A New Chapter

3 minute read
Ed Peters | Siem Reap

Every picture tells a story. In Siem Reap, Cambodia’s cultural capital, every mobile bookstall tells one too. Look on the sides of the carts that are wheeled about the streets bearing dog-eared novels and pirated Lonely Planets, and you’ll find a hand-lettered potted biography of the proprietor. The vaguely Dickensian narratives — weaving hardship with unvarnished hope — have an unvarying theme: the bookseller’s struggle against the fates for a better life, and a hesitant supplication to purchase. Sometimes, there’s a toddler asleep atop the cart, his or her head pillowed perhaps on a copy of AngkorCambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples.

Upwards of a million visitors a year — backpackers, pensioners, Tomb Raider aficionados, newly flush Eastern Europeans and large groups of Buddhists from Japan and Korea — come to gawp at Angkor Wat. Looming, enduring and vast, it is just one of a host of exquisite temples in the area. But by the end of the day, both culture vultures and common-or-garden tourists are more than ready for less cerebral diversion. And in Siem Reap these days, there are plenty of other delights to sample.

By day, the area around the old market, or Phsar Chas, just north of the river, offers a roaring trade in souvenirs, silks and pottery. Its byways are patrolled by importunate motorcycle-taxi drivers, land-mine victims, and a juvenile sales force whose arresting patter and command of English brook no discouragement.

“Buy a bracelet for your girlfriend,” commands a jet-eyed moppet whose head barely reaches my elbow, as she rattles a handful of coconut rings.

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I reply.

“You know why you don’t have a girlfriend? It’s because you don’t buy her a present.”

The logic is hardly watertight, but her repartee is easily worth a dollar.

After dusk, Phsar Chas hurtles into overdrive. No etymologist is required to explain the nature of adjoining Pub Street, a grid of red-tiled colonial townhouses that has evolved into one of the most eclectic entertainment zones in Asia. There’s the inevitable Irish pub, numerous spots punning on the Angkor handle (including the semi-satirical Angkor What? Bar) and the Linga Bar, a solitary gay joint. Rather more eccentric, the Dead Fish Tower, besides hosting its very own crocodile pit, promises not to serve dog, cat, rat or worm. And there are some tasteful surprises, like Blue Pumpkin, a café with stark, white tables, loungers and beds that are briskly attended by beaming, black-clad staff. The day’s leftovers are donated to charity, and on festive days Blue Pumpkin’s delivery van tours outlying villages, handing out free bread and cookies. “You can’t live here without being aware of the poverty,” says Frenchman Arnaud Curtat, who started Blue Pumpkin with his wife six years ago. “We want to take care of our staff, but also to try to do something to raise the quality of life of other Cambodians.”

The tourism and hospitality industries seem to be doing just that. Despite the widespread deprivation — the legacy of war and the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule — Siem Reap’s shiny new hotels, restaurants and nightlife venues are writing a new chapter in the town’s history — one brimming with expectation. One of those mobile bookstalls could be stocking a copy before long.

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