Siam Reap is a small Cambodian town that has begun to prosper with the sudden influx of foreign tourists after the end of the Cambodian civil war in 1998. Much of the town still has the flavor of a small provincial capital with paved main streets in the center of town (see photo #1, at left), and muddy quagmires elsewhere. But much of Siam Reap is now a boom town, with tourist hotels opening on a regular basis. Some are very high end, with rooms renting (we were told) for $300 - $1,000 per night. We spent $10 per night at Smiley's Guest House.
Our only reason for coming to Siam Reap was to see the temples of Angkor, located nearby. The temples are not too far from town, but they are well spread out. Some people choose to ride bicycles; others hire a tuk-tuk by the day; we chose to hire a car and driver. We had previously met an English couple who lived in Siam Reap for a long time and they recommended a man named Chan (photo #2). We hired him for 9 days and didn't regret our choice at all. He took us where we wanted when we wanted, gave us good advice, and shared his knowledge of the temples and the country.
The Cambodian countryside is much like that of Burma and other poor SE asian nations.The people are friendly, there are few motor vehicles, and the economy is all about rice (photo #3). We saw lots of people riding bicycles, using them to perform an incredible variety of tasks. Here are some women hauling firewood for cooking. They also used traditional wooden carts pulled by cows or water buffalo. Most of the homes are thatched which makes them cool and airy in the tropical heat. The underside of the roof can be quite attractive. Unfortunately, this type of roof only lasts for about a year, and must be replaced before the beginning of each rainy season. Villagers who can afford it generally prefer corrugated sheet metal instead.
During our stay in Siam Reap, we visited the Landmine Museum on the outskirts of town. It was created by a mine remover named Aki Ra. It is a place to learn about the effects of landmines on the people of Cambodia, and a home for disabled mine victims. The day we were there was rainy and the ground was wet and muddy. There was a pathway through the compound, with land mines as stepping stones (photo #4). Most people walked on the mines to avoid the mud. Jim, after his years of training and experience with explosives, could not bring himself to do it. He knew the mines had been disarmed and that others had stepped on them without injury, but he still walked in the mud instead. Old habits die hard.
We also visited the Cambodian Cultural Village. This tourist attraction contains replicas of traditional Cambodian villages and the implements of daily life in those villages. We have seen similar facilities in Burma and Thailand, and found this one to be somewhat sterile feeling. Perhaps we were just too hot and tired that day to enjoy it properly. The Cultural Village also has modern replicas of some of the architectural features of the Angkor temples. Here is a balustrade on a bridge within the Village.
Anyone in Cambodia who can afford the fees sends their children to private school. During our visit, the summer recess came to an end. Many of the schools had parades through the streets to advertise themselves and to seek new students. These students carried banners advertising a reduction in tuition fees.
We had a difficult journey by road from Thailand to Siam Reap and back. The highway is truly awful and the journey takes much longer than it should. Flying would be preferable, but the 20-minute flight from Bangkok costs $150 each way. People told us that the airlines were paying bribes to keep the road from being repaired. It is a comment on the level of corruption within Cambodia that this is believed; it may even be true.
We stayed in Siam Reap for about two weeks and enjoyed the Angkor temples immensely. There are many proposals to add new amenities to the temples, including escalators and light shows, and a hot-air balloon is already overhead. With the number of tourists growing rapidly, the experience of Angkor will surely change as the crowding increases. Angkor may some day be like the place that Yogi Bera described when he said, "Nobody goes there anymore it's too crowded."
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