The "Real" Cambodia

Despite purchasing a 3-day pass to Angkor Wat and initially coming to Cambodia for the sole purpose of seeing the temples, Katie and I immediately agreed we needed to see and do more. Five days here, two of which aren't full days, is not enough. So on our final day we opted to do a countryside and floating village tour with our favorite, Mr. Sak. I can already tell you that what I will write in this blog post will not even come close to what Katie and I saw, heard, smelled, and experienced, but I will do my best.

At 9:30am we climbed into Mr. Sak's tuk tuk and started down the road. We almost immediately stopped at a roadside stand where Mr. Sak purchased three medical face masks, one for each of us, and instructed us to put them on. Another quick stop for gas and we were really on our way!

Let me first give you an idea of what driving in Cambodia is like. Take all of the common sense and laws that you have from driving and erase them. Now, imagine motorbikes, motorbikes pulling tuk tuks, bicycles, cars, vans, and buses all going as though it's a free for all. You're turning onto another street? You don't look, you just go. And the street you want to turn on to is one-way? It's not anymore if you honk your horn. Add in cattle on the sides of the road, a beautiful but dusty red dirt coating your face, the smell of exhaust, a bunch of bumps and holes, and you should get the picture. 

Once we were out of Siem Reap, it got better in the sense that there weren't as many cars on the road. But the dust picked up as the roads became strictly red dirt roads, and we were glad to have our "SARS" masks. The further we moved from the city, the more we were blown away by what we were seeing. It was all beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time: the brilliant red dirt made the greens of the rice fields with cattle and palm trees even greener, which ricocheted off the bright blue sky. But then this beauty was interlaced with hay huts that families live in, children as young as five walking and biking home from school alone, and older men and women working the fields. 

As we got further from town and closer to water we took a turn at the 2-story, turquoise fisheries building, and the road became less of a road and more of bumpy, sandy, red pathway along a canal. Mr. Sak even yelled back to us to apologize for all the bumps, and my bladder yelled even louder that I needed a bathroom. 

At least forty minutes later (I lost track of time) we arrived at a set of roadside shacks with boats in the water. Mr. Sak said he'd be coming with us and introduced us to our captain, a boy of maybe 20 years old. I said I needed a restroom and was instructed to go onto another boat to the bathroom at the back. My expectations weren't high, and I was right. I entered a small box, smaller than any linen closet I've seen in the US and found a toilet bowl (no seat, no tank) about waist height. I looked down and saw a wooden stair to step on with a water bucket next to it for rinsing. I was happy to find a small light switch that turned on the bulb and fan. As I climbed up, I noticed that I could see straight out to where everyone else was, and looking down I could see the dirt-colored water. I had no choice though, so I used it. 

Then we started off on our boat ride. Our boat was a decent size, with water in the hull, and 6 wicker chairs for seats. Our captain was pretty good at maneuvering the boat, but it was tough with the shallow water (it's the dry season). As we went down the canal, past children playing and men and women working, we started to run into boats coming in the other direction. Due to the low water levels, we would glide past them with only inches between us, and then we'd get sprayed with muddy water from their outboard engine that was churning the bottom of the stream bed. We'd then get stuck in shallow water and have to use a long pole to push ourselves to deeper water. 

We finally made it into the lake and saw children paddling home from school, people lounging in their floating homes on hammocks, younger adults cleaning fish, and elders washing themselves in the muddy water. We floated past the school that the children had come from - 4 floating structures, each with two classrooms. Mr. Sak told us that children go to school from 7am to 11am then they go home for lunch, and go back to school from 1pm to 5pm. While school is free, it is often a financial burden on families. For instance, Mr. Sak has three kids, his oldest is nine and is currently the only one in school. He told us that with the cost of two uniforms (which are required) and books, it costs about $100/year for one child so once his two other children are old enough, Mr. Sak will be paying $300/year for his kids to go to school. The poverty line is $32/month so you can imagine that there are kids that do not go to school. Some children don't go to school because their family cannot afford it, others work or do household chores instead. It was very clear that there are kids in this floating village that will not receive an education. 

On our way back from the village we got to experience more excitement. As we'd skirt past oncoming boats, we started to notice a horrible smell emanating from the engine and when we turned back there was a lot of black smoke, too. We joked that if we sunk it was so shallow that we'd be able to stand at least. The captain shut the engine off, reached in his little toolbox, and instructed Mr. Sak to try to keep the boat pointed in the right direction and out of the way. After an hour of off and on stopping and going and fixing, we made it back to land - with a new propeller blade, a new rubber belt (timing belt maybe?), and a pile of debris pulled from the propeller. 

Back on the bumpy road, my need to pee once again didn't fail me so I got another fun experience. Mr. Sak pulled off on the side of the road and walked over to an area where he said I should be able to get into the woods. Clad in flip flops and luon, I turned and asked if there were snakes. Mr. Sak's response, "maybe". The lesson I learned? Dehydrate yourself on countryside tours.

