After a rooster woke me up around 4:32 on the first day, I managed to beat him three mornings in a row. That's not the only thing about this place that reminds me of Sukawati (or Bali as a whole), and the one that stings like a fish bone stuck on my throat is that they are both small, rural, poor communities that are overwhelmed by tourism.
With the limited time I allocated for Cambodia, I opted to focus on visiting Ankor Wat and its surrounding temples and ruins. Some might be able to only afford one day ticket, but it's well worth getting a 3-day if you want a full, immersive experience. My humble homestay was only a couple of miles away and came with a free bike rental that allowed me to explore the entirety of Angkor Archaeological Park, about 8-10 square miles in 3 consecutive days in excruciating heat and under the merciless sun. I also suggest going to Angkor National Museum, maybe even before visiting any of the sites. The exhibit is so rich with the information about Khmer history and culture in general, you might not even need to hire those tour guides waiting for you at the temples.
Just as beautiful and soul-cleansing are the people of Siem Reap (much like the rest of Southeast Asia). Even a quick read of the wikipedia page would give you how complex and tragic their history has been, and one can't help but seeing irony in how the city named "the triumph over Siam" seems to be putting its very people in the cage of overtourism. While they officially discourage visitors from buying trinkets from children preventing them from choosing labor over education, the overwhelming reality is that they need those quick dollars (yes they accept US currencies) just to survive.
I actually met the now-viral-star who speaks 10 languages. He spoke maybe at 2 or 3 languages at this point, and was quite aggressive with his sales. It was him who threw me this line as I was walking through the gate of Ta Prohm "You buy, you friend. You no buy, you tourist." Even before meeting him, I knew that being a tourist in these regions is not a mindless joyride. Every purchase you make or refuse, the consequences of the action are much more grave for the ones that don't get to leave. And every time I try to stick to what UNICEF and other officials tell me, it breaks my heart.
One tuk-tuk driver approached me by the entrance to Ankor Thom, asking if I had a power bank. He's got a sorta-Cambodian-Jack-Black vibe and spoke excellent English, was quite friendly to me and lots of ladies. Entertained by him and exhausted from 2 days of bike-riding, I decided to give him some business.
He turned out to be more charming than professional, but he did me a solid by showing the side of Cambodian tourism that is indistinguishable from every other place; locals catering to privileged visitors by adopting to their capitalist, self-indulgent, instant-gratification-seeking ways. Within minutes I tell him to bail, and instead ask him to take me to a local dive. We got to a neat-looking joint where one of the worst bands I've ever heard was playing in the background, and had a few cold but tasteless glasses of Anchor. In between flirty smiles he throws at servers behind the bar, he told me he wanted to quit driving tuk-tuk, move to the states and get a job doing anything to fund his study. Might've been the case of "stripping-for-tuition" story, but the fact that the idea is so far out of reach for him, or many of those in his position did get me down. He probably was just like any of us, feeling stuck in a familiar routine and not quite able to realize his ambition. The difference between us is that in the country that pays for the preservation of his people's history, not the other way around.
He then proceeds to ask if I wanted a "girly massage" after we wrap up here. I, irritated, put a smile on my face and tell him to get me home. He seems disappointed, offered a ride to the airport next morning but did not show up. I tried to be a friend, but all I could be was just another tourist.
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