Friday, June 12, 2009

Rainy Days and Empty Streets

It’s the rainy season over here right now and the first time I’ve been here this late into the monsoon period. I thought it would rain all the time. You know, just pour from the sky, flood the streets, fill the rice paddies and swamp villages. But it’s not that way at all. It will rain a lot, sometimes every day. But the rains usually come in the late afternoon, and seldom last for more than hour.

By my goodness; when it does rain, it leaves little doubt. The storms roll in with dark clouds, lighting and thunder that sound like bombs going off. One struck just across the street from me once, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Then the rains start. I’ve seen it rain so hard you can barely see across the street. And if the winds come in, it can be nearly horizontal.

Then almost as quickly as it started it will go away. The clouds usually linger and that’s good because it’s always hot over here, but if the sun is blocked it can be quite pleasant.

Right now it’s 10:30 in the morning on Friday. I’m sitting upstairs at a little café in downtown Siem Reap watching the traffic pass by below me. It’s cloudy out today and the sun is passing from one huge cloud to the next. I guess we’ll have some rain this afternoon.

When I was here last year it was pretty crowded with tourists in Siem Reap. The economy hadn’t crashed…any where, and things looked pretty rosy. Land prices in Siem Reap, like many places around the world, were skyrocketing. Land that cost $5,000 a few years ago was selling for 20-30 times that now, especially with all the new roads that are being built. There was a lot of speculation and people were making tons of money.

Then came October.

The tourist industry didn’t start to feel the hit until after the high season ended in February/March. People visiting Cambodia last fall had bought their tours before the economic collapse and couldn’t cancel so they came. But people aren’t buying the tours in the numbers they used to.

Most of the tourists over here now are trekkers; young kids in their 20s, many recent college grads, who’ve decided to see the world since they can’t find a job. The middle class, mid-aged, and older tourists are far and few between.

I’ve been told that at least 7 hotels have closed. Temporarily they hope. And it is true that at this time of year, low season, hotels often take the time to renovate and may close for a while. But the locals are comparing this to the SARS epidemic of 2003 when tourism to Asia virtually ceased and hundreds of thousands lost their jobs.

Adding to the troubles is the political turbulence in Thailand where demonstrators have shut down the Bangkok airport for weeks at a time. Most of the tourists flying into Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor come in from Bangkok, so that too is affecting the whole industry.

But Cambodia will get through this crisis as it has all the others it’s faced over the last 50 years. As bad as things appear, no one is killing anyone.

More as the world turns……

Babu in the jungle

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