For some time, I have been thinking of starting a new feature on my blog – a weekly postcard where I share my daily life, travel experiences, what inspired me and who I met with you. From now on, I will send you said postcard every Monday. This week, it happens to be published on a Wednesday because of a special reason: it was my birthday and I have been reflecting on the past year and the next one to come which also revolved around the future of this blog. So from next week onwards, the postcards will arrive in time on Monday 🙂
What Happened Last Week
I have just returned from a weekend in Cambodia and I am still processing all the impressions. I had been wanting to visit Angkor Wat for ages and was thrilled that this was my boyfriend’s birthday present for me this year. Our friends Sash and Ryan, who live in Singapore, joined us for this trip. We arrived in Siem Reap on Friday night and only slept for about four hours because we had booked a sunrise tour to explore the temples. (I will, of course, share all my recommendations in a separate post.) I am still amazed by the beauty of the temples and how it was possible to build such an extensive and intricate site without the help of any modern cranes. Furthermore, I did not know that it was actually a Hindu temple and was later on turned into a Buddhist one.
Sometimes, things just end up working out differently as you planned them and that was exactly what happened to our sightseeing plans. We had a plan of visiting three temples – Angkor Wat, Bayon and Tasom before the crowds arrive. It worked out quite well because it was not too busy and the weather was cool and perfect for exploring. But we were done at Bayon Temple at around 8am. So my friend Sash suggested to go to Phnom Kulen, a national park with a waterfall our guide Ry had told us about. It is considered a holy mountain by both Hindus and Buddhists and there are Hindu carvings in the riverbed from 800 AD.
What we did not know was that it would take us about 1.5 hours to go up the mountain. As we visited Siem Reap during the Cambodian Water Festival (Bon Om Touk), we were not the only ones going up on the bumpy and dusty road. When we arrived at the sight, we realized that it was actually a place for the locals to spend their weekends. Even though our guys were not impressed by the carvings in the riverbed, Sash and I were amazed by its background: the river had to be rerouted to enable carving the sandstone. Furthermore, it was the time when our tour guide opened up and told us about his family history and how they experienced Cambodia’s past and the country’s current challenges.
I knew a bit about the history – of course, I read a lot about the rule of the Khmer Rouge. But I have to admit that my knowledge was very limited. The country is still shaken by the aftermaths of the Vietnam war that extended into Cambodia and resulted in US bombings of the country and by the horrible rule of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide. Our guide told us that even though Cambodia is a country very rich in resources, it is still one of the poorest countries in the South East Asian region. A major reason for this is corruption. And it is actually quite obvious: when we were driving up the mountain, we saw small banana stands on the dusty road side and children waving at us. In front of us was a Lexus SUV – an extremely expensive car for Cambodian standards. The car pulled over multiple times to hand out money to the military guards. Both our driver and guide were laughing when we asked what was going on. “You know, in Cambodia there are rules for normal people, and there are rules for the rich people and government officials. This guy is handing out money to the guards because he is probably an important guy within the police. He is here because of the festival to visit the sacred mountain.”
Even though the waterfall itself was less spectacular than expected, I think we were really fortunate to experience local daily life far away from the beauty of the Angkor temples. On weekends, the area around the waterfall is a popular place for locals to have family picnics. We were some of the few foreigners and while we walked around to have a look at the small street stalls, we got a lot of curious looks (probably because Ryan is a very tall person 😉 ). Frankly, it was a strange feeling walking along the stalls. I thought I had experienced poverty in rural China, but this was a whole other level. Kids were running after us trying to sell us souvenirs for one dollar. Isn’t it crazy how we take our lifestyle for granted? What were you doing when you were five years old on a Saturday? Probably you were playing with your friends and not selling things on the road side. We realized that we had not finished our food and did not want to waste it. We then found out that our guide planned to take it home to his family. It is not my job here to tell you how you should spend your holidays. But please spend a couple of minutes at least to reflect what happens outside of the hotel and if there are small things to do that matter!
After our late lunch, we headed over to the city centre to explore Siem Reap. I highly recommend to spend some time of your trip to visit the city itself as well.
On our way back to the airport on Sunday we had the same driver, we had a good laugh with him about hour 3 hour tour up and down the mountain the day before. He then told us that by buying the tickets to visit Angkor Wat we contributed USD 2 each to the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital fund. The Kantha Bopha Hospital was rebuilt by the Swiss doctor Beat Richner in 1991 and the fund runs several hospitals in Cambodia. Our driver told us that he could bring his son there for free when he was sick.
Tourism is the major source of income for most people. Our driver told us by visiting Cambodia, we help the country a lot. When he said that I had to think of the night before. After dinner, we went to the night market and passed by Pub Street. It reminded me a lot of Lang Kwai Fong in Hong Kong. But much more extreme. Drunk people everywhere who wanted to party cheaply. I really wondered if this is really the same crowd which visited the temples in the mornings. Is it really necessary to cater to that type of tourism? Furthermore, our driver said that the best way to contribute to the local communities is by not coming with big tour operators and organize individual tours. The problem with those is that everything is organized in the home country, often the hotels are operated by companies of the very same country and even the guides are not locals. Hence, not contributing at all to the better of the Cambodian people. You might know from one of my previous posts that I absolutely hate big mass tours – exactly for that reason.
I do encourage you and highly recommend that you visit Cambodia. It is definitely a lifetime experience. But please be respectful – of the people, of the sacred sights. And show an interest in your host country. You will see a side of Cambodia that will surprise you.
What’s On for This Week
The past few weeks have been really hectic and I am still trying to keep up with work. I have friends from Germany visiting Bangkok on the weekend and look forward to catching up – it has been over 3 years since I left Germany, time flies!
I hope that you enjoyed reading my first Monday (Wednesday) postcard!