Siem Reap in the shadows

I’d been having a lovely time until I saw him.

It was my night alone in Siem Reap after Skip, Kirsty and Betsey went back to Phnom Penh and I stayed to meet my colleagues for a road trip to the provinces the following day. A night in a town filled with so many options, it was hard to choose.

So I started at Temple – a bustling balcony bar overlooking Pub Street (Siem Reap’s lively main avenue) and planted myself at a table above the street with a good view of the bar’s traditional apsara dancers on the stage inside.

With a dose of  two-for-one margaritas, I was caught in a whirlwind of several worlds and felt as though I were worshipping the gods of overactivity and stimulation. On one side were the gorgeous and graceful dancers, wrapped in shimmering silks and golden head-dresses, while below me,  I watched the ladyboys work the street, posturing in high heels and lycra, giving glances and occasional strokes to the men passing them by.

I’ve never known a place quite like Siem Reap. While New York may be the city that never sleeps and Paris is the city of lights, Siem Reap seems to overshadow them both in the sheer intensity of life from every angle in all hours of the night and day.

It reminds me a little of a cleaner version of New Orleans, but with even more to offer.

While the days in Siem Reap are focused on the majestic temples of Angkor Wat and its many famous companions, the nights are alive with activity — good food, swinging bars, buzzing motos and tuktuks, a bustling night market, roadside cafes selling $1 bowls of noodles and openair massage spas offering 30-minute foot massages for $2.

Along the street from my balcony perch, the rhythmic beat of “Black Magic Woman” boomed from a nightclub and  I watched an incredible variety of people flow down the street like a river from all corners of the world.

I drifted among them all, glowing in the thrill of it all. And then I saw him.

His arms and legs were stumps and he pushed himself along the dusty pavement on a small wooden platform on wheels. He was selling books on Pub Street – a harness slung around his neck as hemoved from table to table – and my margarita-laced euphoria suddenly dropped into melancholy.

The party atmosphere of the night started to feel contrived and meaningless and I found myself vividly aware of the shadows that lay beneath the neon and glitter. All along the road were dozens of tuktuk drivers competing for the same tourist fares, street vendors in the night market hoping for a sale from visiting tourists and masseuses desperately trying to earn a few dollars for a foot massage. 

Even the ladyboys now seemed sad. Pitifully posturing among the crowds, fluffing their hair and smiling expectantly as people passed them by without a glance.

I felt as though I was seeing Siem Reap through different eyes on this night which had started with euphoria and energy in a city bustling with life. Once I started to look closer and focus on the beggars, struggling tuktuk and moto drivers and tiny children playing in the dirt, things shifted.

After observing street life for a while longer, I decided I’d had enough and slowly meandered down dark alleys and across busy streets under a glowing half moon along the route to my guesthouse.

Something clattered on the street as I ran across it and I realized I’d dropped my only pair of reading glasses. Cars and vehicles dashed by as I tried to retrieve them and, suddenly, a tuktuk driver ground to a halt and summoned me to pick them up. Our eyes met and he smiled.

And it was back again…that feeling of warmth, joy and gratitude for a country filled with graciousness.

It made me think of a line in “The Piano Tuner”, a book I’m reading about a conservative English man who travels to a remote region of Burma to tune a piano.

In a letter to his wife, he said “As I write, I feel both a tremendous sadness and a joy, a wanting, a welling from within me, something ecstatic….It rises in my chest like water from a well, and I swallow and my eyes bring with tears as if I will overflow”.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

      2 comments

      • Frank and Gabi Yetter

        Beautifully done…. You’ve successfully captured Cambodia’s arresting contrasts, and your piece took me right there with you. Can’t wait to have you home again.

      • Francie

        Absolutely wonderful, Gab. You caught so much here …. and your antennae are as sharp as ever … I really enjoyed it …

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