Our next stop was the silk farm, where we were hoping we'd be able to feed our growling bellies. Apparently Mr. Sak was on the same page because he pulled over to a market full of only locals and was going to buy his lunch as he expected that we'd eat at the restaurant at the silk farm. But how could we turn down an opportunity to eat street food where the locals eat? We hopped out of the tuk tuk and followed our leader directly to an older woman sitting with whole grilled chickens flattened between to sticks. He held one up for us to smell - you couldn't almost taste the sweetness of the marinade. It didn't even cross our minds that we were told not to eat street chicken in Cambodia due to bird flu, our noses did the thinking. We got the chicken, 4 bags of sticky rice, and 10 spring rolls for a total of $8, and hopped back in the tuk tuk.

Once at the silk farm we maneuvered some benches in the shade so we could sit on one and use the other as a table. Hands rinsed with our drinking water, Mr. Sak passed out the bags of rice and chicken and we chowed down, using only our hands to eat as we had no utensils (and many locals don't use utensils anyways). We learned more from Mr. Sak about his family and how he works very hard, and how when he comes home his oldest (his son) lights up with excitement. We were pleased to hear he hadn't lived in refugee camps growing up, as our bike tour guide had. 

After our delicious lunch we headed into the silk farm where we learned about the silk making process and witnessed women working on everything from processing the raw silk to dyeing it and winding it onto spools. We also got to see women working on looms making beautiful intricate patterns out of the silk - all of it was manual labor, and I can 100% assure you that if I had to do the weaving I would for sure screw it up. 

Beyond exhausted from our long day and from witnessing the heartbreaking conditions we saw people living in, we headed back to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner. But we didn't get far before Mr. Sak noticed he had a flat tire, and we had to stop at a local mechanic. An hour and a half later, fumes inhaled, and we finally made it back to the hotel. When dinner time came around we asked for a tuk tuk to town and it was Mr. Sak again! He came out of a little garden area where he had been drinking a few beers with the other tuk tuk drivers, so naturally we asked if we could join him for a beer and that's exactly what we did.

We followed Mr. Sak back into the wooded area, sat down on rocks and were handed beers. I can't recall the names of all the guys but everyone was friendly and open. We learned that in their free time they play volleyball and had won a tournament earlier in the afternoon. After a of couple beers Mr. Sak took us to Pub Street, with a quick stop where we bought a case of beer for the guys.  We invited Mr. Sak to join us for dinner and took him to our favorite local spot, where we ordered beers, Khmer BBQ, fried morning glory, sticky rice, and BBQ shrimp. We ate it all while he showed us pictures of his kids and told us about his wedding. As we strolled back to the tuk tuk, we grabbed ice cream and made a few last Cambodia purchases, which Mr. Sak, being the gentleman he is, carried for us. 

When we got back to the hotel we were coaxed into staying for more beer. And this time the guys brought out some green mango and salt for us to snack on while we talked and laughed into the night.

I'll be honest, I'm a bit hungover now but it was 100% worth it to spend the day with Mr. Sak and to see what is probably the closest thing to the "real" Cambodia that we could. 

The entire experience moved me, and made me want to do something to help. As some of you may know, a big passion of mine is education - I believe that it is a right for everyone, and that I would not be where I am today had I not had the opportunities I've gotten with regards to my education (from Loomis Chaffee to Villanova, Duke, and my teacher training at BIG). With the help of my brother I found and donated to the following:

"World Assistance for Cambodia (WAfC) / Japan Relief for Cambodia (JRfC) are independent nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing opportunities for the youth and rural poor in Cambodia. World Assistance for Cambodia is registered in the United States as a 501(c) (3) tax-deductible nonprofit organization.  Within Cambodia, WAfC / JRfC is recognized by the Cambodian government as one nonprofit organization." The Federal Tax EIN ID number for WAfC is 51-0350058. Several of the programs they run offer educational assistance, such as providing incentives for girls to go to school, building rural schools, and investing in talented children to provide them with more opportunities. For more information, or to donate and give Cambodian children the opportunity to go to school, check out

The day truly could not have been better, from the broken down boat and tuk tuk to the late night beers, and I look forward to returning to Cambodia in the future - it now holds a special place in my heart.

Bikes, Beer, Temples, and Bugs

Are you noticing a trend here? Bikes and beer have become a common thing...

For our first full day in Cambodia we took the advice from some travelers we met in Bali and booked a sunrise and bike tour of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples with Grasshopper Tours (highly recommend them). I'm a morning person, so the 5am pickup was no issue, but I've got to hand it to Katie for getting up AND functioning without coffee for 4-5 hours. 

We were picked up at our hotel by a van that had our guide, our bikes, and three other travelers - a Brit, and two Americans. It sure is a small world - one of the Americans, Bridget, has a background in environmental science and works for Conservation International; the other American recently retired from the World Bank where he worked as a forester, and is a Duke (Nic School back before it was the Nic School) alum. We haven't seen many Americans on our trip, and I definitely didn't expect to run into two people who have similar backgrounds to mine. 

