Siem Reap: Painful Past Hidden Behind Big Smiles

January 04, 2015  •  5 Comments

-by Edyta-

Three weeks in Thailand went by quickly and we soon found ourselves flying to neighboring Cambodia. To most, the word Cambodia brings mainly one picture to mind - the iconic Angkor Wat temple. This, and neighbouring temples, are in fact the main reasons for tourists to visit this country. The complex of temples is so vast and unique that we created a separate post for it - coming in a few days. In this post, we wanted to show you life in Siem Reap, a city that serves as a jump off point for tourists wishing to explore the ancient sites of Angkor Archeological Park. 

We initially booked five nights in Siem Reap but ended up extending for two more. Even thought the city cannot be called beautiful by any standards, we found it to be very interesting and charming. I understand that Siem Reap is probably not for everyone as some people do not like getting constantly harassed by pushy vendors trying to sell t-shirts, tuk-tuk rides and massages. However, we did not mind it. For the most part we got the impression that they were just trying to make a living. After all, Cambodia is still fighting widespread poverty, political instability and the ghost of one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century - the Khmer Rouge regime

It may be hard to believe that it was barely 40 years ago when a Cambodian political party called Khmer Rouge, lead by dictator Pol Pot, carried out one of the most inhumane restructuring of a society ever attempted. Their goal was to convert the entire country into a peasant based society and get rid of any intelligence. The year 1975 was proclaimed by Khmer Rouge as Year Zero as the regime tried to erase any signs of prior history and society that existed before. Books, cultural artifacts, statues, musical instruments and ancient temples were ordered to be destroyed. The temples of Angkor were spared as a reminder Khmer glory but others were wiped out. Schools, places of worship and hospitals were closed, banks were abolished, all private property was seized, teachers and other intellectuals were murdered. People were forcefully moved out of cities to the country side's labour camps; those that opposed had their houses burnt and were killed on the spot. A typical day consisted of 12-15 hour day slave work with only two meals of rice porridge. This quickly resulted in massive illnesses and deaths. Million of mines were laid in the country to prevent people from escaping. Until today it is not safe to walk on unmarked paths in Cambodia and we often saw people missing limbs. It is estimated that under the Khmer Rouge regime, 1.4 - 2.2 million people died, half from execution and half from starvation and disease. 

Khmer Rouge was brought to an end by the Vietnamese who liberated the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia on January 7, 1979. Yes, the dates are correct, this outrageous massacre was that recent.

To this day, people suffer from trauma and mental disorders as their family members were killed and many were left widows and orphans. However, if one did not know about this painful history, it would be almost impossible to tell that Khmer people lived through such terror. They smile a lot and are eager to talk to tourists to practice their English (which we found to be actually much better than of their neighbors - the Thais). Their average annual salary is $750. So while there were times we knew were being overcharged we did not mind too much. Cambodia is an inexpensive destination and the extra dollar or two goes a lot further for Cambodians than for us. 

Of course this is not to say that we enjoyed being ripped off. After a while you get a feel for what the price should be and don't pay more than the higher end of the range. Haggling is also a part of the culture here and it makes for an exciting shopping experience.

During our stay in Siem Reap we spent three days visiting the temples of Angkor Archeological Park (separate post coming soon), walked around town trying to take in the local culture, spent a day lounging by the pool, got some massages and watched a traditional Khmer dance performance. 

Below are basic facts about the country as well as some photos showing life in Siem Reap. 

Geography: the Kingdom of Cambodia is located in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Siem Reap is in northwest Cambodia and is a getaway to Angkor region. 
Population: 14.8 million in Cambodia, 174k in Siem Reap. 
Demographics: in Cambodia 90% Khmer, 5% Vietnamese, 1% Chinese, 4% Other 
Currency:  Riel KHR where 1 USD  = approximately 4,000 KHR, however USD is widely used and all ATMs we encountered spat out familiar green bills. 
Official Language: Khmer 
Religion: In Cambodia 97% Therevada Buddhism, 2% Muslim, 0.4% Chrstian, rest is other. 
Best Known for: Temples of Angkor Archeological Park; Buddhist Monks; Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot; poverty; Khmer national dance; tuk-tuks; amok dish. 
What We Noticed: In Siem Reap - beautiful temples; lots of tuk tuks, motorcycles and scooters; friendly locals; pushy vendors; children selling souvenirs; tourist oriented economy; lots of geckos which make surprisingly loud chirping sounds. 
We flew from the island of Koh Samui to Siem Reap with a short layover in Bangkok. 

