Stories in Siem Reap

Aw Khun Ch’ran Siem Reap…
That’s how they say “Thank You Very Much” in Khmer Language.
Me and 4 other friends spend 3 days/2 nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia last week because of a long Thailand public holiday.
I am glad the trip pushed through even if we only planned for it less than 2 weeks. It was discussed only briefly when our group had a mini-Pinoy party eating all Filipino Foods.
My friend, Tine said she will be going to Cambodia by land for holiday. In jest, we told her we want to join. Then suddenly we became excited with the idea of traveling cross-country by land and so what was supposedly just a joke became a reality.

Traveling from Thailand to Cambodia by land is a good option because road condition in Thailand is excellent and cost is a lot cheaper than flying. There is a van from Victory Monument in Bangkok that goes to Aranyaprathet which is the Thailand side of the border. Cost is around THB 230 per way. However, our friend Alek decided to bring his pick-up truck so we can just drive all the way to the border. It is definitely faster and cheaper. We left their home at 5:30 am and drove less than 3 hours. After securing our entry stamp we arrived in the Kingdom of Cambodia (Poipet Border).

From Poipet border, we travelled 2.5 hours to reach Siem Reap by taxi (which is actually an unmarked car, parked in their so-called Bus station). We paid USD 10 per person and the taxi dropped us off in our hotel. We stayed in Lin Ratanak Angkor Hotel, a 4-star hotel located only few minutes away from the Old Market. The lobby of the hotel is a bit dark and designed in a contemporary Khmer style decor. However, the staff were all very courteous, friendly and accommodating. We felt we are treated like Royalty considering we only paid around THB 800 per night (breakfast included). The receptionist suggested a good itinerary for us to maximize our stay in the city. We decided to hire their car for our tours because the price they quoted us is really cheap. The driver is also very friendly and professional.

During our first night, we had a dinner buffet with cultural dance in a local restaurant. Wide range of Khmer and International foods can be selected. Khmer dance is very similar to Thai including hand gestures and costumes evidently because they are neighboring countries so there are many aspects in their life that is influenced by the other culture.

We want to see the sunrise in Angkor Wat so the next day, we asked for a wake-up call at 4:30 am. We left the hotel before 5:30. Unfortunately on that day, the weather is gloomy and the skies very cloudy so we weren’t able to take a decent shot of the sunrise. The Angkor Wat is also undergoing restoration so big green drapes cover the temples and this sight is not so attractive to look at in camera. Anyway, this is  a UNESCO World Heritage site and naturally all efforts are being made to preserve this man-made wonder.

1 Day pass to Angkor is USD 20 per person. If you decide to visit for 3 Days, you can buy it for only USD 40 while the 7 days pass cost only USD 60. Since we have limited time, we just bought 1 day pass which I think is good enough as we are not a very hardcore temple fanatics.

Angkor Wat is the most popular and highly recognizable structure in the complex. The walls were designed intricately and you can find many artwork etched in it depicting various stories.  We then proceeded to Angkor Thom, which in Khmer literally means Great City. Angkor Thom is the last capital city of the Khmer Empire. We took many pictures and then proceeded to Bayon Temple. I like Bayon Temple because of the many ruins you can see in the complex plus the massive stone faces in many towers of the complex.

Next stop is Ta Prohm. This area was used as location for various movies including the hugely popular Lara Croft: Tomb Raider wherein the trees literally grow in the temple ruins some of which the roots of the giant trees literally enveloped the area.

After more than 7 hours of walking, taking pictures and being awed by the great Ancient Khmer civilization through the temples we’ve visited, it’s time for us to take our late lunch. We decided to dine in KFC, the only International Fast food chain in Siem Reap. The taste of chicken is not as good as in Bangkok or Manila but is ok cos the set meal price is cheaper.

