Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cambodia Diaries: My impressions on its culture and of the Khmer People

It was at 12 midnight when we set foot in the laid-back city of Siem Reap, Cambodia. On arrival, one would get the impression of a provincial, relaxed and sleepy city. Though it is teeming with tourists. 

We passed through immigration quickly and managed to retrieve our luggage, just as quickly. Outside we were greeted by so many hotel representatives holding up signs for guests. It seemed that everyone is being picked up but us. 

Near the exit is a taxi service. So, we got one at USD7 for a van. The receipt that went with it explains that part of the proceeds goes to the funding for the children's hospital. Not bad. 

Our driver, Gana was polite, opened the door for us and explained the route he would take. His English is very good and his manners are impeccable. These made us decide to get his services for our first two days in Siem Reap. 
Everywhere we go, we are approached by tuktuk drivers and vendors with a smile and the ubiquitous question, 'Philippine?' We'd smile and say, yes. And they would throw at us Filipino expressions like Mabuhay, Salamat. And the cheeky question: "Do you know Manny Pacquiao? He's very rich!" never failed to amuse us. And of course, they think Mara Clara is the best telenovela in the world. 

In Siem Reap, you would notice that religion is a big part of their way of life. Pagodas are everywhere. And the orange-robed monks are very much a fixture in the daily grind of the locals. 

In spite of the influx of millions of tourists, the Khmer people are barely touched by western influences. There are no McDonald's, no Starbucks. Mind you they serve burgers and coffee, just not the kind that we have in every corner of Manila.  

The Khmer cuisine is largely influenced by its neighboring countries that touch on its borders like Vietnam and Thailand. Having said that, Khmer food is bold, spicy and curried. Most of the time. With a touch of french and dutch influences. 

 And the exotic food on the streets is not for the faint hearted. 
roasted crickets
Frog Legs

sauteed spider
It is just right that Siem Reap boasts of spice farms. Bottled spices that are prettily packaged are sold in souvenir shops and at the airport. Each bottle costs on average about USD4.

Of course, Angelina Jolie/Lara Croft put Cambodia/Siem Reap/Angkor Wat on the map. So, it was imperative that we pay homage to her fave hangout while on location, the first night of our arrival. 
The Red Piano
Tomb Raider Cocktail (Cointreau, lime juice and tonic)
The Khmer people are introspective ones. I think their terrible past with the Khmer Rouge has shaped them into resilient people -- learning from their past, moving forward to the future with fierce determination to rise from their lot in life. 

I see it. I see it from the faces of the children peddling souvenir items after school hours, as evidenced by their faded blue and white uniform. I see it when we see kids pass us by, cycling hard, on their way to school. Some are barely able to reach the seat of their bicycles. 

They're also very polite. Culturally, deference to authority and the elderly is deeply engrained in their psyche. You cannot accuse them of rudeness. There was a funny incident that we experienced in our hotel. We were trying to arrange for an extra night stay. The reception guy the night before quoted us a much lower cost than the morning reception guy on duty. So, as we were trying to clarify and the conversation increased in inflection (from our side), the guy (in his halting English) that he is not lying. Instead, the night clerk is just misinformed. Then, he proceeded to show us a faded print out of the tariff rate. It dawned on me that even in their defensive stance, a Khmer still maintains his polite demeanor. Of course, we had to apologize for the confusion. And we ended up parting (upon check out) with a lot of Aw Khuns (thank you). 

Now, I understand why the locals prefer the US Dollars as opposed to their local currency, Riel. The Khmer people craves for stability and security. They've been at a dark time wherein there was no local currency-- it meant no food on the table, and other basic things in life. I can only imagine the terror it brought compounded by the killings around them.

I might just be romanticizing my views but I'd like to believe that I may be somehow right. To me, it's reality is so poetic that amidst the ruins (both archeological and from human atrocities), a beautiful present and future is within reach. 

In some respects, I think the Khmer people are more forward-looking with their bike friendly city streets. Maybe it's born out of necessity. But in that aspect they're way ahead of their time. When modern societies call for the establishment of bike lanes and call it the city of the future. Cambodia is doing it perfectly well in the present. 

I love trees. Am obsessed with the idea of seeing trees in urban streets and on the mountains. In Siem Reap, you'll see centuries old trees lining and providing shade onto the streets. It's a country where the mere act of cutting one single tree is considered a criminal offense. It makes me feel sad because in my country, we cut trees to give way for progress. (Recently, over 2000 trees were cut for a road widening project). Sigh.

I also love the gardens in Siem Reap. Beautifully maintained. So pretty. 

But all these are just icing on a cake. They set a pretty backdrop to what we originally sought out to see in Cambodia-- the magnificence of its temples. And I tell you, it's beyond amazing. See my next post:-)

Aw Khun!



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