Sunday, June 16, 2013

I'VE BEEN THINKING A LOT ABOUT MY IMPACT. On the world, on the people I love, on the people I decidedly do not love. I've thought about gossip and the way I talk to myself in my head. I think about how my face moves and how it makes people feel and I wonder, when I do nothing at all, how my energy affects things around me. In all the places we've been I try to smile at strangers and buy small tokens from locals. I eat more vegetables than I do meat, though that's likely a selfish endeavour as the quality is questionable at-best in these parts.  I move politely through other people's neighbourhoods and I've drawn the line at being pushed or pulled about town in a rickshaw propelled manually by a human. Because that just seems a bit colonial, no?

Siem Reap, Cambodia is a very sweet-natured place. After a month in Thailand, it felt softer and kinder, more approachable than the towns and cities we'd just visited. My shoulders relaxed and I felt at-ease for the first time in a while. I didn't feel the need to watch my back or my pockets and I smiled at strangers like we had back in Bali or I do when I wander the streets of Toronto. Just a passing smile, without the promise of a purchase or a transaction otherwise. I immediately knew this was a place I'd like.

As one must, we earmarked a day to see Siem Reap's famous temples. We hired a tuktuk for a reasonable price and Mr. Wan said we'd get started in the morning. If you know me, you won't be surprised to hear I loathe group tours and would always prefer to go it alone, so this was perfect. Mr. Wan would get us there (a quaint motorcycle-powered tuktuk 25 minutes outside of town) and provide informative tidbits, but we'd otherwise wander the landmarks on our own. In the morning we'd visit the smaller temples (Bayon, Baphuon, and Ta Prohm) before taking a break at the height of the day's heat, then head to Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument, in the late-afternoon when it was a bit cooler.

I'd heard a lot about Angkor Wat's affect on people. It was often likened to other vast wonders, like the Great Wall of China or Stonehenge. I wondered how it might impact me. As we purchased our tickets at one of a dozen wickets, my cynicism began to creep in. As we shelled-out $50 and joined a cross-parking-lot pilgrimage, I fell deeper into my disenchanted spiral. I read later that Angkor was now privately-owned by a company who rents it from the Cambodian government. Only 28% of ticket revenue actually goes back into the restoration and preservation of the site. I would estimate there were about 600 people at the temple in the hour we were there. And this was May: Cambodia's hottest month and lowest in terms of tourism, so imagine how much revenue is generated in the high season.

I always find it bizarre when people cheerfully pose for photos in front of monuments or sites, as if their presence in the photo somehow makes it more interesting. I mean, these places were built by thousands of slaves nearly 1000 years ago, they are literally crumbling under their own historical significance, and yet a man in an "I  Cambodia" t-shirt thinks his mug makes the shot.  Visiting war memorials or places moored by decades of horror is next-level mind boggling. I'm not sure flipping over a photo to read "Mom at the Killing Fields, 2013" is particularly necessary, and her wide smile and flippant pose verges on apologism.

As peace signs spread like wild fire, hoards of tourists scurried through the ruins behind a bellowing guide, his voice amplified by a squawking speaker box on his hip. Between these silly groups and the locals selling t-shirts inside the temples, the potential for a religious experience seemed laughable now. Then I began to notice how people had scraped their names into the sandstone walls or scrawled something in marker across an ancient bas relief carving. And I was done.

I wondered why I was here and began to feel like a major asshole. I, an agnostic at-best, was part of the problem, traipsing around these hallowed grounds which should be left to those who worship them. I felt terribly for the few people who had come from far and wide to quietly experience this place, the Mecca of Buddhism. On the rare occasion that I visit a Christian church, I stand quietly, careful not to disrupt the environment or the people there. But these temples have signs and arrows forcing you on a track, "This Way Please", and suddenly you find yourself standing, disrespectfully, at an altar or in an inner sanctum once reserved for only the most-devoted. Angkor Wat will be the last temple I visit and has changed the way I view all religious monuments. I will happily respect them from afar, but won't desecrate them by schlepping through, uninvited. 


Photography has been an interesting stumbling block. I've mentioned I haven't been taking many photos, aside from those on my phone. Trips we've taken in the past have been fairly photography-focused, even buying people's cooperation with small toys or gifts, a bit of cash. I thought my impact could be balanced by giving something in return. But it hasn't felt right on this trip. Although I see dozens of faces each day that I'd love to photograph, I just don't want to risk making them feel uncomfortable, or, worse, commodified. I don't want to be the person who makes somebody feel like a zoo animal.

When we were in Bali we pulled over to the side of the road where a craggy-faced elder sat weaving a basket. I gestured with my camera and she waved her hands angrily, deeply offended. I attempted an apology and as we drove away I hoped she wouldn't feel shitty about that moment for very long. But if she's anything like me, she still does.


1) Cambodia has been welcoming tourism for less time and seem less over it than their Thai neighbours to the west. Prices are less inflated and haggling is less aggressive. More often than not, the price quoted is reasonable and doesn't require pushback. Which is a nice change.

2) Cambodia is the hottest place I've ever been in my entire life. Siem Reap is inland and in May (the hottest month) temperatures often exceed 50°C when factoring the humidity. 

