the Intercontinental Hotel Group, and yet he still ended up here? Tough break.

We had wandered around the whole complex, taking shots from all sides. Somehow I ended up across the street and wandered into a quaint store that could have been in Brunswick Street Fitzroy or Portland. The place was full of “found” objects ranging from clay vases to miniature plastic chairs to screen-printed linen posters advertising the different Cambodian attractions in each cities. The one for Phnom Penh advertised “Vann Molyvann!” and “Evening cocktails!” The one for Siem Reap: “Pub Street!” and Battambang: “Circus!” The middle-aged Australian lady who ran the place was chatting casually with some other white folk.

hipster store tonle bassac
Store of found objects, Phnom Penh

Now it occurred to me that this neighborhood, despite its crumbling cesspool housing project, was actually the primo gentrification zone. The hipster store and the BMW dealership on the other side of the White Building had clued me in. Turns out many embassies are nearby. This was my first encounter with the area known as Tonle Bassac.

The next day was Daniel’s last day in Asia before heading back to the New York winter. Besides a visit to the Royal Palace, where we mainly enjoyed watching a pair of monkeys grooming each other on a temple roof, we had run out of things to visit, as we did not have much interested in the Killing Fields, genocide museum or shooting range (the attractions which often showed up on the backs of tuk-tuks advertising to tourists). Lonely Planet mentioned a handful of cafes around Tonle Bassac so I went hunting for one of them looking for a place to chill and have a coffee.

I couldn’t find the cafe but soon discovered that I was walking around a nice area, full of villas fronted by leafy gardens and tall gates. We passed a couple of cafes, an Italian restaurant and a tiny but intriguing-looking cocktail bar called Seibur. Only one or two people asked if we wanted a tuk-tuk the whole time! We also wandered into a nameless narrow alley hidden among the affluence, which brought us into a small cramped maze full of little kids running around and locals hanging out doing nothing in particular. On an alley exiting to the avenue, men were working in workshops carving and sanding, making Buddhas and other typical Angkorean scultpres that would presumably end up in hotel lobbies. Back in the leafy posh streets, we found Gastrobar Botanico, behind a gate, down a little path and in a pleasant terrace full of plants. On this 90 degree day I loved taking a break in this peaceful oasis, enjoying some espresso, juice, patatas bravas and WiFi. What an awesome find!

Through a series of Internet hops, the day would bring more great finds around Tonle Bassac. I was lucky enough to find the 240 1/2 Alleyway, a “hidden” street near the International School boasting some cool expat joints. We had $5 cocktails and a burger with fries at Public House, which despite its low-brow name has a  sort-of Modern Rangoon feel, a soothing color palette on wooden walls with clean-edged wooden tables. We also visited Bar Sito (same owners), a dark, leather-bound speakeasy also hawking $5 cocktails.

public house
Public House on 240 1/2 Alley

After so much running around on our trip, Daniel and I relished the chance to just wander and discover things not in guidebooks, sip cocktails and eat some decent fries. I had a whirlwind couple days in Phnom Penh with Daniel. After Angkor’s touristiness, we loved seeing the 60s architecture, chancing upon hidden expat gems and strolling alongside the locals at the riverside.

I said goodbye to Daniel and then made a slow 2-day overland journey to Battambang and Bangkok.

Architecture Tour in Phnom Penh

stadium
Vann Molyvann’s “Olympic Stadium”/National Sports Complex

Phnom Penh, formerly the “Pearl of Asia”, was supposedly once one of the loveliest cities in the Eastern Hemisphere. The French envisioned large tree-lined boulevards for strolling and brought a host of European influences, and from the country’s independence in 1953 until 1970 the young king Norodom Sihanouk helmed the city’s planning, prompting a blossoming of building and development.

I arrived in the city via a six-hour bus ride on a route that should have taken two hours. The bus’s choice of music videos was an endless parade of videos from a show I call “Cambodian Bandstand”, where one or two people sing live and the rest dance very tamely to 50s-style rock-n-roll, a genre which Cambodia adapted to its liking mid-century and remains popular to this day. I liked hearing the old-school licks along with the exotic singing but it got pretty tiresome for six hours.

