How Siem Reap’s old ‘colonial French’ era buildings survive the country’s savage conflicts is a miracle. A few decades ago, things were very different, everything was in decay. The French language, the former language of the elite and educated, was hardly spoken, in fact, speaking it meant death in the late 70’s. Today, there’s a fairly large group that studies French and its poised on making a come back. Khmer celebrities are being interviewed by French reporters in French. In the streets, it’s not unusual to hear Cambodian tour guides speaking French to their clients. I asked a Khmer friend if French speakers are growing in numbers and he said it is because aside from it being promoted by both local and the French government (through their aid groups), there’s a lot of Cambodians that studied and lived abroad that are now returning home.
But most impressive is the progress in the proliferation of English. Even ‘tuktuk’ drivers could speak it. Some of the most interesting discussions I had was with the average Khmer on the street! Motivation to learn English is driven by their tourism-based economy. Remember, they’re a former French colony, not English, so they’re learning the language practically from scratch. There’s an economic advantage in learning it and they know it. I was walking around the other day and saw several institutions offering English courses. I guess they’re done with the idea that learning foreign languages is unpatriotic. There’s a reason why the Filipino–Spanish speaking elite of the 20th century made Spanish a kitchen language–they don’t want their lowly servants to understand it. On the contrary, those heroic 19th century Filipino revolutionaries, who knew that Spanish was not prevalent during their time insist in communicating in Spanish–reason, they want even the lowliest of Filipinos to learn it.
But the most interesting discovery is the Filipino soap’s unwavering popularity here. Just the other day, while having lunch, I saw the staff that runs the eatery watching a fairly recent Filipino soap. I don’t know whether I should be proud or embarrassed but I guess these are revenue generating ventures that adds to our economy. They dub it in Khmer and it’s strange seeing Filipino actors made to sound like a Cambodian. They use to watch translated Thai dramas but I was told that it’s not popular now because of the small border wars between the two country. Marian Rivera’s ‘Mari Mar’ and the other show ‘Dyesebel’ were big hits here. While most of these shows are asinine and debasing, thanks to its quickie ‘pitu-pito style’ production, at least Khmer finds our actors attractive.
The streets of Siem Reap comes alive in the night time. I’m not into the ‘nightlife’ scene but the good eating spots in the area are in the vicinity of where the bars, the restos, the massage area and the ‘night market’. Just the other night I saw a group of Korean tourist, complete with a guide touring the streets at around 10pm. Sometimes the ‘Pub Street’ is teeming with tourist life that appears to mimic how Divisoria looks like before the beginning of school year. There was even a shop selling books in the middle of the night! And everybody, from the restaurants to the ‘tuktuk’ drivers, accepts US dollars which makes it easier to shop and move around. Unlike in other places where you’re hounded by vendors like hyenas, Cambodians here don’t sell too hard, they’d leave you alone when you say ‘no’. ‘Tuktuk’ drivers instinctively would offer you rides but tell them you don’t need one and they’ll go away. The bargain prices of food and the hospitality of the locals makes Siem Reap great for tourist. The Khmer driver that fetched me from the airport guaranteed the entire place to be safe even at night. I took his word for it and was never disappointed in his thoughtful counsel.