Finally, a few free minutes to report on what’s been going on for the past few days. When I told people I was going to Cambodia, I often heard about what a great country it is to visit, mostly from people who had never been there. It’s very popular destination on the Lonely Planet-crowd and the wealthy retiree circuits. And Siem Reap is the place everyone has to come to in order to see Angkor, so it’s a town that caters to tourists of both stripes: huge new luxury hotels built with South Korean money and blocks of ramshackle guest houses and backpacker hotels, cheap Indian restaurants and gussied up French cafes. But this Cambodia is apparently a complete mirage. Yes, it is an extraordinary place, but also a much more complicated one. It is great, if by “great” you mean an incredibly cheap, indescribably poor country where tourists can get anything they want – legal or not, but ordinary Cambodians often live without running water, electricity, health care, and higher education. Where the streets fill with water after a rain because the sewers don’t work and, thanks to the Khmer Rouge, there aren’t any trained engineers left who know how to repair them. It’s a county where all social services are provided by NGOs, and where basic ideas of public safety are so retrograde that today, on my fifth day here, I still couldn’t tell you with any degree of certainty what side of the road Cambodians drive on. Still, what is great about Cambodia, is its extraordinary resilience and the progress, incremental though it is, in rebuilding every institution in the country that was absolutely decimated by the Khmer Rouge between 1970-1975, barely 15 years after gaining independence from the colonial occupation. Despite the weight and tragedy of the last 50 years of Cambodian history, however, it’s an amazing place, and I’m barely able to process its wonders and frustrations.
Our hotel is just across the street from the muddy river, and all day long the street hosts a procession of motorbikes with any number of people and piles of goods on them; monks in saffron robes walking to and from the monastery, smoking and shading themselves from the sun with umbrellas; tuk-tuks, the covered motorized rickshaw contraption that takes visitors from one place to another for a dollar or two; school children on bicycles; and a variety of cars, trucks, and buses, some with the steering wheel on the right and some with it on the left. I had been amazed that I hadn’t seen any terrible crashes, and then I found out when we visited the Belgian NGO Handicap International, that as many injuries and dismemberments that landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance) cause, as of 2006, road accidents have become the leading cause. I’m not at all surprised. Yesterday, on the road back from the floating villages of Tonle Sap, I saw a whole family moving their straw-stilt house (they move their houses to higher ground during the rainy season) on the back of an ancient pickup, and when I turned to watch them after they passed, I saw a boy no older than 6, barefoot, straddling what looked to be the trailer hitch. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit.
It’s easy for us to walk or tuk-tuk our way across one of the bridges to town and browse – well, that’s not really the correct word for the sensory overload and cramped jostling – the old market, a covered, dark, hot, smelly, claustrophobic hallucination of a square block souk-like place full of textiles, jewelry, dried eel, lotus pods, pirated books and CDs, sausage, hot bowls of fish amok (the local Khmer dish), with children hectoring you to buy their wares, old women sleeping on their piles of produce, and young men driving their Honda Dream motorbikes straight through the aisles. Today, our last day in this town, was the first time I was able to negotiate the market’s stimuli and seductions well enough to make choices and buy a few things to take home with me. And still, I’m not entirely sure what I bought.