Cambodia and I got off to a bad start. At the airport, the lineup for customs snaked past an ATM and since I didn’t have any local currency, I attempted to make a quick withdrawal. The machine spit out a transaction slip but no cash. WTF!! I was stymied; I pushed every button, checked every slot. Nothing. There was a number to call but no Wi-Fi in the airport and my Vietnam SIM card didn’t work; I wrote down the number while reminding myself it was only money.
Customs wasn’t much better. No English, just stern, bossy agents pointing me from counter to counter, lineup to lineup. Eventually, I made it through to find one lone bag standing by the luggage carousel, mine. At least it hadn’t been pinched. And lucky for me my driver was still there waiting to fetch me.
April and May are the hottest months in Cambodia. Flying in, the countryside looked parched and brown beneath us. On the ground it was blistering hot and mercilessly humid (36 degrees Celsisus, just shy of 100 Fahrenheit). Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, near the temples of Angkor, was dusty, dirty, hot and stinky.
If Saigon traffic is chaotic, Siem Reap’s is out of control. There are almost no traffic lights and motorbikes, cars and tuk tuks (three-wheeled passenger taxis) veer here, there and anywhere.
Cambodia has its own currency, of course, but most commerce is conducted in US dollars. Compared to Canada it’s not “expensive” but after the terrific affordability of Saigon it felt pricey. And no matter where I went I was inundated by hard-selling touts hawking souvenirs, restaurants, massages, tuk tuk rides. I’ve never uttered the words “no, thank you” more often in my life.
Siem Reap essentially exists because of Angkor and the entire economy revolves around the tourist dollar. The temples of Angkor predominate to such a degree that Angkor Wat is featured on the national flag.
A couple of days in I began to relax, to feel safer in the streets of what is sometimes called the “wild west of Asia.” And lo and behold, I started to reconnect with my compassion. On our trips into the temples each day we passed musical bands of amputees, victims of Cambodia’s indiscriminate landmines. And if the touts are high-pressure I recognized it’s because they’re so damn poor, competing for every dollar and every scrap of food on their meager plates.
Walking through the tight alleys it’s easy to see how Siem Reap lives: naked children fighting over a dirty tire, their only toy; wooden cots for beds, no mattresses; smoking fire pits for stoves; a gruesome history of genocidal, civil war, acts as unspeakable as any committed in human history. Yet still there are smiles.
Initially, I felt like everything about Siem Reap was designed to pick my pocket; by the end of my visit I was loosening the purse strings and brushing off my generosity. It took me awhile but I came around to Cambodia. It may be damn hot but it’s beautiful and iconic and shy and lovely and strong. I’m glad I came.