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offwego Jan 16th, 2006 02:38 PM

Asia first timer trip report
OK GPanda can do the calculations for what I owe. I've been back for 3 days and just now starting this trip report. I'm afraid my report so far is more full of musings than hard facts about where to eat, etc but if anyone has specific questions, I'll be glad to answer.

I'm not doing it in the order we traveled it. I'll write first about Siem Reap as it weighs most heavy on the mind.

Thanks to everyone on this board who helped me plan. I have been to Europe a ka-jillion times but this first trip to Asia had me a little intimidated and were it not for you all I may have never given it a shot or (perish the thought) I might have taken some ghastly TOUR.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

Easy flight from BKK to SR on Bangkok Airlines. 500B departure tax upon leaving BKK. Ponheary sent her brother to pick us up from the airport and deliver us to the hotel. We stayed at the Day Inn Angkor and it was just great. I liked it that it's the only hotel in Siem Reap that's owned and operated by Cambodians. The hotel was clean and simple. The beds were very hard by American standards (Thank God for cheap massages!) but just fine by Cambodian standards. Good AC. Bug proof. We had a second floor room with a balcony that was handy for a quick smoke and for drying clothes. The pool was great. Food was fair-great noodle soup on the breakfast buffet. We figured out pretty quickly that staying off western food really helps with the heat. Great drinks at the hotel bar. Cheap internet access. Fabulous service. Highly recommended.

I want to mention quickly that we got our visas before leaving the states and though many people on this board have said it is no big deal to get it at the airport in SR, I must say it was nice to be one of the FOUR people who had their visas and be able to skip the line of about 30 others who did not. It was dark when we arrived and the airport was hot and full of mosquitos and other misc flying insects. I was happy to get on out of there and not have to stand in that line.

Ponheary picked us up the first morning and we began the four days of exploring the temples. I can't say anything about these temples that has not been said before. It was simply amazing. Neither words nor pictures do it justice. The feeling you have when you are at the temples is one of peace. We compared it to being the opposite of how we felt in the Vatican, which was small, full of fear and insignificant. We enjoyed the temples very much and did not get "templed out" although we only went to them in the mornings. I liked the haunting music of the landmine musicians. I liked the flash of an orange monk's robe against the stone of the temple. I liked the sound of the cicadas and the smell of the incense. I liked the stories Ponheary told. I felt weird about climbing around on the temples though many people were. Maybe because it is a place of worship? Just seemed disrespectful to climb around so we didn't.

We did the balloon ride to get a bird's eye view of the temple complex and that was great. It costs $15 a person but we thought it was worth it. Went at sunset. Was really beautiful up there.

In the afternoons we went to a few different schools and donated school supplies. Before leaving home, we contacted the SCC ( and they hooked us up with a volunteer at a school about 40 km from SR. Rachel met us at the hotel and Ponheary was instrumental in hooking us up with the right vendors at the market to get flip flops for all these kids and the necessary school supplies for the year. After collecting all the goods and loading Ponheary's 4WD up, we headed for Wat Anchean. When we arrived, we let the kids know what was going on and in a great exodus they all went running wildly out of the classroom. I couldn't figure out what was going on and Ponheary told me they were running to get their classmates from the morning classes who were not there so they would not miss out. In about 10 minutes the schoolyard was filled with 160 kids and half the village who came to see what was going on. We spent a wild couple of hours fitting the kids for flip-flops. Some of them had never worn shoes before and as soon as the shoes were on, they would just freeze in their tracks, afraid to walk. Others were jumping straight up and down like a masai warriors, testing their new shoes.

We had taken up a collection among our friends at home to make these donations possible and among our donors was my little friend Stella who is 7 years old and gave us all the money from her "give jar" and wrote a nice note, including her picture. When Ponheary translated the letter and showed the picture, the kids were quite amused and couldn't figure out how a 7 year old could possibly run across $30. They wanted to know what kind of job she had. Trying to explain the concept of an allowance was of course futile.

