We arrived at the Siem Reap airport and of course had to get our visas and go through customs and immigration etc. At the visa desk the official said “That will be 60 bucks” with a very funny accent and the B accentuated. He smiled and said “Did I say that right” while smiling. It was a good omen to have such a friendly introduction to Cambodia. The immigration officers are usually very flat and unexpressive in most of the world.
Siem Reap is most famous for the many Hindu and Buddhist temples in the area. All of the temples are built of stone and most were built between 800 and 1400 AD when the Khmer empire ruled what is now Cambodia as well as portions of present-day Laos, Thailand, Burma, and southern Vietnam. The most famous of these temples is of course Angkor Wat, but there many lesser-known temples in the area.
One of the first things we noticed about Siem Reap is the appearance of wealth in the form of Lexus SUVs. They are everywhere. In one several kilometer stretch of road we passed 45 Lexus, along with a smattering of Range Rovers and Mercedes. We asked a few long-term expats why so many luxury cars in such an extremely poor country. The reasons given are that the area has seen a huge tourist boom in the last 10 or so years, and many locals have become wealthy from the tourist trade as well as a run-up in property values since around 2008. Also, it seems that some Cambodians like to keep up with the Jones, or at least to appear to be keeping up with them. One person told us that he lives near a guy who owns a Lexus SUV, but lives in a thatched roof shack.
As recently as a couple of years ago there were very few cars or SUVs in Siem Reap. Most folks got around on motorbikes then. And 10-15 years ago motorbikes were uncommon, and bicycles were the main mode of transportation. Times have changed quickly here.
The other thing we noticed is that it is very dry. We expected it to be dry as in no rain, since this is the dry season, but we did not expect to find such low humidity. Pete had to break out the lip balm to avoid chapped lips.
Air quality in the area is very poor, mostly due to open burning in the city as well as burning rice fields in the surrounding countryside. During the dry season the rice farmers burn the rice stubble from the previous years harvest before re-planting in the wet season.
Siem Reap is intriguing in and of itself. There is everything between $4.00 per night hostels and $400.00 per night mega monster hotels. We stayed in the Mother Home Guesthouse ($26 per night including breakfast) which was a $2 tuk-tuk ride away from the hustle bustle of Pub Street which is geared to tourists from all over the world. This area had souvenir shops, loud pubs, restaurants, and combinations of the above. We had to walk among a maze of tourist wearing the flowing tourist pajamas (will explain later), people besieging us to buy something, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes.
Once we were on the famous street, there were fewer motorbikes and vehicles of any kind but still lots of people. We continued to see odd driving practices such as a car towing another car with a piece of a log, motorbikes driving on the wrong side of the street, and entire families on a motorbike with the small children sandwiched between the adults. People are wearing helmets here which is very different from the rest of southeast Asia.
We had dinner at Rosies Bar and Guesthouse. It turns out you can also get Vietnamese visas along with your beer. A girl came in while we were there, the bartender Smiley told her he had her visa, and whipped her passport out from behind the bar. Pretty sweet.
We are finally began our volunteer work with an organization known as Trailblazer Foundation. We took a tuk-tuk the next morning to the work site. Tuk-tuks are readily available at a moment’s notice throughout the city to take you anywhere from 1 to 3 USD. It is very convenient to be able to pay with our dollars in Cambodia, and in fact the ATMs spit out either US dollars or Cambodian Riels. Change is often given in local currency but easily spent on tips.
We were given a tour on our first day at the worksite at Trailblazer Foundation. This organization makes very simple and effective bio-sand water filters for some of the local villages. Water-borne illness is the greatest threat to health in Siem Reap province, not to mention the rest of Southeast Asia. This organization also digs wells and latrines to advance rural health, distributes mosquito netting for the villages, builds schools (6 since 2004), and performs research into the best agricultural practices to increase yield to decrease malnutrition. The priorities for projects are discussed directly with the village chiefs. The villages invest $3.50 per water filter to create a sense of ownership, which is a lot of money in a country where the average income in the villages is well under one dollar per day. For more information on this organization go to the website; thetrailblazerfoundation.org.
