After my experience in Phnom Penh, I braced myself for something worse than that in Siem Reap, the nearest town to Cambodia's main attractions Angkor temples. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the situation here, though in the same key, feels less acute. Don't get me wrong, there are probably more beggars here than in Phnom Penh, and poverty is just as high if not higher -- the picture below was taken just a few hundred meters from the local Le Meridien hotel. However, the majority of the population feels a bit less savage. Maybe it's being away from the hustle-and-bussle of the capital, but here I met some locals who, despite having a tough life, retained some sense of humor and ability to see the positive in the world. r
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of local restaurants (even before factoring in the value, a whopping price of $7 for a full high-quality dinner, including $0.5 beers), and was encouraged to see that two of the locally-run restaurants that I tried out produced dishes that not only tasted delightfully, but were presented in a very modern sophisticated fashion. One of them even offered a complimentary traditional Khmer dancing show for the patrons:
Another noteworthy thing I tried here in Siem Reap was 'fish massage' or 'fish pedicure', as I think it was referred to in the US for its brief appearance there before most states outlawed it (the fish didn't meet the licensing requirements for this trade... yeah, really!). In short, it works like this -- you put your feet down in a fish tank that's stocked with a certain type of 'cleaner' fish, and the dozens of fish promptly get to nibbling on your feet, thus cleaning away dead skin. I first tried the fish tank with smaller fish, and spent the next several minutes in uncontrollable bursts of giggles because the experience felt like a tickle torture. After a few minutes, the feet got used to it, so I moved on to the tank with bigger fish. Some of the fishies there were waaay too big for comfort (though their brains might have been big enough to pass the licensing tests), but luckily, they didn't have teeth. It was a very interesting experience, and I was happy to see that my tired heels did, in fact, come out more rosy-looking.
I have also had my very own traffic accident experience. I have already commented how here, driving is still haphazard, but it's clear that the good-natured intent to get along is not quite there, not like in Vietnam. I was in a tuk-tuk with my driver here, going back to the hotel, when the car in the opposite lane attempted to make an aggressive left turn right in front of us. My driver honked at the car, the driver of which acknowledged our presence with a split-second hesitation, yet proceeded to make the left turn no more than 2 meters ahead of us. Apparently 2 meters is not enough to bring a tuk-tuk to a complete stop. My driver swerved to the side of the road to avoid a head-on collision, but that was not enough. I watched it all happen in slow motion. Luckily the collision was minor (and boy was I glad I wasn't in the back of a motorcycle!) and the only damage was a scratch and a dent to the car's rear door. The driver, a young 'rich' kid who didn't even look old enough to drive, was adamant about the fact that it was my driver's fault, and called the cops. Now, I did read in my guidebook that should a tourist be driving and should they get into an accident, the tourist is not to call cops as there is no chance such dispute would be resolved in the tourist's favor. I thought, however, that the situation is different for locals. Well, after the cops finally arrived, they spent some time talking to witnesses, making some measurements for the report, and ruled that my driver was to pay for the repair or the car, $40 (which here is half a month's work). The most outrageous part, however, was when the cops also demanded $5 from him, for the job well done! My driver was distraught. He didn't have that kind of money, at least not on him, and if he didn't produce it on the spot, his tuk-tuk would be impounded and if not bailed out quickly enough, would be sold to cover the damage... and the policeman fee! He asked me if I have any cash on me, and if so, if I could pre-pay him the $40, which I did, so we were able to avoid impounding. It's clear that he deems this a loan, as he was quivering when he dropped me off at the hotel, I think from the realization that he just lost just about all of the money he would have made on me, after expenses. I sent the poor guy home for the night, giving him $5 so he has some cash, as he paid off the cop with the final scarps of cash in his pocket. This guy was very good with me, hardworking and professional, and what I value highly is that he wasn't presumptuous, none of that 'you tip me now' attitude that I can't stand. So I think I will consider the $40 a tip, and still pay him the full amount we agreed upon on top of that, I know that's going to make his day (month?), and I like giving out of my own volition and when it's appreciated, rather than coerced or presumed.
