Don’t go changing

There were dark, dusty village streets to be navigated in order to find your way to the Night Markets the first time I visited Siem Reap in 2008.

I remember distinctly that my friend and I relied on a local colleague to help us find our way from the restaurant in Pub Street to the collection of thatched huts that house the markets.

If anything captures for me the rate of change in Cambodia in recent years, it’s the way all of this has been transformed.

Today, visitors will find an explosion of neon signs, market stalls, massage places and feet-cleaning fish ponds which extend from the bar and restaurant strip across town to the original markets.

Market stalls that once sold mostly quality hand-made local arts and crafts now sell mass-produced, machine-made merchandise as well. Some of it is imported from nearby countries.

Have you ever found somewhere you love and urged others to try it, ‘before it’s ruined?’

I have to confess that I said that to some friends after a holiday in Cambodia in June last year.

I felt confronted by the transformation of parts of Siem Reap into a gawdy nightclub district and bazaar.

These thoughts reflect a natural human aversion to change and a concern that in the rush to develop and seize an opportunity, places may destroy some of the unspoiled charm that attracted visitors in the first place.

But this fifth visit to Cambodia as a volunteer rather than a tourist and my own changed personal circumstances, have brought deeper reflections.

I suppose I’m thinking less about what Cambodia does for visitors and more about what we can do for Cambodia.

For better or worse, local businesses seek to provide what tourists are buying – which includes access to the magnificent ancient temple ruins of the Angkor region near Siem Reap, along with a bountiful supply of cheap trinkets and the flourishing nightlife.

Amid all of this, there are some dedicated local enterprises that seek to teach and maintain the traditional artisanship in things such as silk production, wood and stone carving and silver work.

There’s also a more seedy side where vulnerable people, often children and women, are exploited by begging rings and prostitution.

Sadly organised crime follows the money trail in tourist hot spots – as I’m learning in horrific detail through the volunteer work I’ve been doing while I’m here this time.

Putting that dark underbelly to one side, tourism is a big opportunity for this country as it seeks to develop and lift itself out of poverty.

It’s a sector that has grown and become more sophisticated. Access to the ancient attractions is better managed, supported by bigger, more modern airports and a wider range of hotels.

The rate of progress in this country has been huge, as witnessed by a lovely New Zealand couple I met in Phnom Penh this week.

When they started coming here as tourists 11 years ago, the roads in the capital were not sealed and there were no traffic lights.

The tuk tuks that are now ubiquitous were nowhere to be seen and nor were the four-wheel-drives that dominate the roads today. The only transportation was from motos (motorbikes) and cyclos (bicycles with a passenger seat in the front).

A trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap involved a slow boat ride down the river, not the half hour flight most people take these days.

Like me, these grandparents were drawn back year after year for holidays, before they eventually moved here, initially as volunteers. They’ve witnessed a massive influx of tourists and expats, and with them a proliferation of coffee shops, restaurants, day spas and boutiques.

It would be hypocritical to enjoy all of that while decrying progress in this country as it hopefully delivers a better standard of living for its people.

However, there is obviously much that can be done to ensure that progress takes place in a way that respects and protects people, as well as the country’s historic and natural assets.

As much as we sometimes want them to, places don’t remain frozen in time. Nor do people.

I’m doing something really different with my life this year and it feels inevitable that these experiences are going to change me. They probably already have.

I’m grateful to the friends and family who have encouraged me to explore the world and myself this year, and see where it all takes me.

I have the same wish for Cambodia.

That people seek to understand not judge it, and that it gets the opportunities and support it needs to grow into the best possible version of its modern self.

M

8 thoughts on “Don’t go changing

  1. Hi Mairi, great to discover Cambodia through your reflections and amazing pictures. Sending you a cheerio from Downunder ! Take care, love, Roselyne

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    1. Thanks for following Roselyne – the blogs from here are quite different to the lovely family stories from Mauritius! 🙂 I’m missing you all, so it will be good to see you soon. Love M

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  2. Hey there MF, super pics, sounds like fab trip. We’re off to Wellington & Napier 2moro for week, just a nice wee break. And super news is that Grace & I are now grandparents, little Xavier Paul born 31 Aug, day before Father’s Day. And Vanessa was here from London on surprise visit for a week, so timing was perfect. Travel safe & take care. IMM & DLOE xxx

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    1. Hey Paul, congratulations on the new grandchild – that’s wonderful news! Safe travels and have a great time in NZ. Wellington’s a great city. See you when we’re both back. Love M xxx

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    1. Thanks for the lovely feedback Ron! I’ve just been having a look at your Travel Monster blog and I note we have something in common in addition to travel – the love of singing. All the best with both. Cheers, M

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    1. Spending time in this country always feels enjoyable Lisa, even when you’re working! Look forward to catching up when I’m back. Hope your writing is going well. Cheers, M

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