The city these days cannot really be considered lovely. In fact Phnom Penh is ranked as one of the least livable cities in the entire world. It has no public transit of any kind, the rather small place is packed with a near-gridlock of autos and motorbikes and tuk-tuks going about five miles per hour. The sidewalks envisioned as lovely by the French are used as motorbike parking. But I was excited to enter an urban place, as I always am. Blue onion-domed mosques dotted the outskirts, Chinese characters began to pop up on the signage and people buzzed away at little workshops in shophouses or sold arrays of tires or metal parts. The place immediately seemed more diversified economically than Siem Reap, and the people happier for it.

We stayed at the Intercontinental, where the concierge called a tuk-tuk driver for us. A beady-eyed man in a teal windbreaker and white baseball cap drove us to the riverside, a central and popular area on the west bank of the Tonle Sap river. We first had some cocktails, spring rolls and snacks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a former actual press club now frequented by tourists in a three-story colonial building where geckos crawl all over the walls. The place overlooks the river and has a good happy hour deal, with $2.50 cocktails, though is certainly not the coolest place in town.

riverside at night
Nighttime gathering at Sisowath Quay

The riverside turned out to be a pretty happening public space. Though I would later conclude that nobody in Phnom Penh walks when they could take a slow-moving tuk-tuk or moto, here we saw all sorts of local families, groups of teenage boys, couples strolling. We passed an outlet of the Photo Phnom Penh exhibition, displaying photo series from local and international artists around town. Under a small pavilion, men were playing xylophone and gamelan-like instruments while families all crowded into a small, brightly illuminated temple to light incense and tealights and pray. Now about two weeks into my trip I was excited to observe a slice of another life in yet another culture.

That night we flipped through the channels watching weird Hindu music videos and Chinese dramas dubbed hilariously in Khmer and the news which indicated protests outside the US Embassy/Wat Phnom against the Hun Sen government. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power since 1985.

For our full day in Phnom Penh we traversed the city on an architecture tour which I cobbled together with a bit of Wikipedia. Most of our stops were to see the work of Vann Molyvann, who studied architecture in France and was at one point Cambodia’s only registered architect. His work, which appears all over Phnom Penh, typifies the Sihanouk-backed “New Khmer Architecture,” modernist in style and idea but adapted to the local climate and employing elements of traditional Khmer buildings.

Stops on our tour:

stadium
The National Sports Complex, or “Olympic Stadium”. Built in 1964 for a SEA Games that never happened, the pyramid sitting atop a mound of earth evokes an ancient history, while modern concrete and engineering are delightfully mid-century. A cantilevered press box seems to float precariously over the seating. One of the most graceful stadiums I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately falling into disrepair under current Chinese management, while squatters live in the bathrooms.

RUPP
Royal University of Phnom Penh. This university contains all sorts of work by the New Khmer architects. A causeway, complete with nagas in the front, forms a grand entrance, reminding you directly of Angkor. At the whimsical Foreign Language Faculty you see adaptations to the climate like a double roof to prevent the building from heating too much and buildings on stilts. The Science building also offered a large meeting space below the building. The whole campus, though mostly blazing hot (and yet the girls were forced to wear long skirts as uniforms), utilizes shaded walkways and lots of water, which has always been important to Khmer life. We also stopped in the parabolic conference/theater center on campus where Photo Phnom Penh had a few more series on display. The guy in there guarding the place seemed thrilled to talk to us–one of the only friendly locals I encountered in Cambodia. He was a computer science student and lived in the White Building (see below).

institute of technology
Institute of Technology of Cambodia. While not as exotic and whimsical as the Molyvann buildings, the Soviet builders made the place cool down with the use of sunscreens and amply shaded walkways. A lovely modern place filled with boys studying tech.

chaktomuk conference hall
Chaktomuk Conference Hall. We could not go in because the military was meeting in there, but were able to glimpse this yellow crown of a building from the outside. Here we observed the steeply pitched roofs of the Khmer house, which are woven into the building’s form of a fan.

the white building
The White Building. Originally part of a whole raft of development projects along the Tonle Bassac river, this public housing project is a series of concrete apartments down a whole block. While nicknamed the “White Building” the facade is nearly blackened and the whole place is crumbling; I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s razed to the ground someday. But the place is so vibrant! The concrete is dotted with people’s plants and clothes hanging out to dry. A couple of the stairwells have been painted sea foam. They put little shops and eateries in the bottom and the people seem a tight-knit community.

