Settling In to Cambodia
It’s been 34 years since the brutal killings and massive demolitions of the Khmer Rouge ended, but Cambodia’s culture remains fragile and fragmented. Governmental corruption is visible – as the border patrol officer in Poipet demands $25 when the sign clearly states the price of a tourist visa is only $20 – and the people are becoming increasingly divided by the diverging “traditional” and “modern” lifestyles.
Upon entering Cambodia at the Poipet border town – a less than enjoyable experience, but not as bad as the books make it out to be – it was immediately obvious that urban Cambodians have one goal: take advantage of tourists. We were immediately bombarded with people pulling us in all different directions. Despite all the warnings I’d read and stories I’d heard on common traps, scams, and lies, we still got screwed. The taxi dropped us off outside of town, when he told us he wouldn’t, and then we had to pay an elevated tuk-tuk fare to take us to our hostel (which we had been told was free). Insulted by deceit, I lost my cool in the heat of the moment, but looking back, we only ended up paying $8 more than we should have. $8, I reminded myself, is less than I earn in half an hour of work. $8 to them means feeding their families for a week or more.
The city of Siem Reap is where we will call home for the next two months. (Unfortunately, we are running out of funds faster than anticipated and are having to shave a month off our trip, so while we originally planned to volunteer in Cambodia for three months, we’ve had to reduce our time here to two months). Our first major integration into life here was to buy bicycles. — This was a big deal for me. If you know me, you know that I do not ride bikes, nor have I owned a bike since I was ten. Lucky I’m a fast leaner. — Everyone here rides bicycles. Even the shoeless four-year-old rides a bike that is five times too big. Given my inexperience, I am very proud to say that I can now semi-confidently maneuver through heavy traffic, makes sharp turns, and brake fast in the likely event of a head-on collision with a motorbike. I have also become superb at ringing the little bell on my handlebars. One of the locals, I tell you…
Having arrived on the weekend, we had a couple of days to get to know Siem Reap before beginning our work with Trailblazer. We spent our time biking around the town and out to the surrounding areas. In short, we liked what we saw. Day and night, the downtown is a constant buzz of craft markets, massages, fish spas, restaurants, tuk-tuks, and music. While not as horribly transformed as Khao San Road in Thailand, Siem Reap has definitely made a name for itself as one of the biggest tourist destinations in Southeast Asia.
Just a few minutes by bike or tuk-tuk, a multitude of Buddhist temples (most of which have been recently rebuilt since being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge) provide space for peaceful meditation and homes for many of the monks. Tip: If you are in Siem Reap, rent a bike and ride the main road south for at least 5-15km. That’s the real Cambodia.
Our next mission was to find a place to live. After a few days of house hunting, we moved in to a hostel called Hak’s House on the outskirts of town. Although a bit pricey for this area ($300/month), our luxury living features air conditioning (I had to. It’s 95 degrees and getting hotter by the day), a western style toilet, reasonably good wifi, and a delicious breakfast every morning. However, there are two even better bonuses to living on this side of town. First, there’s no risking your life when biking down our cosy, little street, as you do riding through the center of Siem Reap (road rules are nonexistent here). The neighborhood isn’t overrun by tourists or hotels yet, so traffic is light and the restaurants and shops are all small and local. I’ve already grown accustomed to picking up bags of curry, steamed buns, freshly made sweet potato chips, and sweet rice with banana for 50cents from the local vendors I ride past to and from work. And secondly, our hostel is minutes away from the The Trailblazer Foundation, where Jeremy and I volunteer.
The Trailblazer Foundation is the reason we are in Cambodia. In fact, it’s the reason we started planning this trip. Trailblazer is a non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to bringing potable water and clean irrigation systems to rural villages throughout the country. Around 80% of Cambodians live in the countryside and do not have access to clean drinking water nor do they have the education to recognize contaminated water as a health concern. With 64% of the population suffering from diseases caused by contaminated water, Trailblazer has found a simple, practical solution to one of Cambodia’s largest health threats.
Scott, the Director and our friend from Jackson Hole, showed us the process. They use locally available resources (cement, sand, gravel, gravity… wait, that’s everywhere) to construct bio-sand water filters, a simple, yet effective method for purifying water. You start by building the container, a cement form made from a mold, which air-dries before it is painted and labeled. Then you sort the soil. Bio-sand filters use three layers of different sized soil particles: large gravel, small gravel and fine sand. Each type must be sifted, cleaned and measured before its put into the container. In a days work, it’s possible to sift and clean enough sand for about 4 filters. At the end of each week, filters are delivered to the villages. Remarkably, Trailblazer has managed to build and deliver over 350 filters to families in need, each year! With a cost per filter of $60, and the family only paying $2.50 (just above twice the average daily income) to have one delivered, the rest must be subsidized by grants, donations and free labor from volunteers (like us).
It had been 6 weeks since either Jeremy or I had done any real physical labor, and I speak for us both when I say it felt good to get our hands dirty. Literally, we had dirt, dust, water, mud, sweat everywhere. By the end of the day, our backs are sore, our throats are parched, and our skin has an extra layer of something on it, but we know that our little effort is going a long way. It’s amazing, really, that so much dirt can produce something so clean.