The people are known as Khmer and speak the Khmer language. It is not a tonal language like Thai, so it is a bit easier to catch on to. We found instances of it being easier to hold a conversation in English with someone in Cambodia than in Thailand. A lot of Cambodian adults over a certain age speak fluent French. Cambodia was a French colony at one time, there are many fine examples of French colonial architecture here. This would all make sense as to why we saw a lot of French tourists visiting Cambodia.
The currency is called Riel, about 3,300 Riel equals one Canadian dollar. The whole country seems to run on U.S. dollars though. Small purchases from street vendors or the markets can be made in Riel. If you get a small amount of change back it will usually be given in Riel. Siem Reap only got ATM machines with in the last year. They dispense U.S. cash only. There are about 3 of them in Siem Reap. The largest note of Riel in circulation is a $10,000 bill which is only worth about $2.50 Canadian. The other notes are 5000, 1000, 500 and 100. There are apparently some coins, but we never saw any. You would have to carry around a sack of money to amount to anything.
Cambodia has only opened up to tourism again in the last decade after the end of the Khmer Rouge. During the ugliness of this period tourism did not exist. Now it is starting to catch on again. This is the time to come to Cambodia while you can still visit a lot of unspoiled areas.
Unfortunately Cambodia is probably best known for the Khmer Rouge. The government killed people in the millions under it’s regime of social engineering. A large percentage of the countries population was killed through execution, starvation and forced labour. We don’t know the history in great detail, but both of us remember watching the movie the Killing Fields which is about the Genocide that took place in Cambodia. There is a museum in the city of Phnom Penh called the Genocide museum that you can learn all about the history.
Another ugly part of Cambodia are the land mines that still remain in many areas today. It is not a place you want to wander off the beaten path. Sadly the land mines are still disfiguring and claiming lives everyday.
Children being exploited by their parents is a big problem here. They send them out to work in the streets all day and late into the night. They are around the downtown streets and all the temples and ruins where tourists go. They sell photocopied versions of books, postcards, and souvenirs. They have been taught to be very pushy and persistent. They will tell you that the money is for them to go to school, but it is not usually the case. Good willed tourists buy from them thinking they are helping, but it is only a short term solution.
This frustrates the social workers here in Cambodia. They are trying to set up programs to keep the children off the streets. The tourists buying the stuff only instills a life of street work for the children and keeps the parents from sending them to school. We were approached by children that couldn’t have been more than 4 years old. Some of them couldn’t speak English, but could say give me a dollar! It was really sad when you would see a youngster out at 11 or 12 o’clock at night with a small baby tied to their back. They would be walking around begging for money as the poor baby got bounced around and continually woken up. We were told that all these kids have parents hiding out in the background to collect the money as they bring it in.
We have been so surprised to find out the age of some of the children. They are so small. A girl that looked no older than 8 or 9 we would find out was 14. We were shocked the first couple of times we were asked by a young child where we were from. We would hardly get the word Canada out when they would respond, Capital Ottawa.
One afternoon when we were having lunch at a stall near one of the temples, we were surrounded by a group of children. One girl asked where we were from and stated our capital, but then she continued to say other countries and their capitals. She knew ones we had no idea of. Like the capital of Madagascar. These kids are really smart, it’s too bad most of them are not getting the proper opportunity for education. They are also very smart in their selling to tourists. One lady we met said she was negotiating a price for something with a young boy, when she went too low she was shocked when he said sorry that will be cutting into my profits! We have also had some funny scenarios with them. One girl didn’t have anything to sell me, but said just give me $2 for nothing. Another small girl wanted some money, she was carrying a small baby and nothing to sell. I said what are you going to sell me the baby. She quickly replied yes, a million dollars!
There are some examples of good programs set up here. There is one for disabled people. They are set up with carts to sell legitimate books and goods.They have a sign saying they wish to work and not beg for a living, please support us.
A bike rental program has been set up at many of the guest houses. Used bike pieces are purchased by the organization, they hire locals to make bikes and distribute them to the guest houses. They look after the rental process and the bike maintenance. The guest houses agree to rent them to tourists with all proceeds going back to the locals.
There is a wonderful children’s hospital here. It is run almost entirely on donations. There are Cambodian doctors as well as international doctors giving their time here. All the care, treatment and surgeries are done free of charge to the locals who can’t afford to pay. There is a concert held every Saturday by one of the doctors. It is an orchestra that plays music by Bach. All the proceeds go to the hospital. They ask any tourists who are able to donate blood to do so.
The main form of transport in Cambodia is by motorcycle or bicycle more so than cars. The few rich people who do own cars usually have giant land cruisers.The idea of the traffic here is the larger your vehicle the more right of way you have. Pedestrians of course having the least right of anybody. The bikes will run you over, the motorcycles will take out the bikes, and the land cruisers come down the road like they own it and will take out everything in their path.
It is illegal to drive here with your lights on in the day unless you are a government official or royalty. It is however not against the law to drive with your lights off at night, go figure!
Despite the issues of begging and poverty as well as the horrendous history this country has had. The people are wonderful. They are more reserved in general than people in Thailand. Cambodia is also a lot more traditional. The people can come across as looking a bit stern, but you can usually crack a smile if you initiate it first. They are very gracious people. The children are really wonderful if you can get beyond the fact that a lot of them were trained to sell to tourists as soon as they could walk. Quite often if you try to engage in conversation with them you will find within a few minutes they are just enjoying having some attention payed to them and will forget all about what they were doing.
It can be challenging to find a specific place in Siem Reap. Many of the streets do not have any names. If they do they are not marked. Besides this the numbering system is hilarious. This could be the numbers on a typical street. 37,6,14,56,17! It seems businesses can just pick any number they choose at random. It is not uncommon to also find two or more places on a street with the same number!
The Monks in Cambodia seem a lot less traditional than the ones we encountered in Thailand. They are not supposed to take anything from a women, yet one reached out and took a paper from me. We were told that a large number of young men enter the training to be a Monk in Cambodia only for the education. Many of them do not have any intention of becoming a monk. Can you blame them, I’m sure any of us that are desperately poor would also take advantage of a free education. We were approached by many Monks here wanting to practice their English with us.
We really enjoyed our time here. It is a shame we only saw Siem Reap. We would have loved to explore more of the country. Yet another place we will have to come back to.