I found all of these buildings just as interesting, if not more so, than the ancient ruins at Angkor — maybe because these structures are not empty shells but currently in use. The university was alive with students sitting by its reflecting pools, gathering under the shade. The residents of the White Building have done their best to adapt the 60s building to their contemporary lives, and built a community out of it. I don’t think Norodom Sihanouk was a very good leader, not in the least, but his encouragement of New Khmer Architecture was a significant contribution. While I believe he spent way too much time involved with individual buildings at the expense of bringing the country progress in more important non-cultural forms (what I deduced after reading Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins), the works are beautiful, significant and worth something.

We also stopped at the Art Deco-style Central Market, building 1937. The spaces formed by the giant X-shaped building have all been filled in and covered so that things are cramped and hot, but there we were able to finally find some good local food! Though I suspect much of the good Khmer food was influenced by Thai, Vietnamese or even Chinese food (rather than original) we enjoyed some yummy soups and also fresh barbecued squid!

Angkor, the Good Stuff

angkor wat sunrise Money shot, Angkor Wat.

Landing at the Siem Reap airport we got our first glimpse of some Khmer architecture, the building featured steeply pitched roofs and the curved serpentine projections poking out that you’d see in temples all over Southeast Asia. Despite the 90 degree heat it felt cool due to the roof and the airport at once graceful and modern. Driving toward Tonle Sap that afternoon we would see more of the vernacular. While Vietnam had been largely an experience in burgeoning urbanization, here in Cambodia we found ourselves driving on unpaved roads through thick jungle, passing by one-room wooden houses on stilts. The stilts create extra space under the house and protect from flooding. The houses also have steeply pitched roofs.

We visited Kampong Phluok, a floating village on Tonle Sap where the school and the local government office and every colorful house sits on stilts. I believe Lonely Planet called it “straight out of a movie set” and indeed the place was otherworldly. Children were paddling around to each other’s houses, mothers held naked infants and old ladies peddled fruit by boat. We also took a paddle through the nearby “floating forest”, where the trees reach for the sky from deep in the water.

kampong phluok Nearly sunset at Kampong Phulok

On Tonle Sap, we would also experience our first Cambodian sunset. It probably stems from particulates in the air but every sunset in Cambodia, at least during the dry season when I visited, was BANG! dramatic beauty. Even leading up to it, the waters of the lakes and ocean all over the country would begin to glint with a unique shimmer, the kind of sight that always made me so happy to be abroad. When the sunset occurred it would always be bright-orange, and the sky would be brushed in the kind of pinks and purples you don’t see very often in North America.

As for sunrise, we woke up at 4:30 AM to the day break at Angkor Wat. Gathered in with a whole lot of Asian tourists we all gathered before the reflecting pond to see the sun rise over the complex, the majestic spires seeming even more majestic as silhouettes. The place became progressively busier but I’m glad I visited Angkor Wat in the morning. The light gleaming on the sandstone and laterite was such a special sight, and we were glad to enjoy some hours of not too much heat. We walked through the temple’s rigid order by many Hindu bas-reliefs and got a sense of the Khmers’ style with their balustered windows, serpentine naga statues and intricately carved spires.

angkor wat
Exploring Angkor Wat

Predictably, I enjoyed many of the other commonly touted highlights of the Angkor area. You can buy a three-day temple pass for $20 and most people at some point go on a “small circuit”. From Angkor Wat you go just a stone’s throw away to the ancient city of Angkor Thom with its massive Victory Gate. Here you see Baphuon with its giant pyramid and causeway, the Terrasse des Elephants (exactly what it sounds like) and a handful of other smaller temples.

bayon

The “enigmatic” Bayon

My favorite was the famous Bayon. This later temple is seen as being constructed hastily and reflecting experimental rather than established tastes, and is often described in the guidebooks as “enigmatic.” Here the big stone temple features a series of giant towers with faces carved into them. As with many others, the temple is composed of stacked levels, with many corridors and altar rooms on the lowest floors, as well as subordinate libraries and other small edifices detached out front. But unlike Angkor with its rigid order, the whole place is an inviting maze, with lots of surfaces and steps to climb on, spaces to wander down. I liked this disorder as I could easily lose myself just wandering and exploring, and had fun with Daniel peeking around corners and finding new spots, new views. The giant faces smiling down from the sandstone towers seem to encourage this “mystic playground” atmosphere.

ta prohm
Ta Prohm

And after Angkor Wat and Bayon, the third “biggie” is Ta Prohm, nicknamed “Tomb Raider” after Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft once skipped around the place. Ta Prohm demonstrates what Angkor actually looked like when the French discovered it in the early twentieth century–that is, overgrown and wild, the fragile grandeur of Man easily swallowed by Nature. Here you bear witness to the power of the jungle–the roofs have caved in, the walls cracked, stone mangled, roots and plants everywhere, whole walls being strangled by giant trees. Yet, the “nature” parts are carefully maintained, as if the greened ruins are a landscaped garden; in fact, the French specifically chose the site to capture the image of Angkor as it stood. The complex is quite large, maze-like, and even more maze-like with the addition of fallen stone blocks strewn about in a seemingly desultory fashion. I loved exploring the nooks and crannies here too.

