We had no preset agenda for our last day in Siem Reap Cambodia. Sure there were more temples to see in Angkor; a full exploration of the Khmer temples of the Angkor region requires a lifetime. We knew we couldn’t see it all. For the last day we chose to see something else, something different. With our tuk tuk driver Mr. Panha, we settled on a plan; we’d putter around Siem Reap, see some of the pagodas, and take in the local scene. It was a simple plan perhaps spawned by our developing affection for tuk tuk rides.
Pulling away from the curb in front of our hotel Mr. Panha took us out on to the dusty Cambodia streets. Vehicles of all sorts crowd the crude roads. In Siem Reap most intersections do not have lights or stop signs. From the four directions a mass of cars, tuk tuks, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians nose into the crossings all at once. Somehow the traffic weaves together and the passing occurs smoothly. It is like shuffling cards with the deck divided in four piles rather than two.
Siem Reap is a curious combination of rundown and abandoned buildings interspersed with new construction. Old and long ago left unfinished building shells share the city with French Colonial buildings, Chinese structures, and modern hotels. Sidewalks are an uneven hodgepodge jammed with stalls offering to sell anything and everything. With the traffic in the streets and the blocked footpaths it is difficult to walk anywhere. But why would you?
“Tuk tuk,” the under-the-breath solicitation from tuk tuk drivers, resonates everywhere.
In Siem Reap the people on the streets are noticeably young. Somewhere near 70% of Cambodia’s population is 30 years of age or younger. (Compare this to the United States where roughly 41% of the population is under 30. Cambodia’s population pyramid is stilted in part a result of the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge.) Even the tourists in Siem Reap are younger than usual.
Mr. Panha took us around town for a photo tour. We stopped in to look at the colorful “modern” pagodas and shrines and continued by intent to places off the main tourist corridor. We found what the usual tourist misses.
At one stop there was a sobering Killing Field’s memorial, one of many in the area. Inside a simple glass box the exhumed skulls of the victims sit as a tragic emotional reminder of the terror imposed on the population by the Khmer Rouge. The magnitude of the tragedy of this chapter of Cambodian history is hard to comprehend. Many Cambodian families remain scarred by the purges. How modern Cambodians integrate their recent past into their national psyche is beyond me.
Our unscripted tuk tuk tour achieved what we wanted; we came away with a better feel for the city. Siem Reap is full of contradictions. Luxury western style hotels sit not far from shantytowns. Modern pagodas have replaced ancient temples as places of worship but are less visited. All around the Cambodian people smile and seem happy despite poverty and the tragedies of the past.
Through it all one thing stands out. The Cambodian people, always friendly always helpful, are what we will remember most from our visit to Siem Reap. They are the reason to return.