First there was 7/11, then 9/11, and now 6/11. Luckily the last equation has more to do with the first than the second. I was here 10 years ago according to a visa in my passport, which is more reliable than my memory. I can’t really say how things have changed since then, because I was only in the town to crash, and spent my days at the infamous temples, then moved on to Battambang via a spectacular boat ride across the Tonle Sap lake (I later made a digital image from a photo I took).
The first thing one notices here are the roads. They are a bit of a challenge if you are up for it. I like to be jostled around a bit on a bus, looking at the scenery through rain rivulets on the cracked glass of a half open window. But if you are planning on living here, and you have to commute by bike, and you have to wear business attire, potholes filled with rust-colored mud may seem a less welcome feature of daily existence.
The best thing so far here has been the people. The Cambodians appear less jaded with foreigners than their Thai counterparts, and much more pleased if you can produce some basic Khmer phrases without even butchering them hideously. The level of English in Siem Reap is quite good, comparatively speaking, or even not, and the locals light up when I ask them how to say this or that in Khmer. So, the countless hours I spent with audio-flash cards (I custom made them using content spliced from YouTube videos, and language sites), may have been worth-while.
Looking for a place to live has been a bit trying so far, and would be funny if we had more time at our disposal. My girlfriend starts work on Monday, and she hoped to be settled before then, which I would have thought would be a miracle under the best of circumstances. We certainly could have hooked up with A place to live, but not one which wasn’t a cruel joke. There are definitely affordable, decent apartments and even houses available here, and it’s the low season, so there’s purportedly a lot of availability. You wouldn’t think that if you were to accept the reality peddled by the foreign real estate agents here, whose job it is to find Barang (foreigners) housing, and make a commission. They like to tell the story of the one room apartment going for $1,000, and then tell you that for less than $500 you can’t get much. My girlfriend’s new boss has a house for $550, with 3 bedrooms, and Western amenities, so we know that the apartments going for a grand would be considered luxurious anywhere in the world, are going to be fully service, while a very acceptable place is cheap.
The stuff I saw so far included: a one-bedroom unit with no windows in a complex next to two construction sites; a space on the top floor of a Cambodian family’s house with a perpetually yapping dog; an apartment that was made out of what would or should be an attic, so that all the walls bowed in at 45 degree angles; and a tiny backpacker’s cottage with rooms only big enough for a bed, in a sort of commune at the end of several dirt roads where one would have to want to know the neighbors rather intimately who came out with the dogs to inspect potential new members of their cult. How about a decent place with a little privacy, that you can stand up in, and even look out a window, and you don’t have to deal with a dog unless you want one of your own, for starters? This is perfectly doable, but in terms of business, if you can saddle desperate, neon-green, new arrivals with a hard-to-sell accommodation, it’s cause for celebration. Their loss is your gain.
Which reminds me of a guy’s T-shirt I saw last night at the Tex-Mex place, where I happily imbibed of the for-foreigner food and $1.50 marqueritas that actually packed a punch: No tuk-tuk today or tomorrow. I wouldn’t wear that shirt myself, but understand the sentiment. There are motorcycle taxis lining both sides of all the streets in the downtown, and the couple we’ve taken tried to charge us $5 for a $1-$2 trip. That could wear thin after a very short while, such as following passing 3 to 6 stationed tuk-tuks on the first single block, on a ten block round-trip walk. Don’t make eye-contact. Signal you’ve heard them and aren’t interested by a single left-right rotation of the head. You gotta’ conserve energy for the next guy, and the next, and the next…
The food here so far is good, but that’s not saying much, because we’ve been too busy to even look for the local food at local prices. I may have had one Khmer dish, very similar to Thai green curry, but the recipe may have been altered from the authentic in order to appeal more to a tourist’s palette. Either way it was a free ticket to an existential, intestinal crisis in a public restroom in the lobby of a hotel. No AC in there, and no fan except for exhaust. The walls painted red. Mosquitoes. And a humiliating reminder I am a human being, filled with organs which can become very upset and demand vengeance via sharp pangs in the gut. I even had to go back for seconds.
I think everything will be fine here. It’s new and different, even after living in China, Vietnam, and Thailand. I like the language almost as much as I like the visa situation. I don’t normally talk personal stuff on my blog. Someone counseled me to stick to art, which is my area of expertise (and a hotly contested one at that, which makes it all the more interesting for people who get interested in things like art). But my art is consistently a bit dark (though not without humor), and my writing can be critical and analytical, so people may assume I’m glum, a hard-nose, or both, when in daily life I’m usually smiling and lightening the mood with (sometimes irreverent) humor. Though, yeah, I’m no push over, either. I don’t demand or expect any respect, but don’t obsequiously lap up condescension or flagrant insult either.
So, yeah, it might be good to share some personal stories hither and thither.
Now I’m going to do a little Khmer practice while I have a few spare moments before relocating to another hotel closer to the school.
Your independent artist stationed in Siem Reap.
Part II: Later in the day.
Found an apartment. Those pessimists – or I guess they are just optimists confident they can use pessimism to hoodwink mentally inferior newbies – were brimming over with pasture pastries. We got a great apartment: new, modern, with a kitchen that is more than just a portable metal sink, 3-piece couch, 2 air-cons, 2 ceiling fans, a bathtub (I repeat, a bathtub, in Asia!), desk and chair ready for my computer, front and back balcony, washing machine, big fridge, free internet, security at night… Maybe I’ll post some pics after moving in tomorrow. Cost is $330. I smooth-talked them down from $350 with my smiling and lightening the mood with sometimes irreverent humor, and speaking Khmer.
The road from our apt to the school where my GF will be working hard, but in what promises to be a very rewarding teaching environment, is pretty crappy by big city America standards, but pretty stellar for Siem Reap. It’s not even the dirt which turns instantly into mud! It looks like lots of small gravel over cement. In other words, under the circumstances, it’s about as good as it gets.
Then we went into town for dinner to celebrate, and passed a mini-mart which is the dream mini-mart of the Expat imagination. It was sparkling clean and decked out in super clear, organized rows of everything on your dream list. What’s that? No? Guinness in cans and bottles? Is that an Australian wine for $10? A whole array of beers, really? We picked up some rosemary flavored chips. There was muesli, ginger beer, bricks of cheddar, mozzarella, Nutella, rye bread. “They just had a concentrated selection of foreigner foods in a small store, which you just wouldn’t see in Thailand. And part of the fact is that in Thailand you just mostly see 7-Elevens,” my GF just articulated.
Then we had Korean food, and I had bibimbop. Not as good as in Manhattan, but delicious. I looked out at the grand trees lining the small river that goes through the town. And I knew that even though the only reason I’m here is that the Thai military junta made it very difficult for me to stay in Thailand unless I worked full-time (they seem to hate foreigners who stay in the country on an education visa in order to learn their language), I still made the right decision in coming here.
And the people continually seem very friendly, even the tuk-tuk drivers.
Your independent artist stationed in Siem Reap.
4 replies on “6/11: Things are a bit different in Cambodia”
Nice to see you getting sorted. Nice story about it too. Hope there’s enough interesting locals to push any sense of isolation away.
I’m sure there are lots of interesting locals. There are also thousands of expats living here, and an artist’s community of some sort. However, usually it’s not artists doing anything related to what I’m doing.
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I’m trying to imagine what a community of artists doing something related to what you’re doing might look like! How about a cross between a shrimp stall and a robotics workshop?