The first day in Siem Reap was an eventful one. Especially vis a vis the work meetings we had.
Siem Reap as a town hitis very close to any small town in India. Every street and nook and corner reminds me of the countless towns in Gujarat that I am familiar with…Dharampur, Vansda, et al.
Its a town that had bullock carts and horse buggies a decade or more ago. The slowly stabilizing political scenario in the country since the early 90’s has brought tourism to Siem Reap. The remoteness of the town and the presence of one of the seven wonders of the world, make a heady mix for tourism.
Francophone Cambodia has its presence today in the architecture, art and other aspects of life.
Khmer buildings blend along with French Colonial architecture all around the town. Hence you see sloped roofs with the Naga symbol on the pinnacle alongside French buildings with arched porticos to keep out the sun and heat in the hot humid climate.
The Central Market area Tsha Cha (sp?) is a mix of new and old shops selling everything from meat and veggies to kitschy souvenirs.
The food in the town is pretty good and amazingly cheap. Dinner for two last night at the Khmer Kitchen was all of 9 9USD, and that included beer and wine. The food has strong Thai and Indian influence.
Infact everything in Cambodia has a very strong Indian influence. From the Khmer Temples of Angkor based on the Hindu God Shiva to their language which finds its roots in Pali and Sanskrit, India has lent a very strong spiritual background to Cambodian life over the centuries. Even the people look very much Indian. Namaste with two hands joined is the Khmer equivalent of the handshake.
Food in Cambodia is a healthy balance of meat and veggies in every dish. Their famus dishes include the Amok Fish which is a very tasty preparation of fish in coconut curry with veggies. Pla Hok is another speciality.
Breakfast has been very interesting the past two days. In my attempt to have a cambodian breakfast I ate noodles with shrimp and beans on one day and Yong Chow fried rice with pork today. The first time ever that I had noodles and rice for breakfast. Well ….in Cambodia, do as the Cambodians do.
One thing that stands out In this small town is the number of hotels. Here you will find hotels that cost anywhere from $6-25 for budget motels to 150-2000 USD a night at five stars and super luxury hotels. Now consider the fact that an average salary of someone in town here is about 30 USD a month. Yes a dollar a day.
The dollar goes a long way. As much as the country is endowed with amazing beauty and natural treasures, there is also abject poverty. And it is in your face. You cannot escape it.
Children beggers are all around. They follow you all the way till you give them something. From what I hear, they are forced to do so by their parents. A dollar a day can mean the difference between dinner and starvation. Tourism brings a lot of foreigners to the town. They somehow contribute to the local economy. In the hotel where I am put up by the client is a five star hotel. A breakfast here costs US$ 15. I can go to town and eat the same food for 2 $. Beer is a dollar and Johnny Walker Black Label is two dollars. The hotel is over staffed and each employee is super courteous. Jobs in these fancy hotels pay a comparatively large salary….40 $ or more and hence the population look to it as their lottery to a better life. However I have a very strong hunch that a lot of the money made by the hotels goes out of the country. All the fancy hotels belong to chains like the Raffles or the Meridian.
The spurt in hotel construction has already started to cripple the natural resources. Water table is dropping and there are predictions that Siem Reap will run dry by 2015, if tourism growth continues in the same manner as it is just now.
However there is a positive to the tourism too. It brings awareness to the problems of the region and foreign aid and help in solving it. I am here on one such mission. Our clients travelled to Cambodia a while ago and bumped into the Angkor Hospital For Children and have since donated millions in causes that the hospital supports.
The temples at Angkor are being restored by the UNESCO and other agencies with grants and aid from foreign governments and private organizations.
Tomorrow we head out to Angkor for a full day of visual delights. More on that when I get back. In the meantime enjoy some pics below.