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Monday, February 12, 2007

Done with Siem Reap

I finished my three days at Angkor, and while there is certainly more to see (isn't there always?), I'm leaving Siem Reap tomorrow morning and making my way back to Phnom Pehn. Then I'm hopefully going to get an express visa to Vietnam and spend a little time in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon, before its back to Phnom Penh and a quick flight to Hong Kong. If getting to some of the more remote sites of ancient Angkor wasn't such a pain, I could easily spend a week more here. But the fact is, it's a good $60US a day to hire a car to take me the hundred odd kilometers to and from the sites I'd want to see, in addition to admissions and food and accommodations and assorted other costs. That’s just too much for me, and Vietnam should be much cheaper.

And I gotta say, I've had my fill of Siem Reap for quite some time. Maybe it's because I've been traveling alone, but this place seems to just be a cold shell of a town, with nothing to do beyond emptying your wallet. Everything's expensive, everyone is trying to soak you for money, and the impression I'm left with is a loosely-contained theme park, where everything is overpriced and you're at the mercy of those behind the counter. I've been to some incredibly poor parts of the world, some rural areas of China, Morocco, and Jamaica, but Cambodia seems to sink its fangs deep.

I was tired of spending money, so this afternoon I walked along the river that flows through the center of Siem Reap, the river that feeds into the legendary Tonle Sap Lake. I was just sitting in the shade, watching the traffic go by, the methodical compressed-air whiz of nail guns firing on a building under construction across the river, tuk-tuks and motos scurrying to their destinations, slow and concentrated chisels and saws working in the myriad furniture shops along the road, all the while the stinking muddy waters of the river lazily floating past.

A nice little scene. But within ten minutes, a group of four schoolgirls, no more than ten years old, spotted me, opened up their backpacks, and pulled out those staples of Cambodian commerce: postcards, bracelets, books on the bloody revolution and Lonely Planet knock-offs. The same wares being hawked all over the country, the same shit you have to avoid around every fucking corner within Angkor; these girls went to school prepared. I talked to them for a bit, which is always a good way to defuse the onslaught (they can count from one to ten in many different languages ... it's the postcards, they count them out for you all the time), but before long, they slid out of the conversation, and it was just more pressing to buy their stuff. I was getting ready to go when a young guy, maybe twenty five, approached and started to chat. He told me he worked for a non-governmental organization (an NGO, which are quite prevalent here). We began a pleasant little conversation, but eventually he slipped into his sales pitch, took out a big fat notebook full of email addresses and monetary pledges from others. He gave me a photocopy of his NGO pamphlet, and when he asked for my email, he pressed me to make a donation "for his students," where he pulls out a big dirty plastic bag filled with wallet-sized photos of kids. And he just keeps pressing you to write down a sum, five dollars, ten dollars, on that sheet of paper, because once you write it down, you’ve signed the contract and you gotta hand him the money. He just wouldn't leave me alone: "Come on, my friend, five dollars, for milk for de chill-dren!" I had to lie, I had to walk away, there's just no way to be left alone here. Every foreigner is a target, it doesn't matter if you're a rich German businessman with a family or a solo English teacher "making the big bucks" in China.

But what do you expect? You’re a traveler, you have the money and time to take a holiday to a foreign country and spend a week playing Indiana Jones, spelunking through these old temples. When I was in Jamaica, there was a similar atmosphere, of poverty so crushing that people had to be confrontational and aggressive just to eat. It annoyed some of the people I was with, and I in turn was annoyed at them, at how simple-minded they were being: this is how people make their living here. They don’t have a nine-to-five, they don’t have holidays or vacations, and every day is a struggle.

This remains true. And yet it’s oppressive here, I hate it, and I am glad to be returning to Phnom Penh.

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