Hi everyone, here goes the much-awaited Part 1 blog post of my recent travel trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia - Picturesque Cambodian Countryside.
Travel is the chance to experience the other, to step into another's culture and experience the wonders of the world around us. I know cultural tourism is a delicate industry, so i strived to enter a local village in Siem Reap in a thoughtful and careful way, so as not disturb their native way of life, while giving myself an inclusive experience i'll never forget.
This trip to Siem Reap was an unforgettable one for that life-changing moment for me. It was at that point in time where i felt inspired to make a difference for the people who needed help. For the people who weren't as fortunate as me. For the people who had moved my heart.
For the Cambodians.
I was instantly captivated by the natural beauty of Siem Reap the moment i looked out of the window as my plane prepared to land on the Siem Reap International Airport. There was just something about the spareseness of its landscape that spread across acres and acres of raw, natural land that projected a charming allure to anyone who laid their eyes on it.
Being in Cambodia is like travelling through time on a time machine to an ancient world. Siem Reap is as third world as anyone get, so hauntingly poor in technology and economic growth, yet so mystically rich in culture and history, so unfathomably backward, yet so surprisingly enchanting. It is, like how Cambodia positions itself as, truly the magical Kingdom of Wonder.
I headed out to a local village in the outskirts of Siem Reap - Kompheim Village - where 50% of the families surivive on an average family income of less than USD 60 a month. It is a small village made up of farmers and itinerant workers. The village is a mixture of type 1, 2 and 3 households. Type 1 families typically struggle to meet daily needs and often struggle for food.
The scenic drive out takes one through some fantastic local countryside. Drove through local villages, past rice plantations and herds of cows and buffalos. I was happy to stop along the way to capture some great photo opportunities. There was an intimate glimpse of rural areas as you wind through picturesque villages and vast green paddy fields.
I experienced trekking with an ox / buffalo cart ride to visit the beauty of the surrounding landscape, along the the way discovering seasonal farming methods and other daily activities of the local Cambodians. The cart is custom designed for your comfort with mat.
I finally got to meet the host family for my farm harvesting. The families participating in such program are some of the poorest in the village. The program provides them with a sustainable stream of income and creates opportunities for the entire village. I was supposed to help the host family to complete their daily tasks and that was rice planting / harvesting.
Every program contributes funds to the participating family and a larger component to an agreed community fund for a village improvement project. The improvement project can be special village projects like water filters and water wells.
It is also extremely important that any visitor to the village should not hand out gifts, sweets or money to these families or children, no matter how dire the situation seems. Providing gifts can cause problems within the village and jealousy among families and relatives. Many children in the village suffer poor dental hygiene, so by handing out sweets or lollies to them will only contribute to more problems.
Life in a Cambodian village revolves around the seasons. Rice planting, makes way for harvest and then rice sorting and the husking. The dry months allow for the making thatch roof panels, a tricky task that takes a few attempts to master. Browse way below later for photographs on the making of roof panels using dried palm leaves.
Such program is to participate in the true village life, which is sometimes a challenging task and definitely a new experience for most. This is an incredible experience and one you will never forget.
I helped the host family in their rice planting and indeed, it was real hard work! We had to bend down and emerge half body in water to plant the rice seeds under the scorching hot sun.
Me striking a pic in front of the rice planting area where it was almost half completed.
It is the dry season in Siem Reap, so the rice paddies are fallow. The rice straw is good forage, what isn't gathered for hay against the monsoon season is eaten by foraging cattle.
Shots of the completed rice planting area, it was really satisfying to see the whole field being planted and ready for harvest. I honestly still can't believe that i managed to do it and help the farmers in the entire rice planting project! It was really hard work, i must say it again!
The part of Cambodia that touches my heart the most, and many who have visited Cambodia will agree, is not the majestic temple ruins that would be the reason for your visit to Siem Reap. No, not the timeless beauty of its raw essence either. But the people - the poverty-stricken people who have nothing to give but their big hearts, genuine warmth, friendly gestures and sincere hospitality, who are receptive towards foreigners from all over the world, and eager to learn as much as they can about the unknown world beyond the borders of Cambodia because they could never in a million light years be able to travel further than Thailand, or rather, Siam as they call it.
