The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Siem Reap

Welcome to Cambodia

Cambodia has become synonymous with the 400+ square-kilometer temple compound of Angkor, found just outside of Siem Reap. And it is stunning. But Cambodia is so much more than that, and is worth a lot more time than most visitors give it.

In addition to a few days touring the temples, here are a few of the other places and things worth doing:

  1. Volunteer: I spent a week with children at the Missionaries of Charity in Siem Reap, and it was one of the most heartbreaking and fulfilling experiences of my travels. There is so much need in Cambodia, and so much opportunity to help. I was lucky to spend time with a big group of volunteers from the UK and Australia, who assisted with anything from teaching English to providing legal assistance to an NGO focused on preventing spousal abuse in rural villages. The Cambodians are such beautiful, kind people that it’s almost impossible not to help.
  2. Go Island Hopping: Cambodia’s coast has islands to rival those of Thailand, with easily 1/3 the traffic. Still relatively undiscovered but with enough amenities to be comfortable, Rabbit Island, Koh Rong, and Koh Rong Sanloem are well worth a few days stay. Or you can park yourself in the sleepy Otres Beach or party-town Sihanoukville and take day trips that will hop amongst the smaller islands just off the coast.
  3. See a Different Side of Khmer Rouge Atrocities in Battambang: Phnom Penh is the most famous for it’s killing fields, where millions of innocent Cambodians were ruthlessly slaughtered by the army led by Pol Pot. Because of an increase in petty theft crimes in Phnom Penh, I opted to avoid the city as much as possible. However, I still wanted to experience and understand the history of the country. In Battambang, we took a day tour, which included a stop at a Killing Cave, where Cambodians were tossed 50+ feet to their deaths. It’s a chilling experience, and hiring one of the local students is well worth the cash for the history lesson.
  4. Get a Taste of Local Life in Kampot: This largely rural area isn’t a top ranker for tourists (other than the French), but it is a charming city with heaps of waterfront accommodation options along the Kampot River. Plus, the best pepper in the world is grown in plantations just outside of town, and one of the oldest temples is nestled in a cave in a national park. I had one of the best days of my life on the back of a motorbike zipping through the village roads outside of Kampot.
  5. Learn to Cook Cambodian Cuisine: Thai food is an old staple, and anyone can whip up a curry without much skill. But how many people can say they know how to cook Fish Amok or Beef Lok Lak? These are two typical Cambodian dishes that are really delicious. Unlike Thai food, Cambodian food isn’t spicy, so you don’t need to worry about alienating your capsaicin-fearing friends.

And here are some practical details for a visit to Cambodia.

Getting Around: 

  1. Bus Companies: There are many bus companies that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. The best of these, without a doubt, is Giant IbisEspecially if you’re traveling overnight anywhere, like I did from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, you will not regret spending the extra money on a sleeper bus ticket with GI. The beds fully recline, there is an outlet and lamp for each individual bed, and your own air conditioning vent that you can adjust at will. If you have to sleep on a bus, this is the way to do it. Pro Tip: Get a top bunk, because full buses mean that sometimes someone will stretch out in the aisle… directly next to you.
  2. Share Taxis: If you find yourself in jam, like I did when I wasn’t switched onto the right bus just before Khmer New Year, there is a share taxi option. This is faster, but very tight, and usually a little more expensive than a bus. A typical sedan will cram four people in the back seat, and sometimes two in the front, so get ready to get cozy with the Cambodians! You can try to get more space by purchasing two seats. Recommended for shorter trips only.
  3. Private Taxis/Tuk Tuks/Motorbikes: Jumping on the back of a motorbike is by far the cheapest option to get from A to B, provided you are traveling solo. It’s a fantastic way to really take in everything around you, and it’s the most direct and quickest way to get wherever you want to go. Just be cautious, the drivers don’t always have extra helmets for passengers. Because of the lack of paved roads in many parts of Cambodia, grab a surgeon’s mask from one of the kiosks on the side of the road that sells gasoline.

Money:

  • They use the US Dollar! This makes things so easy for us Americans, since no currency exchanging is necessary at all. However, many merchants will not accept bills manufactured before 1975, and if the bill is ripped or overly creased, it will be denied. I learned this the hard way trying to buy my pass to Angkor with a bill that didn’t pass muster. If a merchant tries to give you shoddy bills as change, hand it back and ask for a new one. It’s a common practice in Cambodia and not considered rude.

Accommodation:

  • I started off staying at the highly-recommended Mad Monkey in Siem Reap, and ended up with the worst case of bedbugs I’d ever had in my life. Because of this, it was the last time I used a dorm room in all of Southeast Asia. Because of my intense reaction to bedbug bites, it wasn’t worth saving a few bucks. In fact, I spent any savings I would have had on medicine and getting my bags and clothing cleaned and treated. Thumbs down.
  • However, I was able to negotiate my way into a hotel room, with air conditioning, a nice shower, and included breakfast, for $15/night. Online, the price was double! It never hurts to walk in and negotiate.