That aside, we arrived at the temples and our guide set us up with a view over the 190 meter wide moat separating us from the towers of Angkor Wat. We sat, we ate croissants, and we waited for the sun - it seemed to take forever and we thought it was too overcast. Then suddenly, just above the highest tower of Angkor Wat, there was a fluorescent orange-red glow. 

Once some of the crowds had cleared from sunrise, we walked across the roadway that traverses the moat and entered Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument. Our guide was unbelievably knowledgeable and told us the meanings of all the etchings in the stone, as well as the history of the temple. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer king, Suryavarman II and was built in the early 12th century. The temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and later became a Buddhist temple. What differentiates Angkor Wat from other temples in the area is that is has been in almost constant use since it was built, and therefore was not overcome by nature. (I highly suggest researching more on both the history of Angkor Wat and of the Khmer empire - I plan to, as it has been extremely interesting to learn about).

Once we were all appropriately covered (shoulders and knees), we climbed up the 70 degree angle wooden stairs to the highest tower of Angkor Wat. It was nice to have the wooden stairs, as the originals were at an 85 degree angle and each stair would fit a 5 year old's foot. The view from up here was amazing - we could see every corner of Angkor Wat and the surrounding moat, as well as other temples in the area. The intricacies of the etchings and the shrines were simply stunning. After 20 minutes (the limit) we climbed down the treacherous stairs, managing to not fall and cause a domino effect, and made our way out the backside of the temple where we were whisked away to breakfast.

Our van pulled up in a wooded area where there was a breakfast picnic set up on the Siem Reap River. After a delicious meal, we grabbed our bikes (which were much better than any of the bikes we've had previously on this trip with working brakes and all!) and started on the trail.

One thing that was so great about tis tour is the mountain biking - we were going through small trails in the forest, over roots and ducking under tree branches. After a bit of this we turned to bike along the Angkor Wat moat where patches of sand would make you really work to keep your bike steady and moving. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the next stop - Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom, also known as the Great City, is just that. Angkor Thom was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, when Angkor Wat was attacked, and was the last capital of the Khmer empire. It covers 9 square kilometers, and is surrounded by stone walls and a large moat. The entrance to Angkor Thom is simply breathtaking - a causeway with 54 demons and 54 gods representing the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, and a massive gate with faces staring out in every direction. 

For this portion of the tour, we biked through the gates and up a forested path to travel along the walls of the city, with the moat to our left and the ruins to our right. We stopped at one of the guard stands on a corner of the wall to learn more about the city and the Khmer empire.

A short bike ride along roads in the city then brought us to Prasat Bayon, a stunning temple that I actually preferred over Angkor Wat. Bayon was the state temple for King Jayavarman VII. It is in more of a state of ruin than Angkor Wat, but the faces (216 of them!) glaring down on you from all 54 towers, and the stories depicting everyday life carved in the stone walls are impeccable. These 11,000 figures included those of war, fishing, feasts, king processions, and markets.

Just outside of Bayon we sat for water and fresh fruit. Our picnic table was situated directly next to a monastery where monks were praying, washing, and blessing those who had come with ailments or bad luck. Refreshments inhaled, we hopped back on our bikes for more biking in the Cambodian forests. These forest trails took us directly to our next stop - Ta Prohm, or the Lara Croft Temple. This Buddhist temple was built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII. Compared to the previous temples we saw, the uniqueness here lied in the power of nature to adapt and overtake what was man-made. The Cambodian forest has literally started to take over the temple, with moss on walls, doorways blocked, and trees growing out of and around the temple. 

A quick bike ride from here, past several Cambodian weddings, and we were at our late lunch of traditional Khmer dishes - chicken amok, beef amok, fried noodles, fish, and a vegetarian stir fry. It was all delicious, especially with a cold Cambodian beer! 

A quick post-ride shower to remove the layer of sweat and red dust, and a relaxing, pool-side margarita gave us the energy to grab a tuk-tuk to Pub Street. We walked around, went to the Night Market where we made several bargains, and got a quick foot massage to work up our appetites. Side note: I do not know how I will survive without $6 massages. 

Lucky for us, just around the corner from the massage place was a sidewalk restaurant, and as we walked by and smelled the food be cooked right there we knew where we'd have dinner. Two beers each, fried morning glory, two pieces of amazing grilled chicken, and two BBQ skewers later, we paid a whopping $7.50 total and headed to the street for the dessert that we weren't looking forward to: bugs. 

Just outside this "restaurant", was a street cart selling fried delicacies such as crickets, spiders, and water beetles. We both decided the only thing we could do would be the crickets, as the other options looked slimy, and the spiders apparently "pop" in your thank you. One dollar for a 2-cup sized scoop of crickets - we opted to give her $1 for 4 crickets, and as quickly as possible popped one in our mouths. Surprisingly, not bad - the spices she had used to fry them were delicious and they were crunchy with no "popping" or gooeyness. We both actually chose to eat our second one, though I think two cups would've been pushing it. 

A couple of beers to wash down the crickets at the aptly named bar, Angkor What?, and we were ready to call it a (15+ hour) day.