Not More of the Same
If you were lucky enough to see Siem Reap not so many years ago, then you would have seen a different place: the look of the cities and towns was from pre-Khmer Rouge occupation and civil war, during a time when the people were recovering from that group’s terror on the Khmers. Yet, and still, there was a gentleness, acceptance and generosity about the people that was alluring for a person who has lived in places where these qualities are rare. While, in general, Cambodians maintain much of these characteristics there are places where it is quickly disappearing and a condition that is spreading. One such place is Siem Reap.
I first came to Siem Reap in the mid-nineties, and there were few foreigners in town. Siem Reap was a small dusty outpost with Khmer Rouge forces just a stone’s throw away. It was still shell-shocked. People went about their business by foot or bicycle. A visit to Angkor meant dealing with temples surrounded by mine fields to protect them from thieves. A distant explosion could mean an unfortunate cow had just become tonight’s dinner, or worse. The ticket sellers took three days to catch up with me, but I think they had more important business to deal with than collecting a twenty-dollar entrance fee. People were helpful and kind, strange considering their recent catastrophic history. Cambodian couples would spend romantic sunsets on the banks of Angkor Wat’s moat. People would laze about in the early evening cool. It was a place where everything moved at a different pace.
And Siem Reap Now …
Let’s fast forward to contemporary Siem Reap.
Nothing cool about the town now, but people think it is. The mine fields have been cleared only to be replaced by a new kind. The pace of life has changed drastically and not for the best. The new cool seems to mean clubs and bars on Pub Street and foreigners wearing tacky T-shirts and poorly made Khmer garb. Touts at places in this entertainment area launch themselves upon you as you pass by. A gentle “no” is met with a persistent “cheap drinks” and “greats music” further rejection increases the volume of invitations to a place which is a front for an over-priced beer joint with loud music and terrible food. Eventually, you peel off this annoying fellow only to be accosted by another: Welcome to Pub Street, welcome to the new Siem Reap.
Every step you take in Pub Street means that you are accosted by everything awful about a tourist town: cheap food, lousy service, diarrhea-inducing food and drink, hassly people and over-priced everything with attitude.
Which reminds me, I walked into a mini-mart and the cashier dealt with me with such derision that I had to ask her if she was having a bad day. She smiled and flicked me off. Then, the foreigner after me spoke to her so demeaningly that it was disgraceful. No wonder that she has a low opinion of foreigners.
And there lies part of the problem. Tourism has turned the people of Siem Reap.
The tuk tuk driver that pounces on you when you leave your hotel, the restaurant tout that launches themselves on you as you walk along Suvitha road near the Night Market are a product of the tourist industry. How ignorantly and arrogantly foreigners have informed Cambodians.
A tuk tuk driver scuttles over to you and asks, “where you go” then “Angkor, tomorrow” then in a hushed voice “girl”. This is the Siem Reap of today, the new Thailand.
Typically, you see the bad behaviour of tourists at a number of levels. There is the impatient version who yells at waiting staff for a menu or check. Another type talks derisively to the locals. Then there are the drunk and abusive types that prowl the streets in search of their next whiskey bar. Or, the type that yells at people to get out of the way of their picture of a temple. No wonder the Khmers are developing poor opinions of foreigners.
And it is not exclusive to Siem Reap. And here lies another part of the problem, the creep.
In Phnom Pehn, this attitude towards foreigners is also moving in. There was once a time when visitors to Phnom Pehn were treated well. However, that is changing. The surly waitress, the pushy tout and the rude mini-mart attendant are in full strength in the capital.
Of course, it is easy to generalise about such matters. While the Cambodians’ deteriorating attitude towards foreigners has increased over the years in certain places, most Khmers still maintain a good attitude towards outsiders.
A hopeful Journey through Siem Reap province
A colleague of mine took a friend of his to a village in Kratie Provence. The two of them travelled from Phnom Penh in a mini bus – no mean feat – along some of Cambodia’s unkinder roads. They were dropped off in the middle of nowhere and were met by a Khmer friend. They stayed in a house where they were given every hospitality: comfortable lodgings, friendly encounters, and meals. Nobody asked for anything from these two men but were given a lot from people who don’t have a lot to give, materially.
It will be interesting to see how the attitude towards foreigners develops in the future in Cambodia. Places such as Siem Reap and Phnom will definitely worsen as the country develops. Hopefully, other places will retain that Khmer charm.
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