Siem Reap, Cambodia: December 30 to January, 2014
We only planned to be in Siem Reap for 6 days, but 6 days grew into 13 days and 13 days turned into 19 days. We fell in love with Siem Reap and the people. The city and people truly captured our hearts. There are so many highlights from our time in Siem Reap. I would like to share a few of them with you.
We got off to a really good start in Siam Reap. We were booked into a newly built villa in a residential neighborhood. It had everything we needed to make our stay enjoyable. The owner arranged for a driver to pick us up and bring us right to the villa, so we didn’t have to hire a taxi. The location was great because we were in a quiet residential neighborhood and we were just a few minutes’ walk from the famous Pub Street, tourist area, restaurants and the markets. In the kitchen we were welcomed with a fridge filled with complimentary beverages (two dozen cans of local beer, drinking water and some pop) as well as some fruit.
Our drinking water was regularly replenished and every few days we were treated, by the owner to some more local fruit. We always love the chance to have fruit smoothies, and with a blender, some local fresh fruit and yogurt we were able to do just that. Making fruit smoothies is a job that Len enjoyed while in Siam Reap and on our previous stays whenever we were lucky enough to have a blender and a grocery store or market close by. We found that eating out was relatively inexpensive so we did well between simple eat in and eat out meals.
The villa was more than spacious enough for us, I’m estimating it at about 1200 square feet, bigger than our old house back home. Here we had two bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, a half bath off the living area and a large kitchen. The entire building was new, bright and spacious. We had enough room so that we could all have our own personal space from each other (if needed) or we could be as close as we wanted.
The first person we met was our Cambodian neighbor. A lovely young woman who is the wife of a Tuk-Tuk driver and the mother of two sweet little boys. She is a teaching assistant at a Private International School. She earns $100 per month, which covers the cost of having her two boys attend the school where she works. She and her husband feel their boys will get better schooling and the opportunity to learn English at the International School, compared to their attendance at the community school program. With a huge smile on her face she shows me the small house they rent for $40 USD (plus $20 for utilities) a month. She is so proud of her home, then she asks me what we are paying to rent the villa. I feel a bit guilty at that moment and reluctantly tell her. Her monthly rental is what we are paying per night. She just looks at me and smiles. I am not sure if she understands. We had daily chats and she was always so happy to talk.
Our neighbor’s boys are two happy little bundles of joy who are always outside playing with the other dozen or so kids who live in the neighborhood. One of her boys had a strong high pitched voice that you could often hear above the voices of the other children, it was refreshingly energetic and happy.
The children in the neighborhood seemed to enjoy playing in the alley just outside our front door and one of their favorite spots was to sit on the front step of our villa. We often would leave our front door open and before long it was full with the local children gathered to play. We loved listening to them and watching them play just outside our place, their voices filled the normally quiet neighborhood with genuine joy and laughter. They all managed to play and have fun with a single toy, for example a toy dart, an empty pop can, a uniquely shaped stick and so on. The photo below shows one of the local boys making due with what he had, (tin can, sand, water and a stick) carefully and happily “making a pot of soup”, probably for his family. We gave the family a toy ball during our first few days there but it was popped in less than a day. We replaced that later with a Frisbee which got some good use. The last few days we were there, a new soccer ball appeared amongst the group of kids (not sure whose it was). Here’s some other photos of the kids playing. We really enjoyed being the observers of these children at play and the pure joy of their laughter and the receiver of the chorus of hellos.
Soon after meeting our neighbor we met her husband, a self employed as a Tuk-Tuk driver. In his Tuk-Tuk he has a heartwarming brief story of his life and how he moved to Siem Reap, got a loan to buy a new motorcycle and Tuk-Tuk wagon, so he could work as a Tuk-Tuk (taxi) driver and improve his family’s standard of living. We hired him as our Tuk-Tuk driver for most of our travel in Siem Reap, including for our tours of the many temples and sites around Siem Reap. He was a very happy and friendly Tuk-Tuk operator.
Having Fun with Preschoolers
When I asked our neighbor about the school where she works as a Teacher Assistant, by the end of the conversation, we were talking about the possibility of us going to see and get a tour of the school, or at least that is what I thought. She called the school principle and arranged a time for us to go to there. The day and time came for us to go and we had her husband drive us to the school with our cameras and questions ready. Upon our arrival we were greeted by the principle, and went to his office for what we thought would be a description of the school. But, it turns out that our neighbor told the principal that we were teachers from Canada and that we were anxious to come to the school to do a learning activity with one of the classes. We were little surprised to be presented with this scenario (I’m guessing that the language issue between me and the neighbor is what led to this). Being the “Family Bucketeers”, we rolled with it and thanked the principal for this opportunity. We arranged a day and time for us to return and do an activity with one of the preschool classes, which we understood to be about 15 students per class.