The Temples at Angkor

It was that moment before the sky starts to get light, a shadowy, gray space that makes everything feel shrouded in mist. The air was refreshingly cool on my face as the tuk tuk sped through streets that were normally choked with vehicles and dust. We passed through a set of gates, showed our passes to the guards, and soon were out of the city and surrounded by trees and grass. Behind the vegetation, curious domes reached toward the lightening sky.

First Light @ Angkor Wat

First Light @ Angkor Wat

We pulled up to the front entrance of Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of the 400 square kilometer complex of temples outside of Siem Reap. Here, the hubub of tuk tuks and tourists presented a sharp contrast to the silence of the city we had just driven through. Like moths to a flame, hundred of people thronged through the ancient stone gateway into the courtyard of the temple.

The sky was just starting to pink, and the masses fanned out from the gateway to find an ideal position to watch and photograph the most famous spectacle in this dusty corner of Cambodia: Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

We settled ourselves on the 900 year-old ledge of an outbuilding and watched as the pink deepened to magenta, orange streaking through the clouds like the jet streams of a flock of mythical birds. And slowly, slowly, like the syrupy heat it would bring along with it, a bright red sun peeked between two of the domes of the temple. It ascended behind one of them, casting long shadows into the courtyard and bathing the onlookers in rich golden light.

Sunrise @ Angkor Wat

The Sun Peeks Out Behind Angkor Wat

Despite the large numbers, there was a hush within the complex, the temple’s daily dance with the sun demanding and receiving reverence. As the sun climbed well above the temple, the sky mellowed from red, to orange, to blue, and the spell was broken, ready to be cast another day.

Sunrise Angkor Angkor Sunrise Dramatic Sunrise at Angkor Wat

The Gift

The little girl clung to her father’s leg as he tried to disengage her, tears sprouting from her eyes and rolling down her face instantaneously. He looked over at me with a heartbroken expression. Though we didn’t share a language, words weren’t necessary in this moment. He looked a little embarrassed as he held his daughter far enough away that she couldn’t grasp him again, and I swooped the sobbing little girl into my arms.

As he walked across a hot, dusty courtyard to the gate that led to the street, the girl started screaming and writhing in my arms. I turned my back to the gate, both so the girl could catch a last glimpse of her father as he left, and to hide the tears that were streaming down my own face from the rest of the children at my feet.

My fellow volunteer looked at me with sympathy, and I bit my lip to keep myself from breaking into sobs. I busied myself with murmuring calming things in a language this girl didn’t understand, kissing the top of her head and rubbing her back in a vain attempt to console her.

It was my second to last day volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity, a place where nuns ministered to the poorest and most needy in Siem Reap. Part of that ministry involved taking in children who couldn’t be cared for by their families. This four-year-old girl had just lost her mother to untreated cancer, and her father had to go to Thailand. The work was in Thailand. Better money was in Thailand. He had two daughters to provide for: the four-year-old he’s just said goodbye to and an eight-month-old who was so malnourished she couldn’t sit up on her own. But there was no room for them in Thailand. So they were here.

I only spent a week with the children at the Missionaries of Charity, but the profound impact that week had on my life will be reverberating through my soul for the rest of my life.

It was more than learning to tie cloth diapers, battling a stuffy nose and eye infection from the myriad illnesses circulating the children, and finding the odd poo on the floor throughout the facility.

It was teaching bright brown eyes how to count in English, singing the alphabet song with my friend and fellow volunteer (though it turns out Australians and Americans end that song quite differently), giving hugs and cuddles on the bad days, chasing squealing kids around on the good days.

It was hearing two adorable twin boys, who otherwise didn’t know a word of English, parrot “Okay! Okay!” after hearing me say it five-hundred times per day.

It was the joy on the face of mentally impaired boy, which could dissolve into tears without any reason or notice.

It was the bashful smile of a child with cerebral palsy as he was cheered for walking on his own with a walker, relishing the attention he rarely got.

It was feeding a little girl who hadn’t had enough to eat for months, and didn’t really know how to feed herself.

It was watching a five year old girl touch the polish on my toes, then touch her own unpolished toes. Or sitting very still while I applied lip balm to her lips, then touching them with a smile once I had finished.

It was spending the morning with a normally-rambunctious three-year-old clinging to me for cuddles, because it was just one of those days when he needed to be held.

It was the unceasing cry of “Sistah! Sistah!” (which the volunteers were called) whenever we wheeled our bikes into the courtyard.

It wasn’t all moments of joy, but the painful moments that were so common throughout the day made those bright spots that much brighter and more beautiful. Often, my heart contracted, closing in on itself as I witnessed lack, pain, and sadness. But even more often, it was expanding, swelling to proportions that threatened to crack my ribs. It was here, in a hot courtyard on a back road in Siem Reap, where I realized that my body was a poor vessel to contain all the love I could feel, and I was certain I would explode from the pressure of it trying to pour from my body.

On my last day at the house, I brought some necessities for the Sisters: formula, diapers, clothing. But I also brought along a play tool set, because the kids had been chirping and pointing at a man hammering away at the roof next door all morning. The squeals of excitement and complete absorption of playing with a new toy filled the yard for the rest of day.

And though I may have been the one bringing gifts that day, I received far more than I gave.

 

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