I want to go back someday...
08.11.2010 - 11.11.2010 33 °C
Peace, finally. Am I referring to my own travels or to Cambodia's history with three civil wars in the last century*? Hard to say. Regardless, arriving at night in Siem Reap and riding from the airport to the guesthouse, I was struck, as I was on a tuk-tuk, that this is what a tuk-tuk ride was supposed to be like, along a peaceful countryside and small town, without the noise and crowding of the big city. This was helped by my driver, Mr. Dy, who welcomed me at the airport with the biggest and warmest smile, as well as his taciturn and shy 6 year old son.
Mr. Dy as I was leaving Cambodia:
So as much as Hanoi in Vietnam grows on you after a while, Cambodia just "felt right" immediately. I was very interested in visiting Cambodia as when I was a child, our church parish welcomed and helped out a Cambodian family escaping from Pol Pot's regime and the aftermath*. I remember as a child going to visit them a few years after they had been established, and them giving us kids packs of asian noodle soups which I really enjoyed. Many years later, we visited them again, and they were well established owning (if I recall) three restaurants and having done very well for themselves (they were very hard working!). I also wanted to see Cambodia as I'd seen wonderful pictures of Angkor Wat and other temples close to Siem Reap.
I stayed at the Bun Kao guest house in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a rather surprising place as there are cheep guesthouses (mine cost 6.50$ a night for a private room and was really nice) as well as very expensive hotels. It struck me more here than anywhere else, the contrast between the poor locals and the rich tourists (specifically, lots of Japanese living it up in the nice hotels). Of course, it is no different than a nice luxurious hotel in Delhi, but somehow, it struck me more here. Perhaps the difference is that I was less overwhelmed here and let the feeling "come in".
Early the next morning, aboard my tuk-tuk being driven by a cheerful Mr. Dy, I visited Angkor Wat under an overcast sky. The lighting wasn't ideal for photography, but the temple is such a wonder that there really is no way not to be amazed. It is believe to originally have been a temple dedicated to Vishnu, but as the Khmer became buddhist over the years, so did Angkor Wat. Visiting Angkor Wat is a bit like pealing an onion, you start from the outside and work your way in through the outer yards towards the inner yards. The murals on the outer walls depict hindu scenes with Garuda, Naga and some devas, but as you walk through the hallways, you see statues of Buddha placed strategically with a monk offering to bless you.
Of all of the places I've seen, Angkor Wat is the one which I most would have liked to "discover" and explore without the hordes of tourists. It really is fascinating. It is best, though, when visiting, not to have vertigo as many of the climbs (as well as in all of the nearby temples) are very steep. In the 60s, a French woman felt down the stairs to her death. Her husband decided to pay for the installation of a metal guide rail to have something to hold on to. This didn't stop a Korean man from falling and killing himself 3 years ago, prompting the government of Cambodia to close the central and highest part of Angkor Wat until a new staircase could be installed. The site only reopened a few months ago. Though safer, the climb is still very very steep!
After Angkor Wat, I got to visit several other temples, built at other times (as rather than having small buddha statues around the temples the walls have huge smiling buddhas sculpted into them). My favourite temple Ta Phrom is a temple where trees are growing on top of the structure, the huge roots permeating the rock structure. It gives a somewhat eery feeling of age.
For lunch, I ran amok of one of the numerous, though local, tourist trap lunch places and had Amok for lunch (sorry, I couldn't really resist). Amok is either fish or chicken with a leafy vegetable cooked in a coconut milk, and chilies (though mild by Thai standards) and served in a freshly cut and opened coconut. It is really delicious. I also sampled the local Angkor beer, which in my mind rates just behind Beer Lao (really good in all varieties) but ahead of Tiger beer, and way ahead of Singha or Chang.
Then came one of the moments where you wonder what to do ethically. Around Angkor Wat are families that sell stuff. I say families as the whole family is there to some extent. So two little girls come up to me trying to sell me bracelets and postcards for "1 dollar - only 1 dollar" (the Cambodian version of - "Massage? Would you like a massage?" of Thailand and the "Camel? Would you like a camel? Cheap camel! Good camel!" of Egypt - ie, you hear it a lot…). I had been wondering what to get my nieces and these extensible bracelets would fit them nicely now. So the question is should I be encouraging mini-hawkers which will keep pestering tourists or not? You do have to wonder, as the biggest of the two girls should have been in school. But then, at the same time, as they are getting money for their family (who feed them) now and are not in school and probably never will be, what more can you do but buy some beads?
On the topic of school, after my tour of the temples, which Mr. Dy does part time, he took me to an orphanage where he works. The organization is responsible for taking care of kids that were reclaimed from the child trafficking problems in Cambodia. Kids are frequently bought (from their parents) or kidnapped in Cambodia and sold to slavery in foreign countries including the sex trade in Thailand. As the government has tightened security at the border, they are able to save some of these kids, which sometimes can't be identified and returned to their parents or who shouldn't be returned to parents who sold them.
Here's a little wood elf I ran into at Ta Phrom temple... She should have been in school, but her family were busy trying to survive by selling stuff to the people that visit the temples. Rather sad as she didn't have anything to do and was just staying there...
This orphanage is specialized in helping the blind and the deaf kids that are reclaimed. It seemed to be a nice school and I got to look around. I then asked Mr. Dy about the situation in schools in Cambodia. He said that the education is basically free by law, but in reality isn't and is of poor quality. The government doesn't pay the teachers enough, such that it is common for the family with kids in school to give the teacher either food or money. These conditions obviously don't attract the best type of teachers. Also, kids frequently don't have school gear, ie pens, paper, books etc… Furthermore, the economy is such that many people have to travel to the neighbouring countries to get a decent job.
While taking a cooking class in Bangkok, I met a person who was an airline pilot but who spent a month of his time off teaching English in Cambodia. That is starting to be very tempting for me as well.
That night, I had my first Khmer massage. It is basically like a Thai massage, but with more focus on the upper back, neck, scalp and face. Not to mention they walk on your thighs… No need to be concerned here about the type of offers you get in Thailand, at least not in Siem Reap.
The next day, I decided to take it easy, fight with super slow internet connection and go and visit the floating village in the afternoon.
For lunch, I had banana blossom salad and lok lak.
The floating village is composed of boat houses and houses built on bamboo that float. They can be relocated fairly easily and usually are as Lake Tonlé Sap changes size considerably between the dry and the wet season. The people live on Lake Tonlé Sap as there is an abundance of fish, both large and small available in the its waters. The communities have churches, schools and I even saw a floating basketball court! Then, on my tour, I was offered the possibility to buy food for the local school, where kids stay if they have lost their parents. Something felt wrong, and in a part of the world where scams abound, I backed out, as there was no oversight at all as to whether the food ever really made it to the kids. I figured I would be better off contributing to the orphanage mentioned above as it is recognized by three western european governments as an authentic charity. It is a pain, though, as I'd like to help the boat people as well, but something just didn't feel right.
This girl is demonstrating her skill at snake charming...
For lunch, I decided I would try another local specialty which is a beef salad. What I didn't realize is that the beef is raw. Surprise! 8-| Fortunately, I didn't get sick!
All in all, I really enjoyed Cambodia, and probably should have stayed longer and visited more of it. It is certainly on my to do list for when I return to Asia.
- Pol Pot's regime… Pol Pot was a dictator in the mid to late 70s who decided to completely restructure cambodian society by forcing at gunpoint the population to return to farming in dire conditions. Over a period from 1975 to 1979 or specifically 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, he killed 3 million of his fellow cambodians.