Siem Reap, the place I left 10 months ago, which I called home on and off for 2 years, has changed. I recently return for a short 7 days. Walking across the tarmac after exiting the plane, I breathed in the air and I was reminded once again of the unique smell the town has. Or maybe it was because we’d just missed one of the torrential down pours now the rainy season has started. The air had been cooled and the humidity dropped. By the time I’d got through visa application, where they tried to offload me with change in torn dollar notes, (bills to those of you who are American!) which aren’t legal tender in Cambodia, through customs, collected my luggage, handed in the numerous forms filled out on the plane, it was time to find my tuk tuk driver, the humidity had risen again.
I was asked if my affinity with Cambodia has anything to do with heritage. I know it has but have never voiced and shared it so the question came as a complete surprise that someone who’d only known me a few days was astute enough to have recognised this.
The underlying current which runs through this land is sadness. It’s like their genes pass it onto the next generation. There’s a gentleness in their approach and almost a sigh of resignation. Occasionally you meet a Khmer person who is changing the mould but it’s going to take many generations for this nation of gentle people to become proud and confident and stand on their own two feet.
This is my fourth time in Cambodia in 18 months. I’ve been gone 7 months and the difference in Siem Reap is huge. The amount of building work in the centre of Siem Reap is collosal. Families and small street businesses have been moved along to make way for yet more hotels, apartments, supermarkets and mini marts. Building work though is still hap hazard with little or no building regs and still very labour intensive. It seems wherever there’s a piece of land it’s plotted out in preparation for building. But lots of it is curious, for example the road to Honour Village Cambodia which is 5 km outside of the city, used to be a dust track surrounded by rice fields and waterways with cows and buffaloe grazing. Now this land has a multitude of huge hotels going up and two hospitals with other buildings which might be shops. Some have been left half built, some like the Red Cross Hospital have been finished, though none of them have been opened. They’ve just been abandoned. These hospitals are so far from anywhere for Khmer people to use but more importantly they wouldn’t be able to afford the services. So what was the purpose of building them?
The emerging middle class are making waves though no one seems to know how they’ve come into money. They lord the roads with their huge 4x4s, go out to eat in one of the numerous new restaurants. Some of these are more than plastic chairs by the dusty road, now with pavement and off road space and wooden benches served by staff in matching t-shirts for their uniforms walking around with walkie talkies.
For the tourists the choice of new restaurants is continually growing from art cafes with health foods and power booster drinks, to vegetarian Khmer menus. The old faithfuls have stood their ground to this emersion of new competition.
However the infrastructure is beginning to show signs are fatigue with regular power cuts, busier roads, 4x4s ruling the roads together with Korean and Chinese bus loads of tourists, hundreds of motos and cycles alongside tuk tuks. As more people are able to afford cars the roads are getting busier. There are now daily traffic jams and the roads are becoming gridlocked with the ever growing number of vehicles. The roads weren’t designed to carry this amount of traffic. Already pavements, and there aren’t many of them, are littered with parked motorcycles and now cars on the narrow roads and the chaos begins. Tuk tuk drivers have been savy and taken full advantage trying their luck and increased their prices. But the ironic thing is, unlike London black cabbies who have The Knowledge, drivers here have no idea where anything is. So they throw out a price not having a clue where they’re heading. The new law which started 1st January 2016 stating all drivers of motor and tuk tuks have to wear helmets doesn’t seem to have reached Siem Reap. Drivers complain it’s too hot to wear them. Yes they’re right. But I think I’d rather have a hot head than a smashed head on the tarmac.
This is the age of development in Cambodia. Unfortunately those that really need help out in the villages and rural areas see none of this. They remain poor while the rich get richer And the gap between them continues to grow.