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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Postcard from northern Cambodia

Undated, 2023

Siem Reap, a substantial city of one quarter of a million people in northern Cambodia, is built in the middle of a dense jungle. It is one of the strangest places to have a city, but for the fact that one of the world's most famous architectural and heritage sites, the Angkor Wat selection of temples, is just on its outskirts. This was always a mere hamlet until just about a decade ago, when an explosion in business almost entirely fuelled by tourism caused a city to emerge out of the jungle floor.

The city is a vast shanty town, constructed quickly to accommodate tour buses, backpackers and casual visitors of every hue and budget. It is awash with all the incidents of jungle, including mosquitos, a crocodile-infested stagnant river that runs through the city centre, lizards crawling all over the flat surfaces of hotels and restaurants, and an unimaginable set of creepy-crawlies everywhere. Infrastructure is haphazard. There are several paved roads, and a number of unpaved ones. Packs of wild dogs roam the streets like wolves at nights. There is minimal street lighting. The city has an anarchical quality to it. There is little Police presence, although violence and petty crime are very low. The people are mostly good-natured, if getting used to the sudden influx of tourism into was once just a jungle hamlet.

There is little in the way of public transport. Most people travel around on dilapidated motorbikes, and there is little in the way of taxi service except motorised rickshaws (known within the region as Tuk-Tuks). Any visitor will come away covered in insect bites, but the region is essentially safe to visit. There is ample adequate (and also plenty of highly inadequate) accommodation jammed between the favelas, but choose wisely. Hygiene standards are remarkably high: better than in Bangkok, where a fate of more ore less perpetual traveller's diarrhoea awaits any visitor irrespective of his or her budget. You can eat well without getting sick in this modern "rumble in the jungle".

The temples themselves are not the real attraction for this visitor, who came to seem them more than 20 years ago when Siem Reap really was just a hamlet in the jungle and had but a single unpaved road. The temples were the same then as they are now. The more fascinating attraction of this city is that so large a metropolis has been built up so quickly in quite the middle of nowhere. It is an absolute shambles, and there is a constant sense that the jungle may soon once again retake this clearing that humanity has carved out for itself from the wilds.

Village life has been disrupted, as young men have come in from the jungle villages to learn English and serve as unofficial tourist guides, and young women to serve as waitresses, hostesses and amateur prostitutes. Everything is very good natured; but it is chaotic. Nobody is properly trained in the provision of tourism facilities and the attitude towards the avalanche of foreign tourists is as much one of benign curiosity as it is a desire to make money. The city is awash with contraband, with everything from photocopied foreign books to fake Chinese souvenirs to counterfeit CD's. (Nobody in Siem Reap seems to have realised that people don't have CD players anymore.) One acquires the sense that the writ of central government runs thin here. The borders in northern Cambodia are barely frontiers at all, just open streets in which undocumented smuggling of people and goods takes place brazenly while the periodic adventurous tourist who has elected not to fly in gets fleeced for various inexplicable sums of money. And yes, someone has built a small airport in the middle of the jungle to cater for the tourists. Siem Reap does indeed have an international airport, albeit one of limited capacity.

Cambodia is quite a tolerant country, although not quite so sexually tolerant as her neighbour Thailand. The overwhelming prostitution one sees in many Thai cities does not exist in Cambodia. Nevertheless LGBTQ+ activities are both lawful and tolerated; Siem Reap, a provincial city, has several bars for LGBTQ+ people and this author observed no police harassment. Contrary to the advice of some governments, there is a law against exporting images of the Lord God Buddha from Cambodia without a licence, although it appears to be enforced only upon mail export and not if you carry such images out of Cambodia in person. (In this author's experience, obtaining such a licence can be extremely difficult; you must obtain a receipt from a shop registered with the relevant government Ministry and not many shops are so registered.)

Activities relating to drugs are frowned upon - potentially even more so than in Thailand. Unlike in Thailand, cannabis possession is a serious crime and use of laughing gas for recreational purposes is not permitted and is not tolerated. Nevertheless provided you stay away from drugs, the Cambodian authorities are fairly relaxed and helpful by the standards of the region and they will do their best to help you if you ask them for assistance. Although Cambodia has a rather a relaxed attitude to law and order, it is predominantly essentially benign.

