In which we like pina coladas, eat a home cooked meal, and of course, street signs. 

As I mentioned in the last blog post, we were invited to be in the promo materials for Grasshopper cycling! We met our photographer, videgrapher, new guide and off. We went back to the village we visited yesterday and met with the sewing ladies again, and there was a lot of sweetness and laughter all around. On our walk through the village, a little girl of maybe five yelled out in perfect English, “How are you?” We replied, “good, how are you?” And she replied, “I am happy!” Then, to show off, she started singing “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” and we all joined in with her. Our HUSK guide told us that she was one of the students at the school, and a particularly bright one.
Our evening was to be more riding through the outskirts of Siem Reap, but the rain came in and didn’t letup, so we instead retired to dinner at a local woman’s house. I asked her name but the guides just told me we call her “Aunty,” so Aunty it was. The food was delicious, and different than anything you get in a restaurant. I compared it to what I ate at home growing up every day – simple curried vegetables, dal, poli (roti)- to what you eat in an indian restaurant – palak/saag panner, tandoori chicken, etc. One dish was eggplant mixed with egg, another was stir fried morning glory leaves with garlic, and the third we had was a pumpkin stew, all with steamed rice. Tasty!

gelatinous green dessert. not my favorite.

Our last day in Cambodia we did a little last minute shopping and then went to see the Phare Circus, an acrobatic group comprised of former street children, and it was heart stopping. Jump roping with a rope on fire, high flips and acrobatics, arial dance, like being at cirque du soleil, only where we’re three feet away from the performers! The foundation also has an art school in Battambang, where they have over 1200 students learning art & theatre, again all from disadvantaged families. 

A few last thoughts on Cambodia – 
This for me, was a place of wonder and also of intensity. Eric has done a better job of conveying this in his series of posts, but I know we have all been deeply affected by what we’ve seen and the people we’ve talked to. To have a country where an entire generation of thinkers and intellectuals was simply wiped out, and to leave in it’s place something of societal rubble means that there are decades of rebuilding, and it’s evident everywhere you go. The top news stories are that of the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders, those implicated in forced marriages, and again these were all forty years ago. We met so many bright young Cambodians who would be unable to get a higher education, as the system requires a lot of money and graft at higher levels. Even for a village education over the secondary school level, the government offers scholarships for poor children for tuition only. This doesn’t cover supplies, uniforms, or most importantly transportation. If the nearest school is four to five kilometers away, they need a bicycle, but the cost is prohibitive for many of these families. The real work of help in this country is ALL being done by NGOs, and there are many. We have mentioned several of them in our posts, HUSK Cambodia, Cambodian Handicraft Association, Phare Circus, and the Khmer Ceramics Center were ones we personally stopped by and used. If you’re so moved, please click on any of the links above and give even a little – your dollar goes very far here. 
Everyone we met was very friendly and open, with the exception of the few times we clearly left tourist Cambodia like when I went to find hair ties in the market. People weren’t unfriendly at that point at all, we were just ignored, and fair enough. I would love to return to this country and spend more time here, coming during dry season when we can visit the beaches, the elephant rescue centers, and the other cities as well. 
And last but not least, the street signs!

Even on the street signs the kids know to run because the motorbikes and tuk tuks don’t stop for anyone. 

Here is where the well coiffed children are found. 

No Tuk tuks in this lane. Surprisingly, this sign was actually respected in Siem Reap where they had separate divided lanes for tuk tuks and motorbikes. 

There is no “I” in team! We are all in this together cambodian people!

Heres’ one where you just project your own feelings onto the “no” sign. I just started singing “No woman no cry” everytime. 

Here are the limbo players! Watch out!! Or, you may be struck by Zeus and given superhero powers. I can’t decide.

And last but not least, our official theme song of Cambodia, sung whenever, well, we got caught in the rain.


In which we cycle through the country, and kayak through a forest

How to start with the last few wonderful days? Muddy, sweaty, tired, and exhilarating. We took a day off after templing and took a pottery class at the Khmer Ceramics center, learning from Deaf instructors who are hired there, and finishing up with passable pieces of ceramic work to take home with us. All of the art decoration Eric and I totally did by ourselves and did NOT have ANY help from the talented artists there. Nope, none at all. 

