Downtown Siem Reap, the late King Father, the Cambodian hustle, and Cambodian food

After Beng Melea, like every night, we went down to Siem Reap’s Pub Street and Alley Street.  This is where you see lots of other backpackers and travelers.  And so follow the tuk-tuk drivers.  If 85% of Cambodians are farmers, I would say nearly 90% of Cambodian males (and worth noting – no females) living in or near a city are tuk-tuk drivers (not just Siem Reap, saw it in Phnom Penh as well).  Seriously,they are all tuk-tuk drivers.  For every 1 traveler you see wandering on the street or eating in a restaurant, there will be 3 tuk-tuk drivers soliciting them.   It is almost absurd – you can get off your tuk-tuk ride to pub street and 15 seconds later, 15 steps away, some other guy is offering you a tuk-tuk ride.  It must be hard for them – a tuk-tuk driver could ask people for business all day and not make a buck.  Sometimes you just have to be lucky, but aggression helps you get luckier more often.

The tuk-tuk drivers will linger right outside of restaurants and the moment you step out you are being asked to take their tuk-tuk.  They start out with “you need tuk-tuk?” or “tuk-tuk please!”  They are basically saying you would be doing them a favor to take their tuk-tuk, and I guess in way you would be. And if not right then, “let me be your tuk-tuk driver tomorrow.”  Many of the folks around Siem Reap are cleverly wearing t-shirts they bought in Seim Reap saying “No tuk-tuk today.  Or Tomorrow.”  Its easier just to point to a t-shirt than saying “No” 50 times an evening I guess.  Ben got one of these tank tops at a market for $3.

That every man here moonlights as a tuk-tuk driver is another reflection on Cambodian’s struggling economy.  I guess just strapping a carriage onto the back of your motorcycle is just one of the easiest ways to make an extra buck.  The people here don’t have “hobbies” like we do back home – their “hobby” is surviving – every moment in their day is a day that they could be making a buck and to waste it doing otherwise is mostly foolish to them.  I will momentarily flash forward to the end of the week, when I asked Hon if he would finally have a day off after dragging us around for five days.  He just replied, smiling, “No I work every day.”  Oh, I see…

Back to downtown Siem Reap.  There are roughly 100 restaurants in a 4 block radius on Alley Street and Pub Street, and they are all pretty much the same.   Many of them even have identical menus – it almost seems like the restaurants collaborated and got a bulk menu-printing discount at the local print shop.  Most restaurants and pubs offer the same specials as well – 50 cent beers and free popcorn- these are similarities I won’t complain about.

One thing I noticed was that it was somewhat quiet for “Pub Street”.  No music playing at all and the restaurant that was supposed to do classic Khmer apsara dancing each night was not offering it.  I found out this was because Cambodia’s  King, Norodom Sihanouk, died on October 15 and all Cambodians were paying tribute with 10 days of mourning.  I remembered reading in the LP that the King Father’s health was on the decline was we passed into Poipet on the 19th of October.  Unbeknownst to me while I was reading it, he had died five days earlier.  I asked Hon about his opinion of the late King Father and it was very positive and respectful.  Cambodians truly loved him – more about this here.

Cambodian food is less spicy than Thai food – I like spicy so I guess I would prefer Thai food to Cambodian. I would describe Cambodian food as hearty and health.  Khmer curry is not spicy but has a mildly sweet taste and comes with chicken, veggies, and pineapple – with a side of steamed rice, it fills you up.  The traditional dish is a soup with fish and veggies – the taste of the broth is most significantly enhanced by stuff called Prohoc, a fish paste.  The LP warned the taste of prohoc might take some “getting used to” but I loved it immediately.  Very tasty and again, hearty and filling.

After dinner we checked out one of the night markets in Siem Reap.  Much like in Bangkok, every one of the 50 or so vendors was selling the exact same variation on one of 5 general things: 1) T-shirts, 2) Dresses, 3) Jewelry, 4) souvenir-like trinkets, and 5) beatsbydre headphones/electronics.  Because of this set up, much like the vendor of every other commodity in Cambodia, to the aggressor goes the spoils – and the best vendors are the ones who can most slyly (with a casual joke or conversation starter) or overtly (“you want angkor wat t-shirt before you go!”) get you to stop at their stand.  Once you are there, the negotiation is always pretty much the same – they start with a price that is 4x as much as they’d be willing to accept, you counter with an absurdly low number, and you settle somewhere in the middle.

Most times even when I know I can keep haggling and get a better price, I relent early.  The reason is twofold.  First, when It comes down to it you end up haggling over a difference of 50 cents, which seems silly.  Second, it makes me feel better about the whole transaction when they can walk away feeling like they really got a good deal, rather than feeling upset.  I guess this makes me a bad businessman over here, but it has seemed to work for me thus far.

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