Old French Quarter


October 2010

The market was rather dimly lit, although one could easily detect and sidestep the scraps of paper and stalks of vegetables discarded on the cement floor. It was already past lunchtime and the market’s busiest hours were long over. But several vendors were in no hurry to pack up. They sat around their stalls, chatting and perhaps waiting for some last-minute regular customers to come and clear the leftover stock of vegetables and unfamiliar-looking ingredients.

It was obviously not the ideal time to observe local culture in Siem Reap. At least, there was a middle-aged Cambodian woman frying sliced bean curds in a small wok. The air inside the market was redolent of spices and cooking oil. At the same time, Psar Chas or Old Market, located in the city’s Old French Quarter, felt decently ventilated.

More stalls lined the fringes of the market, selling ubiquitous goods used by Cambodian households: utensils, feather dusters, pails, baskets, toilet bowl pumps, jerry cans, umbrellas, clothes, footwear and cigarettes. Others sold products catering to the tourist trade – postcards, folded fans, silk scarves and bed covers, fashion accessories and wood carvings. Many of the stallholders were local women and one of them was minding her toddler son while running a clothes business. Parked along the road bordering the market were motorcycles, with local men sitting on several of them, waiting for someone or something to happen…

A Caucasian man in a black polo shirt and floral shorts with dishevelled hair and a cigarette gripped between his fingers walked down the market’s corridor. He paid scant attention to the neatly arranged merchandise, talking instead to a bored-looking Caucasian woman dressed suitably for the humid afternoon – tank top, shorts and flip-flops.

A handful of tourists were spotted across the street, lounging in rattan chairs and enjoying a glass of beer in a Mexican café that also served Khmer cuisine and, according to its advertising banner, has “Sold The Most Margarita in Siem Reap”. The café occupied several units of a two-storey shophouse, its façade awash in ochre and decorated with white arched windows and columns. Paintings of cactus, aimed at raising the restaurant’s Mexican credibility, filled the pillars on the ground level.    

Many of the shophouses in the Old French Quarter have been converted into cafés, restaurants, spas, money exchangers and shops offering traditional Khmer massage. Watering holes, including The Warehouse, were also commonly found. Situated next door to a spa business operating from a lime green-painted shophouse, The Warehouse did not look particularly eye-catching, save for its black signboard announcing its insomniac operating hours of “1030 AM to 300 AM” and the numerous posters and banners advertising San Miguel and Tiger beer. Again, a few Caucasian tourists were seen relaxing with a book and drinks.

Nearby were three local drivers of the tuk-tuk – a two-wheel passenger carriage retrofitted to a motorcycle in the front – sitting aimlessly and waiting futilely for customers. Not having a bountiful day too were the children roaming the streets in search of tourists to buy their postcards. After all, during the day, most tourists were either sightseeing in the Angkor Historical Park or cruising down the Tonle Sap Lake.

While endless cars, bicycles and motorcycles (with some accommodating two pillion riders) careened down the spotless roads, past Cambodian flags fluttering under cable wires running amok from lamppost to lamppost, the Old French Quarter during the day was as slow moving as the weed-infested canal nearby.

Come nightfall, the town woke up from its mid-day slumber. The tables and chairs in eateries, bars and cafés started to be taken up. Aromatic smokes wafted from the food stalls. Furious slicing on chopping boards and the clanking of ladles and woks. Over noodles and fried vegetables, a tourist had dinner with his guide who later bumped into his friend, another tour guide, who then introduced a tourist he was with to the group. Conversations were struck, and briefly interrupted by a young local woman looking for potential customers to buy reproduced prints of the apsara, the dancing celestial maidens gracing the weathered walls of the Angkor temples. A print cost one American dollar but unfortunately there were no takers.

Siem Reap and, particularly its Old French Quarter, was obviously a tourist town, a respite for wearied, sunburnt tourists to recharge after a day’s trip to the Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Siem Reap’s identity then was invariably intertwined with this renowned landmark and a tourist needed little reminder of this symbiotic, possibly unequal relationship, having stayed in Angkorland Hotel where young local staff served complimentary drinks to arriving guests. The same tourist might have dined in Angkor Palm restaurant, where he learnt from a local waiter that he had left his hometown in another province in Cambodia to work in Siem Reap. With gratitude, the waiter declared, “Without Angkor Wat, Cambodia would not be famous.”

And next door to Angkor Palm was a shop named Angkor Candles. Even establishments not directly associated with the hospitality business were unabashed in milking the Angkor connection – a shop selling gas cookers and cylinders has called itself Angkor Gas. 

So, without Angkor Wat and its sprawling complex of religious relics and ruins and the booming tourist trade, Siem Reap could find itself in an identity and existential crisis.

Tourism has provided an economic lifeline to many Cambodians, still suffering from the widespread impoverishment made worse by the atrocities inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime. Lives have improved and the future appeared hopeful. A waiter working in a hotel aspired to study technology or English in university.

Of course, things could be better. A tour guide-cum-driver earned about US$60 a month, just enough to get by but not enough to “get married to a girl in Siem Reap” or to set up a mobile phone shop. But he was most certainly better off than others.

From one of the windows on the second floor of Le Grand Café, where old photographs hung on its walls and floral-patterned tiles covered its floor, a newly arrived tourist tried to orientate himself with the sights and sounds of the Old French Quarter, including Psar Chas and a man napping in his green tuk-tuk printed with the words “Luxury” and “Mr Bean Funny Man”. Then the tourist witnessed an act that would be permanently etched in his head. Two girls, five or six years of age, were standing near a rubbish bin. Later, one of them watched as the other, whose upper body was half-bent inside the bin, rummaged for something, to sell or to eat.

A plate of crème brûlée at Le Grand Café cost US$3.50.

The fare of a tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap to Tonle Sap was US$10.

For another US$20, one could enjoy an hour-long scenic boat ride down the Tonle Sap Lake.

To enter the Angkor temples, a visitor had to pay US$20 for a day pass.

Before leaving Siem Reap, it was mandatory for a tourist to pay an airport tax of US$25.

Where and to whom did all the tourist dollars go?