Read part 1 of my Cambodia trip: Angkor Wat and Siem Reap
According to various locals of Siem Reap, the main industry of Cambodia is hospitality and all its various by-products. If the people of Siem Reap aren’t training to work in the numerous luxury hotels, they’re working in restaurants, souvenir shops, transportation, or some other means of accommodating tourism. A server at a Siem Reap bar (“Angkor What?!”, $10 for quite literally a bucket of liquor, thank you for the headaches!) told me he had moved from the Thai border to Siem Reap to get a university degree in hospitality.
Some of these tourist industries are positive: it’s clear many Cambodians are very happy that there are places to go to experience a relatively normative city night-life (Pub Street in Siem Reap is as lively as any bar culture i’ve experienced) which speaks to a somewhat pervasive hope in Cambodia of society moving toward some degree of normality. A number of the industries have negative implications: Cambodia is still a country where a majority of livelihoods are dictated by poverty; luxury hotels, high-priced amenities, side-by-side with squalor and destitution is understandable but hard to justify. Not knowing the intricate economic mechanisms at play though, it’s hard to say what is having a positive impact long-term. People far smarter than myself could answer those questions.
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Artisans Angkor, the organization responsible for running the silk farm we visited just outside Siem Reap, helps at-risk families find work in skilled trades, especially traditional Khmer arts and crafts that are losing practitioners. In the case of the Angkor silk farm, individuals are trained in the pain-staking and tedious process of silk production and crafting. Seriously, making silk crafts looks effing hard! Artisans Angkor is an example of an organization dedicated to engaging Cambodians in their own economic upturn, rather than simply by the whims of tourism.
The organization strives to provide fair working conditions, wages, and social/medical welfare for its employees, while revitalizing the culture of Cambodian arts. All the products made are sold fair-trade on site and around Cambodia (a tad expensive, but after seeing how its made you realize the artisans should be paid in gold). The silk farm itself is beautiful and serene, far too hot for someone of my wimpy ilk to work there without some serious weather-adaptation (most of the buildings are open-air) but the environment and the meditative quality of the task create a really peaceful mood.
Briefly, silk production involves breeding the silk worms, that are then put on mulberry leaves (their favorite apparently), where they grow and cocoon. the cocoons are dried out, then boiled, so the threads can be removed (one cocoon, one thread), that is spun into a finer thread, dyed, put on spools, and then weaved into elaborate patterned scarves, dresses, bags, etc. I’m probably forgetting numerous steps, but you get the idea, it’s a lot.
An employee at the silk farm informed us that just a yard-long, single-colored scarf would take the weaver 4 days, working 8 hours a day to complete. Add in the process of getting enough silk and all the dyeing for multi-colored, patterned endeavors, it’s a long process.
The people weaving the patterned scarves have numerous spools of thread (I saw upwards of 30 for one scarf) and have memorized an elaborate sequence, so they know which spool to use to slowly create the pattern. I couldn’t identify any distinct markings to indicate which spool went next, so the logical conclusion: they are all wizards.
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The Cambodian Landmine Museum and School is an organization founded by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier who planted land-mines all over Cambodia, unaware at the time of the tragic impact such victim-activated weaponry would have upon his country. After his defection from the Khmer Rouge and upon learning of the injuries and deaths sustained by land-mines, Aki Ra dedicated his life to ridding the Cambodian landscape of land-mines. Thus far, his organization has deactivated upwards of 50,000 mines, but it is estimated that over 2 million active mines still dot the Cambodian countryside. To this day almost every single week in Cambodia people are hospitalized or killed by land-mines, often sustaining debilitating injuries, leading to amputations and the necessity of protheses.
Beyond gathering and telling the story of the widespread issue of land-mines in Cambodia, the secondary aspect of Aki Ra’s efforts is the school and children’s housing center attached to the museum. Tourists are not able to visit the school in order to protect the well-being of the children. All of the students housed at the center are individuals affected by land-mines. While we obviously didn’t enter the residential area, on the day we visited a number of the children were playing just outside the museum. It was so bittersweet to see children, one missing both a leg and a part of her arm, in spite of such misfortune, still essentially at heart wanting to be kids, able to play, and learn, and be care free. Aki Ra’s efforts, while only small in scale compared to the magnitude of the problem, provides that essential possibility for these children.
During our visit to the museum, I stood by a small gate shielding a sign beyond that described the program of the housing center. The sign reminded tourists that they were not able to visit the school which could just be seen a hundred yards or so away from the visiting area through some trees. While I stood reading the information a small child ran across the main courtyard area of school. From the distance I stood it was impossible to tell what injury the tiny girl had sustained, she moved and ran like any other child, calling out to an unseen individual in a nearby building. Just as quickly she had vanished out of sight.
