Ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to announce that this post officially marks the first time in almost two years that I’m actually writing about the country I’m in!
Welcome, at long last, to Cambodia 😀
I think it’s safe to say that I liked Siem Reap from the moment I first arrived. It’s simply unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.
During my travels, I always include stops at the most famous touristic attractions – the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall, and so on. But I also make a considerable effort to get as far off the beaten path as possible. I don’t just want to see a show that’s put on for tourists, I want to see what a country is really like. I want to meet the locals, to understand how they live, and if possible, to stay for awhile and become one myself.
Still, while every country does have its differences, the world is no longer such a big place. Today, you can gaze at the Egyptian pyramids right from your table at Pizza Hut, sip a Starbuck’s coffee inside the Forbidden City, or check your e-mail from a holy Shamanistic mountain in Korea. People in Japan learn what it’s like to live in the OC from their livingrooms, while the Internet lets us read the musings of those on the other side of the planet – like you’re doing right now! In many ways, the world of unique and detached tribe cultures is long a thing of the past.
But not everywhere. And certainly not in Cambodia. I’ve been all over the world, and truly I’ve never been anywhere like this.
Within literally ten minutes walk of the touristic center of Siem Reap, you can see people living just like they did hundreds of years ago. There’s no running water, no electricity. There are only bright red dirt roads lined by palm trees and hand-built wooden stilt huts.
Children swing from vines into the river or play soccer with a fallen coconut; chickens screech from within hand-woven baskets, blissfully unaware that they’re on the menu for dinner; mothers wash their family’s clothes in buckets of water hauled up by hand from a well.
A bit farther away, endless sprawling rice fields are plowed by huge water buffalo, and further still, the crumbling temples of Angkor provide evidence of the ancient Khmers who once called this land their home.
And yet all of this is literally minutes from every Western convenience you could want.
Thanks to the ruins of Angkor, often hailed as the eighth wonder of the world, Siem Reap has exploded from a tiny village of rice fields and creeks to the region’s premier travel destination. Today it’s a bustling tourist haven, with hundreds of guesthouses and picture-menu restaurants.
Yet it’s still quaint. Relaxed. Beyond the very center, most of the roads remain unpaved. There are almost no chain businesses, and a walk down the leafy green riverfront promenade could uplift even the lowest of spirits.
My guidebook warned of scams and of theft, of pickpocketing street children and of dangerously unclean food. But I could scarcely believe they were talking about the same place.
What I see is a place where people don’t even bother to lock their bicycles, where local children run by and scream “hello!” with a wide-eyed smile before giggling and scurrying away, and a place where the biggest danger in their food is the risk of a lifelong addiction.
In my estimation, Siem Reap is exactly what I’ve always been looking for. It’s a place where you can live for pennies a day, while still being as comfortable as at home. It’s a place where welcoming faces speak your language, where the food is as unbelievably delicious as it is cheap, and where, if you want, you can venture just minutes away and step right onto the page of a National Geographic magazine.
I checked into my guesthouse on January 23rd planning to spend a week or two working, then make my way in through the country. But as I write this on March 20th, I’m still right here, in room 205 of the Tropical Breeze Guesthouse.