Next, we went for a tour of Tonle Sap Lake. According to Wikipedia, it is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and covers a big part of the Cambodian map. Tonle Sap is unique because of the water mechanism happening in this body of water. During dry season, the lake shrinks to 2,700 sq. km. and 1 meter deep because the flow of water is drained in the mighty Mekong River. However during Monsoon season, the lake swells as big as 16,000 sq. km and depth up to 9 meters as the flow is reversed and the Mekong River pushes water into the lake.

There are about 800 families along the Tonle Sap community  according to our boatman/guide named Ki, but I think it could be more. This community is considered the poorest in Cambodia. They rely only on fish and seafoods caught in the lake but during rainy season it is very dangerous to fish and they say many fishermen had died in the past because if they are out there in the middle of the lake, they will not know if there is a heavy rain or thunderstorm coming in so some of them drown in the lake or boats capsized.

This not-so-typical tour of the lake opened my eyes as well as that of my friends on the reality of life in Cambodia, considered one of the poorest nations in the world. Because they are so poor, they don’t have access to clean facilities, their small boat houses is where their living, dining, kitchen bedroom and bathroom are all rolled into one. They don’t have toilet so they just put their wastes directly into the river connected to the lake. We even saw one guy after soaping and shampooing himself, rinsed himself by jumping into the river which is full of mud, wastes and water hyacinths.

They also don’t have access to clean drinking water. If they have money, they will buy water from the refilling station but if none (which is the fact in most cases) they will just get drinking water from Tonle Sap (without even boiling) so a lot of them especially kids have poor health and are malnourished.

While we traverse, many of the families try to beg for USD 1 to buy some food and drinks. Ki is honest enough to discourage us giving these people money because if some others will know, all of them will just flock asking for alms. On the way back he took us to the only primary school in the community where he used to study and now 2 of his siblings were studying. The floating school is small but 200 children are studying. There are 3 small classrooms so they have to do classes in different shifts to accommodate all the students. Many of the children have no families so the school also serve as their home. When we went there less than 20 children were there (because it was a Sunday and almost sunset). We also met the Vietnamese volunteer teacher who is really kind and selfless for doing such deed.

There are many Vietnamese who went there during the Khmer Rouge time to help and a lot of them decided not to return to Vietnam and just settle in Cambodia specifically Tonle Sap area so in school they have to teach in Khmer, Vietnamese and English. Since we didn’t have enough money as we never expected this scenario in our tour, my group and I were only able to buy over 50 bottles of water and some treat. It may be small but we know it could help the children in some ways. We were discouraged to donate money because of rampant corruption in the country and we also felt it’s best to give goods or school materials next time we go back.

Before reaching the jetty port, we realized that Ki’s left arm is missing. We didn’t noticed it earlier because he is wearing a long-sleeved shirt. He told us he lost his arm when he was 11 years old because of landmine. At 21 years old, he is about to finish secondary school. He wants to go to college and study English so he could become an English teacher someday. Because of his physical condition, he cannot do some work so being a teacher is ideal for him because he can perform his best while helping the poor children learn English (we noticed a lot of them speak good English and can catch up easily even those children and sellers on the street). He said he used to have a Filipino teacher and that he love watching Filipino series (surprisingly many Cambodians know Pangako Sa’Yo and Marimar of Marian Rivera translated in Khmer language).

His perspective in life is good as I did not see or hear him sulk or complain about his life a bit and he still have a positive disposition despite his physical handicap and social condition of his community.

After our Cambodia trip and we were back to the busy streets of Bangkok, I just find it so surreal that in one part of the world many people are hungry and impoverished while in many other places life is very convenient and good. This fact made me feel very blessed and fortunate and I am very thankful to God for being in a better position. And this should remind us to be more compassionate and giving to our less fortunate brothers.

I saw the sun set in Tonle Sap but I did not fret, because I know the same sun will also rise above them the next day. This made me felt assured that there is always light after the darkest hours of these people.

3 thoughts on “Stories in Siem Reap

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