siem reap the sequel

Half a decade ago, a hyper-active, overly excited and juvenile version of me first set foot on the rustic town of Siem Reap, the mecca for every small boys who dreamt of becoming Indiana Jones (or maybe Lara Croft).

I remember waking up when the aircraft wheels hit the tarmac, struggling to see against the gleaming sunlight outside the window, as I stretch my limbs inside the then newly launched fleet of AirAsia. An interrupted sleep on a bad hangover wasn’t really the way I envisioned myself seeing this childhood dream comes to life.

Half a decade ago, a cup of coffee was always enough to jumpstart my drive and eagerness to go around and see things when I travel. As we go straight from the airport and see the Angkor temples on the same morning we arrived, spend the whole day roaming around and even having enough energy to party the night later. Can you imagine that? Now repeat that for 5 days.

That summer of 2008 happened really quickly for a young energetic traveler that I was. The memory when Meang sent us to the bus terminal and bade farewell is still vividly imprinted in my head like as if it only happened yesterday.

Half a decade ago, I left this town and promised to be back as soon as I get the chance.

2013

16 countries later, I arrived in the same airport, with the same sunlight waking me up when the aircraft wheels hit the tarmac. I arrived as the same traveler minus the P100 fake sunglasses, beer stained shirt, 70L backpack and planned itinerary.

What a half decade can do to a traveler? Am I more matured now? Will a bad knee stop me from climbing up the temples? Perhaps the best way to find out is to revisit the places and do the same thing and see if the changes in the destination are comparable on the rate of change in me.

I was welcomed with the same tuktuk driver and Meang who welcomed me years ago. The airport looks the same, only this time there are more Asian travelers in the immigration area as compared to all blonde haired backpackers five years ago.

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The road from the airport to the town center was then a dusty asphalt highway lined with trees, farmlands and occasional construction sites strewn every 500 meters.

Now the farm and rice paddies are hidden behind the line of boutique hotels standing side by side with strong sense of grandiosity. The French inspired architecture, water fountains and Khmer statues are displayed in a manner attempting to outshine the competition. The grand designs and standing chauffeurs in white sharp uniforms easily made Manila Peninsula Hotel look so pedestrian.

But I felt ambivalent. Not really sure if it is a good thing or bad. Perhaps for the business owners it is good, but the old Siem Reap that I know and the homey feel it exudes might not be there anymore… What the hell happened? I didn’t know Donald Trump and SMDC are now taking over Cambodia.

I was seriously scared if I see Angkor wat with a towering commercial condominium behind it… or a zipline running from Phnom Bakheng down to Angkor Thom… or the then young girls selling souvenirs are now wearing skimpy skirts partying in pub street like as if Miley Cyrus possessed them with the hip thrusting non verbal sexual innuendos.

Horror!

I arrived in the same hostel, booked the same room and threw my  duffle bag on the same bed that cradled me during the nights (mornings) that I was drunk five years ago.

I sat down and looked outside the window with the view of the Buddhist Temple, trying to convince myself that the soft hustle and bustle that I hear from afar were just ringing noise in my head due to altitude from the flight.

Is it really a changed Siem Reap? Is it the five years of promoting tourism that backfired and fostered capitalism?

Maybe it is just me, maybe this time I was expecting too much. Am I no longer the same traveler who accepts the place for what it is as it welcomes me? Am I now too into postcard traveling, with lost sense of fun and blind for seeing beauty in everything?

TO BE CONTINUED

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