My main reason for going to Siem Reap were the temples. However, once there, I discovered more to love.
I really liked the tuktuks. For whatever reason, I always picture tuktuks to look like the ones in India–probably because those were my first experience with that sort of transportation. The tuktuks in Thailand are different from India, and Cambodia’s are different from the other two.
In the morning and after dark they were my preferred means of transportation. Over the course of the day–at least in May–it just got too hot to find them comfortable for an entire day. The temperatures reach over 100F, so after my first day, I used a car during the day. Even 10 minutes of air conditioning blasting at me made a big difference. The third type of transportation are motorcycles, which I wanted to try, but it didn’t work out because I was carrying too much around or the one night I wasn’t I had on a skirt. Next time.
This man was my tuk tuk driver all three days I went out. He was a total sweetie, as was my car driver. While a tuk tuk lets you experience Cambodia as you drive down the road–waving at kids, smelling the food, and feeling the wind, it doesn’t allow for a chat. Besides air conditioning, the nice part of having a car was getting to know my driver, who also has a little girl just a bit older than Rhiannon and talking about them. I got to ask a lot of mundane questions that would have gone unanswered otherwise (like how does your daughter get to school–we saw kids walking and biking, but she was too little, and why do people have cows–is it for milk–it’s often so they can plow and maintain their own rice fields for their family).
Speaking of kids going to school, when I was in the tuk tuk, kids would often wave to me and I’d wave back. In the car, I got pretty cut off…I became an observer more than a participant. (Although, of course, not a *real* participant, as a tourist operates from a foreign place and a far more luxurious place–even the backpackers staying at 2$ a night hostels. But you feel like you’re more part of the scene).
We drove past a few elementary schools, a secondary school and a teacher’s college on our various routes. Between my guide and my driver they talked a lot to me about education in Cambodia. How kids go half day, and each school has two sessions (morning and afternoon). That while school is free, uniforms and supplies aren’t, which still puts it out of the reach of children who are poor or whose families need them for income (like the temple kids). All three types of schools had students in uniforms.
One of the things that travel in a developing country like Cambodia reminds me is that my children are far more capable than I necessarily assume they are. I tend to try to push them to be independent, but children as young as Rhiannon were selling things to tourists, and children Elanor’s age were biking to school on their own on roads without sidewalks with motorcycles/tuktuks/cars whizzing by. I saw older children selling things at the night market and tween/young teens driving motorcycles. I’m not saying that I’m going to send Elanor across a busy road by herself to 7/11, but I am reminded that she is old enough to be given more small tastes of freedom than I necessarily remember to give her.
For many people, the idea of packing a suitcase of food or worrying about how they would survive eating on a day to day basis would never cross their mind on a trip. I, however, am very sensitive to texture and flavor and it is a HUGE deal for me to do so. This is my first non-us based trip where I have done so. Granted, I cheated a bit by eating Indian food twice, and the hotel’s breakfast included an amazing crepe station along with other western options, but this is still a really huge moment for me.
This picture is the chicken satay. In the background you can see the friend chicken and banana flower salad I also tried at the Triple K restaurant near Angkor Thom. (Yes, fellow Americans I cringe when my mind translates that to KKK too)
One of the temples I wanted to see was Banteay Srei, which is a 30 minute drive from Siem Reap. The drive took us through a lot of the countryside near the city, which gave me yet another view of Cambodian life. This man is harvesting in a rice field. I’ve never seen a rice field in person, so this was a very cool sight. My only real knowledge of rice is the bag of grains I buy at the grocery store. This is a crop that some families grow by their houses, and then take through all the steps between planting and those little grains. My driver explained some of it and it is so much work. Some people only make it for their families, and others make enough to sell at the market. I am reminded how sheltered I am, how little I know, and how ignorant I am of my privilege when I compare it to these families (as opposed to those from my own countries and/or own socioeconomic status).
I saw what a typical Cambodian house looks like. I got to stop at a roadside and see women making palm sugar. A woman let me take pictures of her with her cows. I saw trees that I’ve never seen before. My driver helped explain how families with and without electricity get power, where families sleep, and so forth.
Okay, I will say a little more. When we were driving on the third day between temples, we passed monkeys on the side of the road. Other people had stopped and several were feeding them (including this little guy). Now I understand how some people get bit by monkeys. While the adults didn’t pull at my heart, part of me longed to pet this little guy’s head, just as the man feeding him was.
I feel you, Mama Monkey
Traveling without my kids meant that I missed them. Rhiannon likes to wear sunglasses in the exact same way this little one does. I saw my children in the children that I met at the temples, on their way to school, that waves to me from their parent’s motorcycles. I saw my children in the little boy monks I met at Preah Khan temple who wanted to take my picture as much as I wanted to take theirs. I saw my children in these children’s smiles, the way they giggled at their pictures on my camera screen, the universal smiles (and eyerolls) of parenting.
I am also reminded, viscerally, how much chance was involved in my growing up in the United States or the privilege that my children are growing up with. I wondered how I’d explain temple children to Elanor, who is just now becoming aware of and questioning the world around her. She saw and asked about homeless people in New York City when we visited in December (we have homeless in Singapore, but they’re more invisible). She is now just starting to realize how different her life is from those around her, and we are starting to explain these differences to her, hoping to help create and grow her sense of social justice and awareness of privilege.