Our First Few Days in Cambodia: Hope-Filled Highs and Depressing Lows

January 26, 2018

Our stay in Cambodia started with a few days spent in Siem Reap, which is famous for the complex of old Khmer temples very close to it. I’ll talk about the temples in the next blog post, but for now I’d like to write down some general impressions of these first few days and of our first contact with Cambodian society.

Cambodia is still recovering from the civil war and the regime of the Khmer Rouge. While I can hardly imagine anything more horrible happening to a country and its people, it seems that the Cambodians have found a way to move forward. Cambodia has one of the fastest growing economies of the countries in the region, but it’s still a very poor country. As a traveler here, your impressions are consequently divided into hope-filled “highs” (because of the all the good things that you see happening in this country and all the good you see in its lovely people), and depressing “lows”, because everywhere you look, you are reminded about the nightmare that the people here went through not so long ago.

So I’ll also just write down my thoughts in these two categories, and hope that they make sense to anyone reading them and that they raise some awareness about the situation in this country, which is so little known in the West. This time I’ll start with the “lows”, because they help put the “highs” into context.

Highs and Lows


  • The time we spent in Siem Reap was our first contact with Cambodia, and hence with its extreme poverty, which you can see all around you. We gave a 1 USD tip to the taxi driver who drove us from the airport to our hotel, and he was so happy! He thanked us several times, saying that now he could buy something for his child. And he is one of the rather few lucky people in Cambodia who have a job. You don’t often see people just sitting on the street and begging, but, for instance, there are so many women and children at the temples trying to sell trinkets to tourists! We were warned to not buy from the kids or give them any money, because that just encourages them to beg instead of going to school. It’s very sad to see all this extreme poverty all around you. People are nonetheless very friendly everywhere and, even when they try to sell you something, they quickly understand a “no” and leave you alone. They are not pushy and you never get the feeling they are trying to trick you.
  • You also see many people on the streets who are missing a limb, due to land mines. We were warned about this before coming here, but it’s a different thing to experience it first hand. There were groups of 5-6 invalid men on the way to some of the temples, playing music and begging for money. It’s heartbreaking to see. We always gave them a bit of money. After seeing them, I caught myself several times looking at other very poor people on the street, trying to figure out if they have both arms and legs. In the beginning, it was subconscious that I was counting their arms and legs. Very sadly, it’s so widely spread here, that you start expecting it. When we go to Phnom Penh in a few days, we’ll find out more about what the Khmer Rouge did in this country, but unfortunately we already see its direct and devastating effects on so many Cambodians.


  • On one evening we went to a show of Phare, the Cambodian circus, and it was soooo impressive! The circus involves only acts performed by people (acrobatics, dancing, juggling, acting, plus live music) and no animal acts at all, and it’s in a lot of ways similar to Cirque du Soleil (but not quite at its level). It was founded by a charity that aims to help Cambodians in need, and all the artists are young people coming from families with a difficult background, meaning extreme poverty, drug-abuse, child labor, etc. The charity tries to take such kids off the streets and train them in different arts, including circus performance but also painting and music, so that they can earn a living afterwards. The circus performance that we saw was good by any standards, but, even beyond that, what made it truly special was the incredible positive energy of the performers, who were clearly enjoying every second of it and putting so much of their soul into it! I can honestly say I have seldom seen something so uplifting and positive, and this coming from young adults who grew up in horrible conditions, but found the strength to turn their lives around. I was so impressed that I almost didn’t stop clapping for the whole hour of the show and I came away with a lot of positive energy (which I needed after seeing what I describe in the “Lows” above).
  • A discussion we had with a tuk-tuk driver, who drove us around for a whole day. We were lucky that he could speak good English, and he told us a lot about his personal life and Cambodian society in general. We found out that he is getting married next month and that he got to know his fiancé through common acquaintances. So far nothing special, except that they didn’t meet for the first 4 years of their relationship! After being “introduced” by their common acquaintances, they added each other on Facebook and only chatted there for 4 years. These chats on Facebook meant that they were exclusively “dating” for these 4 years. Then he decided to ask her to marry him (without having met her in person yet!), but she said no! He asked her again a few months later, but she again said no. That happened one more time, and the fourth time he asked, she finally said yes. Then he went with his family to meet her and her family in person. She was living in Phnom Penh for the 4 years of their courtship, but now she is moving to Siem Reap to be with him. He also told us that she works in an office, and at first that turned him off, because he doesn’t like women who work in offices – he thinks they feel superior to people like him who work as tuk-tuk drivers. But she turned out to not be like that. She told him she doesn’t care what his job is or if he earns only 100 USD per month, as long as he has a job. But, he told us, tuk-tuk drivers can often earn 300-500 USD/month, whereas office workers normally earn only about 300 USD/month. Anyway, now he was excited about the wedding, and they were going to have 500-600 guests, which is normal for weddings in Cambodia. For us, it was a fascinating story and a brief but very interesting insight into nowadays’ Cambodian society. It was also good to see how normal life goes on in the country now and that people find joy again.

Since I talked about tuk-tuks, I’ll also mention that it’s very common here for tourists staying in Siem Reap to take tuk-tuks to get to and around the temples. Booking a tuk-tuk together with its driver costs 15-18 USD/day, depending on whether you’re doing the small or big circuit. The driver picks you up at your hotel in the morning, and then takes you from temple to temple, always waiting outside for you. Here are some photos of tuk-tuks.

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