Having seen enough temples to last a good year at least, we took today easy and strolled around town, buying a few more souvenirs of Siem Reap. Then, we took up an offer of a ride from one of the seemingly thousands of Tuk Tuk drivers in the town to go for a ride to the lake. It was well worth the cost and, while not quite an adventure, a fitting end to our trip.
What we saw on the route along the Ton Le river was the “real” Cambodia, that is, a picture of poverty. We passed by the exact style of elevated reed huts that Pol Pot forced the city dwellers to adopt during his coup, and for these folks, it was same same. As with everywhere in Asia, the roads, houses and vegetation were thick with dust. Glimpses into the roadside homes showed living spaces with little or no furniture. Hammocks or simple mats on the floor, serve as beds. Cooking is often done outside, as is bathing. We passed by two adorable scenes: one of a mother bathing her child in a 5 gallon bucket and the other, of a little boy, maybe 5 years old, rinsing off his little sister who was patiently sitting naked on the porch. I spotted a few pumps in yards but suspected that most homes share a common water source, as our driver confirmed. Geoff googled Cambodia to discover that the GDP is the equivalent of $780 per year (Ed. note: Canada’s GDP is $56000). It is cheaper for the locals than us to live here but still, life is hard. We did not begrudge them their hard sells on goods. Softy that he is, Geoff bargains, then gives them what they ask for. We cannot imagine how little they must earn.
(Ed. note: Excuse the jerkiness – rough road and I don’t think the tuk tuk had any shocks left.)
When we arrived at the river, the boat launch for tours on a huge lake to see an ethnic minority were uninviting. The river looked as if it had been continually dredged and widened and has taken on a raw, scarred appearance, with little vegetation and unnaturally high, even banks. We were not interested in the tours–we have had enough of coconut candy making, lacquer ware sales, ethnic minority trinkets, and ‘seeing how they live’–so simply turned around and came back. In a brilliant move, Geoff had requested a late check-out so we were able to stop in to a great cafe we found in the neighbourhood to have a salad and margarita (why not?), then go back to the hotel for showers, and final preparation for leaving.
I have come to the conclusion that I actually prefer longer flights–not really long flights but longer than 50 minutes. It is a little unnerving to get off the ground, have a drink of water and hear the pilot come on, telling the flight attendants to prepare for landing. Never mind that we got the same plane back to Phnom Penh as we took getting to Siem Reap. How do I know? Take a look at the photo. Yikes! (Ed. note: On the first trip we took on this beauty, we noticed that we had been assigned seats 1A and 1B – Great! Legroom, first off, etc. etc. Then we saw that the plane loads and off loads from the back. Great!)
We got our baggage and headed to the gate. A monk came up behind me and excused himself. “Do you have your bag?” he said to me. I was pulling Geoff’s suitcase so was momentarily perplexed. It seemed that I had taken the monk’s bag, although he never said so. “Wait a moment, ” he says, and I look to see a Japanese tourist approaching with our bag, which was obviously much smaller than the one I was pulling. How embarrassing! He was good-natured about it and so we exchanged bags and jumped into the next cab in the taxi line. (Ed. note: Hey, I wanted to know why a monk, sworn to poverty, had such a big suitcase – plus I need a new orange robe!)
We got in the cab from the front of the line outside the terminal and about 10 minutes out, the cabbie pulls out a chit and says something to the effect that cabs are now $12 flat rate from the airport to downtown and shows me the list on the back (it was $10 on the way out). I ask him to show me where on the list is our hotel address. He ignores me and makes little nonsense comments and giggles, like this is okay with me. I ask him what is his cab number. Cab number? He plays dumb. Karma. At the hotel we are told no, it should only be $10. You take a monk’s luggage and this is what happens.
By this time, it was around 6:00 and Geoff declared that he would be happy just to eat in the hotel, which was just fine with me. My stomach had been a bit iffy since lunch so I searched the menu for something that would agree with me. I asked the waitress if the tuna was canned or fresh. She seemed perplexed. Geoff told her to go ask the chef, who is French, if the tuna comes in a can or is fresh. She comes back a moment later and says, “Tuna is a fish” and just in case we didn’t get it, makes a fish swimming movement with her hands. Okay, says I, could you please go back and ask the chef if he could just scramble me a few eggs? She flipped open the menu and went immediately to the dessert section, pointing out a crepe with fresh fruit and ice cream. Okay, that works for me. Sounds good. What do I actually get for dinner? Geoff had ordered lamb chops with French fries, so they brought that out with an extra side of fries for me and, when that was gone, arrived with a plate of fresh fruit. Close enough.
(Ed. note: In the last year and a half we have seen many scooters/motorcycles with many many things on them. We have seen 6 people on one scooter (Hoi An), a live pig on his back (road to Ha Long Bay), women in 6″ stilettos (Jiaxing), tons of children asleep jammed in between the parents and a huge myriad of other items, but yesterday I had my heart broken. As we were returning to the hotel, a scooter went by with a dad, a mom and a tiny baby – who couldn’t have been more than 6 – 8 months old. The mother was holding up an IV drip. I can’t imagine what poverty they must live in that they couldn’t afford to have their child stay in the hospital. On our way out to the temples in the last couple of days we passed an internationally funded hospital which helps all children up to the age of 12. At the gates there were always many mothers and children, I presume waiting patiently to get in to be seen. It was a heart wrenching scene. We have seen poverty before when we have traveled, but it has affected me more on this trip than ever before. We – all who write and read this – are so incredibly fortunate to have what we have.
Terry commented the other day that the maid at the Rex – the hotel in Saigon, always took her shoes off before entering the room to clean. The woman’s shoes were a pair of flats that the sides were split open – either they weren’t the right size or worn for so long that they just gave way. Terry felt there was no way she could wear those shoes even if they were new – absolutely no support to begin with.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of women and children we have seen sound asleep on a blanket on the sidewalk. How exhausted would one have to be to sleep so soundly on cement in the middle of a noisy city?
The number of beggars is also staggering – most with physical issues – no legs, or no arms, or no hands – or combinations of all of these. Some just beg, some have a trinket to sell “One dollar, sir, please”. Many amputees are victims of mines, some of whom have formed small bands that play on the pathways on temple grounds; not begging, just with baskets set out for donations.
Yesterday a woman carrying a baby latched on to Terry just outside a convenience store “No money please, just buy milk for my baby”. How does one walk by that?
There is no safety net – medical or pension here. This is why people have big families, so that the children will look after the parents when they are too old to work.
Poverty is a mind numbing problem which I know I can’t solve and maybe that is why it is so upsetting. I remember my Mom always sponsored a child in Africa for something like $25.00 a year. You were a saint, Mom.)
The Shoe Blog
And now for something completely different. These were on the feet of one of the Korean tourists who descended on us at the boat launch. There will be more info coming on the tours in a later blog!