We also gave the four teachers there some cash to thank them for the job they are doing. The average teacher gets paid $25 a month from the state. Ponheary says something has to change about that and I could only wonder what it's like to try and live on that. The teachers were quite shocked and later I was trying to imagine how it would be if some foreigner walked into my office and handed me a couple month's salary. I would probably look just like that.

I took a polaroid camera to SR and spent some time taking pictures of some of the kids and other mothers with their babies. At Wat Anchean in particular, the village ladies practically formed a queue so they could have a picture taken with their babies. I took about 6 rolls of film and used most of it that one afternoon. I wished that I'd had a hundred rolls of film. They were so appreciative of having those pictures and it was such fun interacting with the people in that way.

One afternoon after visiting a school we went to the fishing village and while I was grateful to see up close the sort of poverty these people have to endure, it felt very voyeuristic and I couldn't help but wonder what they thought about a bunch of westerners drifting through their village, snapping photos and peering at them. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable doing so and was glad to be done with that. I don't think I would do it again. It wasn't the poverty so much as it was the voyeurism.

The food in Siem Reap was no match for the delicacies we had in Thailand and a good thing it was as we couldn't eat much anyway. We'd go out to town for lunch or dinner and just sitting there, looking out at all the landmine victims, child-mothers begging with their babies, kids trying to sell stuff; the garbage, the squalor, the whole scene was just heartbreaking and certainly took one's appetite. We broke down one night and retreated to the walled compound that is the Raffles Hotel and had some quite good food there, albeit a little on the pricey side, but if you can't take the squalor of the life outside the restaurants in town, Raffles and FCC are good picks for somewhere decent to eat. We were happy however that we stayed a little "closer to the ground" and did really come to understand the lives of the people who live there a bit better.

Sometimes, giving money to a beggar or even trying to help these poor kids through school is a bit akin to standing at the gates of hell and throwing over a wet sponge. You just know it's not near enough. It can't possibly fix it. But to do nothing wears down your soul a bit so we did the best we could.

We met a few of the entrepreneurial children that haunt the market and the temples. One that was particularly engaging was named Pua and she was quite the charmer. Now we were careful not to encourage these children by giving them money. We were always armed with our pencils and toothbrushes and always advised them to go to school. Many of them did in fact go to school, but had to work at night. Pua was one of these. She could converse in practically any language and could probably sell matches in hell. I just loved her and thought about what a kid like that could get accomplished with just a little opportunity. But I digress.

I gained a deep sense of appreciation for myself and my life from visiting Cambodia and it was for me a matter of simple comparison. As I walked through the town, holding my breath through alleys ankle deep in muck, dodging mangy dogs, tuk tuks and the multitudes of cripples and beggars, my internal dialog became a sort of chant: "Thank God I'm not him. Thank God I'm not her. Oh man look at that, thank God that's not me". As I watched people bathing in the nasty water of the river I thought "Thank God I have a shower". "Thank God I don't have to walk down this street with a 30 pound load on my head and a baby at my breast" Thank God I'm not one of that family of five on that scooter". on and on until finally, "Man, I'm so LUCKY".

As I admired the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, I wondered how much of a toll these monuments have taken on the collective psyche. For centuries they have sat, cracking, looted and abandoned, a daily reminder that theirs had once been a mighty civilization. I wondered if these temples mock the people who live around them. Do the people of modern Siem Reap, scrambling in the dust for their meager living resent the constant reminder of just how far they have fallen? It makes you wonder what might lay in store for our own country. Lost wars, failed industries, banking collapses, uncontrolled poverty...what might our future hold? But I digress.

Siem Reap is an incredible destination. Go there. Be sure to get up off a few dollars and ask Ponheary to take you out to some schools. It will make the trip so much more meaningful.

simpsonc510 Jan 16th, 2006 03:22 PM

I'm deeply touched by what you have written here. Thank you so much for sharing this!

marcy_ Jan 16th, 2006 03:34 PM

Thank you for your moving and beautifully written report.

It's great to hear from someone with so much compassion and desire to help others. I can't help but believe that each person's efforts to help DO make a difference.

