Learning conservation, Khmer and how to say hi to a million kids in Cambodia

In February we spent over three weeks biking across Cambodia, a place I expected to have mainly dirt roads and sad, reserved people scarred by the history of the Khmer Rouge and the ongoing threat of landmines.
What I found instead were good roads and most importantly, smiling, laughing, screaming, cheerful children everywhere. Apparently nearly 50% of the 6 or 7 million Cambodians are under 16, which is easy to believe when you find yourself losing your voice from trying to say hello back to them all.

The highlights were definitely the days we spent along the Mekong outside of Phnom Penh up to Kratie and biking around the Angkor Wat temples. Here are a set of pictures to give you a taste of what Cambodia is like.

On the road

What do you see on the roads in Cambodia?

Haybale on wheels (western Cambodia) Haybale on wheels (western Cambodia)

Haybales on wheels lumbering by that leave bits of hay stuck in your helmet.

Family vehicle (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) Family vehicle (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh)

Squeaky bikes for the whole family. Bike-pooling is the way to ride in Cambodia!

Temples everywhere (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) Temples everywhere (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh)

Cambodia is mostly Buddhist and there are temples all over the place. I wondered about the dynamics between the monks that live in these beautifully-maintained buildings who make daily alms rounds to villagers in rickety, dilapidated houses to ask them for rice and money in exchange for a blessing.

House on the road (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) House on the road (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) Houses on the road (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) Houses on the road (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh)

The typical Cambodian rural houses seems to be made of wood with blue trim and tile or thatch roofs. As you ride by you squint your eyes against the sun to pick out the source of the voice shouting “Hello! HellO! HELLO!” from where it is resting in the shade under the house so you can try to wave back in the right general direction without falling off your bike since while you were looking away from the road you didn’t see the upcoming pot-hole.

Cheerful bikers (Cambodia, between Phnom Penh and Kratie) Cheerful bikers (Cambodia, between Phnom Penh and Kratie)

There is plenty of traffic in Cambodia but there are also still thousands of bicycles that people cheerfully ride along the mostly-smooth roads. How long until they make the transition to almost only motorized transport as in Thailand?

Schools and kids everywhere Schools and kids everywhere

There are schools and kids everywhere! It’s fantastic to see such an abundance of schools and children who clearly have no confidence problems as they shout hello to us strangers passing by. Despite the fact that 99% of the time the kids weren’t actually in school but biking away from it or outside for recess, I felt extremely hopeful about Cambodia because at least they’re trying to educate the next generation.

The man we could talk to because he spoke French! The man we could talk to because he spoke French!

I was told that the burden of recent history weighs heavily on Cambodians and they would be sad and reserved. Luckily it was hard to see past the noisy happy children, but I did notice that the adults were more reserved and less likely to smile and wave hello than in Thailand. The older people we met, like this man we were able to talk to because he spoke French would have certainly suffered greatly during Pol Pot’s reign, no matter which side of the conflict they were on.

History

S-21 Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh S-21 Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

In the years up to 1975 Cambodia was in a civil war that led to the Khmer Rouge take-over of the capital that year. The day they took Phnom Penh they emptied the cities and began forced labor camps. They also took schools like this one and converted it into a prison where thousands of people were tortured for information and killed. Seven of the 20,000 that came through prison S-21 survived. At the S-21 museum we learned that this was just one of hundreds of similar prisons across the country. Around 2 million people were killed in the genocide that lasted from 1975 to 1979.

Being a sustainable tourist

Typical roadside snack stop Typical roadside snack stop

This is what a typical stop looks like when you are biking in Southeast Asia: the front of someone’s house converted into a small store, filled with mostly nutrition-less food wrapped in plastic and more plastic. About every 20km or so we start to look out for those orange treasure chests: cooler boxes that conceal cold, sweet relief from the heat. Shamefully, my willpower to resist the bottled drinks wilted in the 40 degree heat, so in the rural areas I tried to carry my trash to bigger towns where hopefully it would be burned or buried rather than scattered along the side of the road or in someone’s backyard.

Sticky rice in bamboo containers Sticky rice in bamboo containers

Sticky rice and beans packed into bamboo stick wrappers (‘krolan’) is one of the few snacks you can get on the road that doesn’t leave a plastic legacy behind. Unfortunately business creativity seems to be lacking in Cambodia because all the  women we saw selling these were in one spot. (Coconuts are also a good option – someone just needs to invent a biodegradable straw!)

 Development

Riverside in Phnom Penh Riverside in Phnom Penh SUVs in Phnom Penh SUVs in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh’s waterfront was a lovely, clean, tiled quai-side with colorful, sparkling boats, though just a street back was the dirty market. The cars some people drive are also in stark contrast to the rickety, squeaking bicycles of the countryside.

 Environmental challenges

Sweeping trash (Cambodia, market in Phnom Penh) Sweeping trash (Cambodia, market in Phnom Penh)

I thought Thailand had a litter problem but it seemed even worse in Cambodia: in every market I visited I felt like I was shuffling my feet through a thick layer of plastic trash and food scraps. The morning market in Phnom Penh was clean in contrast thanks to this man sweeping up the scraps.