Over the weekend we came up with a plan of a learning activity we could do with the students. We were also of the impression that the preschool children’s basic English was OK enough for us to do this. The day came and we went by Tuk-Tuk back to the school to do our activity with the preschool class. We planned on being ready to meet a class of up to eighteen children, and planned on letting Aurora and Noah take the lead. We brought “Wiki Sticks”, which are wax covered flexible strings that are slightly stiff, and with which you can make 2 and 3 dimensional shapes, patterns or letters of the alphabet. Upon our arrival at the school, we discover that the principal is ready to get the entire group of 90+ preschool students into an assembly so that we can do our learning activity with them!!! After we got that sorted out, (i.e. that we were coming to meet with a single classroom) we got to meet our eager listeners, who by the way did not have good basic use of English!! We gave the kids a brief summary of who we were (Family Bucketeers) and why we were there, which was then translated to the students for us by the Teacher Assistant. Once we brought the Wiki Sticks out and handed them out, there was no turning back. The kids loved them and made numerous different letters of the alphabet, spelled out their names, made stick people and even some three dimensional art, including a Spider Man stick superhero.
Noah and Aurora loved the chance to interact with the kids. Time went very quickly and before we knew it, our hour was over and it was time for us to go. We didn’t want to leave but we had to. It was a very memorable experience getting to spend this time with these Cambodian preschoolers. I am so proud of Noah & Aurora for taking on the challenge, they did an amazing job.
Site Seeing at the Temples
Of course you cannot go to Siem Reap without seeing the temples. We purchased 3 day passes ($40 USD) that could be used anytime during the week. Aurora’s admission was free. When we first asked about seeing all the sites, “they” and by, “they”, I mean Tuk-Tuk drivers and tour guides recommend seeing the temples in 3 different tours, the Small Tour, the Grand (Far) Tour and then to Angkor Wat. This is pretty well, what we did. We started with the Far Tour, and saw more than 6 temples our first day.
Our 2nd day of touring took us to Angkor Wat. Our great little researcher, Aurora, had found some You Tube videos about Angkor Wat. She was awesome at finding good videos for us to watch. We were well informed when we arrived at Angkor Wat. As Angkor Wat was such a large site and is one of the top sites to see, we decided to hire a guide, which we did for $20 USD. Honestly despite having had a guide, we did not learn much new information beyond what we had learned in the videos. Aurora’s research prepared us so well for the tour that numerous times during the tour, Aurora whispered to me, “… mom, we already know that…” I am so proud of Aurora for having taken the initiative to find information on Angkor Wat before our tour. It made our tour, and especially Aurora’s experience of the tour, so much more meaningful and memorable.
Our third day of touring took us on the Small Tour. There was nothing “small” about any of the tours, other than the Small Tour was a route that was a shorter travel distance. All the temples and monuments were far from “small”. They were all very impressive structures and it was a great experience to see all of them and to have learned some of the associated history and culture. It was humbling seeing all of these sites and to think that these temples and monuments were built by human power, well over a thousand years ago. Also to have learned how many tens of thousands of people were involved in the building of Angkor Wat and other temples. The somber news that many of the people assigned to building these temples and monuments, would have been killed or injured due to the dangerous nature of the work was very saddening. Although no one knows how many people that may have included, archaeologists suspect it was a high number. Angkor Wat was also an architectural and engineering feat for its time, including the moat and the surrounding areas’ amazing manmade water channels and water storage systems. The religious artistry of the temples and Angkor Wat is testament to the knowledge and skills of the generations of craftsmen who built it. Seeing all this has reminded me of the greatness of human history, and how we are ever evolving. Of all the temples, Wat Ta Prohm was my favorite, it was an amazing site, and especially seeing how time and nature is reclaiming the land where this great structure stood.
Having toured so many temples we really appreciated our opportunity to have received blessings and our fortunes from by monks and elders in the temples. A few times while in the temples we were fortunate enough to come across these opportunities. Monks and elders patiently sit in some temples waiting for visitors to approach them to request a blessing, prayer or fortune. For a small donation the monks and elders will say a prayer, read your fortune or give you a special blessing or all three. Then to end the process they tie a brightly colored string bracelet on your wrist (right hand for men, left hand for women) which you wear to represent the blessing you have received. In the photos below, you can see us receiving our blessings and fortunes.
Military Museum and Monument to Victims of Khmer Rouge Genocide
One of the stops we wanted to see was the Landmine Museum, which as it turned out was farther out of town than we were aware of. As an alternative we went to see the Military Museum in Siem Reap. We expected to see a museum like what we are used to in Canada, an indoor building with artifacts and interpretive signs to follow as we went around the museum. Turned out that it was an outdoor museum with old war machinery and weapons displayed in a big area. There were signs to tell you what each item was, but no interpretive signs. The museum employees are retired/active military members who provide free tours of the grounds, telling mostly about the weapons (including old firearms that visitors are encouraged to hold and pose with for photos!!!), landmines, and booby trap systems and so on.
Turns out that our guide told his personal story of being a teenager in the 1970’s and literally running for his life to escape the pursuing Khmer Rouge soldiers, intent on killing him. He told the story of how he fled from his pursuers, including Pol Pat (leader of the Khmer Rouge) and how he made reverse footsteps to appear as though he had exited a body of water, then he hid in the water and foliage with only his nose above water with a large palm leaf concealing his face and a small hole in the leaf from which to breathe. He said he stayed in the water motionless for hours hiding from his pursuers, until he was sure it was safe to leave his hiding spot. He found himself covered in leeches, of which he endured the pain as he hid for his life, in the water. He heard Pol Pat himself talking and one of the soldiers saying that he was not in the water, because his tracks had led out of the water. He knew then, that one simple act of leaving his backward footprints is the action that saved his life.