I think that one of the valuable things about travel is the opportunity to put our lives into perspective and realize how fortunate we are, and the repsonsibility we have to help others who aren't as fortunate.

jodo Jan 17th, 2006 07:14 AM

Thank you, Offwego, for the beautiful trip report---It might be your first time in Asia, but the embracing of the culture and the "pictures in words" captures the reasons so many Fodorites return.
We are finally going to Siem Reap the first of March, and your report made me smile in anticipation. I work with kids, and I know all of my students would love to contribute to the school children there. I'm starting the collection up today! I'll contact SCC to see how to make arrangements.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your trip with us.

Craig Jan 17th, 2006 08:17 AM

So far, a truly amazing report. We will tour with Ponheary in Siem Reap 5 weeks from now. We've been wondering about what would be the best non-temple experience for us in Cambodia. You have given us some great ideas. Thanks.

jodo Jan 17th, 2006 09:55 AM

We will be in Siem Reap 3 weeks after you...also with Ponheary. I'm hoping you will post your impressions and any suggestions as we'll be following in your footsteps. I do believe you are from Ct....My husband and I were born and raised in Hartford...We just stayed with friends in Simsbury over Christmas. Small world. Look forward to your postings.
Joyce and Don

offwego Jan 17th, 2006 11:06 AM


Contacting SCC is a good idea. I also have the direct email address of Rachel, the volunteer I worked with in Siem Reap. If you want to contact me off line I will hook you up with her directly. [email protected]

As an aside, I think scheduling an afternoon with Ponheary to go the market, get the supplies and journey to a school is even better. For all the good the volunteers are doing, no one is more in touch with the situation than Ponheary. She gets better deals on supplies and has a better sense of what the kids need and which schools to go to. But either way, help is help.

Good for you for planning this in to your itinerary. It really will be a highlight.

Craig Jan 17th, 2006 11:18 AM

Yes, Joyce - I live in Avon. Jeane and I actually leave 4 weeks from Thursday and return to Connecticut March 4. I'll attempt to post my report during the week that follows while it is still fresh in my mind. Hopefully that will be before you reach Siem Reap. There has been some talk of having a Fodors GTG (get-together) in the Hartford area in the spring - are you still close enough to join us?

debbieandsimon Jan 17th, 2006 11:18 AM


Thank you so much for taking the time to write your report!!!

I am also visiting SR at the start of April, and will be using Ponheary's services. I am a school teacher in England and I will definately be asking her to take me to visit a local school. Is it worth bringing any supplies from England, or should I buy things in SR?

Thank you again - your report was inspirational.

divediva Jan 17th, 2006 12:30 PM

this is a great trip report. we too were overwhelmed with emotion while visiting cambodia...

what a great idea to take a polaroid camera and give the photos. we often had kids want to look at the digital images we took of would have been wonderful to share the pictures with them.

we met a beautiful young girl, about 11 years old at the entrance to angkor wat. she sits on the wall or in a window opening - drawing and sketching. if anyone sees her, she always needs art supplies and speaks pretty good english because she interacts with foreigners easily. she did not solicite but was so appreciative when we returned the next day with new colored pencils...hers were nubs. we forgot the sharpener...oh well.

i hope to return to siem reap/angkor wat next year
...what an amazing treasure

offwego Jan 17th, 2006 12:48 PM


So much easier to buy everything there. For one thing, luggage space is at a premium since there is a 20kg weight restriction flying into SR.

The supplies the primary children need specifically are these subject books they need to learn to write and they are different sized grids. Very specific and western schools do not use them, so hard to find in the west. They also need pencils, but mechanical ones since sharpening is a problem. Ponheary can get all these things much cheaper over there. She buys so much stuff she gets great deals. The other pressing need is uniforms (4 USD each) and flipflops (about 30 cents each) Ponheary can arrange all this also. The best thing would be to let Ponheary know of your desire to spend some time doing this and let her know how much money you think you can bring and she will do the best deal and get the right things. She is always going around with a list of children that need things.

Her typical approach is to walk into a class unannounced and say "who is very hungry and who is very poor?" Out of a class of maybe 40 kids, 6 or 8 will stand, she will take their names down and as soon as she is able, bring their supplies, send food and clothes to their family, etc.

