When I look back at our four days in Siem Reap, I feel like this place embodied the essence of what I was hoping we would experience on our travels. Of course, the temples around Ankor Wat are spectacularly vast and impressive; the cultural and religious history of the temples alone could keep one occupied for several weeks. But beyond the ruins, Siem Reap provided a view of a different place and a way of life that I’ve always wanted my children to see and appreciate up close.
Our guesthouse was just a block from Siem Reap’s Old Market, so every day we got to walk through the heart of the town. Although this area is very much developed with several restaurants and hotels catering to tourists, the French-influenced architecture of the buildings is pretty much intact. There are relatively few modern buildings and thankfully not a single Starbuck’s or fast food chain in sight. The old town remains a walkable experience that feels authentic despite that it caters almost exclusively to foreigners. There are a ton of tourists in Siem Reap, but unlike places like Ubud (Bali), the center of town remains devoid of chain stores and fashion boutiques that so quickly ruin the character of any most places.
The Old Market itself was also wonderfully authentic. Where else can you buy a catfish that’s still alive and squirming on one side of a narrow isle, but get a manicure and pedicure on the other side? Seeing people shop for shoes beside vendors chopping off fish heads is a sight I won’t soon forget (neither will little Josephine who almost got smacked by a fish that decided to jump off the display table). The heart of the market is definitely a local affair, but the stalls along the fringes give tourists the opportunity to get their fix of Cambodian crafts, textiles, and souvenirs. Seeing the working market in Siem Reap, like almost every other place we’ve visited, was a great way to get a feel for what life is like for the local people.
But it’s the beautiful nature of the Cambodian people that I think I will remember the most from our time in Siem Reap. Despite all of the hardship that the country and its people have gone through during the Khmer Rouge regime, I sensed mostly friendship and hope in the eyes of the people we met and saw. The Cambodians we met were all very friendly and seem to have a sense of respect and compassion for other human beings that I haven’t sensed in other places. You can’t go very far in Siem Reap without seeing the effects that the destructive years of conflict has had on its people.
On the streets we bought books from a man who lost his hands to a landmine and we bought a music CD from a band whose members had met a similar fate. In more established places like “Artisans of Angkor” we were able to see how disabled and disadvantaged youth are being trained in traditional crafts, the sale of which help support them and provide an education. Thanks to their sign language from Bell School, Lillian and Audrey were even able to converse with some of their deaf craftsmen. From the people on the street to artisan schools and local cafes and boutiques with missions to help the disadvantaged, Siem Reap showed us a less fortunate side of humanity and the ways that we can help make life better for those with less opportunities than we may have been born with.
Having never visited Cambodia, I was concerned that by coming here I would expose my children to too much poverty and hardship among the population and especially the children. I’m happy that Cambodia was much less of what I had imagined it might be, and also thankful that it has given my children the opportunity to interact with others who, because of reasons beyond their control, are much less fortunate than they are. I hope they will remember these experiences as much as they remember the wonders of Angkor Wat.