The traditional houses are mostly built on stilts and the stilts put them above occasional floods. The houses have both walls and roofs of either palm leaf or very tough local grass. The palm leaves have to be replaced annually, the grass thatch lasts about 2 years.
Families shelter their buffalos and cows there, they also hang hammocks and put out tables in the hot season, just like our patios.
On the personal level, what touched me most were the children in Cambodia.
I think that children are blessedly beautiful with the gift of precious innocence that we all gradually shed at some point of our lives.
And the children of Cambodia, growing up in a country as backward and poor as Cambodia. Running around barefoot, topless or bottomless. Unsuccessfully pleading for tourists to buy whatever it is that they are selling at a mere age of five. Sometimes denied the privilege of education because they were too poor to pay the teachers to teach them. And the worst part was, the horrifying truth that they would grow up to be one of the many poor, unemployed and uneducated struggling Cambodian who often wonders about the vast difference between the average poor Cambodian and the common "poor" foreign backpacker.
My heart just went out to them, the children, the people of Cambodia.
And Cambodia empowers one that way. With its people who reaches out and unexpectedly touches your heart. Its history of the glorious kingdom of Angkor once upon a time. Its primitive yet divine scenery. Its essence that betrays the silent presence of the haunting post-war effects from the cruel Khmer Rouge regime.
It empowers you that way - in such a way that you leave Cambodia and its people but your thoughts continue to remain with them. In such a way that you feel like reaching out to them as well as attempt to help them in any way. In such a way that you feel blessed and truly appreciate your life, your home, your country (even if you sometimes feel that your country is hopeless) and your loved ones.
Most families use wood for cooking as few can afford charcoal. Electricity is very expensive in Cambodia, hence many families use a car battery for their lighting, which is recharged at the village recharging shop.
There is no running water so the villagers use water pumps to draw water from the ground. This water needs to be boiled or filtered before drinking to make it safe. These families are often poorly educated and do not realise the importance of clean drinking water.
Many of the children or families live in houses made of palm leaves. These houses have a lifespan of approximately one year before the roof needs replacement. The families often cannot afford to repair the palm leaves, so visitors will try to help them as much as they can by helping them to stitch new palm leaves to replace the torn or old palm leaves on the roof.
I worked with the some Cambodians to weave more palm together for the new roof for existing houses as well as for to be built new houses. It was quite tough at the start, but once you get the hang of it, you get on a roll.
While at the houses, i got a chance to see how these people live, play games with the children and talk to the locals to know more about their way of living and the rural side of Siem Reap. It really does make me appreciate the work i have done as well as the privileged life i have back home.
Me striking some pics with some of the locals staying in these traditional houses made of palm leaves.
These children live in the houses which often gets flooded when it rains. They have no sheltered outdoor area to cook ( as is the Cambodian custom) and simply place their pot atop three rocks within the houses. Their families survive on piece work, earning enough each day just to survive. They currently grow green lofah, basil and bitter melon in their garden for their daily meals.
Like i mentioned earlier, this trip to Siem Reap was truly memorable for me. Not only i opened my eyes to the real Cambodia, but i had also opened my eyes to the reality of life itself. From the moment i arrived at Siem Reap International Airport until this day, Siem Reap was just another exotic, adventurous travel destination with the friendliest people i have ever met. One will be amazed with the simplicity of life there, with the glorious past of the Angkor kingdom, with the ruggedness of the Cambodian landscape.
It was at that point in time that i realised Cambodia was more than just that.
That the things i came to see and the things i thought were so different and unique came at a high price for the local Cambodians.
That the great kingdom of Angkor had truly been destroyed by its descendants who left nothing but ruins to remind them of what they once were and what they are now.
I would definitely go back to Cambodia some day. And i'll tell anyone who would listen, that they would have to visit Cambodia for themselves at least once in their lifetime. Just to experience this otherworldly memory that i am fortunate enough to have and share.
A trip travel back in time at Siem Reap, Cambodia - Part 2 - To be continued...