Mar 292012

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.

How unexpected.

  25 Responses to “A Different World”

  1. Justin! This is such a perfect description of Siem Reap – makes me miss being there even more. 🙂

  2. So nice to be almost in “real time!”

    • I couldn’t agree more. Don’t worry though, I just got another big work request from USR so that ought to make sure I fall behind yet again 😛

  3. Sounds nice. It also appears to have changed a lot in the last 10 years since I was there. Yet I have only positive memories myself. the changes I refer to come from obvious commercialism, i.e. the bar street didn’t look remotely similar to the one we saw. And the riverfront promenade was just a dirt path.

    Lol to buffalo 😀

    • In ten years – yeah! I actually met a few long-term expats who said it’s literally unrecognizable from how it was only five years ago. Almost all of the current guesthouses have been built since then. You mentioned awhile ago that I should go to “the night market” – there are like 4 or 5 now, and the (now fully paved) road from Poipet is lined with mega-hotels between the airport and Sivatha.

    • Wouldn’t surprise me. But I never told you to go to a night market. I don’t even think there was one when I was there. We went to a market, but went there early in the morning. That way we got great deals. There wasn’t a single big hotel there when we visited.

      I wonder if “Anal Villa” is still there 😀

    • Ah, ur right – you said to check out the “local tourist market.”

      Haha Anal Villa?! I certainly didn’t see that during any of my guesthouse hunting 😛

    • A “local tourist market” is probably too vague in 2012. But it wasn’t back then. That’s one of the things I liked so much about the place, that it was tourism in its infancy. You didn’t get hassled (that much) and the Cambodians were friendly and enjoyed trying to learn about you and your foreign ways. It felt…real I guess.

      As for Anal Villa, it was on the opposite side of town as Angkor Wat, down the main dirt road (not following the river), but on the town-side into peasant-country. Hard to describe. I’m sure the name has changed if someone told them what it means in English 😀

    • Yeah, tourism there is definitely not in its infancy anymore, but it really isn’t “obnoxious” yet either. It’s developed just enough to provide zillions of lodging options and good food, but not so far as to require resort prices and self-entitled attitudes (i.e. Phuket tuktuk/taxi drivers). All in all a very nice balance 🙂

      I’m guessing the “main dirt road” was Sivatha, which is no longer dirt. But yeah…I looked around for guesthouses quite a bit (both online and in person), and if I’d seen “Anal Villa,” I definitely would’ve noticed 😛

  4. I like the Buffalo buffalo caption 🙂

    Sounds like a place that fits your style pretty well….was the nightlife any good?

    • >>Buffalo

      Get it? Had you heard that before?


      Not really, but that was part of the point…I needed a place without nightlife for a change! 😛

    • Yeah….saw it a while ago on Peder’s facebook and then looked it up on Wikipedia

  5. Browsing reddit on the train today and look who popped up:

    • Haha I know…crazy!! A few friends have emailed me about it already, I was actually writing a Facebook status just this very moment 🙂

  6. Wow! $8 one night for tropical breeze guesthouse really ?where is the location in Siem Reap ? 🙂

  7. Wow, so beautiful and truly a cultural gem.

    Was that coconut shrimp served in a coconut?? :)!

  8. I had a great time when I was in Cambodia. Thanks for reminding me

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