OK, Siem Reap isn’t really a city — it is a province of Cambodia, which tourists associate with age-old temples and pleasant, soft-spoken locals. Development-wise and viewed as a whole, I’d say the place looks like Davao City in the early ’70s. But that’s about the only “advantage” my city has over this alluring Southeast Asian destination.
The airport is small, but very tastefully designed. It speaks of Cambodia’s culture and traditions through its understated architecture. The moment your plane lands you are afforded a foretaste of what to expect ahead of you. And that, in my mind, is how an airport does justice to the locale it is serving.
I’ve been in Siem Reap less than 3 days as I write this, but I can already see sharp contrasts between the city that I love and one that I am falling in love with. Particularly, in the area of tourism.
In terms of facilities, public infrastructure and economic achievements, Davao City does have an overwhelming lead. And yet, my hometown has much to learn from Siem Reap if it is to reach even a quarter of the latter’s tourist arrivals. No need to quote figures here: Siem Reap is teeming with foreign visitors, vacationers, pleasure-seekers, conference participants. Tourist profiles range from penny-pinching backpackers to 5-star-hotel-staying spendthrifts.
The hotel where I’m staying is at par, in terms of amenities, with most of the small hotels in Davao. But while Davao hotel guests have to shell out at least US$45, I’m paying only US$15 for a twin room (with wifi), inclusive of breakfast. Some guest houses even offer free bikes to their patrons — biking is a good way to see the sights here.
Siem Reap has quite a number of high-end hotels and resorts, but also plenty of hostels and inns — in other words, a wealth of accommodations choices for everyone. And, their level of service makes for a comfortable stay, wherever you might decide to check in.
By the way, American dollars are in currency here. Some Cambodians have mentioned it’s because of the instability of their local currency (riel), but it’s not difficult to imagine that dollars are widely used thanks to the healthy tourism industry here. You can even use dollars to pay tuk-tuks, a very interesting mode of transport in these parts ($1 a ride for nearby destinations).
On my last day here, I will be visiting the famed Angkor Wat, a world heritage site that brings in busloads of tourists each day. I guess nobody will argue with me that it’s Siem Reap’s main attraction. But there’s also the charming riverside spots where you can find shops, pubs, restaurants, cafés, and more temples.
With other Filipino visitors, I went to see the floating villages of Siem Reap yesterday. But we decided not to do the regular tour. Instead, we asked our tuk-tuk drivers to bring us to a clump of boathouses by the lakeside. The six of us all had the idea of doing an off-the-beaten-track type of tour, I guess.
A family welcomed us into their floating home (which I was afraid might sink with our combined weight!) and even gave us boat rides. None of the locals spoke English, but we made do with hand signals and lots of smiling. We had intruded upon their abode, which was humble but clean and surprisingly sturdy, and yet they welcomed us with earnest smiles.
I find Cambodians to be very friendly and warm. Everywhere I go here, whether I’m eating at their restaurant or not, whether I’m staying at their hotel or not, the locals are ready with their radiant smiles. I have never seen so many smiling faces before!
Davao City has so much to offer: from the islands to the highlands, as we like to say. But there seems to be something missing, something that Cambodians in Siem Reap have discovered. Something that I fervently hope we also find for ourselves in the Philippines.