The town itself stretches north to south along the Siem Reap River and east to west along National Route Six. Siem Reap literally means “Siam Vanquished” and was the administrative and spiritual centre of the bloodthirsty Khmer Empire, which rivaled the Roman in size before it somewhat mysteriously crumbled.
Siem Reap has been receiving visitors for over 100 years and is actually a cluster of old villages which originally developed around individual pagodas and later overlaid with a French colonial-era centre. Its development was gradual at first and then snowballed. Today the town has its very own international airport with visitors flying in direct from as far afield as China and Korea.
The roads have improved too. The once notorious route from the Thai border, a distance of barely 150kms, used to take over seven hours due to the appalling state of what passed for a highway. It was a journey I had made twice. Now you can drive from the border town of Poipet in two-three hours. The same road will bring you from Battambang. There is also an overpriced fast ferry plying the nearby Great Lake to and from Phnom Penh.
For decades the region was controlled by the Thais. In 1906 Thailand ceded control of Siem Reap to the French. Thereafter it became an autonomous military region for a period.
In 1979 journalist John Pilger had seen a mass grave of several thousand people at Siem Reap, “many of whom had been beaten to death, the splintered skulls attested to that.” To the north of Cambodia above the Kulen Hills had been the last stronghold of Pol Pot. When I first visited the town there wasn’t an ATM, now there are traffic lights – often ignored – convenience stores, Internet cafes and over 60 channels of cable television.
I checked into a small guesthouse near the old market by the river, its murky waters slow moving. Upstairs in the restaurant over a beer I met Esa (pronounced “Acer”) from Finland. He’d been in Cambodia for four months working for the British-based Mine Advisory Group on de-mining projects near the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin.
MAG covered his expenses and paid a small wage for staff. A bad case of prickly heat from wearing copious amounts of protective clothing in 40-degree temperatures had meant a change of work. He explained Cambodia has some five million mines at least still to be cleared. Farmers have to pay to have their land cleared. In order to have an income, they need land, in order to pay for mine clearance they need income. It seems a Catch-22 situation.
Most of the bars frequented by backpackers in town are now owned by Brits, at one time it was the French, though a few remain. Esa challenged me to agame of pool and won. He was good. Later in the Temple Bar he beat the lady-boys who hardly ever lose at pool.
The main entertainment strip in town, the imaginatively named Pub Street, is cordoned off at night by Cambodia’s burgeoning private security industry, employed here to keep the beggars out. Behind the barriers, young children carrying their younger siblings implore you to buy food and milk. Ever present amputees shuffle along on makeshift crutches or self-powered carts.
There are few social services in Cambodia other than those provided by foreign aid. Does foreign aid and good intent merely contribute to the problem and perpetration of further governmental abrogation of its responsibility?
Esa explained the best de-mining operators were the Cambodian army “But they have 800 guys doing in Somalia, it’s crazy.” With so much development in Siem Reap, more land is now required to cope with the volumes of tourists, so developers are now having to clear mines from farmland previously thought to have little commercial value. While UN-sanctioned mine clearing techniques cost US$500 per mine, Cambodians can clear a land mine with no more than a stick and a screwdriver for nothing, which can lead to all kinds of accidents.
Mines aren’t designed to kill, only maim. “War is about capturing territory. So you set the mine and it injures one soldier and then you have to send three to pick them up. That’s why they do it.”
Siem Reap is a quiet country town with a multi-million dollar tourist industry, home to the world’s largest religious monument, the ancient city of Angkor. The city was “rediscovered” in the 19th century by a French explorer, though the reality is that Khmer visitors had been trekking there regularly since the city was largely abandoned in the early 1400s.
Each year thousands of tourists arrive to see one of the world’s archaeological wonders. Over 640,000 visitors came in 2012. Too many some say placing the ruins in peril. Room prices in town range from the budget to the extravagant. Real estate in the town centre is now worth an estimated US$44 million and climbing. A per square metre it rivals prices found in Manhattan.
My first visit to town I met Carl (now deceased) who owned Ivy’s Bar and Guesthouse near the old market. Originally from London he’d been 12 years in Cambodia, the last seven in Siem Reap. “Married now, got kids. I own this place and another.”
