Dec 8, 2010 Siem Reap, Cambodia
I went and saw the floating village on the Great Lake. You know a lake is huge when you cannot see the other side. The trip down the Siem Reap River to see the village is interesting. The village is basically made up of floating homes (shacks really). There are schools, church, shops, etc.. all floating. Some of the homes, just like homes in Uganda, defy typical western understanding. Yet people live in them. As I sit on the boat with tons of boats behind me, in front of me, and going the from the other direction, I realize that on this same river, tons of money is being spent by the tons of tourists. Yet, it is imperative that the people who live in the homes that we see and pay money to see, remain that way. Their miseries benefit too many people. The tourist industry here is mostly state run and state regulated. Half way through the tour, I stopped by the local floating fish market.
There, I saw a few small families that spoke Vietnamese. They must be truly poor as they immigrated from Vietnam to here for a better living. Their better living is floating on one of those barely floating canoes. A girl of about 8 was begging on the river by floating herself on an aluminum container barely larger than she was. Hearing their Vietnamese truly bothered me. I was born in Vietnam and yet here I am and there they are. So, I came up to them and talked to them. The older woman (in her 60s) in her own canoe told me, "if you give money and you will only give to one of us, please give money to that one (pointing to a young woman in her 20s who was rocking a new born baby on her own canoe), she has a child". So, I gave her, the lady with child and another woman money. They thanked me and I felt so ashamed so I told them, "please don't thank me, thank you for accepting". It hurts me when people like these thank me, seemingly so grateful because as far as I am concerned, the only difference between us are a few luck of the draws.
I saw a little Vietnamese boy on a canoe with his father. He was fishing with a small net. The boy couldn't be more than 6 or 7 years old. Again everything that his father and him own are on that canoe about 10-12ft long and 2-3ft wide. Looking at him talking to his father, smiling, while floating along the Siem Reap river, it reminded me of me and my own father years ago. Years ago, my father and I had floated down a similar river (Hau Giang) in Vietnam under the illumination of the moonlight. Back then, we were trying to escape from Vietnam and we had to float down the river to the sea where we would board a bigger boat. Watching that boy I am reminded of all the international aid workers that we met while at a Refugee camps in Malaysia and Phillippines (UNICEF). Without those people, I wondered to myself, how similar would my life would have been to that boy and father? Life is funny sometimes. I guess, that is one main reason why I want to be an international aid worker. I owe those that came before me so much. In a way, for those of us that are more fortunate than others, we all OWE the world and others for our current status. We may not want to acknowledge it, but that debt is there. Just like any debt, we all must repay it somehow.
Earlier in the morning, I had asked my tuk-tuk driver, Hav, whom I come to know better and trust, to find a legitimate orphanage for me. Just like many places, Siem Reap is full of orphanages and you have to talk to the locals that you trust to tell you a legitimate one. Well, after my floating village experience, I decided to visit that the orphange, Acodo orphanage. We first went into town to purchase rice, fish sauce, hot sauce, and instant noodles to donate. The school is a well run one. They don't have a teacher, so the children are only taught when volunteers from abroad come. Come this saturday, the children will be out of a teacher as their teacher is returning home. In looking at how that school is run, I learned a few decent ideas for the schools I know in Uganda. Before leaving, I donated the rice, sauces, instant noodles and was asked to leave a record. Under the reason for donating, I put:
"This is all done based on the wishes and on behalf of Ashley A. N. (full name with held here for her privacy), who couldn't be here".
It is only fitting for so many reasons. Now, despite A.N.N. not being here in Cambodia, on record, she has!
Please no more "surr". Everywhere I go, massage surr? tuk-tuk sur? you buy surr? I feel old.
While waiting for Hav to take me to one of the temples for the sunset tour, I walked about Old Market area of Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a small city so after 2 hours, I have managed to eat lunch, walked 1/2 of Old Market Area, and got myself a Rolex and a Partek Phillipe. One of which will be my gift to a friend stateside.
I ate lunch at the Dragon Soup on the famous (or infamous) 8th street, also known as Pub Street (yep you guess it). During the day time, that street is a place for restaurants and bars and occassional shops. At night, it gets wayyyyy more interesting, and you can almost get anything you want (include things that stay with you for ages that you don't want). After my tour, I think I will visit the night life of Pub Street.
Went to Old Market and its inner bowels. Old market is interesting because it has something for everone, Cambodians and tourists. It is like a dirty, dimly lit and on a dirtier side mall. At the enter, you can buy cooked on-the-spot food and soup. As you are eating, you are smelling and seeing dead chicken, poultry and cattle guts, fish, etc being sold nearby. There, you rarely find non-asian tourists. The non-asian tourists flock to the outer part where the souveirs, watches, scarves etc.. are sold. It was there that I scored a Rolex AND a Partek Phillippe for a whopping $35 from an originally inflated $50. I am sure that I could have gotten better prices for them. They are so interested in making it seem real that the Rolex still have old stickers of marked down prices, with the recent being around $750USD. Hah!
I think I know why so many tourists like Siem Reap. It has everything, the exoticity of Asian city, the history of the Wats (temples), the shoppings, the food, and the safety. And, I think the idea that they are surrounded and comforted by the presence of so many other tourists. It gives them another layer of invisible safety net. As you venture to more remote areas, you stop seeing tourists and the only foreigners you see are volunteers or aid workers.
So just came back from Angkor Wat. Watching the sunset on this 12th century historic place is a beautiful thing. I was in the tourist zone, enjoying the sights, and having my dinner laid out by the driver (part of the 3 day super saver package) which included a full bottle of Chile red wine, 2 big hunks of cheese, olives, bread, and salami slices. That beauty was then shattered by sad sight which immediately replaced by something much more beautiful. As I sat there watching the sunset and the throng of tourists enthralled by the majesty of Angkor Wat, I had my music on, chomping away at one of my cheese. Slowly, I saw two little children, a boy of around 6-7 and a girl slightly younger than he was. They look like street kids, tattered clothing, dirty, and hungry. The girl didnt ask me for money, instead, she put her hand upto her lips and pointed at my food. I nearly cried. So, her brother and her (they look like orphaned siblings) liberated my food and proceeded to sit in front of me and eating the food they just liberated from me. They looked so happy and smiling that I took a picture. Looking at them, I was happy and sad at the same time. Happy that they would sit infront of me and eat and let me witness something so precious, unadulterated innocent happiness shared between 2 siblings knowing they will be full in their stomachs that night. Sad because I find it so unfair that children like these should exist. In the US there are children whining about what they will get for christmas and yet there are these kids. All kids everywhere should have the privilege of being able to whine about what gifts they should have for christmas. And that sadness suddenly woke me up from being a tourist and reminded me again, "why are you doing all that you are doing?". There must be a way to systematically fix all of this. This is a systematic human problem. And part of me starts to realize the systematic causes of this problem: Ignorance, neglect and arrogance. Combined, we have many children like those two I met who will always be neglected, forgotten, and brushed aside