Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Siem Reap: The Gate Way to Angkor

We arrived in Siem Reap on the 12th November after a comfortable sleeper bus journey and stayed in the heart of the backpacker district, Psar Chaa. It's a little charmer, with old french shop-houses, shady tree boulevards, a lively pub scene and a slow-flowing river that makes this a place to be savoured and defiantly not rushed. It is also the perfect place to plan a few adventures, one obviously being the famous temples of Angkor. But, we also wanted to do something more, a little bit different to the more predictable tourist conveyor belt. We decided that we would like to visit one of the many Orphanages and schools in Cambodia and give something back by teaching or helping out in any way that we could. The people in Cambodia are special.They are the beauty of this country, and for a people that have been to hell and back and are considered to be one the most poverty stricken countries in the world, on par with even the Congo, they are generous, humble and happy people are ways willing to help and serve you. I believe that if a family was hungry and had only one meal, with a smile that can light up a room, they would sit down and share that meal with you. That for me says everything about the people of Cambodia. 

We spent the first couple of days exploring the place and exploring this small district of Siem Reap at a slumbers pace, just enjoying the sights and culture that this South Eastern gem has to offer. For me when I say culture, I have to confess food and drink is high up on my list of expertise. I love trying all the different foods and drinks, and allowing my taste buds the opportunity to have a little party of their own inviting all their friends on this culinary explosion. The highlight was the local market that offers quality spicy, flavorsome food such as their amazing noodle dishes and BBQ meats. 

The night market
Savong's School and Orphanage is located 25 minutes from Siem Reap, and we decided to visit and support both in any way we could. Svay Savoung is a young Cambodian who had a dream to build this school in order to provide free language education to rural children. In this part of Cambodia, not far from the incredible Angkor Wat temples, tourism is the major employer, so skills in languages provide a passport for future employment. For 650 rural children Savongs School provides hope, opportunity and support. I was lucky to meet Savong during my visit to the school in the afternoon and his energy, motivation and commitment to the school and the orphanage center was an honour to behold. He is around the same age as me perhaps no older than his late twenties, and he had a vision to improve the future of the children and give them a chance to live a happy life. He is an inspiration and a hero in this part of town. He is also very funny and down to earth. I remember watching him in the classroom, teaching a young class, (around seven or eight years of age) the alphabet and his skill and charisma shone through like the sun and his love for the children created the perfect atmosphere for teaching. He was almost like a stand up comedian, or inspirational speaker, everyone was having so much fun, it was great, quite a moment for me. One must remember that he to was one of these children, from the same rural area, facing the same issues were the chances of employment and living a healthy happy life are practical zero. However, Savong has dedicated his life to ensuring these children are not forgotten, and the most important testament to this is that the children really appreciate the gift of free education. I mean the pupils favourite lesson here is English grammar, they love it. I had children surrounding me asking me asking me to read their work and offer suggestions for vocabulary and grammar. It was quite funny, because in what other school in Merseyside do you get that level of commitment. Me and Laura spent the afternoon at the school helping out, talking with the children and teaching them some English. It was great fun interacting with them all and getting back into the classroom.

Me with Phil Caldwell and Savong (center)
The joy of learning

Outside the simple but invaluable school

A boy and his classroom 
In the morning we visited the Orphanage Centre; here they look after children who have been abandoned by families who can no longer afford to care for them. This rural hinterland is the second poorest region of Cambodia, and there is no safety net. Savong provides full time care for these children, and the centre has quickly turned into a little community with around 30 children living there. At the centre children receive food, shelter, clothing, health care and full time education. When we arrived, the children inquisitively came over, familiar with foreigners they warmly greeted us and showed us around the centre. The age groups is varied between newborn babies to early teenagers, and just like any other child back home, all they want to do is play. We had lots of fun playing football, volleyball and indulging in a spot of arts and crafts, I also taught a girl to skip the rope like Mike Tyson. 

Laura getting involved at the orphanage

Arts and crafts at the orphanage centre-peace!!!

Skip the rope like Tyson

All together now, All together now

Having fun in the sun
Siem Reap is the gate way to Angkor and no visit would be the same without going to the ancient temples, and watch sunrise over the enchanting, mystical kingdom of the Gods. We arrived at 5am in the morning and waited with awe and excitement for one of the most anticipated spiritual events on earth. Welcome to heaven on earth, the earthly representation of Mt Meru the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of the ancient Gods. As we waited the first rays of the morning sun crept through silhouetting the temple on to the opposing lake, breathtakingly beautiful, a vision of the heart and soul of Cambodia in all its ancient timeless inspirational power.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat
The Cambodian 'God Kings' over a 1000 years ago each strove to out do each other in size, scale, and symmetry of their temples, culminating in the worlds largest religious building, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the Center piece, however it is only one of many temples that make up the ancient Khmer empire.  Other highlights included visiting Angkor Thom, a 10sq km  'great city' that once housed a million people, with its own centre piece temple of mesmerising Bayon; and Ta Prohm. This was one of my favourite awe inspiring places that I have ever been to. This is were Tomb Raider was filmed , so you have to imagine ruined temples, half devoured by the giant roots of the trees; here the jungle had long taken over the fabled ancient temples.

Looking out in awe over Angkor Thom

Temples of Bayon

The portrait of the Khmer King Jayavarman VII

The temple of Ta Phrom-any one seen Lara Croft

Frodo Baggins come hither
To end our journey of Cambodia we travelled to the province of Battambang. This sleepy little town west of Siam Reip was a great place to relax for a week before heading to Thailand. Here we spent a day exploring by tuck tuck some of the most famous places in Cambodia. We started the day with a trip on the Bamboo train; a one engine fence panel balanced on an axle to a train track and off you are on an remarkable little adventure. You feel so free as you accelerate down the track towards a remote farming village, with the cool air in your face surrounded by paddy fields.  From here we visited a couple of farming villages, a small vineyard and woke up hundreds of fruit bats just for the fun of it. We ended the day trip with a somber walk to the killing cave. The scenery is breathtaking but the history is heart breaking. The Khmer Rouge killed 17,000 innocent people at this location back in the 1970s. Cambodia has been an amazing adventure, full of surprises and enriched by beautiful genuine people.....its been emotional!!!
By the old french siding sheds
Me and Mr Philay our tuck tuck driver

The Bamboo Train

The children of one of the many farming villages

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