Why Siem Reap Broke My Heart (But You Should Still Go)

On July 20th 2016, my husband and I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia for a 4-night stay. Of course our main motive for visiting this city was to see the massive temple complex at Angkor, but the things we learned left us heartbroken for Cambodia. We knew about the extreme poverty in the country, but we were blind to the reality of it.

Top Tips For Visiting Siem Reap

  • Don’t worry about prepping anything for your Visa-on-arrival – it’s all very easy and fast to do on-site
  • Bring USD – you won’t need local currency
  • Make a reservation at Genevieve’s Restaurant
  • Prepare yourself to be confronted with poverty

I’ll give you all my Angkor Wat specific tips next week!

Our Story

We arrived at a newly remodeled airport, It was so empty inside, but outside we saw more transport options than the airport could possibly need. I exchanged our Thai Baht and got a mixture of US dollars and Khmer Riel back, which had numbers in the tens of thousands printed on.

We stayed at the Naga Angkor Guesthouse, which I highly recommend, because of its central location, cheap private rooms, excellent staff and pool access. During our short walk to and Pub Street we were offered literally dozens of tuk tuk rides. Once we were on the street we were bombarded by barefoot kids selling postcards, women offering themselves as companions and tuk-tuk drivers pushing drugs.

The next day, in an effort to avoid hectic Pub Street, we spent our evening at the hotel. That evening we had long chats with the night manager, Boray, who told us he was headed to a funeral the following day. After our initial “sorry for your loss” comments, he told us it wasn’t a friend or family member, but a Cambodian activist named Kem Ley. Kem Ley was killed by an unknown gunman just days after criticizing the Prime Minister and his family. I did some research the following week and found out 2 million Cambodians attended this man’s funeral. And here’s when I discovered why we all need to inform ourselves about Cambodia and educate others.


A Brief History Of Modern Cambodia

Grassroots Activism

Kem Ley was beloved because he spent time staying with rural Cambodian families to understand if and how politics has led to their poverty. He bravely spoke out against the Prime Minister’s dictator-ish tactics and even founded an opposition party.

Current Governing Power

“Lord Prime Minister Supreme Military Commander” Hun Sen has been in power since 1985. The average annual income in Cambodia is $950/yr (I have to hold back tears every time I say or write that stat). Hun Sen’s family, on the other hand, is worth an estimated $200 million USD. He went straight from being a leader in the Khmer Rouge (KR) to governing Cambodia, and has used the same violent, corrupt tactics as the KR to remain in power.

Khmer Rouge

The KR’s goal was to ethnically cleanse Cambodia to bring it back to the “mythic past” of the Angkor Empire. This included returning to an agrarian society (primarily farmers).

Cambodian Genocide

To achieve their goals, KR leader Pol Pot organized a mass “cleansing” (AKA genocide) from 1975-79. In 4 years they murdered an estimated 2 to 3 million people, about 1/3 of the country’s population. The pure blood Khmer people with farming skills were relocated from urban centers to the countryside, while intellectuals and ethnic minorities were targeted.

Cycle Of Poverty

Flash forward to modern day and we’re still seeing the aftermath of this genocide. Somewhere between 80-90% of the modern workforce is farmers, making just enough money to live one day at a time. If there’s a bad season because of monsoon or drought and their fields can’t produce enough, they take out loans from the bank. Of course a barely subsisting farmer isn’t going to be able to pay that off that loan. What happens too often is the bank will claim their land, leaving them income-less. With too much time and no source of income, families will end up begging on the streets, oftentimes bringing their kids to do it with them. This then becomes their income and they again are living day by day.

Some kids are pulled out of school to help the family, leaving them uneducated with a low skill-set. In a way they’re being set up to live in the same way as their parents – day by day. On top of that, health care in Cambodia is unaffordable for many, and health in the country is generally poor. Poor infrastructure, low productivity, lack of education, lack of health… This is a cyclical process and won’t stop until something big changes.

Other Issues For Rural Communities

ALSO (yes this keeps going), there are freaking land mines that have been placed all over the country by different military groups over 3 decades of war – an estimated 4-6 million unexploded pieces still in the country. Cambodia has very high rates of land mine related deaths, injuries and amputations.

The last thing I’ll bring up is land grabbing. Basically what happens is the government sells land to investors to make money from it, evicting the rural people occupying the land. Sadly, farmers usually don’t know they’re going to be evicted until bulldozers and security guards are at their property. I’ve seen way too many videos of this on Facebook, including ones where children are beaten up and sometimes killed.


How To Help

There are a lot of different things that need to happen in order to improve the lives of Cambodian people, but my heart sees the real hope for the country in the children. Sending them to school so they can achieve a high skill set and obtain work that allows them to do more than subsist is so vital to the future of this country.

If you feel inspired to help, I want to be sure you’re wary of who you donate to. Unfortunately non-profit money often ends up the wrong hands, perpetuating the cycle of keeping the rich richer and the poor poorer.

One organization that I believe is reputable is Water Of Life. One of the vlogging families I follow on YouTube is involved in this organization and because I’ve seen physical proof in their videos that this organization does what it says it does – provide education opportunities for rural children – I feel comfortable recommending this to all of you and have included a link right here. I am in no way affiliated with this organization.

Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon,



Travel Vlogger YouTube Channel anxious girl fearless life


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