(not) In my backyard-ism / not NIMBYISM (not) In my backyard-ism / not NIMBYISM

If people have to put up with this much trash in their own backyards can anyone really expect them to care about a bit more litter by the side of the road? As a biker from countries where you can be fined for littering it’s still hard to see so much trash along the way.

River life

Precarious house (Cambodia, between Battambang and Siem Reap) Precarious house (Cambodia, between Battambang and Siem Reap) Floating houses (Cambodia, between Battambang and Siem Reap) Floating houses (Cambodia, between Battambang and Siem Reap)

To avoid the busy tourist track road between the Thai border and Siem Reap (location of Angkor Wat) we first headed south to Battambang, then took a boat across the Tonle Sap lake to Siem Reap. The slow eight-hour ride gave us a chance to observe how people live along a river and on Southeast Asia’s biggest natural lake.

Despite the proximity of the lake to Siem Reap, the town faces water shortage issues because of its outdated water pumping system – and the increased demand from tourism. Locals have their water rationed throughout the day – but not the hotels, or the upcoming golf course.

 Tourism and Angkor Wat

Stephane shows us around Angkor Wat Stephane shows us around Angkor Wat

In Siem Reap we met up with Stéphane, a friend of a friend who has lived in Cambodia for several years and has fantastic knowledge of the natural and archaeological history of the area. He also works for an organisation that documents land-mind casualties to try to get them cleared and banned. The information they gather has been used to convince the government to redirect de-mining efforts to populated rural areas rather than just on new road or construction sites. The annual number of casualties has come down from around 800 to 200.

Stunning Bayon temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia Stunning Bayon temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The temples are stunning and definitely one of Cambodia’s real treasures. Thanks to tourism the area is well maintained and thus fairly free of litter and still well-forested.

Falangs everywhere (Tourists/white people everywhere) Falangs everywhere (Tourists/white people everywhere)

Everyone visits this temple where the trees climb over the ruins and wants to take the same photo. After waiting impatiently for a few minutes for the people to clear I realized it wouldn’t happen and decided to show you what it’s really like: too crowded! Our favorite parts of the temple complex were the areas that barely get a mention in the guidebooks where you can slowly ride around on single tracks and soak up the atmosphere.

 Mekong

A beautiful place to camp by the Mekong A beautiful place to camp by the Mekong

The Mekong is a beautiful river and cycling along its banks north of Phnom Penh was a great chance to roll slowly over bumpy, dusty roads and say hello (Soussa-dei!) to lots and lots and lots of kids.

Trash on the MEkong river banks Trash on the MEkong river banks

Moving closer to the edge of the road for a photo and then realizing the river bank is covered in trash like this makes you think twice about buying another can of coke or plastic bottle of ice tea at the next break. If the people who design the packaging for this food saw where it all ended up would it make them think twice about the designs and materials?  There is no garbage collection system, so where are the people supposed to put all the trash?

Mekong backyards Mekong backyards

The dirt roads between Phnom Penh and Kratie brought us past agricultural villages growing rice and other fruits.

Bridge at Kampong Cham Bridge at Kampong Cham

Though the Mekong is not a major trade or transport artery, it is not entirely rural and does have some big concrete bridges like this one across it.

 Wildlife

At the temple in Sambor we visited the conservation center for the globally Endangered Frog-faced Soft-Shelled Turtle. They run a small but impressive center for a number of young turtles that seem to spend all their time buried under the sand in their little tanks. Locals receive money to bring in eggs or hatchlings as an incentive not to instead sell them for food or medicine on the black market. At the conservation center (supported by Conservation International) they care for the hatchlings until they are old enough to be released. It was inspiring to read about the increase in nesting sites and hatchling survival thanks to this simple but obviously effective conservation effort. And the turtles were extremely cool little creatures!

Asian Giant Soft-Shelled Turtle Asian Giant Soft-Shelled Turtle Information about the conservation status Information about the conservation status

In the late afternoon our host at the homestay in Koh Phdau on Koh Rouginiv island (30km north of Kratie) took us out on a small boat to see the river dolphins. We were lucky and saw plenty of the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, a globally Vulnerable animal that lives in brackish waters and several rivers of South East Asia. In the Mekong there may be only 80 or 90 left. Catching glimpses of them breaking the surface of the smooth, swirling water and hearing them blow in the quiet evening on the river was certainly one of the most magical moments of Cambodia.

River dolphins River dolphins

The dolphins are threatened by habitat loss and destruction but also by gill-net fishing that can ensnare dolphins. Luckily these three boys we saw fishing in the late afternoon are just using a small net.

Boys fishing on the Mekong river Boys fishing on the Mekong river

Click here to see more photos of Cambodia…

One Reply to “Learning conservation, Khmer and how to say hi to a million kids in Cambodia”

  1. Such stunning photographs and fascinating descriptions…so much colour shines through everything; feels like we’re there with you! Love the new look of the blog – really clear and clean. The images and text just jump out of the page.So exciting… can’t wait to read and see more!!

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