Siem Reap in Cambodia is well and truly on the mass tourist trail. Getting that perfect travel photo of the major temples such as Angkor Wat or the Bayon often involves sharing your frame of the majestic half smile sculpture of King Jayvarman VII with the hoards of tourists who arrive en-masse on their air conditioned coaches. Trust me, these are photos that will end up on the shelves, not your storage unit on the other side of time. Tourists pile out at each unique temple, take a carbon copy picture for their scrap books and then pile back on to the bus to plod happily along to the next temple stop to repeat the same action. They often don’t take the time to wander in the darkened corridors of the temple, see the lichened covered Bas Relief’s, and appreciate the amazing craftsmanship that went into each individual temple.
It is no secret why so many are attracted to the charms of Siem Reap, the temples are extraordinary, the people are friendly and the history is terribly tumultuous and provoking. It has so much to offer the seasoned traveller who is willing to scratch below the surface and take the time to really see Siem Reap. But what are the experiences that add value to your trip, what are the experiences that remain vividly in your memory and make your trips meaningful? In the next few paragraphs are a few ideas that may make your stop in Siem Reap more than ’just temples’.
Get to know the locals, once you leave the main tourist trail, the people of Cambodia are very different. They are a far cry from the pushy postcard sales children and their parents at the stalls. They are a beautiful nation, with a rich culture that has had the very seams of its fabric torn apart by war and regime. I stopped off at Wat Athvea, a Pagoda on the way out to Tonle Sap Lake. The Pagoda is lovely, with very few visitors. However what made it worthwhile was the time I spent with the young Monks who live and study at the temple next to the Pagoda. They spent considerable time telling me about their temple, the paintings and art works and the religion. They were very happy to talk to a foreigner to practice their English. In return they asked for a small donation to go towards their temple. A small price to pay for a personal class on Cambodian culture!
Another great idea is a visit to the ACODO Orphanage, also on the road out to Tonle Sap Lake. You can visit the orphanage to meet the children, attend their nightly show or volunteer to teach English (or all three). The Orphanage relies solely on donations of visitors, and proceeds from a show that they run every evening for tourists which showcases Cambodian dancing music and singing. The children play musical instruments, sing and dance to traditional Cambodian Songs. The experience at the Orphanage is a humbling, and heart warming experience. It offers a visitor a unique opportunity to see performing Cambodian Arts, while helping children in need.
Another final idea is a visit to the Cambodian Land Mine Museum which is just outside of the town. It is run by Aki Ra, a child soldier turned self-taught de-miner. Aki Ra was recruited into the Khmer Rouge as a young boy, later, he realised the danger and destruction the mines caused, and subsequently began a lifelong quest to remove mines from Cambodia. Originally he was self taught but later received official training from the United Nations. All proceeds from entry into the museum go towards further de-mining activities in greater Cambodia. Aki and his wife also have up to 20 orphans living with them on their property. Aki provides the children with an education and opportunity.
Siem Reap is a thriving town that has more to offer than temples, why not take time to visit some of the other worthy gems hidden in the surrounding area. It is an opportunity to meet the locals, learn about the culture and modern society, and finally an opportunity to give to the people who need help the most.
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