Friday, September 08, 2006

Siem Reap ...and the wonders of Angkor Wat!

Sept 8th. 7am bus ride with Nadine and Jeremy from Phnom Phen to Siem Reap today! Crazy tuk tuk drivers grabbing you as you get off the bus - you need room, you need taxi, madam, lady , hey hey!!! A tad disconcerting but then again, these guys have to make a living too!

Booked into our respective lodgings (not enough room for both of us so I'm just down the road!). Into town to check it out. Siem Reap is a strange dichotomy (right word?)....I mean really really trendy cafes, bars and restaurants.. i mean trendy as in London or Manhatten...and a huge number of street children and adults, many of them with awful amputations. Clearly there is tons of money here (obvious from the huge and very high end hotels like Raffles, Sofitel and many others) but the poverty is also very prevalent.

Met up with a tuk tuk guy, Mr Dom, who was recommended by a friend - he picked us up to go buy our 3 day Angkor Wat passes which also give you a sneak preview for sunset.. so excited that i'd finally be seeing this amazing wonder of the world (if its not then it should be but i think it is officially one of them!).

Back into town and randomly met our pal, Joe from Phnom it was off to dinner at the local food stalls that line the streets of any Asian town or city. Siem Reap is a little different tho'. Nowhere in Asia have i seen so many beggars.. hate to use that word.. it sounds so harsh. The children (some looking as young as 4 or 5) come up to you "Where are you from" they ask (its a well worn starter for 10 phrase for newbie tourists to town!). "I'm from Scotland.... or Wales... or Ireland" for Jeremy and Nadine. "Capital of Scotland is Edinburgh, Wales is Cardiff, Ireland is Dublin".. The children are amazing. Rote learning or not, its way more than any child in the western world knows about Cambodia!!! Made friends with a gorgeous wee girl called Neaat..who asked me to buy her bracelets.. Tried to resist, she then said (as they all do for whatever they are selling) "you have boyfriend"... "no i dont".. "You know why you dont, cos you dont buy my bracelets. Buy them you will get boyfriend no problem".....hmmnn interesting ploy! Then when i was still resisting, she gave me a hand written note with a flower on it, wishing me all the best in life etc. (come to find out later all the children have these; some adult must sit all day busting these out!!!). Anyway, once i saw that, i had to buy the bracelets. But then the others come, "you buy postcards, how about book"....they are really persistent. That sounds terrible; i know, and i understand how little they have, but it is just pretty full on, which unfortunately is how they have been taught. They sit next to you at the food stall, crying out for food, and of course you feel horrific as you sit there with your rice or noodles! That's why many tourists, including us, would rather buy them dinner rather than give them money, cos at least you know they are getting fed! Worst of all, we got chatting to a lovely wee chappie about 10 yrs old, full of smiles cos someone had bought him dinner; he was going over his English with me and also teaching me to count to ten in Cambodian. Then i realised his entire right leg was gone, due to land mine of course. So awful it put me over the edge. I know, I know.. you all think im pathetic but its so hard not to feel so heartbroken for these children - they are children and they should be having the kind of life children deserve. I started crying; just couldnt help it, and two or three of them who had been tapping me on the shoulder earlier, looked all concerned and said "Whats wrong, are you ok?". Can you believe it! So i had to pretend the food was too spicy and they gave me water and said i had to be careful.... what do you do? Also an older man came by with a Celtic top on - and only one leg and arm....mothers with babies who run after you saying "just a little milk for the baby.." just so bloody sad! Jeremy and Nadine discussed the fact India was actually much worse in places in the sense that the poverty is endemic and not just concentrated so much in one city like here ....but the guys said they thought the people in Siem Reap were a wee bit more persistent than in India. Probably this has alot to do with the fact that there is a constant influx of new, affluent tourists coming into Siem Reap on an almost daily basis. Either way i just found it so overwhelmingly sad.. easy for me to cry. I dont have to live these poor folks lives but thats just my way of dealing with it i suppose! A German guy who was sitting with his friend next to us said to me, "the first time eh?". I replied "yes"...and he said "When i came to Cambodia the first time, i was told to take my heart and lock it up in a box. You feel so guilty about what you have; you can't help everyone here....but it is a very overwhelming feeling when you first experience it". Very true but i dont want to lock my heart away; and i do wish i could help more but I suppose reality must win out. Unless i win the lottery of course!!! Anyway, very strange, distressing, emotional day here ....

