Around 10km outside of Siem Reap，we passed an orphanage. The children there were just being loaded into tuk-tuks for the journey to school (in Cambodia due to a lack of facilities and resources， kids either attend school in the morning or afternoon, but not both) and they soon passed us on the road。 We waved at them and had a little race with their tuk-tuks， which we all enjoyed。Although the kids seemed pretty happy and well cared for， it is just heartbreaking to think of them growing up as orphans in a country such as Cambodia where life is already tough enough. This was weighing heavily on our minds as we entered Siem Reap, past all the five star hotels and，what is worse, the super-expensive 4x4s owned （as we were told by a few people） by corrupt members of the government。How they can live with themselves when surrounded by such need is beyond belief。
Anyway，we soon found a good guesthouse – the Prohm Roth guesthouse， just east of Pub St。 It was really nice，with clean，well-appointed rooms，air-con，cable TV, hot shower，excellent wi-fi，and excellent location, all for 13 dollars a night. The staff were also really friendly and helpful。 Seeing as we ended up staying there for almost a week， we were really glad of all this！ After a nap we went out for a late lunch on Pub St – a street full of nice restaurants and bars. High competition keeps prices low and standards high, so it is a good place to eat. We certainly enjoyed the cheeseburger and chips that we each had, along with the fish and chips (with proper tartare sauce!）that we shared。While we were eating we were approached by a number of disabled people – all of whom had lost limbs due to landmines – selling things such as books，CDs or paintings. At first our attitude was to do what most people do and look the other way，but quite soon we decided that we wanted to be different and to help these people. It’s not like they were begging – in fact，despite all the desperate need in Cambodia, we saw very few beggars，rather lots of people trying to make a living by selling things. And considering that we were just about to run out of books, it made sense to buy a book from one of these poor guys. It’s no secret that there is no state support for people with disabilities; unless you have a family to support you, you have to find work somehow. So we see nothing wrong with them trying to sell things to us, even if it does make us feel a little uncomfortable at first. A few dollars is nothing to us, but a lot to them.
We were still thinking along the same lines when that evening we were handed a leaflet from a local orphanage, inviting us to either attend one of the regular dance nights put on by the kids in the orphanage, or to spend some time visiting during the day .We decided to do the latter – we thought this would be more rewarding, and besides it didn’t seem quite right to go and watch the kids dancing to solicit donations – we understand why they have to do that, but it’s sad that they have to ‘earn their keep’, so to speak, doing these performances. There are quite a few orphanages in Siem Reap – it makes sense to have them here as they rely largely on donations from tourists such as ourselves; they get no state funding, and few in Cambodia have enough money to be able to donate to the many worthy causes here. All the orphanages hold these dance nights and encourage visits, but in the time we had available we decided to focus on one. It occurred to us that if the children at the orphanage did not have bicycles, then it would be really nice for us to make a donation of some bicycles – children on bicycles are a common sight in Cambodia, and so having a bike is a great way for orphans to feel a bit more like other children.
We emailed the orphanage that night and arranged to visit not the next day but the day after, as our plan was to spend the next day visiting Angkor wat. One of the seven man-made wonders of the world, Angkor wat is a large complex of spectacular temples built hundreds of years ago. Time, nature and the Khmer Rouge during their time in power have conspired to cause a lot of damage to many of the temples, which only started to be seriously restored in recent years. However, this adds a certain charm to the place, particularly at temples such as Preah Khan and Ta Prohm where giant tree roots encapsulate some of the buildings. The whole effect is very Tomb Raider like – indeed Ta Prohm is where much of the Tomb Raider movie was filmed. It is usually recommended to spend at least two days exploring the Angkor wat site, but we only really had one day if we wanted to visit the orphanage too. So, wanting to make the most of it we dragged ourselves out of bed early, so we were cycling to the complex (7km from Siem Reap) as the sun came up. It was certainly worth coming early, as the main sight, Angkor wat itself, was very quiet, and of course it was still relatively cool which made walking around more comfortable.
After Angkor wat – and an expensive but very good cappuccino – we cycled onto Angkor Thom, and in particular the spectacular Bayon, a temple consisting largely of huge stone faces that watch over you slightly spookily as you approach and look around. After this we stopped for an early lunch/late breakfast, which was nicely negotiated by Pete – there are loads of restaurants in the Angkor wat complex, they all have menus with hideously expensive prices on them but what a lot of people don’t seem to realise is that these prices are always very negotiatable.
