In the busy chaos of Siam Reap, bicycles, mopeds, tuk-tuks, cars and buses seamlessly zigzag, passing each other within millimeters. Before we left for South East Asia my friend Sam told me that when I come to cross a bustling, multi-laned, packed road: I just need to cross. The locals are so skilled at driving and avoiding traffic that they will drive around you. I didn’t understand this at first but after witnessing the traffic first hand, I’m getting a grasp. If we were home, every driver on the road would be charged with dangerous driving. But it’s more than a lack of recognised road rules, it’s an entirely different way of thinking. The tourist drivers can be identified from the locals. At a busy intersection, blocked road or pedestrian crossing, the tourist hesitates. The local drives on, swerving around vehicles, mounting footpaths and squeezing through gaps in a way that appears to be physically impossible.
Three young tourists walk abreast of each other down the middle of the street. I am one part bemused by their stupidity and three parts inspired by their bravery.
Just like the busy roads, Siam Reap has a different way of living. Work/home/friends/life all blend together. The Tuk-Tuk drivers socialize while waiting the hours between customers. The shop owners play with their children, cook their meals, and drink tea with their friends on the floor of their shop. Restaurant owners sit and chat at tables in between customer requests.
As a result of heavy tourism in the area, this tiny village has become a small city that is permanently awake (or at least awake for the six months that is the dry season). The chaos starts at 4.30am in the morning, when 2 million tourists per year hop in a Tuk-Tuk to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. In the meantime, the Siam Reap locals are busy sending their children to school and getting their business ready for the day. Lunchtime, the hottest part of the day is the quietest time with the city streets too hot for tourists to be walking in. By afternoon, everyone is back from their Angkor experience, the streets have become cooler and the market stalls are busy with customers. Every evening, an entire main street is closed for only pedestrian access, and it’s packed to the brim with tourists enjoying the night markets, fruit juice stalls, $3 meals and $1 cocktails. Some of these tourists will continue on drinking until 5am in the morning.
Our guesthouse owner told us a story about a man who had booked three Angkor Wat sunrise tours and missed all of them because he had been out drinking the night before. On the fourth night the guesthouse was concerned because the man had not come home at all from his drinking spree. He arrived back at the guesthouse later in the afternoon. He had worked out the only way he was ever going to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat was to stay out until 4.30am, catch the Tuk Tuk to the sunrise and then spend the morning exploring the ruins.
And there’s still even more to see, with the famous floating village of Tonle Sap Lake and a beautiful Buddhist Monastery free for tourist entry.
A tourist who enjoys this relaxing vibe could easily enjoy a week in Siam Reap: lazing by the luxury pool in your hotel for the cheap price of $10US a night, eating from the local restaurants and bargaining at the night markets.
Whilst tourism around Angkor Wat has quickly become an economic goldmine for the Cambodia government, the increased pressure of growing tourism however has taken a toll on the local life of Siam Reap with strains on local ecosystems, plumbing and the electricity supply. Despite being a country rich with resources and international treasures, decades of internal conflict has resulted in economic instability and over 20% of Cambodians still live below the poverty line without access to clean water, employment or social services. So while enjoying the unique lifestyle that creates the city of Siam Reap take opportunities to invest in eco sustainable tourism, visit community-based projects and tip your waiters and Tuk-Tuk drivers. Whilst tipping is not expected, it is greatly appreciated.