Pub street, the main night-life area of Siem Reap, was another one of those unexpected places encountered during my stay in Southeast Asia (we never stopped learning new things on this trip, so it obviously was an immensely successful study abroad). When reading about Cambodia, I learned of war, and genocide, and people suffering from lost limbs as a result of still-active mines. What I never read about was just how developed (and safe) Siem Reap has become in the past decade and how fantastic the night-life scene is in this little town of 250,000 (about the size of Lincoln Nebraska).
Admittedly, my fellow classmate, Damien, and I were looking for a break from Asian food and ended up at a pizza place in the strip of restaurants with names all strikingly similar to each other; happy pizza, happy herb pizza, ecstatic pizza, happy Angkor pizza. No surprise, Chicago pizza wins 🙂 While we ate, fireworks went off in a courtyard across the way. We had no idea why since it was now a full week after New Years and a couple of weeks before Tet. Little did I know I’d have my own adventure later in the night, during which I would discover the meaning of the celebration.
Damien and I started at Angkor What?, the first bar to open on Pub Street back in 1998, which offers $0.50 drafts of Angkor and Anchor beer (and they taste about the same). Almost everyone spoke English and everywhere we went listed items in U.S. dollars. Being on the other side of the globe, I found it strange I never had to exchange to the local currency, the Riel (our professor suggested just bringing a lot of singles, which was a great suggestion because that is all I had to use).
While observing the movement on the street from the outside patio, we noticed a whole group of our fellow classmates walking by. Soon thereafter we left Angkor What? and ended up dancing our hearts out at Temple Club.
A couple of hours later, around midnight or so, I went to the street outside to get my bearings and determine which direction to walk to get back to the hotel. The cold I had been fighting since arriving in SEA seemed to be getting worse, so I decided it was time to call it a night. While looking at my map, I saw Cambodian kids dancing next to me. Despite having to sell items on the street in the middle of the night, they still had cute little smiles on their faces and seemed very happy. These two in the video look about the age of my niece and nephew…I can’t imagine them being out at 12am having to make money to eat.
At the very end of that video, around the 1:15 minute mark, you’ll see a guy in a white shirt. That’s Mr. Chin, a soon to be new friend who allowed me to have an adventure I will never forget. He approached me asking if he could help me figure out how to get where I needed to go. Yes, but both being endlessly curious, we started a conversation that ended up lasting a couple of hours.
This tuk-tuk driver was warm and friendly and having the good sense to trust him I asked where he and other locals like to hang out. I asked if he could take a break from driving people around and have a couple of beers with me off Pub street and somewhere else that my classmates wouldn’t likely find. He took me a bar owned by his friend, Crazy Buntha.
Buntha was only slightly crazy, more funny and quirky if you ask me. I noticed a Khmer waitress behind the bar, and a group of Aussies who live in Siem Reap (if I remember correctly they do UN peace-keeping work). For the next hour or so he asked me all about life in the states, how my husband and I met, what he and I do for a living, what we do for fun, where we’ve traveled, and so on. Only having the chance to travel to the U.S. in his wildest dreams, he was as interested in learning from me as I was him. He told me about life in Cambodia, taught me how to say thank you in Khmer (Ahh Koon), and shared his thoughts about the police in his city. “Now it is very safe here. About 80% people here good, 20% or so bad.” I assured him that was probably the case in the U.S., and the rest of the world, as well.
Pointing at the Khmer day calendar, Chin said, “Buntha, change the day, the day over,” and ripped January 7th off the wall since it was now about 1:30am on the 8th. Chin handed it to me and said “Today was special day, we celebrate. Today was celebrate Vietnamese overthrow of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. In 1979 on this day, they come and save our country, so we happy.” This explained the fireworks I saw earlier! How exciting to be able to celebrate that day with a local! Shortly thereafter I was too tired and talking became painful (suffering early stages of laryngitis) so I asked him to take me back to the hotel.
This one day, ending with drinks and conversation with Chin, was my personal favorite of the trip. He even gave me his information so that I could call and have him and his tuk-tuk driving friends pick my classmates and I up the next night and do something similar, but sadly, this was the only night I was able to go out in Cambodia because the cold I was fighting, well, it ended up winning.
I found this interesting clip about the event from ABC in 1979. Interesting what other governments, including the U.S. said about it at the time. Thank God the Vietnamese overthrew Pol Pot, one of the worst mass-murders in history!