Cambodia – 25th April to 23rd May 2015
We eventually left Thailand, the land of smiles, for our next destination, Cambodia!
Cambodia was a country I knew very little about. With a tragic, recent history, surrounding the Khmer Rouge and its people’s unique resilience to carve a new future, it was a place I was excited to see and educate myself on.
Before we could enter this new land, we had the tactical task of crossing the infamous Poipet border. This notorious crossing was famous for all the wrong reasons. A haven for scams, tricks and problems, we were hoping for an easy transition.
Purgatory at the Poipet Border
At the border control, we departed Thailand fairly easily and entered the eerie world between the two countries. This no man’s land felt like a small village stuck in purgatory.
A rather strange area, lined with random people, giving you strange instructions on where to go, asking you if you needed a visa, money exchange and that they could stamp your passport. Off course, one way or another, these were all scams.
Armed with the knowledge extracted from various blogs, travel articles and forums we managed to successfully enter Cambodia unscathed. Some people weren’t so lucky.
We overheard a very irate American boy trying to explain to one of the real government officials, that he had just been scammed out of 3000 THB (£60) by one of the fake visa officers and that he no longer had the money to pay for a real one. I didn’t stay for the whole discussion, but it didn’t look like he was getting much sympathy.
I also witnessed another casualty, where a traveller was pressured into exchanging dollars to local currency (riel), because he believed he would need it. The helpful cashier gave him a ridiculously unfair exchange rate and he ended up massively out of pocket.
I won’t bore you with any more scams, but if you’re a traveller looking for some tips for the Poipet border, keep an eye out for a post I will release in the near future which will arm you with all the knowledge you need to pass this unforgiving stretch of land.
Like I said, we made it through the border control with no problems and we were on route to our homestay in the rural outskirts of Siem Reap.
Siem Reap, Cambodia – 25th April to 9th May
Our tut tut driver didn’t have a clue where we wanted to go, so after a few phone calls and a number of wrong turns we were finally met by ‘Hout’, our Cambodian workaway host for the next two weeks.
Workaway is a website where you can directly contact people to volunteer your time. It’s real volunteering for real people. We were going to be working at a children’s home in rural Cambodia for the next two week. We would be living with ‘Manit’ and her family in a homestay that was situated opposite the children’s home.
With a quick introduction to charismatic Hout, welcoming Manit and her endearing family we were asked if we wanted to join Hout on a trip to the local church, as it was Sunday. Why not, we thought. This was exactly what we were looking for; an experience of real Cambodia.
Close Encounters of a Pig Kind, Volunteering at Hannah’s Hope Children’s Home
I can best describe Hout as a Cambodian version of Borat. A genuinely nice, caring, guy. He would put things very bluntly, but at the same time would miss key bits of information out of his plans. Our first encounter of this happened on our very first day.
We traveled to the local church in the back of an open backed truck, filled with about twenty children. Their ages spanned from around two to sixteen years old. All clean, healthy looking and dressed well.
We arrived at the basic, quaint, church and were greeted by the welcoming priest and a few other people. The service was conducted in Khmer, the language of the Cambodian people. There were a few minor translations, but to be honest with you, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Quite similar to those church experiences I had when I was in Primary School.
The younger kids weren’t paying much attention either. Some were asleep, others chirping away and just my luck, I had two boisterous boys, play fighting either side of me. No-one seemed to care though and the service continued until it was announced that one of the older children was going to be baptised.
We all gathered outside, around a crude, concrete, bath like container. Some of the children wandered off to play with the football but most crowded round in anticipation. The girl clambered into the basin, fully clothed and with cold water reaching her knees. She stood proudly upright and folded her arms across her chest.
The priest announced something in Khmer, tilted her back and dunked her into the holy water. She had been baptised. Smiles, laughter, jubilation and damp hugs followed. Everyone seemed very happy and we felt privileged to share the experience.
We drove home via the bumpy, dusty, back roads and decided to have a lie down in our comfy hammocks outside our homestay room. It wasn’t long until Hout dropped by and asked if we wanted to go with him to buy a pig for the children’s home. Why not, we thought.
As it was heating up and becoming humid, we changed our clothes and left the homestay with two of the other volunteers. One from England, named Chris and the other from France, called Camille.
Dressed in backpacker apparel; consisting of dusty worn flip flops, beige turned up shorts and a tie dye blue Adidas vest, I somehow ended up at a rural, Cambodian wedding! Hout forget to tell us that we would be dropping by at a wedding before collecting the pig. If I would have known, I would have at least worn my suit and brushed my beard.
Sat near the front, to the left, of the happy couple, we were in full view of the whole party. No-one seemed to care though. Everyone seemed more concerned with having fun and making jokes at the couples expense. It was a weird wedding to say the least.