The second day we saw another sunrise at the enormous reflecting pond Sra Srang, watching the sun come up behind silhouetted trees, and observed the delicate carvings of Banteay Srei, a bit further afield from the small circuit. After an annoying ordeal with our driver shirking on us for a few hours, we also ventured over to Kbal Spean. This brought us on an uphill hike of about a kilometer through the jungle, a nice chance to experience wild Cambodia (read: humid! …also, land mines). The hike culminates at a river where the Khmers had carved various Hindu symbols including 1000 circular lingas right into the brown riverbed.

walk to kbal spean

Hiking to Kbal Spean

sugar palm
Din-din at the Sugar Palm

The food situation was no Vietnam, that’s for sure (either in price or quality), but we enjoyed some yummy curries, num pang (which after enjoying the New York fast-casual restaurant for a few years I found means baguette) and some decent barbecue.

After two and a half days of discovery in the Siem Reap area, we were excited to bus over to see some urban life in Phnom Penh!

Angkor, the Bad Stuff

Mainly criticizing and development economist-ing

In the thick heat, our bodies were becoming sapped again, so nestled inside the small temple complex of Banteay Kdei we sat for a break on one of the centuries-old pieces of eroded, pocked sandstone. Our eyes widened as a small girl of about ten (though in the OECD she might be assumed seven) approached us. She was carrying woven bracelets, factory scarves in traditional checkers and tourist gold-and-elephant-accents and some plastic Christmas ornaments.

Small girl: Hello! Where you from?
Us: New York.
Small girl: New York… capital is Al-ba-ny. Do you want bracelet? I give you cheap priiiiii!
Us: No thank you, we’re not interested.
Small girl: I have bracelet very nice!
She proceeds to show how you can loosen and tighten her bracelets on your wrist.
Small girl: If you very small you can go like this! Oh but if you very big and bracelet too small you go like this.
Us: …
Small girl: I give you very cheap priiiiii!
Us: No thank you, we don’t need a bracelet.
Small girl: Please help me I want open my own business.
Us: …
Small girl: Need money so I can go to school!
Us: …
Small girl: Today not very good business.
Us: Sorry but we don’t want to buy anything.
Small girl: I think you do want to buy! You just want to buy from someone else!
Us: No that’s not true we really don’t want to buy anything.
Small girl: Do you have any foreign money? Any American money? Any Euro? Any Thai money?
Me: No I don’t have any. (I really had no American, European or Thai money; all I had in my wallet was about twenty Australian dollars at the moment.)
Small girl: I think you lying. You have money and you want to buy from another child.

This was probably the saddest of my exchanges with the locals in the Siem Reap area, but we had grown used to it already. We were about nine or ten hours into our day on the “small circuit” of the temples of Angkor. Besides at Angkor Wat at dawn, which had been heavy on Japanese tourists but not child touts, the day in Siem Reap had been a cacophony of:
(shrill female) HEY LADY! YOU WANT PINEAPPLE?
YOU WANT BANANA?
HEY LADY! YOU WANT SCARF?
(or, whining child who is doggedly following you) YOU WANT POSTCARD ONLY TEN FOR A DOLLAH

And in the city of Siem Reap, as we would encounter that night:
HELLO! YOU WANT MASSAGE?
HELLO! YOU NEED TUK-TUK?

Unfortunately, relentless peddlers and drivers were a large part of the Angkor experience for me. Poor Cambodia, a country under the dominion of foreigners (Thai, Vietnamese, French and subtly Americans) for most of the past millenium; a country where progress for the masses is nearly unheard of and the common man is typically left to farm or starve; a country wracked by genocide and now, just plain-old poverty and corruption. In 2013 Cambodia generated an estimated $15.6 billion, less than the purchase price of Whatsapp. Tourism is one of the only avenues for people to escape a life of back-breaking farm labor or garment factory work. Rather than ensure that their children go to school, parents send out kids to sell tchotchkes from China in the hopes of making a few dollars for the family here and there. Men stand outside like begging dogs hoping hoping hoping to win a lucrative three-minute tuk-tuk ride from a foreigner.