The next day, we had booked a tour with Grasshopper tours, where we would bike through the countryside around Siem Reap in the morning and then kayak in Lake Tonle Sap in the afternoon, through a mangrove forest and then around a floating village. Grasshopper also asked us if we would come with them the next day for filming some promotional material! Of course, we signed up. I’ll write a bit about that day in thenext post. 

We met our wonderful guide, Hang, who had grown up in a village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh with his seven brothers and sisters. We started by riding out through the city of Siem Reap. For the kids I found this a bit harrowing especially when the girl got a bit too friendly to a turning motorbike driver, who was trying to get through the intersection quickly to avoid the nearby policeman from noticing she wasn’t wearing a helmet. 

Stopped on the road near the children’s hospital for a baby to be transferred from one ward to another, IV pole hanging

Once we were out of the city the riding became much more relaxed. As we went along the dirt back roads, the houses changed in character from clearly suburban ranch style homes to more rural homes in villages, largely placed upon stilts. Even these houses, though, I was surprised to see looked relatively large from what I was expecting. We later learned that the people who owned these houses were considered relatively wealthy by village standards, and that most of them had saved and then spent to buy the house, and inside would be sparsely decorated. 

We stopped at a local market and tried some delicious street food! When I was younger, I would eat all of that stuff and not think twice, but I’m a little more cautious now since I really don’t want to get sick so it was nice to have a guide to help us eat stuff that was “safe” to eat. I’m getting soft in my old age. We had steamed rice cakes, puffed bread,  and my favorite, battered deep fried bananas. YUM. 

We turned the corner of the market and jumped as the fish sellers had tubs of fish STILL MOVING for sale as they slowly asphyxiated. You’d pick your fish or meat, the sellers would crack it open on a handy slab of rock and prepare the fish for you, while the flies had first dibs. Mmmm, fish with a side of maggots. The kids were a bit squeamish about this all, and scurried through the fish and meat stalls without stopping much. 

Onward to our next rest stop, a roadside stand to eat cambodian fish noodle curry, Num banh chok, which was incredible. The flavors were so fresh and unlike anything I’d had in a restaurant so far. 

the boy chows down on cold noodle salad

stopping at the side of the road for a snack of sticky rice and beans, grilled in bamboo

We finished our 30 km bike ride at a raised house, where we were met by Lee, a young man who works for an NGO called Husk. Husk has a setup in Cambodian villages where they try to create sustainable patterns in poverty level one and two citizens (earning < $2.50/day) to break the cycle. As part of this, they have created a school in Cambodia for supplemental English education for local kids. To be accepted at the school, the kids must attend public school full time as well. For many local villagers, this is unrealistic because they need the kids to be out making money, especially during tourist season when they can send the kids out to beg or sell postcards and trinkets. For this reason, they strongly encourage against buying from children – if tourists keep buying from kids, it perpetuates the cycle of poverty as they will be sent out to beg instead of kept home from school. This isn’t a perfect solution, as then the families may not have enough money to survive. To support vulnerable families they have a few options. One is that the Husk building cores are made of plastic bottles stuffed full of fabric and other plastic bags. These are put into a chicken wire core and cemented over to make walls. They pay or trade for these bottles, and on our walk around the village we saw women hacking fabric into strips with a machete and stuffing them into plastic bottles.  (There’s lots of kids around as they’re on break right now, not just not going to school.)

There’s also a seamstress shop where they make toys and other soft items to sell to raise money. Husk chooses it’s villages carefully, avoiding those that have corrupt chiefs who would only line their own pockets with cash and aid. They also are trying to create a second generation of leaders – we met young women from the village who could not speak any English a few years ago, and were now teachers at the school! They also teach environmental stewardship, encouraging the use of trash bins instead of litter. The work they are doing there is truly fantastic, and we’ve all committed to helping out more as we can. 

The super friendly ladies of the sewing workshop. With the help of the guide to translate, we shared a lot of laughter with them!

After this, it was a ride and then a boat trip to kayaking! There are a few floating village communities on Tonle Sap Lake, the most famous of which has now become a tourist zoo, according to what I’ve read. Where we went was nothing like that, and other than one or two occasional tourist boats speeding through, we saw little of it. We started with a kayak tour through a mangrove forest, where our guide kept scooping his hand through the water to catch large water snails which he planned to fry up for his dinner! He offered a few to us, but being the generous souls we are, we did not want to take any of his snails and declined.

