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siem reap (part 2) and the temples of angkor

Posted in angkor wat, cambodia, siem reap, temples of angkor by moonwire on September 22, 2009

A few days ago, I was wandering around the old market not sure what to do, when a tuk tuk driver hey-lady-tuk-tuk?’d me. With nothing to do and nothing to shoot as the light is way too bright here between 9 am and 4 pm, I decided to entertain him, so I asked ‘where would you take me?’ He answered ‘floating villages, perhaps?’

And just as I thought why not, a head popped up from behind the motorbike and it was Tola, the teacher. He was hanging out with his friend, the tuk tuk driver. He had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so we set off for the floating villages, about 10 kilometres outside of Siem Reap. There’s just one one long road with Tonle Sap lake on both sides, lined with mostly shacks built on stilts in the water, or raft like shacks that are floating.  However, when we got there, I knew for sure I wasn’t going into one of those little disaster boats, so I decided to just walk around the area, instead of drowning in the lake.

This was some of the worst poverty I’ve seen to date. And though this was bad, I’m sure there’s much worse places. At least here there was evidence of foreign money invested in the wells, a school and a library. Yet, this place resembled some sort of Disneyland of Desperation. Kids, often not even wearing pants and a t-shirt, playing soccer with a broken slipper for a ball, tiny one room shacks falling apart, probably housing a family of 10, some seriously sad stuff.

When we were walking along the road, a tiny little baby caught my eye. He was inside getting a bath. I had never seen such a tiny baby. He looked like he had just been born. I walked towards the room with Tola and he asked on my behalf how old the baby was. He was just one month old and weighed two kilos. To put it into perspective, the average weight of a Dutch baby at BIRTH is 3.3 kgs. I took some photos and Tola talked with them for a bit. Then as we were about to leave the older lady of the two turned to Tola and asked him if I wanted to take the baby. I was in total shock. I know it’s possible to buy a baby here for next to nothing, but this was the first time I was offered one.

This girl I found sitting by herself in the room. Not an adult in sight. Her house was connected to the road by small planks acting as a bridge. I know the safety of children isn’t a priority here, but just one mis-step and the child would fall a few meters down into the water.

Here’s a few more from that afternoon:

I know I write a lot about the kids here and most photos include a kid or two. And though I’m not known for my child-loving qualities, they really do something to me (and my wallet). Just this morning I was having breakfast at a really neat little French place called Tigre de Papier on Pub Street. I usually have my brekkie at a local place but I needed to use the internet so I decided to go to Tigre to use their free wifi. I had just finished eating my baguette and eggs, when I noticed a small boy standing next to a table with two foreigners having breakfast. His eyes were so fixated on the food and I observed him for a minute or so. The two foreigners completely ignored him though he was standing at their table, right in their face.

That’s what kills me the most here. I don’t always give these kids something, you just can’t as there’s so many, but ignoring them is degrading them. When I made eye contact with the boy he just looked at me with literally hungry eyes. I smiled at him and he gave me a faint smile in return. I asked him to come over, which he hesitantly did. He barely spoke English, but he understood ‘hungry?’. So I sat him down, ordered some noodles and a Coca Cola. The only thing I got out of him was that he was 10 years old. He told me his name, but I couldn’t decipher it. While waiting for his food he ravaged my pancake and fruit salad and when his food arrived I wondered how much he’d be able to eat.

Well, about half way through his meal, some of his bottle collector friends (he’s a bottle collector himself) walked by. Before I knew it, there were five kids around the table, taking turns having a go at the noodles and the Coca Cola. When it was all done, they left.

Just as I paid the bill, they were walking by again so we all set off to the place where I usually have my brekkie. All the kids ordered noodle soup with chicken. I asked the boy I had just fed if he wanted more. Oh yes. It really is like Tola told me ‘We eat whenever we can’. That boy finished the entire bowl of noodle soup and another Coca Cola. And he was just a scrawny little thing. Most of the kids finished their bowl. The few little scraps that were left, were carefully placed in a bag for ‘on the road’. And off they went, with their rice bags, back to collecting bottles.

On a lighter note, I also visited the Temples of Angkor. Moori, the tuk tuk driver who took me to my guesthouse, also took me to the temples. He is an English student at some Australian college here in town. He proudly showed me his marks from his last term. His English was good and so was his knowledge of the temples. He proposed a certain route to hit the most important temples (the whole site is huge and they even sell week passes for the temple fanatics) and I was all fine with that.

We started off with the temple that was featured in ‘Tombraider’; Ta Prohm. It was really cool. First a lovely walk through the jungle, surrounded by butterflies. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists. It was very quiet there. I walked through the ruins, marveled at the weird trees with their spooky roots. After that we hit a few more temples such as Ta Keo, the Elephant Terrace and the Palace, Bayon and finally, the masterpiece of it all, Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was a tourist trap. There were hundreds of people armed with cameras taking shots as if this was their last day on earth. There’s nothing to shoot there, unless you’re into shooting groups of weird Japanese tourists (what’s up with them? They tend to travel in packs, all armed with cameras, covered from head to toe, holding umbrellas. Or even better, the women wearing heels, attempting to climb ruins).

I am glad I did go see the temples. It’s absolutely surreal being there (especially Ta Phrom), but it doesn’t translate into photos at all. Here’s some more shots from my day:

The footbridge that leads to Angkor Wat

The kids here are so much smaller than in the Western world. I guessed these three boys were about 8 years old. In fact they were 13. It’s only their teeth that gives it away.