The couple in question, barely looked old enough to marry and while the girl seemed to be crying tears of sadness, rather than joy, the young lad couldn’t muster up the courage to say a few words and was heckled by the crowd for not doing so.
Hout made a speech and we sneakily, slipped off, back to the surrounding farmland. We were told that the wedding and celebrations would last a few days and that it’s very common for people to marry young in Cambodia.
After a baptism and a white wedding, all I was waiting for was a funeral and I’d have the Cambodian royal flush.
Thankfully, we didn’t stop at a funeral, but it did feel like part of my dignity died during the next episode of the day. Funnily enough, we did actually drive through a rural funeral a few days later. The casket was on show for all to see and the whole street was taken over for this event. Funerals seem to span a number of days as well. I’ve got to give it to the Cambodians, they sure know how to make an occasion of something.
Imagine ‘Babe’ the movie meets some strange, farming episode from the MTV cult series Jackass and you’ve got the theme of the next two hours of my life.
We stopped off in one of the farming villages, not too far from the wedding. Basic, rustic looking, make shift houses, sitting upon thick wooden stilts, so that they were raised off the ground. This helped to minimise the amount of invading bugs and prevent flood damage during the rainy season.
All five of us, including Hout, walked down a dusty path towards the crude looking pig huts. In the first cage, lay the oversized, angry looking, Mother pig with nine or so piglets drinking her milk and running around, as if they were children who just ate too much sugar.
To the pen on the right, stood three, older pigs who were stuffing their faces with the latest pig food. Hout selected the pig he wanted and we waited in anticipation.
I have never heard an animal make such a painstaking and terrifying noise, quite like that little pig did that day. The high pitch squeal, seemed to penetrate the sound barrier and smack you straight in the head, like a right hook from Mike Tyson. The shear volume of it was enough to make you cower into submission.
Hout ran towards the van, holding the pig out in front of him like if it was Simba from The Lion King. Squealing, sweating, urinating and you can guess what else, the pig didn’t seem very happy. “Someone’s going to have to hold him while I drive, Blue, you’ll do it won’t you?”
Never one to back down to a challenge, all be it, a smelly, loud and irate one, I accepted the responsibility.
Sat a row back from the driver, in a Scooby Doo style van, hurtling through the countryside of Cambodia, was a very surreal experience to say the least. I held on tight to our new pet, while I was treated to the ungodly smell of his defecation, his slobbering saliva and the odd bite of my hand or leg. I think we were becoming friends.
We finally made it back to the children’s home. The kids were excited to see a new animal and we dropped him off in the pig pen to make friends with his new companions. I scuttled off to take a shower back at the homestay, but with just a traditional Khmer shower, a water basin and bucket, I didn’t quite feel clean enough after my close encounter of a pig kind.
That’s pretty much how it continued during our volunteering with Hout. Ever eventful, fun and totally random at times, it’s a period in my life that I will never forget.
We visited real, local markets where we helped buy fresh food for the children and gobbled down an intestine and noodle based breakfast. Of course, Hout told us once it was being processed in our stomachs, that it contained intestine. To be fair, it tasted good.
We drove the kids to school, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t legal. We built a duck house with an onsite swimming pool.
We cleaned the pigs and their hut daily. More than often they would escape and we would spend the best part of an hour trying to lure and wrestle them back in.
We walked the cows to a near by field so that they could graze on the luscious grass, taking it in turns to lead the angry cow, that for some reason, enjoyed head butting you every so often.
The kids were great too, but knowing the fact that we were only staying for two weeks, we tried to distance ourself and not build up any kind of friendship with them, as we both believed it would probably do more harm than good in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong, we spent hours playing games, making paper aeroplanes, kicking a football and I even tried to teach a few how to handstand walk, but we just made sure we spent time with them as a group and not individuals.
I’d like to think that this was the best thing to do, as part of me questioned the real benefit of this type of volunteerism come the end of our two weeks.
When I say Angkor, you say Wat!
We couldn’t spend two weeks in Siem Reap and not see the world renowned, Angkor Wat.
We rented bicycles and crazily cycled all the way to Angkor Wat at an unholy hour, just in time for sunrise. The whole scenario felt very tribal and even festival like. A fairly large group of people sat on the moist grass, surrounding a perfectly, reflecting lake waiting for the sun to dance above this glorious temple.
Once the head quarters of the Khmer Empire, the Angkor ruins (including Angkor Wat) consists of more than one hundred temples. These world renowned temples are the standing testament to one of the greatest civilisations in Southeast Asia and are the legacy left behind by kings (devaraja’s) to demonstrate their god like status.