After this we cycled slightly off of the main path to some minor temples off to one side, where we were amused to see some men fishing in the adjacent small lake. It just seems funny to see people doing this sort of thing in the middle of such a big tourist sight. Later on we also saw people tending rice paddies! We then moved onto Preah Khan, and the temples along the northern side of the ‘loop’. This loop is 40km long, but is only the ‘short’ loop; there is also a 70km one that takes in some more distant temples. We decided that the 40km was enough for us in one day. In the middle of the afternoon we stopped again as we both fancied a cold drink and a pineapple pancake. There were several restaurants where we stopped, differentiated only by number – they all serve the same food at the same price. The women running restaurants number 5 and number 8 ran out to try to persuade us to go to their restaurant rather than any other, but how do you decide between two identical restaurants? In the end we had the idea of each buying our food at different restaurants, on the condition that we could sit together in one of the restaurants. This solution certainly seemed to please the restauranteurs, who gave us some fruit for free as a ‘thank-you’ for being considerate and spreading our money around. All in all good fun and definitely a recommended tactic.
Preah Khan was impressive, as were all the temples we saw that afternoon. We particularly liked one on the eastern edge where we were able to climb up one of the towers, which gave us a great view of the surroundings. It was great being able to use our bikes to cycle around – not only saving us money (most people hire a tuk-tuk with a driver for the day) but giving us complete freedom to set our own schedule. Definitely the way to do it. We noticed electric bikes for hire and were surprised not to see more people doing that, as it is the perfect compromise for those who don’t want to cycle all that way. We finished the day back at Angkor wat for sunset. There is a hill nearby that you can climb to get a nice view of the sunset over the forest, so we duly joined the throng climbing it. Rather amusingly, the sign at the bottom of the hill showed two routes up the hill – the ‘safety’ route or the ‘danger’ route. There didn’t actually seem to be anything stopping you doing the danger route but we thought we should be sensible and take the longer safety route! We subsequently jumped back on our bikes to race back to town before the sun had set and it got dark.
We had arranged to be at the orphanage for 10.30 the next morning, so we were able to have a bit of a lie-in. On the way we stopped at the market to buy some supplies for them – although we were tentatively planning a substantial donation, we didn’t want to turn up empty handed in the meantime. They said on their website that they always need basic stuff such as toothpaste and soap, so we got a big box of that. They were obviously short as soon after we arrived the kids all went off voluntarily to have a wash and to clean their teeth! We spent a couple of hours getting to know the kids, and the helpers that were there, who all (apart from the cook, who earns a measly $50 a month) work entirely for free. The orphanage was set up by a lady called Meas Pov, who was an orphan herself. Now they have 30 kids living in pretty basic premises – they all sleep in one hut, 3 to a bed, and have just one toilet between all of them. As they rely totally on donations, sometimes the money runs short and they have to do without. In the past they have had to resort to foraging for food in the nearby countryside when there was no money for food. They seemed to be short of just about everything, from soap to school uniforms. What was noticeable was a complete lack of play equipment; not high on the list of priorities we guess. However, one thing they did have was a load of bicycles. We were almost disappointed to see this as we quite liked the idea of buying bikes for them. We decided instead to make a donation of more general stuff, so we explained to the staff how much we had to spend, and that we would like their guidance on how to spend it. They took us to a stationary store where we loaded up on school exercise books, pens, textbooks etc. We also insisted on buying some play equipment, including footballs, plastic tennis rackets, shuttlecocks, hula hoops etc. One other thing that had struck us was the lack of christmas decorations, despite the fact that they do celebrate christmas here; in fact the kids were in the process of practising carols when we first arrived! So we also got them a christmas tree and a load of decorations. Finally we had found out that none of the kids had school bags so we went and bought nice smart school bags for them all. When we got back the first thing that was done was to put up the christmas tree and decorations, then the various gifts were distributed and we had a bit of a party, playing games with the new toys etc. What was remarkable was how well behaved the children were – there was no pushing to get to the presents first, and they were all very happy to share with each other. It does seem like a big extended family, indeed they all share the same surname (the same as Meas Pov’s), and they certainly look out for each other, which was really nice to see. The staff were all touchingly grateful – it seems like relatively big donations like ours are fairly infrequent, which is sad.
Up on the wall there was a list of the children living in the orphanage, with basic details such as their age and where they came from. It is heartbreaking read, because they are all classified as ‘parents dead’, or ‘abandoned’ or ‘family too poor’ etc. One tiny boy proudly told us that he had been found abandoned in a rubbish bin. How sad. Meeting them for the day it is easy to feel like the kids are just in school for the day, and will return to their families at night. You have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that they aren’t going anywhere, that this is their home and this is their family. Truly a touching experience. We were shocked to discover that the orphanage is potentially facing disaster next year, as the lease on their property runs out in June, and as yet they don’t have anywhere to go. It is untenable to think of them being turfed out on the street, which would be the inevitable conclusion if they could not raise enough money. So hopefully we will be able to do some fundraising when we get home to help them out of this situation. If any of you reading this want to find out more, or want to find out about donating please see their website at http://www.orphanagecofco.com.