On Cambodia as a whole, here are a few things that stood out, to me:
1) Socio-economic observations: The bulk of the country is extremely poor, with $70 the monthly salary of government jobs like teachers, and jobs such as a hotel receptionist (in the capital, it may be 2x, but still, you get the scale). Having a roof over one's head is not a given, and I've seen plenty living on wooden platforms about 2m by 2m on the side of the road, at times without any roof. Yet, there is a very visible elite class in Cambodia -- the most popular car make here is a Lexus, most of which are brand new and have 'Lexus' proudly imprinted in big letters on its side. These guys drive around with an unmistakable aura of masters of the universe -- so reminds me of Russia in the '90s. How these guys make their money I'm not sure, but I suspect corruption has something to do with it. During the 4hr ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap along the main road, there were very few producing business enterprises that I noticed, a lot fewer than in Vietnam. The only public works project, a new bridge that was getting finishing touches, was built by China Road and Bridge Corporation. Seems that the only production that goes on here is farming, and even that is fully for internal consumption. The tourist business is booming, however, and it seems that locals are getting a good-sized piece of the action. It also seems that education is taking hold, so hopefully over time, Cambodia will be able to climb out of its ditch. But it won't be quick.
2) On religion, temples and monks: I was struck by the huge number of Buddhist monks I saw every day. Being new to Asia, I didn't have the basis for comparison with other countries, so I began digging by asking locals for various bits of info on the subject. What I gathered challenged my perception of what being a monk was like, and was about. Apparently, here it's been a long standing tradition for men to become ordained at some point during their youth, and many such monks later return to the secular world. Officially, Cambodia practices a form of Buddhism similar to that of Thailand, which apparently is particularly known for it's soul-searching and truth-searching tradition. In practice, the people's religion is really a mixture of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism. I admit that my observations were very cursory, however I didn't witness much introspection of any kind from the laypeople attending pagodas. In fact, I think that it's probably the shortest average prayer time I've observed anywhere, with often not much more than a quick bow to the statue of Buddha. However what they lack in quality of prayer, they make up for in quantity of offerings brought to the before mentioned statue. This being my first trip to Asia, my experience with Buddhism until this has been limited to theoretical education, as well as encountering a few of the Western intellectuals who practice Buddhism as a faith that's most closely aligned with their philosophical views. Well, the Buddhism here is certainly not that kind of Buddhism, and I would risk to guess not quite what Buddha envisioned (although that can, probably, be said about most religions these days).
3) Cuisine: I quite liked Khmer cuisine, which seems to be closer to that of its Western neighbor Thailand than its Eastern neighbor Vietnam. The welcome aspect, however, is that it's not really spicy. Like in Vietnam, dairy is pretty much nonexistent, I suppose due to the fact that milk goes bad in this tropical climate too fast to be of use. One thing that they use happily, though, is MSG -- apparently even in such indigenous-sounding dishes at the local market as ant salad -- my guide was shocked when I told him that stuff is not good for you. Once I get back home, I may even try to make one of their signature dishes, Amok (the MSG-free version), at home upon my return.
For those contemplating a trip to Cambodia, my suggestion would be to skip Phnom Penh altogether and just go to Siem Reap (this is a suggestion I was given by several people, yet chose to experience the culture more fully). If you still decide to go to Phnom Penh, at least do it before you go to Siem Reap, as if you don't enjoy it, you will at least have the temples to look forward to, an in my opinion, the town's more friendly attitude. Going to Siem Reap first, I'm afraid, will make for a rather depressing then-and-now compare-and-contrast, a case study of how great kingdoms fall. Unfortunately, exploring off the beaten path is not really an option, as you quite literally risk being blown up -- the country is still littered with land mines. To me, that was enough to make me avoid national parks.