The border between Cambodia and Thailand is a shambles. There is virtually no border to speak of. Local people just walk between the two countries using side roads or even using the main border crossing under the noses of officials of both countries with no checks whatsoever. The main purpose of the border seems to be to extract various fees from foreigners attempting to use it, so be warned. It is a smugglers' paradise and it is probably not a good idea to attempt to use it unless you really have no other choice. The roads in northern Cambodia are also far from ideal, full of heavy trucks and other slow-moving vehicles all of which makes for a slow and potentially dangerous journey. Because few Cambodians travel long distances, drivers may also not know the way.

Cambodia has an extraordinary history. As a result of US military intervention in the region in an attempt to disrupt communist supply lines during the Vietnam war, an atrocious extremist Maoist movement came into power, the so-called Khmer Rouge, in the 1970's and decided to put some of Karl Marx's most absurd principles of economic policy into practice, including the abolition of money and the forced movement of city dwellers into the country to practise forced manual agricultural labour. Some 50% of the population of Cambodia died in the worst genocide of the twentieth century since World War II, and hence one will find that a lot of contemporary Cambodians are relatively young: many or most of the older ones died in the genocide. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge lived on to a degree until the movement's founder, Pol Pot, finally died in 1998. Since then the country has been the recipient of massive amounts of international aid, much of it apparently wisely spent. Cambodia may be an example of how better to spend international aid money, much of which is not spent nearly as wisely as it has been in Cambodia.

The Cambodian people are distinctive from the other people in the region. They are extremely friendly, and inquisitive about foreigners. They are generally open and kind-hearted. They are unlikely to rip you off. They bargain far less than do the Thais. They are much less sexually aggressive than the Thais. Given the shambolic nature of their country, they are remarkably optimistic and upbeat. Little homelessness is observed, suggesting that informal social structures for mutual support are thriving. Cambodians look after one-another and they look after visitors to their country who remain extremely welcome. Siem Reap has developed a street of seedy bars to accommodate foreign backpackers who have come here on a mission to get drunk, and one can expect a little harassment around there at night. But this is very much the exception; and even that street is not violent; this author saw no evidence of organised prostitution; there does not seem to be a prevalence of illegal drugs; the authorities do not Police the area in a draconian way.

There is no doubt that travelling in Siem Reap is an exotic experience, and one would do well to take all necessary precautions to prevent tropical diseases that are prevalent in the region. It is not an experience for those who value their creature comforts, as bumping around on dusty streets in a grimy Tuk-Tuk can be a jarring experience. Nor is northern Cambodia a place for those who thrive on fining dining and glamorous cocktails; although a reasonable glass of red wine and a decent pizza in a pleasant environment are entirely available. If you are of the adventurous kind, northern Cambodia has much going for it and at reasonable prices. Enjoy it while it lasts, because we fear that Siem Reap is likely to become increasingly shambolic as ever greater construction takes place to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of tourists being herded around Angkor Wat. There is much more to northern Cambodia than Angkor Wat.

Finally, we must observe that there is a darker side to the tourist development taking place in the middle of the jungle in Siem Reap. Dangerous wild dogs roam the streets at night, untethered, posing a danger to tourists walking home. This author was offered cocaine unsolicited in central Siem Reap, suggesting that the drugs trade is on its way. The prostitution business is becoming more aggressive and unpleasant. Taxi drivers, being entirely unregulated, have no idea even where the major hotels are and will happily drive a foreigner round in circles pretending to take them to their hotel when in fact they have no idea where they are going. We have observed loutish foreigners abusing local people, and local people abusing foreigners. If tourism is to flourish in this remote corner of the Cambodian jungle, then greater regulation is necessary of the tourism profession; Cambodians need to come to respect foreign visitors; and foreign visitors need to come to respect Cambodians. There is still a lot of work to be done.


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