 We came back to paddle through the floating village, and it’s not extreme to say that the village absolutely blew my mind. The houses are suspended on bamboo rafts, and move according to the water levels in the lake which varies greatly by season. People have everything on rafts – there are small restaurants, convenience stores, even chickens & pigs living on the water!

mending fishing nets

 We passed by a fixed building which was a school. As the season gets wetter, the houses move farther away from them and kids may have to paddle their boats for 2 km to get to school every morning. It was something that none of us could really imagine, living out on the water, rarely touching solid land. Weddings happen in the houses by moving a house or two and a restaurant together to have enough room for a party. It’s something I’m still thinking about, in that the way of life was something almost unimaginable for me before. I mean, the small villages with farms and chickens and naked children running about…I expected that and have a vague notion of what that life looks like, even before we got a closer view today. But never have I seen anything like the people who live their life on the water, rowing from home to home or village to village, waiting for the rains to come to know when it’s time to tow the houses to a different spot. 
A note about poverty tourism: the phenomenon of (usually) Western tourists paying to see people living in poverty is a controversial one and raises the question of exploitation. Do we go into the villages as a form of entertainment and something to discuss while we have an expensive meal back in the city? I don’t know that I would call it entertainment, but for us it was deeply illuminating, even for what we thought we knew. I think that you can come to places like Cambodia and see the temples and the museum and leave, eat in the tourist district, stay in very comfortable hotels, and not get a sense of how many people live here. I think it’s actually important to visit places like the villages, and it was important to me that my children see homes and lives in the world that look nothing like ours. As much as possible, before taking a picture of someone I would ask if it was okay, by indicating with my camera, and almost everyone was happy to be in a picture. I also asked our tour guides if it would be okay to take pictures, and since they clearly knew the people in the villages I figured it would be okay. Nearly everyone we met or swam by in the villages we would exchange a friendly “hello” and namaskar, and if we had questions they could be relayed through our guide. They also get money by charging entrance fees at the boat docks which are shared among the residents, and so your tourism does help to support the community here. I always wonder what would it be like if I was gardening in my front yard and a busload of tourists drove up, decamped, snapped pictures and then left. For many reasons, we avoid tours like this, and this is the main one. 

Grasshopper tours employs Cambodian cycle guides who love their country and want to share it with you on a small scale level, which is a very different feeling. So, no I don’t feel bad about this. I think we’re all better off seeing more of the world and how people live in it, and also doing our best to do it responsibly and in a way that treats them as people and not objects. 


In which we visit the temples of Angkor Wat and the laundry luck runs out

Our initial plan had been to spend a few days at the beaches of Sihanoukville, but the monsoon weather laughed at our idea of a few idyllic beach days. Instead we decided to just head to Siem Reap and spend more time there. We left Phnom Penh by way of a six hour bus ride through the Cambodian countryside, reaching Siem Reap in the evening and settling into our hotel for the night. Searching for a hotel in Siem Reap is not for the faint of heart, as there are over 200 hotel options as well as guesthouses and air bnbs. We got so sick of poring over seemingly identical options that we just picked one and booked two days there as a start. Turned out, the rooms were dark and dingy and it was a hotel that seemed to cater exclusively to Chinese tourists. This is not in an of itself a bad thing, but I felt like a secondary tourist attraction at breakfast time when the Chinese would openly stare at me. I guess this is what the statues at Angkor Wat feel like. Huh.
We spent the next day wandering around Siem Reap, orienting ourselves, and finding a new place to stay. Having read travelogues that talk about a pleasant stroll through town and happening upon the perfect little guesthouse, this was what I imagined. Instead, we found ourselves sweating in the tropical heat to check out “air bnb”s that were just hotels, and not very appealing ones at that. I finally looked at a hotel on the side of the river, which was lovely, with wooden ceilings and a quaint, airy feel. I actually bargained a bit for the price (!) and we had a new place to stay.

