Tuesday, March 20, 2012


This past trip to Cambodia was my second time to this country.  The more I learn about this nation, the more fascinated I become.

From a tourists' perspective, Siem Reap is a great little town to visit.  The hotels are so cheap - you can usually get a great room in a boutique hotel with a pool for about 40-50 USD.  The town is quite small so it is easy to get around by Tuk-Tuk and there are tons of great restaurants.  Although some of Cambodian cuisine is quite unique, it does remind me of a mix of Thai and Vietnamese at times.  Mango salad and fresh spring rolls are common and their curry - Amok is sweet as opposed to spicy.  They also serve lots of BBQ meats and make some great soups as well!

Of course, the main reason everyone comes to Siem Reap is for the temples.  Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples are monumental.  They are so large and complex with every stone face intricately carved with floral designs or hindu figures.  The people in this country are always so friendly and happy however it is still a poverty stricken place.  Don't be surprised to see children at the temples all day long selling postcards and young girls at the bars selling roses and bracelets.  While most of Asia's touristy places have become quite expensive, at most Cambodian bars you can usually get a beer for 1 USD and dinner likely won't cost you more than five bucks.

But we weren't in Cambodia to be strictly tourists.

My colleague and friend Yada was born in Cambodia just before the Khmer Rouge took over the country and started to round up the population into agricultural work camps.  The Khmer Rouge, led by the dictator Pol Pot was attempting to transition the country into communism without all the "unnecessary intermediary steps".  Intellectuals were rounded up and eliminated and the "lucky" ones were placed into work camps.

Yada's family was able to escape through the jungle into Thailand and then immigrated to the United States.  During this time, somewhere close to 2 million people killed in just four short years.

Since the elimination of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has struggled to raise their quality of life and although there have been  many improvements, many people in the country live off of less than 1 USD per day.  Many women end up in the sex trade, sometimes unwillingly.  Many children cannot be adequately cared for and are left in orphanages.

Yada has created the Ymak Path Project - not an official charity but a way to raise some money to help a small orphanage outside of Siem Reap.  She visits Cambodia and this Orphanage a few times a year and I was so happy to be able to go with her to visit for a second time.

Exploring the wet market - stay away from the meat section!
Our school brought in used clothing and toys for the kids and we also visited the wet market to get some food for them as well.  It didn't really take up a lot of our time but it felt so meaningful to actually GO to the orphanage, talk to the kids, play some games and see what their daily life is like.  Although many of them are energetic and love to play, you can see some loneliness and sadness in their eyes.  Older brothers clutch to younger siblings protectively and some of the kids would hang back and simply watch the activities.

It is so incredibly difficult to wonder or imagine what life is like in this type of environment.  It truly makes me aware that I am one of the luckiest people on earth - to not only have been raised with loving parents and a healthy environment but I was also educated, went to university and have all the freedoms imaginable.  Although it felt great to help out this orphanage, the sad truth is that most of these children will not be formally educated.  Many will end up working in dangerous, unskilled jobs and suffer from illness.
Playing the old favourite "grab the leaf"
Such a weird - but amazing feeling was when I was sitting in the shade of a tuk-tuk.  I was reviewing the pictures that I had taken on my trip and a young girl of about 4 climbed onto the seat and cuddled right up to me.  She wanted to see the pictures.  We went through them all and she named all of her friends for me.  She smiled, and laughed.

And then we had to leave.

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