On our first day in Cambodia, we met up with Aleksandra and Milosz, a Polish couple from London. Aleksandra worked with our friend Kathy in England and she actually quit her job the same month we did in order to travel the world with Milosz. This weird coincidence was sealed by our roads crossing in Siem Reap. After following each other's adventures on instagram, we met for the first time in Siem Reap and hit it off right away.  What small world it is! Check out their travel site Escape The Crowds

Tuk tuks, motorcycles and scooters dominate the roads of Siem Reap. 

We hired Panha and his tuk tuk for three days of sight seeing the temples. His services cost us $10-15 per day. He was very nice, always smiled and helped us figure out our sightseeing route. This was also our ride home from the airport, luggage and all. 

He took naps in the hammock while waiting for us to come back from each temple. 

Bat mobile tuk-tuk got some envious looks.  Tuk tuks are used to transport not only people but also everything else. Really. ALL ELSE. 

Motorcyles are the main means of transportations in Siem Reap and you often see entire families one one vehicle.  Sometimes families share bikes. There were lots of similar amazing photo opportunities but I felt bad snapping photos at people in fear of making them feel like tourist attractions. 

In contrast to Thailand, we saw a lot of child vendors in Cambodia. They are very hard to ignore; adorable and always up for a conversation to practice their English. This little girl tried to sell us magnets when we first entered the temple and we politely said "No, thanks". When she later saw us buy magnets from another girl she came up to us angry and said "You said you don't want magnets but you buy from her!". Oops.

This is the other little girl from whom we bought magnets. We initially did not want to buy from kid vendors in order not to encourage this illegal activity but after speaking to her for a while we could not say no.  One of the things that many child vendors do is recite facts about the country you're from which is pretty disarming. It goes something like this:

Child Vendor: "Where are you from?"

Us: "Canada"

Child Vendor: "Canada, capital Ottawa, Stephen Harper, two languages; English and French, Looney, Tooney". 

It is not uncommon to see kids accompany their parents to their workplaces. This little boy was hanging around one of the ancient temples as his mom was sweeping the leaves.  

Little fashionista spotted at one of the temples.  This cutie pie was helping her mom sell fruit to tourist wanting to feed nearby monkeys.  What an adorable child. 

This girl was working at a smoothie stand with her mom late in the evening, taking and translating orders from English speaking tourists and scooping out coconut meat.  

Ice block delivery to a fruit stand.

Coconuts continued being our favorite drink. They came in different sizes. This one was especially huge and heavy. 

Thirsty no more.  Amok, a thick curry soup, is a popular dish in Cambodia. This one was served in a coconut. We found Khmer cuisine to be nowhere as spicy as that of its neighbor, Thailand. 

Curry is also very popular. It's sweeter and thicker than the Thai version and often contains loads of onions.  Here are some delicacies we did not try. Snakes on a skewer? Yikes. 

We also passed on fried tarantulas. Eww.  We tried the traditional Khmer massage but skipped this one even though the ad was really funny. "Please feed our hungry fish your dead skin" Haha. 

Khmer Riel is a colorful currency. All of the above bills amount to about 80 cents. US Dollars however, is a very widely used currency and sometimes is preferred to KHR. In fact, ATMs give out USD. Funny thing is that if you buy something for $2.50 and you pay in USD, the cashier will give you back 2,000 KHR because they do not use US coins. There were also plenty of $2 bills that passed our hands, probably more than we've ever seen in the US. 

We took a day off from sightseeing the temples and went to a nearby fancy hotel where, for $5 per person, we were able to use their pool and gym. 

Our hotel was nowhere as nice as this one. 

On our last night in Siem Reap we attended a dinner and a dance performance.   The show was a traditional Khmer dance. Khmer dance involves a lot of slow hand movements. Dancers wore beautiful silk attires and a lot of jewelry. 

It was a fun performance to watch. 

Stay tuned for our next post documenting our exploration of the Angkor Archeological Park temples! 


Turned wooden bowls(non-registered)
Thanks for sharing such a great information!
Lady Astin(non-registered)
Amok is sooo yumm!! Lovely photos guys, bringing back some awesome memories, minus the torture camps :( Ahh, those kids are just the cutest!! x
We love Thai food, but if Khmer cuisine is less spicy, maybe we'd like it even more then Thai;) have to try! But fried tarantulas.. no, thanks!;)
Panha looks like a nice guy and all, but you guys dropped the ball not hiring that batmobile tuk tuk. For shame!

Those children are all adorable. I'm impressed that they know two languages at such a young age - seems like there is en emphasis on education, despite the fact that they are working. Did any of them recite any facts about Poland?

The performance looks awesome - such beautiful costumes. Glad you guys went to such an authentic place.

p.s. I was not aware of the tragedy in Cambodia - thank you for sharing this info.
Those children are adorable! Surprised Vlad didn't try the snake!
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