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Letters from Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap is famous for one thing: Angkor Wat. It’s the lifeblood of the entire community and while it’s not cheap to go ($60 for 3 day pass) it’s worth it and I’ll explain why. The other thing that’s highly underrated and not discussed often is Tonle Sap (must go).

THE BANH MI GHOST VENDOR

Our first day we checked into our hostel. It was actually a sweet room and in actuality felt closer to a hotel than a hostel as the room was adorned with beautiful ceiling moldings and rich wood throughout the space. It must’ve been a really nice mcmansion in a past life which got converted into a high end hostel in its current state.

The very first day we walked out and bought Banh Mi sandwiches from the first vendor to quell the hangry belly. Turns out I’d be chasing the dragon ever since that first Banh Mi. Since then I’ve never had such a tasty sandwich. This old man was a ghost after that never to be found. He used a light sweet sauce that was so delicate and brought the whole sandwich together. Damn I can still taste that Banh Mi right now.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The hostel was in a great part of town close to the main street and a 5 minute ride to Pub Street where all the tourists get loose. Cambodia is an odd place from a cost perspective because it’s feels cheap like Thailand but after tabulating a week’s expenses suddenly looks more expensive. This is because it is hyper affordable on the surface. Most everyday items are $1-2. The irony is that while that sounds cheap it’s actually a pretty sweet deal for locals because I’m almost certain if they priced in their own local currency (4000:1) many things would actually be priced closer to $0.50 IMO. So hats off to them for using the USD as a primary payment option. The George Washington $1 is king there. So much so that the ATM’s don’t dispense Cambodian Riel only US Dollars.

When we landed we drew $100 each but soon realized how far that would take us. The SIM card at the airport cost $6 for a month followed by a $7 cab ride to our hostel. $100 suddenly felt like a lot of money for 5 days. One thing to note, the locals are very quick to turn down money that is worn out or thin.

Life in Siem Reap seemed dull for the locals. Everyone is essentially selling a service associated with Angkor Wat or just chilling out in a hammock. It was a place where Angkor Wat was the only opportunity and I’m sure for anyone in the area with big dreams it all feels a bit limiting. Most of the locals I encountered actually spoke decent english or chinese which was surprising at first until I realized that that is the “coding” of a city that’s filled with tourists that speak English and Mandarin.

In a parrallel existence back home in San Francisco, Javascript and Python rule supreme. In Siem reap the ticket to financial gains came from fluency with language to connect with foreigners. Here’s a bit of perspective on life from California to Cambodia. Everyone in the states has been to a different state. Most have traveled just out of the country to somewhere like Mexico. Fewer have traveled internationally. In Siem Reap, most of the people in the main part of the town have never left Siem Reap. Never been to the capital city of Phnom Penh just 6 hours away by car. That was a shocker to me. Then we went to Tonle Sap, the floating village which is a massive lake but a tiny community. And when you realize most of those people never left the lake – that was real perspective for me.

It would be like growing up in San Francisco and never going to Los Angeles. And for the folks in Tonle Sap their world was even smaller like living in Lake Tahoe and never leaving the lake! For me it’s unimaginable, for them the world beyond a 10 mile radius is touched only through their cell phone. I feel grossly privileged when I consider how many trips I’ve been on in bad spirits as a child. Sitting on a tour bus through Europe just wishing I could be back home playing video games instead. These are hard lessons to recognize in my 30’s but I don’t believe it could have happened any other way. This is life.

THE MAIN ATTRACTION

Angkor Wat is the #1, #2, #3 reasons people come to Cambodia and boy is it incredible. What’s both amazing and sad about the place is that they basically let you walk and touch everything there. There’s almost no ropes blocking things off. This is incredible in terms of having the opportunity to physically touch such a special wonder of the world yet it does make one nervous about erosion (so I stopped after the 1st day, my bad it felt natural!). Go to Angkor Wat you will be breathless it is truly walking the ruins of a former Buddhist empire and it’s a space where you feel the power of the ancients as you walk around.

It’s one of those places that is so large it does becoming exhausting by the third day. Day 1 you are amazed. Day 2 you have a lay of the land so you’re trying to capture all the right angles as it’s a massive place. Day 3 you are “templed out”.

