We are nearing the end of our 12 days in Siem Reap. We have learned so much here about the country and its people, that it is extremely difficult to condense into a blog post. Our skills crossing busy streets while inching forward between bikes, motorcycles, tuktuks and cars has vastly improved and I'm no longer frustrated by vendors and tuktuk drivers constantly asking for my business (just smile and nod no). One aspect of daily life in Siem Reap that I love is the upright cruising bicycle, the most common and affordable mode of transportation. I spent one morning cruising around on a bike from our guesthouse, learning to go with the traffic flow, passing little kids doubled up on oversized bikes, women with huge baskets of goods for sale hanging off every possible point on the bicycle, and they all seem to navigate the intersections (with no stop signs) seamlessly and get through it alive!
We went on a 40km cycling tour to the temples of Angkor Wat, but this time had nice mountain bikes and helmets so felt relatively safe! The 1000 year old temples are all incredible, but I will let Steve's pictures describe these instead of me. What struck me on our bike tour was the poverty in the villages surrounding the temples. As we cycled through the bumpy paths following our guide I really did not want to stop and look around - garbage everywhere, unhappy looking people, but as we kept going kids would randomly wave and say hello. Although they were poor it was nothing like the lives of many who suffered under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. During our time here Steve and I both read the book "First they killed my father" which is the story of a young girl who barely survived after being driven out of Phnom Penh from 1975-1979. Almost 25% of the Cambodian population (up to 2 million people) were killed or starved to death during that time. When I asked our wonderfully patient cycling guide named Bo Bo if he had been impacted by the Khmer Rouge he said his father was a farmer and his mother a teacher. Farmers were the ideal as they could contribute the good of all people, but teachers were seen as a threat so they were all killed. His mother, a teacher, was killed.
The current government is communist but Bo Bo explained that it changes back and forth every election. Corruption is still a huge problem here, impacting both residents and tourists. Tourism has boomed in the last decade, and there is non-stop construction in Siem Reap to accommodate the growth. There are also an infinite number of techniques to make money off tourists, and its taken away from some of more genuine travel experiences that used to exist. One example is the visit to the floating villages of Tonle Sap. After reading negative reviews outlining how each person was asked for extra money to donate to an orphanage or buy expensive rice or pay more for their boat ride then agreed to, we decided not to go and avoid the frustrations of being ripped off. We have no problems giving donations and tips, but we learned that they really just end up with a few families at the lake and are not legitimate. I understand people wanting to make money however they can. What I find harder to except is the government corruption, like the visas at the border (see last post), and even the post office! I had read that they try to overcharge you for international stamps, but as long as you call them on the price they will give you the correct amount (75cents). I witnessed the same lady who had just sold me stamps at the correct price that I had requested, then turn around and charge $1 to the next tourist (their trick is to put the stamps on the post card themselves so the tourist doesn't see the actually amount in Riels and do the conversion). Its not the 25 cent difference that is the problem, its the principle.
Luckily there are several very honest people and legitimate NGOs that do meaningful work in town, including many restaurants who donate proceeds to these organizations. Pretty much all children around Siem Reap now have the opportunity to learn english for free. This isn't the case for smaller towns and villages further a field however. We also met a random guy from Australia on the street who invited us to come out to his village to spend the day with his Cambodian partner and kids, do some cooking, visit around. They are trying to figure out how to set up a business and wanted to test it out. We decided to go for it after emailing back and forth. Unfortunately Lea wasn't feeling well that morning so I stayed back with her but Steve and Amelie enjoyed hanging out with them, cooking, and riding on the back of a motorcycle!
Another wonderful outing was to the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Trained as a child soldier by the Khmer Rouge, Aki Ra planted landmines when he was under 10yrs old. He then dedicated his life to removing landmines, and collecting the defused landmines at his home. Eventually he opened a small museum and also took in orphaned children who had lost limbs from landmines and started a school. With the help of many donors his museum and school has flourished (http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org). It was very moving visiting the museum. Lea is now working on a little project about a girl at the school there.
Last night we were very lucky to see one of the best and most moving performances I've ever watched. It was called Sokha by Phare circus (check out http://www.pharecambodiancircus.org/circus/our-shows/sokha/). A beautiful story and incredibly emotional performance recounting the life of a young girl before, during and after the Khmer Rouge regime, It was a combination of circus, dance, acting, painting and live music, weaved together magically. We rode the emotional roller coast from tears to laughter with them. Many poor and orphaned children have had the opportunity to join the circus and heal through art and performance, as explained by the young woman who greeted us and said Phare had changed her life.
Hopefully Siem Reap will be able to retain its beauty and not be completely overtaken by tourism. I'm sure it was a very different travel experience just 10-20 years ago. But I'm so glad we came and stayed for almost two weeks as we would have missed out on many genuine experiences had we just done the quick temple tour and left. Tomorrow we will take a long bus ride to Kompong Cham to teach english in the afternoons at an NGO run school in the Chiro village. It will be a big change from the way we've been travelling so far and a completely new experience.