Siem Reap: Same Same, But Different

In 2015, my husband and I took advantage of a mistake fare and spent three weeks traveling through seven countries in Europe and Asia. Since our adventure was leaving a tremendous carbon footprint in its wake, we decided to travel with as much eco-mindfulness as we could. I kept a diary tracking our efforts during the trip.

Of all the places we’ve traveled to on this trip, Siem Reap is the only place I’ve visited before.  The last time I was there was 2010, and five years later, I exist in stark contrast to the person I was then (27 was a buck wild year for me).  Fittingly?, Siem Reap seems to by far be the most contradictory place on our itinerary: the poverty is as profound as the pride, the beauty stands side by side with the filth, and it’s deeply distraught history has produced a culture that is at once completely blissful and utterly miserable.  And from a personal perspective, everything about it, from the smells, to the food, to the energy, is simultaneously strange and familiar—being there again solicits an odd combination of feeling like an outsider and an insider at the same time.

Throughout Southeast Asia, the term “same same, but different” is plastered all over various tourist memorabilia.  I didn’t find out until this trip that the true meaning behind the phrase is code for “lady boys,” or transgender people (who here happen to most commonly be people assigned male at birth who have transitioned to and/or identify as women; theoretically though, I’m sure the phrase can be applied to someone in the reverse).  Ironically, the people who one sees boldly wearing these words on shirts and buttons most often in the region tend to (appear to) be very cisgender, very straight, very Western men. Aside from the obvious, this is ironic because it seems to very clearly reflect the relationship between Cambodia and the West: a covert inside game that both sides believe that they are winning (Westerners buy the souvenirs by the boatloads because they’re cheap and kitschy, while Cambodians laugh all the way to the bank...as much as the profits from $4 shirts will bank, anyway).

It is my humble opinion that the true winners, when stripped of material wealth (VERY easy to say from my privileged perspective) are the people of Cambodia.  Their homeland is the site of what is easily one of humanity’s most breathtaking feats of ingenuity and dedication: the Angkor Wat temple complex is considered the world’s largest religious compound.  Everything that is required to visit this historic landmark is a chore, from awakening an hour before dawn to catch the sunrise, to wading through the hordes of tourists who flock to it daily, to combing the enormous property in the sweltering heat that intensifies with each hour that passes daybreak.

And yet—and this is true even for the Angkor educators I've spoken to who guide tourists through the complex multiple times a week—it’s all worth it.  Not only is it worth every bit of energy it drains you of, but it also pushes new life into you in a profound way every (in my case, both—so far) time(s).

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Same same, but different.

We opted to stay at the Shinta Mani Resort (despite it's being one of Siem Reap’s most highly recommended hotels it is nonetheless very affordable by Western standards—which poses yet another of the countless opportunities to discuss the inherent irony of being a rustic Western traveler to an underdeveloped country), which contributes 5% of it’s profits to the Shinta Mani Foundation, an organization that focuses on empowering local Cambodians through education initiatives, small business start up support and investment, and health care funding and development.  Shinta Mani also focuses a great deal of its operations on environmental sustainability, and since we were staying at the property on Earth Day, we received a memo celebrating these efforts, noting the detrimental impact of climate change on the country/region.

These kinds of efforts are illustrative of a greater focus on environmental and community responsibility that has increased tremendously in Cambodia over the years.  Cambodia is a country that has experienced such an imbalanced share of hardship in recent history—from the US' bombing campaignsthat began in 1969 and went on for nearly four years (death tolls are unknown due in part to the covert nature of the operation, but estimates range from 150,000 to 500,000), to the rise and reign of the Khmer Rouge(a communist military government led by Pol Pot that was responsible for the slaughter and starvation of over two million people, or 25% of the total Cambodian population), which lasted from 1975 to 1979—that the people of this great country are still visibly shelled.  During the Khmer Rouge’s rule, families were completely torn apart; scholars, doctors, artists and the like were seen as threats to the purely agrarian society Pol Pot forcibly created, and as a result, they were imprisoned and/or executed (often their children were executed as well, out of fear of their potential future retaliation).  Those "pardoned" from imprisonment were separated from family members and relocated to labor camps to work as farmers. The result of this hardline form of government was the complete abolishment of economic opportunity and creative expression.

Today, less than forty years after Pol Pot was driven out of Cambodia (which happened as a result of Vietnamese insurgency in 1979; he fled to the jungles along the Thai border, where he lived under house arrest until his death in 1998), the country still lives in dire poverty and political corruption remains rampant.  One of the most frustrating aspects of our visit was the difficulty we faced trying to use “old bills” (although Cambodia has it’s own currency, the Cambodian Riel, most establishments accept and prefer trading in US dollars, which are more valuable)—because of recent issues with counterfeit dollars, many places will only accept “new bills” (recently printed) while they will happily provide change in old bills (another example of the lawlessness that exists here).  We also found ourselves a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the street peddling in the Night Market—it wasn’t too surprising to me since I’ve experienced it before, but it was unsettling nonetheless, and Matthew and Laura were visibly shaken by it all, especially at the sight of very young children, often barefoot, hustling alongside their mothers.

That grim reality made our visit to Phare: the Cambodian Circus all the more powerful.  We went with huge expectations (spoiler alert: they were met, and then some), based on the recommendation of my good friend, Kevin, who has spent the last several years living and working throughout Southeast Asia.  According to Kevin, Phare is his most favorite thing in Siem Reap—which is VERY high praise, considering!

There are few words that can accurately describe how and why Phare is so moving—it’s truly a spectacle that must be experienced to be understood.  I also don’t want to give too much away—but here’s just a bit of what you can expect from the 90 minute show:

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), the arts education organization that trains the performers; at it’s very core, the circus is a social consciousness movement.  PPS started twenty years ago when a few children and their art teacher returned home after living as Khmer Rouge refugees. They were empowered and uplifted by art, and wanted to provide the same gateway for the many other Cambodians returning home in similar positions.  Since then, the organization has grown significantly: today, almost 2,000 students are educated by PPS programming, and in 2013, the movement inspired the establishment of Phare Performing Social Enterprise (PPSE), which created the Cambodian Circus that we had the amazing fortune to enjoy as spectators (and in turn support both the performing artists' abilities to earn a living wage and the development of Cambodia’s artistic culture—two things I am truly and profoundly proud to endorse).

I could go on, but this has gone on for far too long already (tl;dr amirite?).  We were only in Siem Reap two days, and although I’d been there before, it still made a life-altering, soul-provoking impact on me—and I know if (when) I go back, it would (will) do it all over again.  Now it’s your turn. Go to Siem Reap. You’ll find yourself simultaneously affirmed and changed—you know, same same, but different.