We've spent the past week in Siem Reap with loads of tourists from all over Asia (the New Year is an annual holiday which has made booking rooms tricky!) as well as many more western tourists than we've seen on our travels in SE Asia so far. The draw of the temples is impressive. When we were in Penang we met another travelling family from Regina; Mike, Louise, and Sam had loved Siem Reap and given us lots of ideas about what to see and do so we've been busy ticking off the list!
Our main reason for visiting was to explore the temples at Angkor. First we visited the Cambodian National Museum to get a good background on the history of the Khymer empire and symbology of the carvings on all the walls. We then spent two days exploring some of the ruins, we visited 10 giant temples and barely scratched the surface, before the kids couldn't handle the heat or to climb another crumbling stairway.
On our way home from the temples we stopped at the Cambodian Landmine Museum. It focused on the life's work of one man who not only cleared landmines but also adopting children harmed by landmines and providing them rehabilitation for their injuries and a solid education. I learned a lot about the Cambodian civil war and the efforts taken to stop the use of landmines in all future wars. Did you know Canada sponsored an international treaty to ban landmines in future conflicts?
Unique to Siem Reap, several attractions and businesses were social enterprises designed to help people, and especially kids, in poverty. The circus, Phare, was a non-profit organization that not only trained yourh to become circus performers but also funded a school and made donations to communities in need. The museum doubled as a boarding school for landmine victims. We also ate at a restaurant (Sister Srey's) that had set up charitable foundations to help its staff and their families. We attempted to volunteer at a night school (also a charity) for students who want to learn English, called Jimmy English School, as was recommended by Louise and that welcomes tourists to help the students practise speaking but it was closed due to the holiday.
Travelling outside of the city to visit the great Tonle Sap lake we were able to see that there is real simplicity to lives of the average Cambodian. Many people are rice farmers and live in very basic two story homes (they live upstairs when it floods, downstairs when its hot). We visited the stilted village of Kompong Khleang where fishing in the great lake is the lifeblood of the community. We visted in the dry season, but when it rains the lake rises by over 20m to lap at the doors of their incredible houses. It is the largest lake in SE asia by area and produces half of the fish eaten each day in SE Asia. We got to sample a few Cambodian snacks but none of us would try the stinky fermented fish paste!
We've been promising the kids some time in the markets so we spent several evenings strolling around the night market and busy Pub street which was lit up and really festive to celebrate the New Year. James and Neve went back for more "fish massages" and loved driving around the city in our tuk-tuk. Simon tried fried spiders (taste like prawns!). We were thrilled walking through the Central Park and noticed a huge colony of flying foxes (giant fruit bats) right in the city. Good times...