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Exploring Angkor Wat

Today is August 10, and we got up at 4:30 AM to go out and watch the sunrise (with about a thousand other people) at Angkor Wat. Because it was overcast, we didn’t get the full glory, but I’m glad we did it.

Yesterday, we explored Angkor Wat and Angkhor Thom in detail and came back to the hotel late afternoon for a nap before going to the Old Market area for dinner. Transportation is by tuk-tuk. There are virtually no taxis here. Tour groups use buses, and individuals and couples use tuk-tuks. The cost was $12 for the day. Some of the younger travelers rent bicycles.

When I was here in 1970, Siem Reap was about the size of Pt.Reyes Station on a good day. The city was substantially destroyed in the wars but has rebounded to a robust 150,000 today. Visitors to the temple complexes were in the hundreds then; today they are in the thousands or maybe tens of thousands. A pass to the temple complex costs $20 a day or $40 for three days, per person. There were only a few hotels before, and most of them were destroyed in the 1970s. Today, there are hundreds of large new hotels, many of them as fine as anywhere in the world, lining the main streets and Highways. Think Orlando.

Maintaining the temples is a constant fight against rain, humidity and the jungle. A number of international organizations are involved. Before 1970, the French were exclusive, but now many countries are involved in this UN World Heritage Site.

Cambodia, and especially Siem Reap is really hot for the international late teen and twenty-something crowd. Travel for the “backpacker” persuasion of young people can be really cheap. They are mostly non-Americans, including Japanese, Canadians, Europeans and Australians. Yesterday, we met a vacationing Cambodian family that lives in San Diego but still has relatives nearby. The restaurant district last night was crammed with mostly young people. Happy hour with $0.50 beer lasts from 4:00 PM until 10:00 PM. Hundreds of packed restaurants line narrow streets and alleys in an atmosphere that is almost Bourbon Street without the strippers.

They say tourism is down due to the global recession, but it certainly doesn’t look that way.

Traffic  in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is much better than Saigon, which probably holds a world’s record for congestion. There are proportionately more cars in Cambodia than Vietnam, which is counterintuitive, but the motorcycle still rules.

Some urban design observations about both Vietnam and Cambodia. Streets are typically built with generous sidewalks, all nicely paved in attractive unit pavers of various kinds, often 20-30 feet wide. But they are totally occupied with parked cars and motorcycles, market stalls, and people simply eating dinner. The result is that pedestrians have nowhere to go but the street and compete with cars, trucks and motorcycles.

On our last day in Phnom Penh before leaving for Siem Reap, we went to the National Museum, the Royal Palace and the Genocide Museum. Phnom Penh has retained most of its Parisian planning, with many wide boulevards, parks and street trees everywhere. It is a thoroughly modern city in many respects.

I am impressed by the seeming liquidity with which capital and business seems to circulate around Asia. These two cities were devastated only 20-30 years ago, yet today they are repopulated, rebuilt and humming with business and tourism. There don’t seem to be a lot of older people around. Millions of the older generations were killed by the Khmer Rouge or otherwise in the wars of the 1970s. The resilience of people who live here is astounding, but there must be source of virtually unlimited capital to finance all this growth – by most accounts, Chinese. It’s “build it, and the will come” approach that seems to be working. I wonder if New Orleans will come back so fast.

Global warming and sea level rise is a big concern in this part of Asia. Hey say Vietnam is the fifth most vulnerable country in the world, primarily because of its agriculture rich but low lying deltas.