To say thankyou for our donations, the kids donned their dancing costumes and showed off some of their traditional dances for us. As we said, we would rather they didn’t have to do this to get donations, but to be fair the kids do seem to enjoy getting dressed up and it is nice to see them working together. By the time they had finished it was almost 6pm and definitely time for us to leave – we felt physically, mentally and emotionally drained. We returned to our hotel in silence, digesting all that we had seen.
But that wasn’t the end of excitement for the day – in fact it was only just beginning! A couple of hours later Pete suddenly felt rather ill while we had gone out for a drink – so much so that he abandoned Christine in order to run down the street in the direction of our hotel – unfortunately he didn’t make it and was sick in the street which was rather embarrassing – we were on Pub St so everybody probably assumed he was drunk! Poor Pete spent the night either on or beside the toilet suffering some sort of food poisoning. It was odd as all we had eaten all day, aside from breakfast, were some banana chips at the orphanage. But we remembered being told that 3 children from the orphanage had just been at the hospital suffering from food poisoning, indeed one of them was still there, so we think that somehow, perhaps via the banana chips, the infection was passed on.
He was still ill the next day, but things got worse mid-morning when he made a dash for the toilet to be sick, only to get his legs tangled in a blanket and wrench his back while he tried to stabilise himself. You couldn’t make it up could you! His back was really very sore, so he returned to bed, being sick in a bucket as he could no longer get to the toilet – a sorry sight indeed! Christine went out for ibuprofen, antibiotics, and a cold compress, all of which helped temporarily, but the pain kept returning, particularly when he tried to move. By late afternoon we were quite worried as the pain was no better and he literally couldn’t sit up let alone stand. We investigated getting a doctor to come to the hotel, but the state hospital doesn’t provide such a service, and so the only option was the Royal Angkor International Hospital, which is described as being of ‘international standard’, which was quite reassuring. They suggested sending an ambulance to get him to hospital where more tests etc could be run, so we did that. Pete’s immobility meant he had to be stretchered out of the hotel, which caused a few wide eyes from passers-by. We were soon enough at the hospital which was very quiet, meaning he had the undivided attention of the staff which was nice. They quickly gave him pain relief and did an X-ray to rule out spinal damage. They were quite concerned about the level of vomiting he had been experiencing so they also did blood tests and attached him to an IV saline drip. Although the pain relief helped he was still in too much pain to be able to get out of bed, so they decided to admit him. Cue a call to our insurance provider to get the wheels in motion, as we knew the bill was going to be big – hospitals like this don’t come cheap.
Pete’s room at the hospital was really rather nice – think 5 star with a hospital bed! So he was quite happy to spend the night there. Incredibly, for a hospital that is quite big, there were only 3 patients there in total – apparently the day before they had none! It is kind of disgusting in a way that such high quality facilities are available, but not for Cambodians – only expats or tourists with travel insurance can afford to use it. In contrast the local hospital does not even have an ambulance, and no doubt lacks many other basic facilities. It is sickeningly unfair. Anyway good for us that we fall into the category of those able to use such facilities, Pete was certainly well looked after. Christine in the meantime returned to the hotel to email various family members about what was going on, before returning to the hospital the next morning. By then Pete was feeling much better – the acute pain had abated and he was much more mobile, plus the food poisoning had largely cleared up. So he was discharged with plenty of drugs and instructions to rest for a few days.
During the next couple of days Pete rested, while Christine discovered a lovely swimming pool (at a restaurant called Kanell, about 400m from the river along 7 Makara St). It is free to use the pool if you eat at the restaurant so she enjoyed having a leisurely lunch or two by the pool. Nobody else seems to have discovered this place so she generally had it to herself – nice. On the third day Pete was well enough to join her, and we decided he was well enough to endure a bus journey to Bangkok, where the plan is to rest for another couple of days before getting back on the bikes to get down to Phuket for Christmas. All in all it wasn’t the disaster we initially feared it to be.
The main irritation while waiting for Pete to get better has been the requirement for us to chase the insurance company to pay our hospital bill – as he was admitted as an inpatient, our policy says the bill will be paid directly, rather than us paying it and claiming the money back. For some reason the insurance company dragged their feet – first because it was at the weekend (although that is no excuse as it is meant to be a 24 hr service) then when we next spoke to them they started muttering about having to get the underwriters’ permission as we had gone to a private hospital and our insurance says private treatment will only be covered if no ‘adequate’ state facilities are available. Quite vague that! Anyway, given that the local hospital didn’t even have an ambulance to send, and Pete was in no position to be getting in a tuk-tuk to get there, the insurance company didn’t have a leg to stand on saying that the state facilities were adequate. Not only that, but we had called them before he was admitted and told them what hospital he was in, and there was no comment then about him being in the ‘wrong’ hospital. They obviously realized this and by Tuesday had sent through a payment guarantee. Definitely a relief to have it sorted but no thanks to ‘Medical Assist’ for their less than reassuring guidance on the phone.