The first God-king was Jayavarmam II, who in 802 was the first of a subsequent 39 successors. This era was named the Angkor era. It wasn’t until the 15th century that an invasion was successful and the city was left to the be overrun by the jungle. The lost city was then discovered in the 19th century by a French missionary and interest was sparked from around the globe.
We also rode our reliable but rusty, old bikes to Angkor Thom. Two kilometres north of Angkor Wat, it was the final capital of its era and is best known for its large, stone heads.
Ta Phrom was our next stop off and rather than being restored and cleared, it has been left to the demise of the surrounding jungle. Gigantic trees and sprouting roots intertwine with the ruins, causing parts of the structure to collapse and it gives the temple a very raw and natural feeling.
One Dollar Gym
Just to add to the memories that Siem Reap has fondly left me with, I was treated to more of a physical reminder of my time in this special place. Keen as mustered to stay relatively fit and active, I ‘googled’ the whereabouts of various gyms in the surrounding area.
One popped up that was only five or so minutes bicycle ride from our hotel. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you that after one week living the rural Cambodian lifestyle, we haggled our way into, when compared to our previous abode, what felt like the Hilton hotel.
Now come on, don’t judge me. We were still cycling twenty minutes every morning to volunteer at the children’s home and after sawing, hammering and sweating profoundly all day, it was pure bliss to take a cold shower and jump in the pool. Don’t hate me.
Anyway, I digress. I found the place with ease, paid the one dollar entrance fee and strolled in the local, rusty, spit and sawdust style gym. I spotted the bench press first and after nearly two months without putting my hands on a weighted bar bell, my eyes lit up. Sad, I know.
I walked over and noticed the rather dirty, large, circular, weights either side of the bar. After a long time out from the gym, I thought it would be best to strip the weights off and start lifting the bar on its own.
I pulled the safety collar away from the end of the bar and began to slide the weight off, towards the mid drift of my body.
The whole bar flew up towards the ceiling and came tumbling down on the opposite side of me, imprinting itself, vertically into the ground.
“Oh ‘enter explicit word here’, They’re going to make me pay for the damaged flooring now”, I thought in my head.
Luckily no-one had noticed, so I quickly knelt down and started to pull the bar out of the floor. As I did this, I felt the drip of cold sweat hit my hand and the surrounding ground. It continued to drip and I didn’t take much notice.
On closer inspection this so called sweat was red and it was dripping faster and faster onto the floor.
“Oh oh, this is bad” I thought.
Then it hit me. The skin under my left eye started to tingle, then tighten and then the pain finally registered in my brain. It must have been masked by the adrenaline or shock at first.
I wiped underneath my left eye, pulled my hand in front of my face and looked startled as I inspected the deep, red blood that had dyed my hand. I got up off the floor and walked a few steps to see if I could find a mirror.
I hit the floor, with one knee first as my body shaken by the event couldn’t string a few steps together.
I sucked in some air, stood up and tried to walk again. One of the local gym goers, noticed me and immediately looked worried. I said “Don’t worry, I’m ok, it isn’t that bad”. The look in his eyes told a different story and then another guy spotted me.
“Come with me he said, you need to go the hospital, your eye is bleeding bad”. He was a lot bigger than me and obviously a body builder, most probably one of the best in Siem Reap, I wasn’t about to argue with him.
I jumped on the back of his motor bike, not thinking much and the gym owner come running out to give me my one dollar back. He looked worried, maybe he thought I might sue him.
Luckily the hospital was literally the opposite side of the road and it was more of a chemist than a hospital. My next thought was, “‘insert another explicit word’, they’re going to charge me a fortune for this and rip me off as much as they can”. I only had my one dollar note refund from the gym and about another dollar in coins in my shorts.
The body building local, who looked a bit like a Cambodian version of the famous wrestler / actor, ‘The Rock’, spoke some Khmer to the Nurse and said “It’ll be fine” to me repeatedly. This is somehow more worrying when people say this.
She treated me with iodine, something else, some clear liquid and some paper stitches. It came to the grand total of one dollar and fifty cents. My mind sighed in relief. I checked myself in the mirror, said thank you in Khmer repeatedly and left the chemist looking a bit like Nelly, the American hip hop artist who used to wear a plaster underneath his eye. I certainly didn’t look cool and my bruised ego knew it.
I jumped back on The Rocks motorbike and we zoomed back across the road to the one dollar gym. I clambered on my pushbike, pushing the creaking pedals round and round, while still slightly dazed. I made it back to the hotel and knocked on the door. Dani opened it, looking concerned, “don’t ask” I said.
“And then I realised, adventures are the best way to learn”