14 Months in Siem ReapApril 4, 2014
I have been in Siem Reap for 14 months. Don’t hold me to it, but I would be happy to move on around Hanukkah. In general, expats seem to stay for six months. We come as NGO workers, teachers or retirees and the primary reason foreigners stay longer is breeding with locals or running a business. The town center is like a first-world bubble: Cadbury chocolate, KFC, at least four tattoo parlors and glassed-in restaurants with set menus and imported wine by the bottle only. I like all of these things. Go ten minutes outside town for a less-than-gentle reminder that this is the third world.
I leave my treehouse each day to the awe and the smells and the thrills of living in Cambodia, sure, but the high concentration of visitors makes Siem Reap very foreigner-friendly. Cow traffic jams on my dirt road are common occurrences and the power or the water go off without warning, sometimes for days at a time. That being said, one of my favorite restaurants has a vegan, gluten-free menu and my gym has air con and two televisions with HBO, Cinemax and Discovery Channel.
Living in a transient tourist town gets to everyone, whether or not they believe saying goodbye is a good life skill to acquire. I was not bothered until the day I asked myself why everyone leaves… The constant comings and goings make for an interesting evolution of ideas and activities and nights out, since the people I spend my free time with changes so frequently.
Last year I went to the same bar every Friday night for six months. I haven’t been back since September. Quiz Night was a thing for a while. It still goes on, but Cooper moved to Argentina so we’d have no chance. There’s a cycling club every Saturday morning that I only make it to if I stay in Friday night. There’s a spoken word night once a month and I avoid that like the plague – though I totally respect people who participate. Other than bottomless brunches at various 5-star hotels, a football league and occasional and unfortunate networking events or fundraisers for any of the gajillion organizations doing good in the area there isn’t a whole lot of well-publicized community activity for expats. So we get together to eat, to drink and to discuss the state of things. In general, if a person has chosen to live in Cambodia they aren’t terrible so even a night spent just chatting breeze is more stimulating than the coffee shop gossip sessions back home.
Although I try to avoid it, I frequent the same establishments fairly regularly and tend to see the same people when I’m out and about. I very rarely mingle with short term volunteers and interaction with travelers is limited to giving directions and Pub Street under the cover of darkness. Many expats, myself included, give tourists and backpackers a hard time for their ignorance. I backpacked barefoot through Cambodia in 2011 – I was one of them.
I try not to forget that I looked just like them, even with all my hardcore homestays and good intentions. I still look just like them, especially when I lose my shoes. I resent the tourists because all the tuk-tuks and coach buses clog the streets; and because the locals can’t distinguish between myself and the travelers. Then I resent the locals for the surplus of tuk-tuks. (If I am already in a tuk-tuk, sir, then no I do not want a tuk-tuk.) Let it be said that in my more zen moments I resent my own cynicism and realize that I cannot blame others for wanting to visit Cambodia and I certainly cannot blame Cambodians for not knowing that I live here and trying to get an extra dollar from people who can afford to travel abroad.
With all the tourists buzzing around Pub Street, any night of the week has that its-the-weekend-come-hither-and-get-weird vibe. Sometimes I like to sip and watch. Sometimes I forget to sip and then that song comes on at Angkor Wat Bar and I don’t know any of these people and they will all be gone in two days so I wake up the next day without my shoes.