The tour of the area went very quickly and he told us a lot about the machinery of the war. He at the end of the tour said that he was going to tell us and other visitors more history of the conflict/wars in Cambodia, but he felt it would be too graphic and violent for Aurora to hear. He left it up to us if we wanted Noah to hear more of the history. Noah wanted to stay, which we felt was OK, so Aurora and I decided to wander around and look through the museum while Len and Noah stayed to listen.
Aurora was upset and mad that Noah was going to get to stay and hear information while she had to leave with me. Turns out I am glad he made Aurora leave and go with me. Later Len told me the contents of the information he told him, Noah and the other museum visitors. The solider/guide is now retired and works at the museum as a source of income (tips), because he receives no pension or benefits from the Cambodian government, despite the fact that he along with every Cambodian male aged 15 and older were compelled to serve a few years in the military for very scant wages. If injured or killed during their service, they and their families were not even compensated or given insurance or any ongoing assistance to help with their injuries. He went on to tell his own personal story of how the Khmer Rouge took over in Cambodia in the 1970’s when he was a youth. He and his family were “relocated” from their homes (along with hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians to “camps” set up by the Khmer Rouge. His family was separated and sent to all different locations, and he never saw his parents again until years later. He like others were basically treated like prisoners and were never told anything by their captors, while many others including members of his family were executed. He went on to tell how he was given the chance to see his parents after years of not seeing them, and how he was taken by Pol Pat himself (blindfolded for no explicable reason other than Pol Pat wanted him to be “surprised” when he finally got to see his parents, inferring it would be such a positive experience for him to see his parents). When he finally arrived where his parents were being detained, Pol Pat presented his parents to him by taking his blindfolded off, in front of his parents. He then saw his parents in front of him, tied to poles, with their arms behind their backs in the most uncomfortable position you could imagine. Then Pol Pat goes on to accuse his parents of being American CIA Intelligence Spies, despite their pleas that they were not and despite no evidence. Then Pol Pat turned to his group of about ten Child Soldiers armed with Russian AK47 machine guns and says to them that they can decide the fate of the CIA spies. This young man at fifteen years of age is faced with this incredibly horrific situation and he pleaded with Pol Pat to trade his life in order to let his parents live. Pol Pat replied he would not agree, because he didn’t want to simply kill him straight out, he wanted to keep him alive and torture him to death. Our guide said that was the fate of thousands of other people imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge. This young man at age 15 then witnessed brainwashed vulnerable child soldiers machine gun his parents to death. Len said all the museum visitors including him and Noah were completely speechless hearing this story. The museum guide went on to tell that he is the only surviving member of his family, because the Khmer Rouge killed everyone but him and that the Khmer Rouge killed millions of people, entire families and generations of families. I assume it was shortly after seeing his parents for the last time, when he escaped with his life, as he had told earlier in the museum tour. The guide went on to tell more political and war history of Cambodia which in one word was simply horrific. He went on to tell that life for Cambodians is not very good and that the Cambodian government is only interested in its own interests and many Cambodians are struggling just to survive.
This history was almost too much for Len to hear, let alone Noah. I know it took weeks for Noah to take in and process what he had heard at the museum. This was not quite the way we wanted Noah to come to understand some of Cambodia’s history, but nonetheless he did get to learn some of it, and I have no doubt that it will be a defining memory that Noah will have for a lifetime. I only hope that the result of this learning experience will eventually be a positive effect on how Noah understands the world around him and how incredibly fortunate we are to live in Canada with so many liberties, freedoms and rights.
We shared a very basic level of this history with Aurora so she can have a simple understanding of some of Cambodia’s history. But she is not ready to process information on that scale yet.
On one of our other tour days in the TuK-Tuk we stopped at a Memorial in Siem Reap, for local victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide. At the memorial where we stopped it was estimated that approximately 20,000 people lost their lives. We decided that the Killing Fields in Phomn Penh and other similar sites would be locations we would not be visiting with the kids. Through our time in Siem Reap we heard enough information to allow the kids to hear a bit, but not too much history. We thought it not appropriate to hide the truth from the kids, but not appropriate to expose them to the full horror of the history. They will likely learn more of that as they grow up and mature. So our time at the Museum and the monument is not exactly a “highlight” of our experiences, but is more of an eye opening experience, which I am sure will be well registered in the kids’ minds, as well as mine and Len’s.
We always enjoy our time wandering around the markets to find places to eat and things to see and sometimes buy, including the bartering over price. A number of times we went out to look around to see what we could see. You can always find something from A to Z as you explore. One of the things we really enjoyed was being able to get fruit smoothies at street stands only $1 USD and to wander around the day and night markets. The markets and locals were so invigoratingly different each time we went.
We’ll end with a few more photos.