Yesterday I returned from a portrait assignment in Siem Reap, a small city geared in large part to tourism. Due to the epic local remnants of Angkor culture, such as the numerous astonishing temples including Angkor Wat, it is a fascinating place which I was happy to visit again.
As soon as we touched down late night at the small and efficient airport, the warm heavy air and familiar scents greeted us. So too did two locals from the FCC hotel who were to drive us to the property. Their gentle and soft spoken demeanor, typical of Cambodia, was a welcoming first moment.
The increased development in the last three years since I’d been to Siem Reap was notable, mostly in the form of cookie cutter / Disney land like hotels along the main strip which leads into town. It seems that anyone and everyone can build a hotel – there are many Korean and Chinese hotels catering to large numbers of their countrymen visiting the area. Of course upon seeing these constructions I’m filled with mixed emotions as their presence certainly alters the landscape…yet they bring jobs to a poor town in a poor country. The hope is that there might be a zoning law restricting the types and volume of constructions so that this unique yet vulnerable area can develop in the most positive of ways. At least these hotels are far from the temples.
Cambodia has a tragic, violent past which is still palpable today. It is struggling to address many profound social and economic problems. Since befriending a local girl, Kimleang, over three years ago, I’ve learned much more about the culture. She has shared many of her personal and family daily struggles in Siem Reap, but she is actually one of the lucky young women full of much promise. She is the first member of her family ever to go beyond the first grade all the way to university, and is smart, hardworking and curious. I do my best to nurture her aspirations even from afar, but of course it’s much better face to face. If you ever visit Siem Reap, please go to her relative’s restaurant in the city center which serves classic Khmer dishes. It’s called Khmer Kitchen.
Or visit my friend’s gallery, John McDermott Gallery, where his epic fine art photo collection “Elegy”, capturing the ethereal Angkor temples, is on display. John has lived in Siem Reap since the mid 90’s and his work is a detailed and priceless record of the area.