September 9th. Sunrise at Angkor Wat! WOW. WOW. WOW! Well worth getting up at 4:30am for! Seriously! Its impossible to put into words, and my pics probably wont do it justice either, but this really is an amazing, incredible, serene, beautiful place! When we arrived, it seemed like there were literally thousands of tourists all lined up at the one main place to see the sun rise above Angkor Wat... of course we are not typical tourists so we went to find our own fabulous, less crowded area! (Of course we then ran back to catch that perfect spot shot too - hey, we're not daft!).

The colours were amazing; orange, yellow, pink, red. The sky went from clear to misty to stunningly bright and perfect blue - all really quickly! Absolutely breathtaking! And the scale - how did all these ancient civilizations do it? Even with modern equipment it would be a feat, but way back then, well, its definitely WOW factor! And yes yet again i dont have all the gory historical info for ya.. you'll be glad to know!! What i do know is that AW has 3 specific layers with the top steeple being higher than Notre Dame in Paris. Loved the splendour of the temple; the preservation is incredible! Saw the amazing Gallery of the Churning Milk with opposite sides of good and evil holding the seven headed naga (snake thingy!). Wandered around in literally about 100 degrees (Cambodia is seriously hot!) then had to take a break for lunch!

Then it was off to Te Phrom; known as the jungle temple where mother nature has been given free rein and tons of majestic trees have taken over the temple; just shows you how strong nature is!! So incredible and wild; so very different than the formality of AW. Loved this maybe a teeny bit more although you cant really compare; they are both gorgeous! Met some amazing musicians who taught themselves the instruments rather than become street people, due to their land mine accidents.

At this point, early afternoon, our 4:30am start was beginning to make us all drag a bit so we headed back to town and our guest houses. Nadine and I met up later in the evening to go to the "Beatocello" concert at the Khopa Bhopal childrens hospital in town. A little bit of background here folks about the hospital and its mentor...a Swiss doctor called Beat Richner. After specialising in paediatrics in Zurich, Dr Richner was sent to Cambodia in 1974/75 to work at the Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital. His mission came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge invaded the country and Dr. Richner was forced to return to Switzerland where he took up his former work at the Zurich Children's Hospital. In December 1991 Dr. Richner was asked by the Cambodian government to rebuild and manage the Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital; since then four hospitals have now been built and/or overhauled.

Whilst pursuing his medical career Beat Richner developed the character of BEATOCELLO, best described as that of a poetic and musical comedian or clown. He gave countless performances, mostly in the German-speaking part of Switzerland but also abroad. More recently he has used this "persona" to help raise awareness and increase donations for the four Bopha hospitals in Cambodia.

Some really basic facts (check out the website for more details at Thanks to these four hospitals, all medical care is freely available to all children in Cambodia. Kantha Bopha has become a highly respected model for the entire Southeast Asian region of just how efficient direct medical and humanitarian aid -i.e., correct medication unhampered by corruption combined with targeted long-term training. Most of the hospital's funds come from private individuals in Switzerland who make spontaneous donations for Kantha Bopha, very often straight after one of BEATOCELLO's performances.