Siem Reap is far more pleasant than Phnom Penh. While there are still every manner of vehicle going every which way on the streets, there are far fewer of them and you can actually breathe the air. I was surprised by how touristy Siem Reap is. The main drag is actually called “Pub street” and is decorated with lanterns. I’m sure in the wee hours of the night this becomes a rowdy alleyway! There’s still plenty of actual town life, as seen in the market pics below. 

old market in Siem Reap

Yesterday we went to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, and saw “the big three,” Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Our tour guide gave us the option to leave at 5 am for sunrise or 9 am if we wanted to leave later. Eric gave me a look when I chirped, “Oooh, the sunrise tour at 5!” However, I made the executive decision that we’d do it. I mean, when will we ever  be here again? We all sleepily made our way out of the room with all our luggage as we were checking out of that place and met our guide, San Pork, who was funny, energetic and a delight to spend the day with. Once at the ticket booth, they asked to see the kids’ passports to verify they qualified for the under 12 free ticket. Everyone looked at me as I am the official holder of the passports. I looked at everyone with a “Oh, sure!” smile on my face and took one step back to go to the car to get them. At this point, I froze and the blood drained out of my face as I realized I had left the passports in the hotel room safe, which was about a twenty minute drive away. As I am dark skinned, the draining of the blood did not change my outward appearance, but I assure you it happened. Eric just looked at me like I was a rank idiot.
Our guide smooth talked the ticket sellers into letting us visit, we called the hotel (who didn’t understand me at all and just thought I wanted to book another night), and then we took off for Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is a 900 year old temple in the middle of a vast set of temple complexes and ruins and is known as the largest religious site in the world. Each wall surrounding the temple is nearly a kilometer long, and it’s oriented in cardinal directions. I wonder how ancient peoples did this – did they have some type of compass or did they just watch for the movement of the sun?
Sunrise, unfortunately, was not happening due to the thick cloud cover, but this did make the morning cooler. We sat at a little outdoor overpriced tourist restaurant and the kids and I ordered bread and butter, expecting a few pieces of toast. Instead, we each had a full sized baguette plopped in front of us, balancing precariously on a tiny plate, while the chickens clucked around us hopefully. We looked at each other and just started laughing. We ate what we could and bagged up the rest as San said we could give it to some kids along the way.
Angkor Wat is, of course, beautiful. Every superlative you’ve heard is accurate. Sandstone walls covered in green lichen surround courtyards. The external walls are carved in stunning bas relief sculpture depicting Hindu epics and myths. Angkor Wat has had significant restoration efforts over the years, hampered by the civil war and looting, and there is still a long way to go.



vincent came with us to Angkor Wat! The roving macaque monkeys frightened him a bit.


Churning of the sea of milk bas-relief sculpture

at the very center of Angkor Wat

We left Angkor Wat, retrieved our passports, and then drove to Prom Preah, noted for the trees that have seemingly eaten up the temple there and also for Angelina Jolie cavorting about them half dressed as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. When Angkor Wat was initially found prior to restoration, it looked much like this. The trees burrow themselves into the foundations of the stone, and split it apart. Eventually, our guide told us, the government will have to cut the trees down to preserve the site. It almost seems a shame in a way, to reckon with the forces of nature to reclaim itself from the stones.


Last was Angkor Thom, a later temple on the site which was erected during the time of buddhism. Large peaceful faces gaze out upon you from four sides of each tower – the king did this to preserve the peace between Hindus and Buddhists as the country was in a state of religious transition. Hindu? No problem! These are the four faces of Brahma! Buddhist? All good! These are all depictions of Buddha looking out upon you.

We went back to Siem Reap and checked into our new hotel. We’d been awake and going for eight hours and it was JUST barely 1 PM. Oof. Eric gathered the clothes to drop off at a local laundry and the kids took showers, and after a bit of down time we decided to head into the city. I’ll replay the ensuing conversation for you:
Me: “Hey kids, get dressed so we can get out of here!

Both kids, wearing only a shirt “Umm…we have no pants.”

Me: “Angkor WHAT?!?!”

So, when Eric had been gathering clothes for laundry, the kids were playing a game on the iPad and didn’t want to stop. Instead of actually checking to see what was clean or not, they just chucked ALL of their clothes into the laundry. Which would not be ready until tomorrow. As you might imagine, Eric and I were not pleased with this situation. The boy had to dry his swim shorts off with a hair dryer and we put the girl in a nightdress with a pair of the boy’s boxers underneath and made for the market where we got her a pair of baggy pants for $2.50. Honestly.