07/16/2014 - 07/27/2014
Cambodia is a place of great wonder and great sadness. Bright green fields of rice stretching across a flat plain, palm and coconut trees dotting the landscape, the occasional water buffalo, stray dog, or group of children, and the crumbling remains of the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat archeological complex - these are the images of the beauty of Cambodia, but there is also a deep sadness just under the surface, as the country still bares fairly fresh scars from the 3 year reign of the Khmer Rouge, whose brutal restructuring of society and repression of dissent resulted in the deaths of almost 2 million people and over 1/4 of the population. The country is now at peace, and things are quickly improving, but there are still many problems of poverty, shortages of skilled doctors and teachers, and live land mines riddled throughout the countryside, resulting in disfigurement and death to hundreds every year.
In Siem Reap, the huge inflow of Angkor Wat tourists has created a bustling city, though with dusty dirt roads and a lack of high-rises, it still has a small town feel. Good food is easy to find and there is a pretty good late night bar scene for all the young partygoers. But travel here is also a stark reminder of how lucky we really are. It is a place that inspires people to try and help improve the lives of people who have gone through so much. Although we do not advocate most forms of "voluntourism" (many short-term volunteer opportunities are in fact exploitative and degrading to the people being "helped"), there are many things you can do to help if you've only got a day or two, or more money than time. Scattered around town, there are cafes and organizations dedicated to helping the many families and individuals who are still struggling to bounce back from family loss, poverty, and injury. And since Mike was sick and laid out for a few days, Abby went to find some of them.
Siem Reap old market where there are tiny aisles and women sit amongst their goods for lack of space
Some typical scenes from around town:
ConCERT Cambodia www.concertcambodia.org has a lot of information on how to donate money to different organizations, and has partnered up with many cafes, restaurants, hotels, and responsible tourism agencies in the area. Their office is located in the back of New Leaf Book Cafe (near the old market), but information about them can be found at any of their partners' locations.
Sister Srey Cafe (on the river near the old market), in addition to making some amazing coffee and dishes (it's been so long since I've had real bacon!), employs young Khmer staff, and works with many existing programs while developing some of their own, and are mainly geared toward university education and women's health. They also have an upstairs book exchange and boutique shop called "Twiggy" where you can purchase handmade products from local NGOs.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus www.pharecambodiancircus.org presents Cambodian folk tales and ghost stories with a modern twist, combining slap-stick comic relief and stunning acrobatics. An intimate circus tent setting means there isn't a bad seat in the house, and the performers work very well with the crowd, getting people involved. Best of all, it is for a good cause. Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) provides fine arts, music, and performance education for disadvantaged youth coming from orphanages, struggling families, or a life on the street. All of the music, art, and acrobatics in the circus are performed by students or graduates of the school and the proceeds will help future growth in the school and program. Highly recommended when in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Touch A Life www.touchalife.org.my is run by Mavis Ching, a wonderfully kind and funny woman who feeds hungry children and delivers meals to families in nearby villages. Abby was lucky enough to be warmly welcomed to help prepare 670 individually portioned meals of rice and red curry soup and accompany them on their weekly delivery to a surrounding village. Mavis took Abby under her wing, and the experience was even more fun and rewarding than she had imagined (wrapping up little presents of rice in brown paper thrilled her artistic side more than it should have). It was great exchanging smiles and 'thank you's with adorable children and grateful women, and the best part was getting rained on while the children played in the giant puddles in the red earthen street.
Volunteer Building Cambodia www.volunteerbuildingcambodia.org is an organization that builds new homes for families in need. Builds take two weeks, but if they are short on people, they'll appreciate help if you have less than that to give. After the homes are built, a separate program comes in to teach the family one of several ways to become self-sufficient (Cassie at Sister Srey can tell you more about this)
Another small way you can help that Abby did one afternoon is donate blood to the children's hospital. They are usually pretty desperate for blood, and they give you really yummy crackers and a can of coke!
Disabled people are very discriminated against in Cambodia (partly because of Buddhist beliefs of karma), which is a shame because there are so many good people who become landmine victims. Buying a (bootleg) book off the street from one of these people trying to make a living without begging is one way to offer support, there is also a group of disabled musicians that play outside triangle bar and Ta Prohm temple that sell CDs and gladly take donations for their center.
Photo by dolphinairline.blogspot.com
A couple things to avoid - please don't visit any orphanages. Children are not a tourist attraction, and any orphanage that will let you come in and "volunteer" for a day is not one you want to support. Some orphanages have been opened just to make money from tourists, and are not interested in finding placements for the children. There are responsible ways to donate money, but a visit (unless you plan to be there a long time) helps no one. Also, there is a blatant scam on the streets of Siem Reap where a small boy or woman with her baby want you to buy powdered milk formula. They sell it back for more money. Buy them a hot meal instead.
And now some more pictures:
There are gas stations, but these stands are plentiful and convenient
Lunch at an extremely local place - fried chili frog and big whole fried fish, plus of course beer on ice
Hitching on the back of a beer truck
Traditional Apsara dance
And of course, our trip to Siem Reap wouldn't have been the same without Cambodian BBQ, rock climbing, and fish nibbling at our toes!