I asked him how why he’d come to Cambodia. “My mate sent me a postcard telling me to come and have a look. At that time it was all UN. They were everywhere. It was a big thing to be a UNV, a UN volunteer. There was little private enterprise stuff for foreigners. So I went to the beach for a fortnight and then thought I’d go home. After that I heard there was work with some agency for a building foreman. Well that’s me isn’t it, I’m a carpenter. So I thought I’m in here and applied and got the job. Cambodia was great for getting away from my family. My mum thought Phnom Penh was in Africa!”
The back wall of the Ivy is covered in large framed photos of Cambodia, its people and monuments. On another wall, framed and covered in glass is Pol Pot’s toilet seat allegedly lifted from his house in January 2000, testament so the plaque says, that “even he had shitty days.”
Siem Reap has some lovely old colonial villas, usually painted in the familiar ochre, some much discoloured by humidity and others renovated to astonishing shades. There are less touristy areas near the river, where some of the local population live in corrugated iron houses and shacks of less than permanent construction.
One afternoon I biked to the Mine Museum just outside town. It took awhile to negotiate the dirt road, which at times resembled mini lakes after the rain. A truck had deposited an entire load of empty drink cans on the road and was driving back and forth to flatten them into a technicolour aluminium carpet for recycling.
The museum is run by a local, Aki Ra, a bit of a legend in these parts but his life story for a Cambodian is not unusual. At age five the Khmer Rouge killed his parents. At ten he was a soldier with them, or at an age “when the rifle was bigger than I was”. At age 14 the Vietnamese came and overthrew the Khmer Rouge forces in his village so he was conscripted to fight for them. In 1990 the Vietnamese left and he was conscripted into the Cambodian army again fighting the Khmer Rouge. When the UN peacekeepers arrived in 1993 he went to work as a de-miner. In 1999 he opened his Cambodia Landmine Museum and in 2005 started the Aki Ra Mine Action Gallery in Siem Reap. They are a legacy of Cambodia’s violent past.
The museum, a collection of rambling shacks though a move to new premises is planned, contains many defused mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) of all kinds. Aki Ra has personally defused over 30,000 such pieces. He shares his home with 16 maimed orphans, his wife and two children, Amatak which means “Forever” in Khmer, and the curiously named Mine. In Siem Reap province alone there are 27,000 landmine victims and the figure rises daily. In Cambodia, landmines kill only 18 per cent of their victims. Ninety-eight per cent of landmine casualties occur when people are pursuing their livelihood, 97 per cent of victims are civilians and UXOs kill more children in Cambodia than adults. As of December 2004, 42 countries had yet to sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Little coincidence that many of these are the world’s leading arms exporters.
A few miles from town is the floating villages of Tonle Sap, the Great Lake. The villages eke out a living fishing and making handicrafts and playing host to groups of curious tourists. From here the fast ferry leaves for Phnom Penh, a journey of five hours, with ear plugs and copious amounts of sun block recommended.
Siem Reap also has a crocodile farm, the reptiles reared almost exclusively for their hides, their skins exported to Malaysia, among other destinations. The animals are kept in a large open concrete enclosure with minimal water in high temperatures. Their smell is appalling. For amusement, a Canadian decided to leap into the enclosure to have his photo taken before climbing out with all limbs intact. Others took bets on which animal was most likely to eat him first.
While in town I went to school. It was run by Jay, a reformed opium smoker changing his life around. Seeking redemption he’d opened the school in rudimentary surroundings. Mainly children attend for free. The school is run on donations of materials and time from mainly foreigners visiting town. Jay earns his living teaching Khmer enabling him to pay the $20 for running costs each month.
Divided by ability, lessons are given in English, by people from all over the world, and Japanese which seems to be the third language of choice. I taught an elementary class, but such was the ability of one or two they belong at the intermediate level. I found the class polite, humorous, well-spoken and most of all bright and keen to learn if given the chance. I lent them my laptop. I was impressed how computer literate some were. They were amazed at what is cost.
If there is any justice in the world, one or two will hopefully get scholarships here or overseas to allow them to gain the sort of qualifications and experience necessary to run the country more effectively than the incumbent regime. With over half the country’s population under 18, the highest proportion of any country in Southeast Asia, they’re the future.