We arranged a driver named Seng Seila beforehand (on recommendation from my parents and others, actually), and he was dishonest and flippant. He did not meet us at the airport as promised, sending a random guy over about an hour later. He then sent out his brother to drive us instead, and his brother brought us to an expensive attraction with no guidance or warning. On our first temple-visiting day, he lacked the foresight to tell me that several of the temples had a strictly enforced dress code. He brought us to overpriced tourist canteens for our meals. He flatly ignored some of my requests; for instance when I told him I wanted to visit a hilltop for sunset viewing and not another temple he went ahead and brought me to another temple. Worst of all, on the third day he mysteriously drove 45 minutes back to town without asking us, making phone calls as if to arrange something important, and then proposed/forced a five hour break from our pre-arranged itinerary. When I called him to protest and request to return to the original itinerary, he said he did not even have the car! He had clearly double-booked his time, and made no apologies.

Besides the incessant touts, this was another negative experience of Siem Reap. I don’t like being lied to and when I pay a driver to follow an itinerary I expect him to do his best to deliver on that promised itinerary. I also expect someone providing a service to at least pretend to care about a customer’s satisfaction. We came from thousands of miles away to visit this place for three days, but that did not seem to mean anything to him.

People dream of visiting famous Angkor Wat, one of the enduring achievements of the ancient Khmer empire, a vast and powerful civilization that encompassed a huge swath of Southeast Asia from the 9th to 13th centuries. We see it perhaps as some mix of cultural enrichment and recreation, this trip of exotic discovery–as if it is you charging your way through the jungle discovering secrets of the past.

The temples don’t fail to impress but the fact is, this is Tourism Town. With the locals depending on your income, tourism is not so much about hospitality or cultural exchange for them but rather extracting every last cent out of you, as their alternative is miserable poverty. For this reason, I’m not sure Siem Reap is a great place to visit. The struggle of the locals for survival is palpable, the lack of government care and good policy apparent (more on that later). NGOs seem to have come in and taught all of these children English, but why not teach them math or computer science? Why make them continue to depend on the income of visiting foreigners? I can’t imagine that waking up each day to beg strange-looking people for money, strangers on a vacation you can never have, would promote a happy society. What Cambodia needs is structural and institutional change, not your tourism dollars implicitly approving this path of development.

The first day we visited the village Kampong Phluok on Tonle Sap, the massive lake in the middle of the country whose fish and floodwaters provides life to much of Cambodia. We rode for more than an hour on a boat crawling at less than five miles and hour. The engine was blaring and sputtering and the driver had to check it a couple times, letting everyone pass us, leaving us rocking in their wake. The floating village, a collection of colorful boxes on stilts, looked just as otherworldly as described, and downright magical in the orange light of sunset, but I felt uncomfortable with the whole situation.

As we passed the naked toddlers toppling over stressed-out mothers and the older children paddling in tiny boats, I wondered how strange it would be to spend your youth having foreigners gawk at you from boats, as if you were part of the attraction in It’s a Small World. But the local government encouraged it, for they would do anything for thirty fucking US dollars per person. They claimed our fees went to the community, but I questioned that anyone was doing much to better the lives of these children. Wasn’t it in the leaders’ interest to keep the children there paddling around in boats so as to maintain the income-generating attraction, after all?

In economics we call that rent-seeking. Rent-seeking behavior may explain the “resource curse”, in which countries blessed with natural resources have no incentive to ignite the structural and institutional change for productive development as they can merely sit back and let the petro(or whatever)dollars roll in. I think Cambodia, a country that is notoriously corrupt and largely un-livable for the masses, may exhibit rent-seeking behavior by “enjoying” foreign aid and tourism income. In Siem Reap I saw a whole town begging tourists, I saw roads donated by Korea and homes donated by random American families, I saw temples under restoration by the Chinese. There is a need for foreign exchange receipts, there is a need for knowledge transfer, yes, but I don’t see how depending so sorely on foreigners will ever lead to transformational change in Cambodia.

kampong phulok
A kid’s life at Kampong Phluok