We met a gentleman at Trailblazers who was starting a business growing mushrooms which brings a significant profit for whomever is able to obtain the knowledge of growing this in demand fungus. We toured the agricultural portion of the agency which consisted of young plants under different growing conditions.
Our first task in making the water filters was sifting sand ever finer with screens. We also met Sothea and Anna who were cleaning rock and pebbles. These are the materials that are placed inside the water filters in order to make the water drinkable. We also got the opportunity to put together the molds for the filters, pour cement, paint the filters, and a variety of other tasks. We went on a delivery to the villages which was very interesting. The villagers were given instructions of how to prep the filters and proper use. We found out that Trailblazers has a GPS setting for every filter and routinely checks on the quality of the water coming out of them. We drank the water out of these filters every day we were on the site. It was great not to have to buy water in plastic bottles for once!
During our first weekend off, we toured the smaller remote temples by bicycle after giving a donation to a nongovernmental organization (Khmer for Khmer) which assists people start their own businesses. Our guides were very sweet and helpful during our 40 kilometer ride around the area through trees and around lakes and rivers. This was a great way to see the temples as well as the surrounding countryside.
Guides: Lyna (black shirt)
Puth (blue shirt)
Here was our itinery for those who would like to follow our footsteps:
1. Ankor Tom South (commoner) Gate: Gods on left side, demons on right.
2. Rode along wall to Chrung (Corner) Temple: SW corner. Built to protect Ankor Tom.
3. Rode along wall to West (slave) Gate:
4. Rode east to Bayon Temple.
5. Rode to North (Kings) Gate.
6. Rode through jungle to south gate of Preah Khan temple.
7. Rode a short distance to Preah Khan temple. Every square inch of the walls seem to have been carved (decorated).
8. Rode to East Lake.
9. Rode through the jungle to Tanei (old man) Temple.
10. Rode through jungle to Ta Keo Temple. There were not many carlings because it was never finished. The king died before completingit. It dates to ninth century; older than Ankor Wat. Three levels, hell, earth, heaven are depicted.
The next day, we hired a private tuk-tuk to take us around the larger more popular temples. We didn’t see the famous Angkor Wat until the following week. We were actually proud of ourselves for not rushing to the biggest attraction in the area and enjoying the more remote temples first. We visited a temple about 30 km outside Siem Reap (Banteay Srei), which was our favorite due to the elaborate and finely-detailed stone carvings found there.
On the road to Banteay Srei we stopped at the Landmine Museum. For those who do not know, Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. There is a long, sad, and complicated history of war here. As in Vietnam there was the Japanese invasion during WW II, an insurgency against the French colonial government in the 1950s, a communist-led insurgency against the monarchy following the French pullout, the American War from about 1964 to 1975, the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979, a Vietnamese invasion to remove the Khmer Rouge from power, and a civil war between the government and remnants of the Khmer Rouge from about 1979 to 1999. There is unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the country left over from the American War. Most of this is in the southeastern part of Cambodia along the southern branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We met a man who had survived the killing fields by the name of Sinarth at the War Museum just outside of town. We also ran into a man named Karl Levy who had written a book based upon real-life verbal memories recorded from Sinarth as he remembered them as a child. Both Karl and Sinarth pointed out that countless other children throughout the country suffered during the Pol Pot regime. After chatting with Karl for an hour or so, we went back into town and met up with him and some of his friends to explore some good food in the area.
We continued our work at Trailblazers which became a nice routine. We would typically work for 4 hours and have the afternoon to rest or explore the town. Pete was completely well by the time we got to Siem Reap but Denise developed a bladder infection which cleared in two days. Otherwise we were as healthy as ever. We went to the Cambodian circus as recommended by our friend Larisa and her daughter Julia who had been to Siem Reap a few months earlier. We were not disappointed!! The circus had many young acrobats that were quite entertaining and interacted well with the crowd. They grew up in the villages and were funded by an NGO (non-governmental agency).
We decided at this time to end our trip after going to the Elephant Valley Project and Phnom Penh. We were planning to go to further south but decided that we had some homesick feelings. I wonder why!