Plans, itineraries, pre-booked accommodation- they’re all for holiday-makers. spontaneity is what sets backpackers apart from other travellers. However, when you’ve booked return flights which are bleakly approaching and you still have two whole countries to devour in no time, decisions must be (albeit still roughly) made, decisions which my friend and I reluctantly had to make near the end of our trip.
Nevertheless, we did learn if you have at least a few days for each stop it needn’t afterwards feel as though a vague dream that never happened. Anyway, if I stay longer in a place I have no more to show for myself apart from intervals of lazy days in food markets, cafe’s and on a beanbag in my hostel.
It was not only the cities and beach-towns we were worried about squeezing in to our remaining month, but inside each stop-off there were museums to visit, activities to do, volunteering to undertake and in between each of these…so much food to consume!
Siem Reap united many of our ‘must-do’s’ which we managed to tick-off in a short space of time. It is the epicentre of Cambodia with its bustling tourist district and the mind-blowing Temples of Angkor. Furthermore, a short Tuk-Tuk ride away took us to rural plateaus dotted with isolated temples, blankets of rice paddies and extremely under-developed communities which gave us the chance to experience a home stay, volunteer in a modest bamboo-hut school and ultimately soak up both ancient Angkor and present-day post-Kampuchea, all in under one week.
Angkor National Museum $12 Entry $3 Headset.
Get the headset, otherwise, as a desperate tour-guide once shouted to me on my way into Tulum’s Mayan ruins, ‘it’s just a bunch of rocks.’ Obviously this is a gross exaggeration. You will witness a room of a thousand Buddha sculptures, learn about ancient artefacts of Hindu and Buddhist Gods and enter a room which replicates the sunrise behind west-facing Angkor Wat. You will walk through the entire time-span of the Khmer Empire and it is a useful day if you cannot afford a guide during your trip to Angkor Wat, as here you will pick up useful facts behind the temples’ complex architecture.
Approached a street stall down Sivatha Road (off Pub Street) and ordered an Amok, a fragrant spice-free curry with grated coconut and lovely citrus flavours. Cambodia’s most well-known dish.
Voluntary work at Chhan School
Voluntary work was something my friend and I were desperate to do, there is so much sadness in this part of the world, so it would have felt wrong to have left without doing something to help. Ironically we were worried we couldn’t financially afford to do it. The internet is peppered with ‘voluntourism‘ where large organisations ask for your labour and then charge extortionate fees, a chunk of which does not go do those who need it the most.
Thankfully Chhan School offers a voluntary opportunity which overcomes this problem, it costs nothing but your time, you see exactly how your input is making a difference and if you do choose to donate (which you’ll find it hard not to) you will understand where the money is going.
You can also experience a home-stay with the neighbouring Hueng family who have lent the land the school currently sits on. They charge $5 USD per night including three home-cooked meals.
Chann School is ran by Song Somarth who’s life is a huge juggling-act as a teacher of his own school, student at university and a devout Buddhist monk who must abide by innumerable disciplines. His main priority is ‘Chhan School’ which is named after his teacher at the Bakong Pagoda who helped fund the set-up of this modest school of three-hundred underprivileged and orphaned children. As a monk, he cannot work and solely lives off the alms he collects off the community each morning. So his dreams of gaining a degree are slowly becoming unreachable.
Usually, Song is a one-man-show, his three bamboo-built classes are all packed throughout the school day, so he frantically bounces from one room to the other when volunteers are not present. Consequently we were instantly thrown in the deep-end and my friend and I taught four classes from our first day.
Teaching children with little English as a teacher with absolutely no Khmer was an obvious challenge, Song would rush to save us by scribbling down delicate Khmer symbols on our board whilst teaching his own class. But, this usually difficult situation was softened by the patient and eager-learners who were simply grateful for having native English-speakers in the midst of their school, something that is also apparent by the student’s family-members who loiter around after doing the school drop-off, hang over the bamboo window-ledges and attentively watch your lesson to join in with the learning.
Before and after teaching hours we spent a few hours getting to know Song who would teach us some Khmer, talk to us about life under monk-hood and teach us how to meditate…
Home-Stay with The Hueng Family
When Song left for the Pagoda each evening for his 4am wake-up call we ate with the Hueng family as we also did for lunch and breakfast. The family consist of the grandparents, their Son and their Son’s wife and two children. The women of the house took turns with the cooking which they did over a large stove atop an open log fire. As the men are rice-farmers rice was never in short supply and you are encouraged to eat hefty portions to the point that your stomach will be hard to sleep with at night- but the more you eat the bigger the smiles on the family’s faces!
Hueng Family Food
Breakfast Day Two: Instant noodles with a packet of spicy sauce, green cabbage, Pok Choi and Spring onions.
All served with sticky rice….
Lunch Day One: Chicken in Ginger and Big flat chunks of cold salted Pork. Deep- Fried sugary coconut dough-balls were served as a dessert.
Lunch Day Two: Lemon-tasting Frog and salty small silver fish, both served with a palm sugar dip.
Dinner Day One: A sickly-sweet grated coconut, Pork and Pumpkin curry miraculously cooked from scratch in ten-minutes flat (how she got the pumpkin soft in that time is a mystery!)
Dinner Day Two: A clear soup with cabbage, beans and fish. Cambodian Sour Soup: A cold, yellow hued sour broth (lovely to soak your rice in). Crunchy Rat (whole, with claws and skull).
This only leaves one thing to do in Siem Reap, to rise as early as Song and to see the unmissable sunrise at Angkor Wat and spend the day wondering through the magnificent remains of the largest Hindu Complex in the world. Some people wish to spend several days temple wondering but you won’t possibly see it all even if you do, I preferred to pick the best monuments (Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom) so I couldn’t loose interest in one of the Wonders of the Ancient world.
I needn’t go on as I would only be regurgitating what many other websites will say only in a less informative manner.
The Son of The Hueng Family, called Banhook, does run his own Tuk-Tuk and will meet you in central Siem-Reap to show you around the temples for a small fee for the day.
To find out more about Chhan Schoo visit www.chhanschool.org or visit Chhan School’s blog (created by myself) by clicking on the ‘Volunteer Cambodia’ page.