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The Tonle Sap floating village is an astounding cultural anomaly even in Cambodia. Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in south-east Asia, that changes dramatically in size dependent on the time of year and the deluge of water during the rainy season. Chong Khneas is the name of the village that floats on Tonle Sap close to Siem Reap. It’s a truly surreal place to visit.
The houses are all built on bamboo stilts that can be removed quickly as the water rises, the buildings on top then becoming boats essentially, that will shift position around the lake over the course of the year. In the main area of the village, the various buildings have been moored together to form a vast network of houses and stores. On the day we visited, since the rain had been extremely stubborn in arriving this season, the water was extremely shallow which meant the tourist-boat motors were getting stuck in the mud, making traveling close to the village center impossible unless you were on a smaller craft.
The trip out to the lake involves boarding one of any number of boats moored at a central market area approaching Tonle Sap. The boats are run by members of the community and seem to consistently involve one driver and one small kid who will move around the occupants of the boat offering the most hilariously perfunctory massages for a small fee. (I declined, much to the chagrin of our mini-masseuse).
Chong Khneas is a fascinating place. The village itself is split very distinctly into two large clusters of floating buildings. One is where the Cambodian population of Chong Khneas lives and the other where the Vietnamese population lives. Cambodia and Vietnam have a storied and antagonistic history with one another, and the divide here is literal, but by all accounts these two communities within a community get along, sharing markets and resources. They just choose to live on separate areas of the lake, keeps the peace I imagine.
We passed numerous floating stores, one clearly a market for the community, one a lumber yard of some sort, and were visited by small boat containing a woman, three children, and a giant python. This display was clearly for tourists, but comically the kids hadn’t quite figured out their shtick: the child at the front of the boat was weeping as if suffering immensely, the second child was dancing, and the third child was standing with a snake around his neck. The first child confused at first by our various reactions of mild horror at the size of the snake, then noticed that the rest of the group weren’t doing the “suffering children” bit and immediately jumped up to perform with ebullient glee the strangest dance (somewhere between gangnam style and having a stroke), shifting from drama to comedy seamlessly. The woman driving the boat, perhaps the children’s mother, meanwhile was blissfully unaware of anything out of the ordinary happening, just another day’s work.
Eventually the boat came right alongside ours and the children began requesting money. Being frequently approached by people begging in Cambodia is almost inevitable, especially when you look like a tourist. You stand out as likely having money. It is tricky to navigate an appropriate response to this common experience, especially when approached by children. On one level the riel of cambodia is worth pennies, so you know your dollars would go a long way, but the prevalence of begging makes it impossible to address everyone’s request. With children it’s even trickier because you can’t always determine the story: who is getting the money? Is this child being exploited by a gainful individual who will take the money? Is this actually a situation where money is needed or just playing on tourist naiveté? It’s an unfortunate consideration, but also the reality. So sometimes money or simply ignoring begging children aren’t the only options. In this case, some of our group opted to give the children sheets of colored stickers. This evoked utter confusion at first, but once it was realized what these colorful jewels could be used for, these kids were elated.
A lot of our group had mixed feelings about visiting Chong Khneas. Were we, as tourists, paying money to gawk at the way people live? As if visiting a zoo? Were we exploiting a vulnerable population? It’s hard to say with any definite clarity. Personally I lean more toward seeing the visit as a validation of this utterly unique culture, a small piece of anthropological immersion. We never stepped foot on the actual village proper and weren’t looking into people’s houses, except at a considerable distance. To me in many ways our boat trip didn’t feel unlike driving around on tourist buses in new york city staring in awe at the massive edifices to the sky that people live and work in everyday. Touristy? yes. Exploitative? I would say yes if somehow the culture was being compromised for the benefit of the tourists, or if the way of life was more flagrantly on display for entertainment, but that honestly doesn’t seem to be the case. You are only able to visit by way of businesses run by people in the community. The villagers we met interact with visitors almost with an air of “if you really want to spend your time riding on a boat looking at our stores and lake, be my guest”.
It is also important to remember that this is not an untouched civilization, unaware of commerce and industry, who are meeting visitors for the first time and thereby being negatively influenced by the outside world. Chong Khneas happened in the opposite direction. The main industry of the village is quite obviously fishing, so over time it was more practical for this particular group of fishermen to reduce the commute to work and literally live on the water. Within Chong Khneas there are stores, places of worship, schools, houses, and every other method of living that Cambodians in general use. There is an extensive system of bartering, but the people of Chong Khneas also use money. It’s a modern society, that just happens to be floating on water. I completely understand the uneasiness that visiting such a place causes, but I lean more toward finding this visit fascinating than unsettling.
But then i’m English, we’re sort of famously known for going where we don’t belong and pretending it’s okay . . . bastards.
all photos by a. strain