3) Locals are very concerned with maintaining a light-as-possible skin tone and often wear many layers of clothing to block the sun. (Sunscreen is too expensive.) We cannot understand how people manage to wear jeans, socks, hoodies, scarves, face masks, and even gloves during the day. We could hardly stand a tank top and shorts in the extreme heat. It's an important status symbol: People with darker skin work outdoors and are often tradespeople or labourers. Light skin shows that you don't have to work in those environments. Long fingernails, even on men, work to prove the same point. 

4) Further to this, whitening creams are very common in this part of the world. It is said that 4 out of 10 women use them. Large international brands (who, ironically, tout individuality, self-esteem, and personal definitions of beauty in the West) provide all sorts of creams that work to lighten skin by inhibiting melanin production or with acids that exfoliate many layers of skin, revealing lighter skin beneath. Olay's most-popular product is called White Radiance and L'Oréal markets a line called White Perfect. A brand I didn't recognize (Franch) advertises their Shower Crème with a model who's face transitions from about a Halle Berry to a Jennifer Lopez in four easy steps. Another brand I didn't recognize (Lux) produces White Impress, with the tag line "Make the first impressions the ones that last." Yikes. 

5) The US dollar is the main currency in Cambodia. ATMs dispense large denominations of perfectly crisp, previously-uncirculated bills. It's a deeply-debated topic in the government, with many officials likening the proliferation of American currency to treachery. The dollar was adopted largely due to long-standing government corruption, distrust, and general terror during a half-century of turmoil in Cambodia. It was seen as stable where the riel was not. It's really fascinating and I encourage you to give it a Google.

LOCATION: Amwaj, Manama, The Kingdom of Bahrain
DATE AND TIME: Sunday, June 16, 2013 11:00AM Arabia Standard Time/Sunday, June 16, 2013 4:00AM EST


Location: Siem Reap, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia

Unlike the other countries we visited, we stayed for two weeks in just one town. On a trip like this, transferring between places really cuts into the budget. The longer you stay in one place, the less money you tend to spend. So, because we loved Siem Reap so much, we decided to hunker down and stay in one place a while. While two weeks might be a bit long for the average traveler, we found it super relaxing and comfortable. We rented bikes for $1 a day and rode out to the countryside every day after breakfast, seeing local communities and expanding our view of Siem Reap. 

Accommodation: Memoire D'Angkor 
Our first stop in Siem Reap was a lovely, quite-formal hotel in the centre of town. The service was great and our room was upgraded upon arrival to a giant suite. The hotel offered free laundry, which was a major perk and a nice touch. A great pool and very fast wifi.

When we decided to extend our stay in Siem Reap, we switched hotels to save a few dollars per night. The Golden Banana is a great spot with good service, nice pools and well-appointed, charming rooms. The food is good, too. It's advertised as gay-friendly and is gay-owned. There is a bit of confusion as several properties, all called the Golden Banana, were once one resort, but looks like they've been divided up. The link above takes you to the property we chose.

Food: There is no shortage of restaurants and bars in Siem Reap. Amok is my favourite local dish, a curry (often of freshwater fish) in coconut milk. Vaguely like an Indian curry, but with different spices.
For wine: The Station Wine Bar. Great prices, good selection. A nightly cabaret show is fun.
For western food: The Sun. Great chicken burgers and other familiar eats when you're feeling tired of local fare.
For cheap drinks: Viva is a Mexican restaurant with super cheap beer and $1.50 frozen margaritas. In the heart of the Old Market, it's a charming area and an easy place to kill an afternoon over serviceable $1 fish tacos and drinks.
For dinner: The Triangle Restaurant is an outdoor BBQ. Fresh meat, seafood, and grilled vegetables. Good food, great prices, fast service. A nice place to watch the world go by.



  1. The feelings you describe about visiting Angkor Wat are the same as mine when I was visiting temples in Thailand. Kids climbing statues that should not be climbed; parents encouraging them to do so for photo ops. Peace signs being flashed, souvenirs being sold, crowds of tourists pushing everywhere. I was not a fan -- an understatement, to be sure. It made me not want to visit another temple, and yet, I want to see these historic places. But, like you, I realize that it makes me part of the problem. I honestly don't know how to feel, or to deal with these feelings. Some may argue that it's our duty to visit some of these places, to not forget what took place. But to what detriment?

  2. While I always devour the photos you take, I think it's so wise to spend your time really looking and experiencing, rather than trying to document everything. It's pretty frustrating watching someone walk around with their camera glued to their face in a beautiful museum or park (not that I think you'd be like that!).

  3. Jason,

    I've really been enjoying your feed on IG - the way each place has a color (so cool to see the difference between, say, Australia and Cambodia) as well as all the snippets and bits of trivia you share...

    And how you're sharing your experience here -- through always beautiful images (your feelings about the zoo-like scene at the temple was so well captured in that black + white above, I sort of winced when I scrolled down to see it) -- but also the reflection on your experience in each location. It's nice to read your take in a sort of one part personal/emotional experience and a one part tourist/foodie/travel kinda review. And a sort of added bonus: the OCD/organized part of me just really appreciates the orderly format of it all. ;)

    Nice work, all around. So looking forward to seeing Europe through your eyes! (can't believe you've never been to any of those cities before!)