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Serendipity in Siem Reap

Into the wild blue yonder...

sunny 30 °C
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After our guided tour of Angkor on our first day in Siem Reap, we decided the kids needed a day off from temples, so we spent a day hanging around in bookshops, doing a bit of school work and checking out “Pub Alley” and the night market, which were both fabulous. Down at the night market there’s a makeshift movie theatre (think bamboo chairs and a tin roof) that plays the same 40-minute movie four or five times every evening about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge for visitors interested in some historical perspective. We wondered whether or not it would be an appropriate movie for the kids to see, and decided Mark should preview it first.

He went to the first showing, which was in French, and he was the only one in the entire theatre. He decided there were images the kids shouldn’t see, so he took them to a nearby bar for some snacks while I saw the 5 p.m. show. I was by myself as well for the first 10 minutes—a bit of a surreal experience. Both of us had been familiar with Cambodia’s sad history in a vague, removed sort of way (after all, who hasn’t heard of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge?), but seeing the movie as well as widespread firsthand evidence of the war’s aftermath—for example, the many amputees selling photocopied books in the streets, or merely begging, or the schools that teach disabled people art, or even just the presence of so many NGOs helping the country get back on its feet—makes it all seem much more real.

The next day we decided we wanted to see the Cambodia Landmine Museum, which is about 30 km past Angkor and near an outlying ruin called Banteay Srei, a temple constructed of pink sandstone with even more intricate carvings than usual. The plan was to combine a visit to Banteay Srei with a visit to the landmine museum, finishing up back at the Bayon, an area we had visited on our first day at Angkor. (Photos from the previous entry here show a few of the faces.) We had seen an artist painting watercolors of the Bayon faces there and wanted to return to buy one.

We began with a 30-minute incredibly scenic drive down a narrow country road through small villages and rice fields to the temple. The temple was just as impressive as we expected it to be—I hate to give it such short shrift—but once again there were other people and places in our day who left greater impressions on us, beginning with the landmine museum.

When you first arrive at the museum, you’re greeted by rows of enormous torpedo-shaped bombs that have been used decoratively as a kind of fence. They certainly set the tone. Inside, most of the museum is devoted to conveying information about landmines—how many remain in Cambodia, what’s being done to eliminate them, how they continue to maim hundreds of people each year. Most anti-personnel mines were designed not to kill the person who stepped on them, but rather to maim—the idea being that if the victim is merely injured but not dead, his compatriots will rush to his aid, so you’ve effectively taken out several soldiers rather than just one. They continue to maim ordinary Cambodians—usually farmers and others who live in rural areas—even now.

The museum uses the money it raises from admission fees and donations to run an orphanage attached to it. The orphanage houses and schools some two dozen children whose lives have been affected one way or another by mines, extreme poverty, or both. There is a wall at the museum dedicated to these children and their stories, displaying one-page, first-person profiles with photos. Each story is shockingly sad and completely unique.

An attached gift shop sells string bracelets for $0.50 each that have been made by children who are missing one or both arms. A fenced area just outside the museum contains a selection of some 20 (de-activated) landmines of varying types hidden in the grass and foliage, the idea being that you can try to spot them from the fence. At first glance you don’t notice anything, actually, but it doesn’t take long to start noticing these sinister-looking wires and bits of metal embedded here and there. It’s really disheartening to think of the two or three million active landmines still planted around the country.

After about an hour in the museum, we piled glumly back into the tuk-tuk to head back towards Angkor and the Bayon. But after we’d been driving for maybe 10 minutes, we noticed a strange sight: an ultra-light plane (our driver called it a dragonfly) in a field behind a local police station, and it seemed to be taking off. Doing a complete 180 in terms of spirits, we enthusiastically asked the driver to stop so we could see it fly. But as we pulled in, we realized the plane had been landing, not taking off. By the time we were parked, the pilot was at our tuk-tuk, taking off his helmet to greet us.

His name was Eddy, an American ex-pat originally from Virginia, and he was offering 10-minute rides over the local countryside for $20 a pop. We declined, but he was chatty, and we spent a good 15 minutes talking to him about Cambodia. He is a disenchanted, Bush-hating American who finally decided he couldn’t stand Virginia one minute longer, so he retired to Cambodia, where he makes some money flying people around in his ultra-light – sometimes tourists, like us, but more often archaeologists, journalists, researchers, photographers and other professionals who want to get an aerial view of Cambodia for whatever reason.

It’s hard to recall what Eddy said to inspire a sudden change of heart on Mark’s part, but just as Eddy was picking up his helmet to bid us adieu, Mark decided he would take that $20 spin after all. So we all piled out of the tuk-tuk to walk out into the field and have a closer look.

Eddy gave Mark a series of explanations and instructions about how the plane would work and what to expect (most of which I found thoroughly confusing, so I was happy it was Mark heading into the wild blue yonder and not me). Then he gave Mark a set of padded headphones with attached microphone, plus a helmet, and the next thing we knew, the propeller was spinning and they were making tracks down a dirt path leading out of the rice field. A few seconds later, they were airborne.

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A gaggle of local kids of all ages had gathered to watch, pointing and giggling the entire time. As Mark and Eddy swooped and soared, Chloe and Ciaran gaped as well, and I took far too many photos.

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When everyone was on the ground again, I asked Eddy if there was a bathroom nearby that we could use, and he said we should avoid the toilet at the police station except in the most dire of emergencies, and instead we should drive a kilometre or so down the road to the recently opened Angkor Butterfly Centre. Since this place reportedly had a restaurant, and it was past lunch time, we decided on another impromptu stop.

The Angkor Butterfly Centre turned out to be an NGO project whose goal was to create jobs (while protecting wildlife) in this relatively poor province in Cambodia. The centre pays staff members to run the centre and restaurant, but it also pays nearby farmers to catch and grow caterpillars and butterflies. Project staff are educating the farmers about different types of caterpillars, how to spot the eggs, what the caterpillars eat, and how to care for them. Eventually, the centre hopes to be able to ship pupae to zoos and similar centres elsewhere in the world. Six dollars bought entry tickets for all four of us, including a personalized tour (homeschooling for the day, check, we thought gleefully); we were told it only takes 12 paying guests a day for the place to pay all of its staff and farmers and still break even. The centre is adding an interesting display with stick insects, and there was an enormous praying mantis while we were there. The kids were fascinated and Chloe went a little wild with the camera.

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Back at the Bayon near the end of the day, the painter we were looking for was nowhere to be seen, so we beat a hasty retreat back to our guesthouse to set the kids loose for a while. Then down to the night market again for happy hour and dinner, and the next day we were off to Battambang.

This last photo doesn't have a natural home anywhere in this story, but it was taken somewhere along the scenic road to Banteay Srei, and we just thought it would be fun to include here (to market, to market, to buy a fresh hog....)

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Posted by The Rymans 07:21 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel

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