One dollar! One dollar!
It was the chant the street food vendors of Siem Reap made in their religion of capitalism. The other vendors breathed the same thing in multiples of five. “Five dollar! Ten dollar! Fif-TEEN dollar only!”
In retrospect, their prices were more expensive than what I’d get back home in the Philippines, but as this was my first real excursion as a tourist, I was willingly playing the part of the stupid visitor.
By the time dollar fruit shakes had become my vice, I had dragged my boyfriend into a tuktuk that cost us $15, got scammed into paying $10 at a temple, and almost overpaid for a pair of cotton pants. I say almost for the last one because at that point, my bargain savvy boyfriend refused to let me buy anything without haggling for it.
I didn’t (and still don’t) know the art of haggling, so whenever I wanted something, I’d point to it discreetly and The Boyfriend would commence the process of negotiating on my behalf. I’d pretend to peruse the wares of nearby stores, only to come around again once I’d heard one side acquiesce. They’d tell me the agreed upon price, and I’d reach into a little canvas pouch to pull out my green American dollar bills.
Cambodia didn’t deal in its own currency, and most establishments listed prices in American Dollars (although Euros and Thai Bhat were also welcome). The only time they’d hand us Cambodian riel was when they had to give change that amounted to less than one dollar (for example: $0.50). The change was always vibrantly coloured paper bills in huge denominations, and coins were never exchanged. The only time I saw the round metal pieces was at one of the souvenir shops.
They were in thick translucent plastic mats, resting among a plethora of patchwork stuffed animals, wooden 3D puzzles, and magnets depicting elephants and Angkor Wat – their biggest and most famous temple.
When we’d gone to that temple, it was nothing and everything we’d imagined at the same time. It was as monolithic as people said it was, but it also had the all the trappings of a tourist trap.
There were large groups of loud tourists and tour guides speaking a myriad of languages, and scam artists that convinced you to join rituals for a fee they’d only reveal after you’d participated. (And yes, if you’re wondering, this is where I lost my $10.)
Along the perimeter of Angkor Wat, there were stalls that had anything you could classify as souvenir items, and vendors aggressively following you, all saying they had the “Cheapest price! Cheapest price!”
We left the grounds of Angkor Wat having bought only a bag for me which was, as I’d find out later from another vendor at another temple, not really at the Cheapest Price!
As we went along the “small tour” route the hotel had arranged, we noticed the idiosyncrasies of the temples and the constancy of the vendors. They all had the same spiels and the same products, and eventually we learned to tune them out.
It wasn’t until our ATV tour we saw a different side of Siem Reap.
The tour guides picked us up from our hotel at 10 a.m. sharp and drove us (via tuktuk, of course) in the opposite direction of all the usual tourist spots. They gave us a briefing about where we were passing, had us sign waivers, and handed us face masks. It was going to be dusty, they said.
Unlike the other roads we’d passed in Siem Reap, this tour took us along dirt roads and rice paddies. Gone were the souvenir shops and other western-oriented establishments. Gone were the hotels and the locals who’d made tourism their main source of livelihood.
Instead we were in backwater Siem Reap, the part of the city the tourism board probably didn’t want us to see. There were nipa huts and crowded village streets. Small children bathed in creeks, smiling and waving shyly, while the older kids looked at us with curiosity and the adults eyed as apprehensively.
Our guides allowed a stopover in the middle of the tour, where the view was an endless sea of green, provided by the rice paddies that stretched out in all directions. “Maybe when you come back to Cambodia,” one of them said as we rested in the shade, “you can come for the whole day. We bring you to one of the other village, and we drink beer.”
I made a mental note of how much I would have liked that. Had I known how much fun the countryside would be, I would have chosen the much longer tour. But then again, this one came with free tickets to the Phare Circus that evening.
All my friends and acquaintances who’d been to Cambodia before us had never mentioned the circus. It wasn’t a temple and it didn’t have alcohol, so I’m guessing it just never came up on most itineraries.
Photos I found online showed a lot of acrobatics involved, and the ratings on TripAdvisor were high. I quickly skimmed several written things about it and came across phrases like “Cirque du Soleil trained”, “difficult backgrounds”, “therapy.”
The Cirque du Soleil part was obvious from the moment the performers went on stage, bending this way and that, and contorting to disappear into a hole just a little larger than a shoe box.
Traditional music played and between flips, juggling, and precariously stacking chairs, the performers delivered dialogue in their native Khmer. There were big screens that translated the dialogue into English and several other languages, and the tent and seats were set up so that no one had an entirely disadvantageous view.
Just by watching, it was impossible to see where the “difficult backgrounds” and “therapy” came in. All we saw in front of us were talented individuals with big grins on their faces.
No one could tell just from the surface that the people in front of us came from socially and economically challenging backgrounds, and that they found solace in performing.
And this, now that I think about it, is quite representative of Cambodia as a nation; the people are warm and the country is full of fodder for photographers. It is near impossible to tell that not so long ago, it was Democratic Kampuchea, a country that was isolated from foreign influence and entrenched in violence.
The fact that they managed to move on and introduce the world to the beauty that it holds – though I don’t think any of them can really forget – is one of the many reasons the place is beautiful and worth revisiting in the future.