Like you, I hope to return there as fast as my feet can take me.

patrica_wyne Jan 17th, 2006 01:29 PM

Wonderful, thankyou for your beautiful trip report.

Craig Jan 17th, 2006 02:01 PM

offwego - I think visiting a school is something we very much would like to do with Ponheary but we don't have a lot of time (3 days). I am sure that I could take up a fairly generous collection from the Rotary club that I belong to for school supplies. Although Rotary has 1.2 million members worldwide there is no representation in Cambodia. We would obviously like to do something. Do you think if we spent an afternoon distributing supplies with Ponheary - say one school - would that be ok? I have been doing photo presentations annually on our trips to my club - it would be totally cool if my club could be involved with the donations and then see photos of the smiles and the children as recipients.

offwego Jan 17th, 2006 03:48 PM


Awesome idea about the Rotary Club. If you can raise some cash, send Ponheary an email ahead of your trip and let her know how much money you are bringing; she can arrange everything ahead of time since you are short on time.

There is one school on the road to Banteay Srei that she has just "adopted". We went there with her. She emailed me today that she is taking the uniforms we got out there tomorrow. That one might be convenient for you if you are going to Banteay Srei on your tour. There are many others that are very nearby. It only takes a couple of hours to "do a school". Ponheary will do the shopping for the goods while you are on your "lunch break" in order to maximize your time. Just let her know; she'll take care of the details.

To give you a goal, it costs roughly $8 per student to send a kid to school for a year. That's uniform, shoes and supplies. Ponheary chooses the really excellent students and finds them sponsors to go to English classes which brings it up to $32 a year per child. One child learning English who is then able to work in tourism can earn enough to support their entire extended family.

It is truly a case where a little buys alot. Sadly there is no tax deduction if you do it the Ponheary way, although I have spent the day today in meetings to put together a non-profit to help funnel money to her. She gets more done than SCC, simply because she is local and a former teacher. Has a better understanding of the need, speaks the language, etc.

Good luck and thanks for doing this.

jodo Jan 17th, 2006 04:54 PM

I am going to e mail Ponheary tonight so that when we arrive there (March 6th) she will be able to help organize a visit that is most helpful to the children. Craig, Don's mom still lives in Bloomfield, and so we visit the Hartford area frequently. Of course, early Spring, we'll still be in Cambodia. We get home mid March. We were planning a trip to Ct. mid June....but we're flexible and might be able to make that earlier...even for a weekend, to meet you all.
I plan on checking the Fodor's site while on our journey...I bet we intersect somewhere (if only in the air), since we leave Feb. 23 for Vietnam and end our journey in Chiang Mai.
We live in Virginia (35 years now) but Ct. will always be home.
Look forward to your trip report.

MaryW Jan 17th, 2006 05:50 PM

A truly wonderful report offwego- such a good way to help - finding out what will truly help and giving to the whole group of children is really nice rather than just handing out to beggars. Also buying the supplies there is not only practical but also a great help to the traders. Ponheary herself is wonderful and is a teacher so would really know whats what and I can't think of a better way to help - wish we had done that too. We will just have to go back - its a great country and wonderful experience.

CFW Jan 17th, 2006 06:47 PM

Very inspiring and encouraging to see what one person can do and the snowball effect it can have. We have not had Angkor in our travel plans, but your post made us re-think Cambodia if for no other reason than to make some contribution even in a small way.

offwego Jan 17th, 2006 07:25 PM

Our time in Siem Reap with Ponheary was the hardest yet most rejuvinating part of the three weeks we spent.

Thailand was fun, but Cambodia was rewarding. I'm thankful we found a way to squeeze it in. Do your best to do the same!

rhkkmk Jan 17th, 2006 07:30 PM

thank you for the start of your report...

eurotraveller Jan 17th, 2006 09:58 PM

offwego, it seems I remember you following me on my trip to Croatia last year. Was that you? I am sure I can find out if I click on your name but your username rings a bell.

Thanks for the trip report! I love the details you have provided!



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