I had a tour guide but he was so bad that I just ditched the tour after the first hour. He kept going on about how fewer and fewer people visit and really had nothing of value to add to what or why Angkor Wat exists. His English was also not very understandable which doesn’t help. So I bailed and the one tip I’d have is go after the afternoon sun burns off. People flock there in the mornings to catch the famous sunrise but it’s overcrowded and there’s only a few good spots to capture the moment right and a million things that can go wrong. In my case the sun never broke through the clouds! I did see a very cool sunrise with colors starting from a deep purpose to a burnt orange – that was worth something.

Pro Tip: my personal experience was best from 3PM onwards. The majority of people show up for the morning or afternoon and get scorched by the sun and want to find shade or go home by 3pm. If you arrive around 3pm it is so much more temperate and less crowded so you can take great photos. By the time 5pm rolled around it felt almost to myself in many parts.

TONLE SAP

It’s a one of a kind experience. A lot of the locals have a permanent grumpy look on their face but I think it’s more just because life ain’t easy there. It’s a tough life but Tonle Sap is a photographer/videographer’s dream. I’d surmise as a local it is a black hole with the most incredible sunset.

The folks who worked on the floating boat we docked at were the optimists. Playing pranks on one another. Laughing, smiling, chasing each other around the boat. If you’re gonna be stuck on a boat with the same people got life, they certainly had it nailed.

The Cambodia I liked most was unpaved.

I missed all the juice in Thailand. Cambodia its all fruit milkshakes. Ironic bc it’s so much hotter.

OUR DRIVER

We met our driver on the second day and took a liking to him so he ended up driving us around for our entire stay. He spoke great English and we are glad we built that relationship because it ended in a trip to his hometown to spend an afternoon in hammocks, pounding rice noodles, and eating lunch with him family. It doesn’t get more authentic than this afternoon.

To provide some insight into our driver’s existence, he was a jolly guy with a pot belly from drinking beer but he also explained that drinking was really just something to do because there is in fact so little to do. In terms of money, when we met him he had a phone but the next day he didn’t have a phone. He had to sell it to make ends meet but he told us he’d try to get another phone so we could communicate. Yet another reality check on the fact that people truly are living not paycheck to paycheck but rather gig to gig.

He did have a lot of fun playing with my gimball, Galaxy Note 10 Plus, and drone. As someone from the birthplace of modern technoloy it’s always nice to see the childlike excitment people get from playing with new technology they’ve never touched.

The truth about life is that when you don’t have money it’s all that seems to matter and drinking seems to help distract from that reality. And when you have money, time becomes money. Cambodia is a place that is young and regaining it’s footing. The people are hard working but there’s just no opportunties in Siem Reap and I’m not sure there will be big opportunities down the road if they don’t better preserve Angkor Wat. If I was born there I’d imagine it would be near impossible to even imagine a life beyond Siem Reap as there really nothing for hours and Angkor Wat doesn’t seem like a bad proposition for money within a 6 hour radius.

LOCAL GRIND

It would take an incredible amount of courage and savings to pick up and move to the capital city blindly. For someone from the outside it seems like the obvious choice for anyone looking for more opportnities but from the ground level in Siem Reap it would equate to asking me to go live on the Moon.

People sell hard in Siem Reap. There’s a lot of negotiation and bargaining. I work in sales so I’m intimately familiar with the power the buyer has and frankly I wasn’t really interested in souvenirs. Seeing the looks of frustration on people’s faces was hard to take, it’s looking at folks who are facing constant rejection and I know the feeling from a sales point of view but in a different dimension so to speak. It doesn’t help that their currency is weak against the USD. When it rains it pours. But those who weather the storm all become stronger and perserverence is a strong quality to possess in the coming decade.

Cambodia also has flashes of outstanding artwork. I saw a few pieces of woodworking and rice paper art that I would’ve bought and taken home had I had the space and wasn’t on such a longer journey.

NICE SURPRISE

The surprise of the trip was going to a WWE wrestling – the Angkor warriors. It was WWE Shaolin Fighting fusion. I’d never been to one of these events but it was actually a ton of fun with Johnny who was super into it.

NOTES:

January 8th was the first day since I can remember that I had no clue what day of the week it was.

I still had the neurotic calendar filling OCD that San Francisco curses everyone with. That would not be alleviated until weeks later.

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