So after 10 days in Phnom Penh and 9 days in Siem Reap, I will be leaving Cambodia tomorrow morning. Though this country has been the hardest on me mentally, it has also been my favourite place, so far. It is very easy to talk to the people here and overall they are very friendly, always welcoming a chat. There haven’t been any of the blatant rip-offs I’ve encountered in Indonesia and Thailand, though the people here seem to be in more desperate need of money. There’s more obvious and worse poverty here, child labour is rampant. I read somewhere that almost half of the kids under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition, which is simply unacceptable, especially since there’s no famine here. There’s plenty of good food. My photographer friend Alan Dejecacion (check out his truly excellent work here) put it so well:

“They, like us, live in a world of plenty, where more food is produced than is consumed. People are dying, not because there is not enough food, but because they are too poor to buy it and have no land where they could grow their own.

It’s all about inequalitites. Always, everywhere, they are the reasons for deep-seated, persistent hunger – simply another name for injustice. This is why charity, however necessary it may be to alleviate distress, is not the relevant virtue for fighting hunger. That virtue is justice, because charity can never be more than a stop-gap – it does not and cannot change unjust structures.”

And before I leave Cambodia for another adventure (flying to KL tomorrow, spend the night in KL, then off to Manila), just one more from the Samrong Village School of Opportunity:

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siem reap

Posted in cambodia, siem reap by moonwire on September 19, 2009

On Monday morning, I took the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It wasn’t a bad ride at all. It took about six hours and everyone had a seat. It was interesting to see rural Cambodia. Because of the rainy season, everything is very green and it was just beautiful watching the rice paddies. About half way through we stopped for a break. I got out and got immediately ambushed by kids selling all kinds of food. And tarantulas. They had them crawling all over themselves. Some of the kids were carrying plates with deep fried tarantulas and things like cockroaches and grasshoppers. Needless to say, I wasn’t very hungry and got back on the bus very quickly. No, I don’t have any photos unfortunately. I seriously felt so sick looking at the spiders and the food…

Siem Reap really is a very small place. In some ways it reminds me of Luang Prabang, with the one street full of nice bars and restaurants. A few alleys around it, too. Everything is within walking distance. Luang Prabang as a town is much prettier though. But when it comes to pretty, Luang Prabang wins over any place I’ve ever been. But it’s just lovely here. One thing that’s hard to block out is the child labour and the many people with missing or deformed limbs selling books and postcards. They were in Phnom Penh as well, but you’ve got about the same amount here and this is a much smaller place.

Typical sight: a child working as a ‘bottle collector’.

One night I was on my way to the outdoor restaurant (almost all food is 1 dollar there, and excellent) at the end of Pub Street when two kids were trying to sell me bracelets. I do not buy this kind of stuff from kids in the street, but I asked them if they wanted to join me for dinner. Of course, you never  have to ask them twice, and all of a sudden there were three more kids. Okay, three more didn’t matter that much and we continued walking through Pub Street. Then we bump into a man in a makeshift wheelchair, holding a small yappy dog. He tried to sell me books, but I didn’t need them, but I asked him as well to come to the restaurant. Must have been quite the scene, me with 5 kids, a guy in a wheelchair and a dog in tow.

We had a good dinner, eating rice and noodles. Some of the kids spoke pretty good English, but the man in the wheelchair, his name is Joeun, did not, but he did understand a little. When I asked him if his dog was a boy or a girl he gave me a big toothless smile and answered ‘lady dog’, which somehow completely cracked me up. Joeun was born with severely deformed lower legs and supports his wife and three young children by selling books, mostly about life under the Khmer Rouge, to tourists. What a life. The sweetest thing though, was when he got his food, he immediately gave some pieces of meat and some rice to his ‘ladydog’ who finished her dinner very unladylike in a matter of seconds.

Another interesting meeting was with Tola. I was walking along the river when I saw this young man sitting on a bench, studying an English book. As always, it was very easy to strike up a conversation and we chatted for a while. He told me he was  24 years old, a student and he also volunteered teaching English to kids at a rural school about 30 kilometres from Siem Reap. He showed me some photos from the school and some teaching materials he uses. I asked him if it was possible for me to visit the school. He was happy to take me there.

Tola at the principal’s house.

So the next day we went to a village in Bakong on the motorbike. The first part of the trip was on a paved road, but the last 11 kilometres was not. Just a dirt road through the country. The scenery was beautiful. Lots of trees, rice paddies and butterflies. I know it’s not a wealthy area by any stretch of the imagination, but I was happy to see that people were living in proper houses (most made from wood, on stilts) and that most people had a skinny cow or two grazing, some chickens running around and a pig here and there.

First we made a stop at the school’s principal’s house. We had something to eat and drink there. Then another teacher, and I really should be taking note of these things, whose name I now can’t remember, took me to another teacher’s house where I was offered even more food and drinks. The whole family was preparing food and snacks for the upcoming holiday. As is very usual, several generations were living under one roof. We stayed there briefly before walking to the school.

When we got to the school I could barely believe that this was a school. Just a wooden shack divided in two. Two classrooms. During the day it is a public school and after hours there are English classes run by four volunteers. It was great seeing the kids arrive at school. Big smiles and excitement everywhere. They were a bit rowdy before the lesson started but as soon as it did, they paid a lot of attention. They were great kids. I had brought them pens and notebooks and they were very happy with something so small. They loved their picture taken. Though I think I took my best shots with the Nikon film camera, it was great shooting digital so I could show them the picture immediately. Here’s a few:

Around 5 pm we headed back to Siem Reap. It was a great afternoon.

Up next: the temples of Angkor.

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