musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Siem Reap

I spent four days in Siem Reap, Cambodia earlier this month. I ran the Lazy Mango Bookshop there from 2002-2004. Even though I’m based in Bangkok now, I to go back and visit friends in Siem Reap once or twice each year. I have fond memories of those days and the many wonderful Cambodians that I met. So Peng Thai and Chamrong both worked at my bookshop. Chiet and the Try brothers — Hoich, Hach, Channo, and Bo —- were all “street kids”, stopping by during the shop to chat (this did wonders for my Khmer language development), run errands for me, or help me dust the terminally dusty bookshelves (our front “gate” was always open — no AC, just ceiling fans — so the Siem Reap dust was a regular visitor). They were your typical irrepressible, happy-go-lucky kids, but not attending school at the time I met them. We soon fixed that problem.


It’s been satisfying to see them all “grow up” over the past decade. Rong is now a supervisor at the Siem Reap airport and belatedly taking a course to get his high school diploma. Thai is working as a licensed Angkor tour guide. He and his wife are expecting their second child early next year. Chiet didn’t get far in school but took a vocational training course and is now working as a welder. The oldest Try brother, Hoich, is now 22 and still hasn’t finished high school. He’s frustrated and wants to get a job and make some money. Thai is helping me find a vocational school or course where he can study motorcycle repair. Hach turns 20 soon and is happily going to high school and also studying English and various computer programs. I have a feeling that Channo will also go the way of Hoich and not finish school, but the youngest, Bo, who is 16, once again finished first in his class on the last round of exams. He tells me that he wants to be a doctor. Go for it kid! One notable absence from our old gang is Sophea, who used to run a shop in the town’s old market. She had the audacity to go and get married and then move to the USA about a year ago. The kids really miss her and are always asking me for updates on what she’s doing. One of these days we hope she’ll come back and visit us.


Siem Reap has changed dramatically since I lived there nearly a decade ago. It was never a particularly picturesque town, but it did have its pleasant side. Sadly, those last vestiges of charm are fading away with the increase in vehicle traffic and building construction. I’m not pleased with a lot of the growth I see. Along Highway 6, the road to the airport, there is such a glut of cookie-cutter hotels that many of them stand vacant or construction has halted. And yet, still more are being built. Must be high hopes for an increase of Chinese tour groups on the horizon.


I didn’t even go to Angkor this time. Other than taking a trip on the lake to Kampong Pluk (photos coming soon) I didn’t really go anywhere. Most of my time was spent meeting friends for meals, almost all of which were at the Hawaii Restaurant near Wat Bo Road. I’ve always liked the food there — from tasty pizzas and other western dishes to very good Khmer food — but for the Try brothers the real draw is their pool table. Game after game after game. And the family that runs the restaurant is always polite and friendly, offering typically charming Cambodian hospitality. Reason enough to go back!


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