On our first day in Cambodia, we biked around the Angkor temples, but our second day was arguably my most favorite of the entire trip. We hired a guide (again through Grasshopper Adventures) to lead us ~40 miles into the Cambodian countryside to visit the far-flung temple of Beng Mealea. We met our guide early in the morning, signed our lives away, then got situated on the mountain bikes that would be ours for the rest of the day. The day was already hot, slated to reach around 95 degrees Fahrenheit that afternoon.
Our guide led us immediately out of Siem Reap, back along a sandy path that turned into a dusty dirt road. It was if someone had drawn a line around the bustling city of Siem Reap and once we crossed that line, the level of poverty increased tenfold. We pedaled along, passing palm trees, workers in the rice fields, people wading out into ponds to throw out fishing nets (not for sport, but to catch their food for the day).
I don't have any pictures from our ride out to the countryside. Part of it was logistical--it's hard to manage a camera while riding a bike along a bumpy dirt road!--but the other part of it was out of respect for the people. Seeing Cambodians as they are day-to-day wasn't a tourist attraction, so I felt I would just observe and try to soak it all in.
Some of my observations (filled in with little facts from our guide):
- The houses are built on stilts, which originated when their ancestors lived in the jungle and needed to keep their homes out of reach from predators.
- Back home, it's easy to take for granted what we have or to feel inadequate if we don't have the granite counter tops, the stainless steel appliances, or the living room crafted together à la Pinterest. These houses have no running water, no electricity, no AC in blisteringly hot weather, and have roofs and walls fashioned from dried palm leaves. It really put things into perspective, and helped me recalibrate what I thought of as "normal".
- We didn't go unnoticed. It was Sunday, so the children were at home and the adults were working nearby. The adults waved, and the children would run as fast as their little legs could carry them to shout "Helllllllooooo!!!!" as we pedaled by. They weren't asking for money, as children in Siem Reap did. They were simply excited to be practicing the English they had learned in school. One little girl ran up beside Kursten and asked, "Where are you from?" When Kursten replied ("America"), the little girl's eyes lit up and she said "I know! Capital: Washington DC!" After correctly recalling the capital of the US, she stopped running beside us.
- Family sizes in Cambodia are quite big. Our guide told us that a small family would have up to 5 kids, the standard size being 6-10. Families lived off of ~40 cents/person/day. 40 cents a day.
- Cows are skinnnnny. They use them for labor, not necessarily for juicy steak. I wouldn't recommend ordering beef anywhere in SE Asia. Stick with the fish, vegetables, and rice ;)
- Roadside shops are common, set up on tiny wooden tables selling drinks, snacks, and gas in glass bottles. They are manned by members of the family, whoever happens to be around to take care of the customer. We stopped at a few!
- Jump rope was pretty big. We stopped to play (video here).
Later that afternoon, we completed the Tour de Cambodia. We had made the long journey and tucked into some lunch before heading on to the temple.
The Beng Mealea temple was well worth the journey. We had the temple nearly to ourselves, most people not taking the trouble to travel that far out of Siem Reap. The temple itself is being swallowed up by the jungle--vines are weaving their way over and between the stones--and trees are growing out of the carvings. The temple is in shambles, seemingly forgotten. It is quiet here. Our guide told us that the Pol Pot regime had used this temple as a sort of base in the jungle, and that the land mines surrounding it had only recently been removed by funding from a German organization.
I will never forget this incredible place. Not Cambodia. Not Beng Mealea. What an impression they have made.
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