Atia will soon turn 30. He owns a tuk-tuk and works long days carrying tourists around in Siem Reap, a major tourist hub close to the world famous temples of Angkor.
He lives alone in the city and gets up very early in the morning to bring customers to watch the sunrise over the ruins of the main temple, and from there he drives them from highlight to highlight.
He is bored. He has seen the temples a thousand times and he has other things to worry about.
He has a son and a daughter, but they live far away with their mother while he lives in a small flat for which he pays 200$ a month. A fortune, he says.
While I visited, I stayed at his parent’s place, a house built with wood and aluminum plates in the outskirts of the city.
His younger siblings, two girls and a boy, lived there as well. The house had no doors, no running water, the kitchen was a simple pan on the floor and the “toilet” was a hole in the wood placed above the river.
Atia took me to the outskirts to meet his father and his sibblings. He cooked fresh fish and offered me some tea. His siblings played with their mobile phones, a picture which struck me profoundly and helped understand the great contrasts of this city.
Siem Reap means “Siamese defeated”, referring to the victory of the Khmer Empire over the Thai kingdom in the 17th century.
At the end of the 90’s, the city was a provincial town with few facilities and almost no roads. The few tourists that visited the area were adventurous backpackers arriving from Thailand in small trucks, spending hours on bumpy roads to reach an underdeveloped town surrounded by floating villages made of wood.
In less than a decade, big hotels and modest guesthouses were built, the foundations for new roads were laid and the temples slowly turned into the lucrative business they are today. Masses of tourists from all over the world started visiting the fascinating temples, but all of it at a cost to the people living there. They now pay inflated prices at the central markets and survive on poorly paid subsistence farming and fishing.
Siem Reap now sees over two million visitors a year.
One of the towns surrounding the big city of Siem Reap is Kuolong Phukh, a floating village that you won’t find in the maps. It takes about 45 minutes to get there in a tuk-tuk and then another 20 minutes by boat.
It is settled on the shores of Tonle Sap, the greatest sweet water reserve in whole Southeast Asia, and the whole village seems to be walking on sticks when the tide is low.
Life develops on water: you can see girls “going for a walk” in their boats, men carrying wood logs or plants for plaiting around in the boats, fishermen exhibiting their goods on a piece of wood over tangled fishnets and I even saw a girl washing her hair in the boat.
The simple houses stand on weak-looking trunks, open for everyone to see, the old ones covered with dry palm leaves and the newer ones with aluminum plates.
When the tide is low and you get off the boat you see the inside of the little town. There you can see tractors and motorbikes parked on the sides, next to the “floating houses”.
When I was there, a big load of tiny prawns were displayed in the sun in the middle of the only “street” in the village. A little boy, unaware that I was observing, approached the load, looked around and went straight for one of them.
Other children played around with broken buckets or old tyres while their parents closely followed their moves.
There were only two elder people to see in the village though: an old fisherman and an old woman who I saw sitting ashore with her grey hair set up in a bun, watching the younger generation sail by.
Between 1975 and 1979, the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge claimed the lives of two million people. Whole families died from execution, starvation, disease or overwork, something that still hunts its inhabitants and will take generations to get over.
In a country that struggles against memory, reconciliation is difficult, its history is ever-present but often wilfully ignored.
If I ever go back, I am sure the next generation will have made it to an elderly age and I will see them sitting ashore watching the younger ones pass by in their wooden boats oblivious of the unforgiving regime.