Some amazing statistics! Each year 75,000 children are hospitalized (the average length of hospitalisation is 5 days), 800,000 ill children receive treatment in the outpatients department, 400,000 healthy children get vaccinated, 16,000 surgical operations are executed, 12,000 birth in the maternity (designed to prevent mother-to-child AIDS and TB transmission) and daily 3,000 families receive health care education. All medical services are free of charge since the families in Cambodia are simply too poor to even make a small contribution towards these medical costs. Without Kantha Bopha, 3,200 additional children would die in Cambodia every month. As it is, over 65% of Cambodians have TB. Dengue fever is rife, even in Siem Reap where there is a huge outbreak right now but you never hear about these things in the media.

Yet even with all of this good being done, people like Princess Anne (who heads up the INTERNATIONAL which would include Cambodia, no?) Childrens Fund, and the WHO, have said to Dr Richner, "the facilities of the Kantha Bopha hospitals are too high end for the Cambodian economy to sustain and too luxurious for the Cambodian people. Essentially, they can manage with less!". That type of perception is rife apparantly in the Western medical community with doctors staying at the Sofitel in Siem Reap for $340 a night, coming in to see Dr Richners work and telling him the $170 average cost for a child to be looked after in hospital for 5.5 days, is too much money per child!! OK for the west, not for Cambodia's poor! So disgusting - and as these hospitals are run almost completely on donations,how dare they question him. Maybe if they donated the price of their hotel room, that might even things out a bit! Listening to this made you feel appalled at being a westerner - at least that is how Nadine and i felt after the concert.It clearly made a big impression on us! Yet another eye opening day in Siem Reap.

September 10th. Bad nights sleep. Started to have awful sweats and chills. Didnt sleep at all.. but had to move guest houses cos mine was a bit smelly so forced myself to pack up- thought my head was going to explode!! (yes i know a tad dramatic!). But hey, we are off to see more temples today soi have to pull myself together! Met Nadine and Jeremy at 10am and off we biked to Angkor Wat - yup, biking with a fever, good idea! First stop today was the Land Mine Museum which is situated on the way to the temples. Yet another assault on the senses,when you meet the most incredible kids whose lives - and bodies - have been torn apart by evil landmines...shocking and incredible stories but i'll do a separate posting on that! Felt pretty rotten (how can i even say that after meeting these folks..) so left the guys and biked back to the guest house. So bummed that i was missing out on AW today but that's life!

September 11th. Couldn't possibly stay away from AW today! The three of us decided to treat ourselves to a balloon ride up 180 metres to see AW at its very best. Big yellow balloon (ok you only get 15 minutes but it only costs $15 and what a fabulous view!!). Felt quite luxurious! Then off to Angkor Thom and Bayon....incredible temples!And so good of Jeremy and Nadine as they had already been here yesterday! Bayon is MASSIVE - 216 faces on 54 different heads. The carvings were incredible - so different again from the other temples. After lunch we visited Pre Rup, a smaller, very pretty temple..the heat was incredible today or was it just me, still feeling rotten! We had a big chat about what we wanted to do next, as this was our last day on our three day AW ticket, and we all agreed that rather than go lie on a beach for two weeks as we originally planned, we wanted to volunteer at the Land Mine Museum.. so we would stay an extra week here in Siem Reap.
Back at my hotel,i realised i couldnt take the incessant Cambodian kareoke any more so planned to move into Jeremy and Nadine's guest house tomorrow.

September 12th.Long story short. Nadine and Jeremy came to pick up my bags this morning and I realised i had to go to the clinic as i was feeling much worse.Nearly fainted on top of the tuk tuk driver -didnt bother him. He still ripped us off..really how cheeky is that! Got to the clinic. The doctor, after speaking with me, (and about Celtic Football Club,who he loves yah!), then diagnosed acute tonsilitis...interesting as my tonsils were probably the only part of my body that didnt hurt. So-after five hours on an IV and a giant injection in my bum to get rid of the pain in my head, i felt a bit better and headed home! Thank goodness i had changed hotels - so nice at Red Lodge and so FAB to have the lovely Nadine and Jeremy to look after me-seriously they were stars!!!


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