Cambodia, you had me from hello! We started our visit to Cambodia laughing hysterically as our complimentary airport driver pulled up to the curb to collect us in a tuk tuk. Now, when you see our luggage, it looks like a lot for one trip to Cambodia. But, if you consider it’s our home for a year, and our school, it’s quite amazing how little we have. So we literally road to our hotel buried in our belongings as fellow tourists laughed and took pictures of us from the loading zone.
I could tell riding through the streets to our hotel that this was going to be an amazing visit. The roads are lined with white ox grazing on patches of grass, school children chasing each other around, and vendors selling everything from sodas to clay ovens. The roads are filled with tuk tuks and scooters all beeping their horns and driving in patterns that must be innate to the Khmer culture. There’s no way Westerners could make sense of it, but even 10 year old Cambodians seem to weave in and out of traffic effortlessly. Our hotel was a little “posh” by SE Asia standards but in the hot, sticky Cambodian weather the pool was a welcome change.
Our first night in Seim Reap we attended Cambodia’s version of Cirque du Solei – Phare. The show is performed by kids from impoverished backgrounds, some even rescued from trafficking. The proceeds from the show benefit an art school that serves and empowers 1200 underprivileged students. There were few props and an orchestra of only two however this show could rival any I’ve seen of its type before! The stunts were amazing and the performance made us laugh, cry and gasp for breath. It was an absolute pleasure to get to support such a worthy cause and see an awesome show too!
As Cambodia is known as “the land of a thousand temples”, no trip there would be complete without a visit to the iconic Angkor Wat. We set out on tour to brave the humidity and see what all the fuss is about. I gotta say, it didn’t do it for me. The image of elephants dragging stone 60km through the jungle where hundreds of thousands of workers smoothed and stacked it to create this huge temple is quite impressive as is the detail in the carvings. That being said, the rest of the tour just didn’t interest me or touch me the way ancient churches do. I would have to chalk it up to the fact that the Jewish and Christian churches in Europe and Israel spoke to my heart in a way the Buddhist temples could not.
We continued to try to ignore the agonizing heat and our whining children as the next stop on tour was Ta Prohm, the temple from Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. 700 year old fig trees have climbed their way up, over and around the ruins of this temple making it a spectacular site to see. We were able to fight the bustling tourist crowds to get a few get shots before we succumbed to the heat, said thanks but no thanks to more touring, and caught a tuk tuk back to the coolness of our pool! We’re spoiled Americans, I know, but enough was enough. To quote one of my favorite movie lines, “The white people are melting”!
With enough temples under our belt, we decided to spend the next day exploring Doung Kouk, a nearby village outside Seim Reap. After our day there, we all agreed this was one of the best days of our entire trip. We were greeted at the community center by villagers of all ages who wanted to say hello or learn a little about where we were from. We were only the 13th tour of this kind in the year they’d been offering them, so the villagers weren’t used to seeing white people around. The kids asked where we were from, which didn’t strike us as odd. What was quite odd for us is that they don’t know what California is, have NEVER heard of Disneyland, or even Micky Mouse! What! I didn’t realize there were kids on Earth with no knowledge of Mickey. As my eyes bugged out of my head, trying to wrap my brain around kids without media, I pulled up google maps to show them where they are, and where CA is. I don’t know how often they leave the village, and they’ll probably never leave Cambodia so there was no reference for them as to the enormity of the planet.
The main crop for the village is rice. In larger cities the rice is all processed in large machines, but here in this tiny village, they still do it the old fashion way. They taught us how to grind the two layers of skin off the rice, sift the husks out, and the difference in processing brown rice versus white rice. Since they eat rice for all three meals, the village depends heavily on this equipment and these age old techniques. Children in a large family can spend an hour a day preparing rice!
After our rice lesson, the village kids, along with a few adults, led us out to the rice field to dig for crabs and net fish in the pond. This time the heat wasn’t bothering us at all as we were having so much fun learning about this interesting culture and making new friends.
When we returned to the center we were blessed with a homemade lunch the local women had prepared and basket weaving lessons from the elderly ladies who come every Sunday to weave and gab with one another. Luckily they were quite patient with us as our weaving skills are no match for there’s. These baskets are a main revenue source for the village, yielding about $.60 each. As we walked through the village, we saw many people spending their down time weaving away.
Mr Sopean, or tour guide, the school founder and principle, and the advocate for the village took us to his school for a visit. Realizing the need for accessible education, Mr Sopean built the first classroom with just a roof, tables and a dirt floor. A volunteer organization in 2014 built three more classrooms with cement flooring, an office and a library where he now lives with his family. He uses the grounds as a community vegetable garden, teaching the students sustainability and hygiene along with English, Korean, mathematics and other subjects. His teachers and students are so committed to learning English, they even volunteer to come in on sundays to practice. The government doesn’t suppprt any schools in the villages, so the school is funded by an American family donating $500 a month. As they find more private funding sources they’re working to expand their school as well as open a second location. It’s AMAZING how far a little money can stretch in Cambodia.
We finished out our day with a tour of the village and a stop at the Sunday volleyball tournament. The guys even invited Michael to play a round with them! Throughout the day we noticed the children had no toys, no video games and no TVs. They chased one another around, played in the dirt and roamed around a village they rarely leave. These kids were some of the happiest I’ve ever seen! They laughed and played all day. The elders taught the youngsters skills like cooking and basket weaving. The older kids watched the younger ones. Everyone in the village seemed content. It really started me wondering how unhappy all our “things” are making us. In other poor communities we’ve toured, they are aware of what they don’t have and they seem very unhappy. Here, away from outside influence, they are very satisfied. The youngsters don’t want to leave the village, they’re all happy with what they have and where they are. Food for thought America.
We spent the rest of our time in Cambodia visiting the many markets and exploring the neighborhood. The Khmer people are very kind, very polite and very humble. A combination of civil wars and the Vietnam war have wiped out much of the educated population. There is a lot of corruption within the government and exploitation of their vast natural resources. Fortunately, it was easy to find grassroots efforts all throughout the city to improve their quality of life and education. From the Phare show, to restaurants and shopping villages the people are slowly regaining their power. I pray they’ll be able to overcome the struggles of their past and harness the power of this beautiful country.