We spent the next few days in Siem Reap, touring the major tourist sites and enjoying Cambodian culture. We were guided through Angkor Wat by the Director of the National Museum in Siem Reap. It was amazing to hear the stories depicted in the carvings. Mostly battles, but a few panels on life during the Angkor period. The Director mentioned that Siem Reap attracts 4.6 million visitors per year. If just 5% of those visited Preah Vihear, it would be a significant boone to the economy. The Director of Urbanization and Demographics from Preah Vihear was also in attendance for these conversations.
We were also able to have dinner with Fellowship alums Chhon Chhea Yut and Piseth Has. Yut operates a tour company and he had an interesting perspective on getting more travelers to Preah Vihear. He said that most tour companies already have packages ready for visits to Preah Vihear, including his. The challenge is that he believes the average length of stay in Siem Reap is 1.2 days. Most people come there through Thai-based travel companies and they fly in and out the same day (or the night before). Other statistics suggest that the average stay is 2.5 days, but the issue will be getting Thai-based travel companies to have their clients stay longer spending money in Cambodia rather than Thailand.
The highlight of the trip to Siem Reap was attending a special event at the "Three Temple" area in Angkor Park hosted by Parliamentarian Yara Suos in honor of Gilbert Guillaume (International Court Judge) and Jean David Levitte (former French Ambassador to the United States, primary architect of the Paris Accord). First, the temples were lighted and featured traditional Cambodian Apsara dancing in full costume. Secondly, I had the opportunity to have a long, frank discussion about Cambodia, U.S. involvement in Cambodia over time, and even the Khmer Rouge with Mr. Suos. The insight I gained really help me understand the perspective of the Cambodian people.
While in Siem Reap, we also made a visit to Tonle Sap and the floating village of Prek Toal. The only structures on land in this village are the Pagoda and a USAID building. All of the other buildings are floating, stores, houses, government offices, and schools. I’m not sure of the population, but it would be considered a sizable town in Montana. Astonishingly, 1 million people live in the Tonle Sap area, and 250,000 are estimated to live on the water. Our lake trip was originally intended to be a three hour boat tour to Prek Toal, but we decided to add a boat tour to look at the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve (USAID project) to see the birds. We ended up getting back after dark. The 18 year old captain of the tour boat said he could get us back to Siem Reap with no lights and no navigation. Thankfully, Sokty and I were able to talk him into staying overnight at a guest house. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure we would have ended up in Vietnam. Staying there was quite an adventure. We stayed in a guesthouse that had mattresses on the floor with mosquito netting. There was a wedding going on across the river that BLASTED music until 11pm. But it was the all night boat travel that was the loudest, at least until the wedding music promptly restarted at 5am. We also got a tour of the guest house owners crocodile farm behind the house.
Cambodia has significant environmental concerns for Tonle Sap. After supporting people for thousands of years, the lake is now under pressure from overfishing and 250,000 residents living on it without sanitation systems.