The moment we stepped off the plane, Cambodia felt like a unique and comfortable place. We came down the aircraft’s steps and walked outside along the tarmac, passing a line of arriving and departing airplanes on one side of us and beautifully manicured, tropical landscaping on the other. The visa process was a breeze, our luggage zipped out quickly, and we exited the terminal to be greeted by a mob of friendly-looking people all holding signs.
One of those cardboard placards had our names on it. The host at our guesthouse had sent tuk tuk drivers to pick us up. We piled our suitcases, our backpacks and ourselves into two little carriages and headed out onto the streets of Siem Reap. Our kids were smiling from ear to ear. Their first experience in our new temporary home felt like an amusement park ride.
Tuk tuk rides have come to feel very normal, much like the rest of Siem Reap. Brian bikes into work each day at 1961 Coworking Space, giving him time to focus and the opportunity to interact with the other professionals working in the building. The girls and I have settled into a daily routine which kicks off with homeschooling in the morning and a temple tour, market trip, or volunteer project in the afternoon.
We also spend a lot of time relaxing around our new place. Our housing setup here is quite unique. Rather than renting an entire home, we’re staying in a guesthouse. We have two large upstairs bedroom suites which open out to a beautifully furnished veranda. We use an outdoor kitchen on the lower level – definitely a domestic change for me, but I’ve gotten used to it.
We’re outside most of the time, which works out well because the weather is beautiful every single day. The girls explore the fenced in yard searching for lizards and frogs, and Brian and I have enjoyed a few evenings sitting in our outdoor living room with a drink in hand. While it can get a bit hot and humid during the day (proof of which can be found in my crazy hair), it’s usually very comfortable in the shade.
Exploring the city has been fun and easy. We wave down a tuk tuk within minutes of leaving the house and we’re off to find something new. The famous Angkor Archaeological Park, the Old Market Area, and the Siem Reap River parkways are all easily accessible. Even just strolling around the city streets packed with tuk tuks, vendors, and motorbikes makes for an amusing afternoon.
One interesting part of shopping here is the monetary system. We’ve been using American currency for the first time in months. This country uses both the U.S. dollar and its own Cambodian riel, which has an exchange rate of about 4000 riel to $1. The ATMs only spit out $100 bills, but change is given in both currencies.
We’ve also learned that Siem Reap has a large expatriate community. Many foreigners have come to work at NGOs or set up new businesses in Cambodia’s growing economy, so we’ve met quite a few English speakers who suggest good restaurants and activities. After following their advice, we highly recommend getting a fish pedicure and trying the Amok curry.
The joyful and friendly nature of the Khmer people makes it easy to forget the tragic history this country so recently endured. After a golden age from the 9th to the 13th centuries, during which time many of the famous temples were built, the Khmer Empire deteriorated and entered an extremely war-torn period. The neighboring regions of Thailand and Vietnam attempted to claim Cambodia for its rich resources, agriculture and fishing. In the 1800s Cambodia submitted to rule under French Indonesia to gain protection. It eventually became an independent nation in 1953, but within a couple decades the Vietnam War extended into Cambodia and its people became pawns in the bloody political struggles of the Cold War. If you’re interested in learning about this history, the book Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley explains the political quagmire of the 1970s which led up to the Khmer Rouge seizing power over the country.
The Khmer Rouge is considered one of the most oppressive and deadly regimes in modern history. In their attempt to completely restructure Cambodian society, Pol Pot and other leaders began a campaign of mass murder. They executed anyone with an education, abolished free commerce and industry, and forced urban residents out of their cities to live in the countryside as farmers. Investigators estimate approximately one quarter of Cambodia’s population, around 2.2 million people, died during the Khmer Rouge era either by execution, disease or starvation. Over 20,000 mass graves have been discovered throughout the country, and those who managed to survive suffered severe post traumatic stress disorder. The Cambodian economy continues to struggle back from this dark time and many people still live in extreme poverty.
Yet, you would never know all this walking the streets of Siem Reap. The Khmer are the friendliest people our family has encountered on this journey. They’re always smiling, helpful and fair. Yesterday I handed a vendor $2 for the large bag of fruit I was buying and he shook his head with a smile, handed one bill back to me and said, “No, madame, you give me too much.”
This country has been welcoming and warm, and we’ve quickly come to feel very much at home here. We’ve seen the poverty that still exists, but we’ve also been able to connect with organizations working to improve life for these citizens who have been through so much. Each day we’re learning more about Cambodia and its proud, hard-working people as we look for ways to help out during our time here.