Siem Reap, Cambodia: The Children in the Temples
By Victoria Cho
My throat burned as we approached another hill on our bikes, sweating and exhausted from the morning heat.
I had no idea how many kilometers remained but desperately hoped to see the temple’s peaks rising over the next hill, as my buttocks ached from the poorly padded bike that came free with our hostel room.
We carried on in the blistering sun as an Australian man my friend Nicole and I met last night led the way.
She and I held three-day Angkor Wat complex passes and would not be deterred by any temple’s distance. We were determined to maximize our pass use, considering its $40 price tag was equivalent to food for a week in Cambodia.
When we finally reached the temple, we noted its tall steep shape, which contrasted the widespread grounds of Cambodia’s most famous temple and one of the seven man-made wonders of the world, Angkor Wat.
Before entering, we ate at a nearby restaurant and declined the water, bracelets, scarves, bags of fruit, postcards, and key chains from the persistent children who made the usual difficult-to-verify claims of needing money for school.
In Cambodia, the children trail tourists around the temples and sprint towards any foreigner from maybe one-hundred feet away in hopes for a sale, for even one dollar can feed them for a day.
Children in Poverty
We climbed the massive grounds, paused at various tiers to admire the scenery, to meditate, to sit on the dusty, orange-colored stone foundation that permeated most of the Siem Reap’s landscape and was perhaps the origin of the deep reddish hue of Cambodian skin. More children approached; they demanded to pose in our pictures, placed grass-made rings over our fingers, or more blatantly, asked for dollars.
According to Lonely Planet, half of the country’s fifteen million population is under the age of fifteen.
The country’s poverty, corrupt government, and lack of resources result from a history of genocide, and from being victim to widespread carpet bombing during the American expansion of the Vietnam War.
Currently, in a dire struggle for food, education, health care, and employment, the country’s path to stability and a thriving population remains long and windy.
Yet, it is the same tumultuous and disastrous history that has cultivated a resilient national spirit, which will prove invaluable as the country progresses.
An Impromptu Reading Session
Nearly finished with our visit, I looked for Nicole and discovered her speaking to a group of children near a tin box behind the temple.
I immediately suspected the children’s attempt to hatch some scam and picked up speed. Upon closer inspection, I found Nicole was not holding out her wallet, but rather a pamphlet.
She explained the children came from a nearby orphanage and waved towards books…written in English. The children could speak and read in English. I peered over a child’s shoulder as he turned the pages of a book about a wolf.
Like most Cambodians, he had a small frame, rich brown skin, and wide-set large brown eyes. He was probably five years older than his appearance suggested. The children gathered around Nicole, who led a reading session.
She passed around the book for the children to take turns reading out loud and helped them with the difficult words. They told us their orphanage was only a few kilometers away and agreed to take us there when they were finished collecting donations.
We agreed to meet them later and follow them on our bikes to learn about this organization, which they explained provided them with housing, clothes, food, and classes.
Chres Village School and Orphanage had clean rooms, kind staff, and a patient, diligent director named Phat Fiphon.
The orphanage was started by his father and relies mostly on donations, volunteers, and sponsors.
When we arrived, approximately 40 children lived at the orphanage with more coming from other homes to attend the free classes offered in English, Chinese, Khmer, science, and geography.
After receiving a tour, Nicole and I offered to teach English classes, which Phat (or “Fi”) enthusiastically accepted. Nicole taught the older kids, who ranged from the eighteen to early twenties. I led a class of about forty-nine to eighteen-year-olds.
Nicole teaching the older students
Since both of us recently completed semesters teaching English in Thailand, we had practice creating impromptu lessons and working in a loosely structured organization (the head of the English department at my school had simply told me, “Just talk to them”).
The students were crammed at the desks donated from Singapore organizations and copied notes using the notebooks and pencils provided by the orphanage. Some of the taller students sat with knees awkwardly jutting out from behind their tiny desks, but all listened and worked hard.
I was extremely impressed by their knowledge of English, which surpassed some of my eighteen-year-olds in Thailand. I taught basic verb conjugation, while Nicole taught travel conversational phrases.
My students enjoyed a game that required them to ask each other questions using the conjugations they learned. They were particularly eager to write on the board, and a few advanced students, to my joy and my frustration, enjoyed shouting out answers before I finished the question.
During a break in class, we visited the hog pins in the back, and I saw the true enormity of a full-grown pig that was the size of a miniature pony. Fi explained the pigs are one of the orphanage’s main sources of income and took us to pens filled with pigs of all sizes.
A Need for Volunteers
After the lessons, we answered children’s questions, posed for pictures, and spoke to Fi, who explained the organization’s desperate need for volunteers like us and hoped to would see us again.
We hoped to see him again as well though the chances of us returning to Cambodia anytime in the near future or of us ever being able to volunteer anywhere long-term were slim.
He added us to a mailing list and asked us to tell others about his organization.
We wholeheartedly agreed, thanked the children, praised their efforts and their advanced comprehension of English, and wished everyone well.
They waved us goodbye as we rode away on dusty back roads towards our hostel, infused with joy by the knowledge we imparted and the smiles we created. We were ready to begin our next adventure.
Siem Reap has an international airport. If you’re already in SE Asia, you can take buses/boats to various border points. We took a bus from Bangkok, which was fairly smooth and extremely cheap (about $15) though the total travel time was about twelve hours.
Many travel sites discourage people from booking tickets at the travel agencies in Bangkok, which we did, but we made it safely and securely.
Trains are also another option from certain countries.
You can wait to get your Cambodian visa at the border and risk getting ripped off by the guard, or do what I did, which is to get it online: www.mfaic.gov.kh/e-visa/vindex.aspx
The online visa costs $25. Purchasing the visa at the border is supposed to cost $20.
Cambodia takes US dollars in addition to Riel. Often, you will find yourself paying in one currency and receiving change in another. Dollars are preferred.
If you do not want to enter the country with multiple currencies, you can bring dollars, as you will be surely accumulating Riel during your stay. Cambodian ATM’s also dispense dollars.
Cambodia’s most famous temple is a necessary visit. Tickets are purchased at a kiosk a few kilometers from the actual temple.
When we visited a few months ago, the prices were $20 for a one-day pass, $40 for a three-day pass, and $60 for a week-long pass.
As the temples are far apart and close at 5 PM, a one-day pass isn’t worthwhile. We felt our three-day pass was the perfect balance between seeing the major ones without growing too weary.
Chres Village School and Orphanage
The orphanage is in constant need of volunteers and donations. Its close proximity to the temples makes for an easy stop, and the General Secretary, Fi, always welcomes visitors and drop-in lessons. For questions or further information, please contact Fi:
Victoria Cho is a Brooklyn-based freelance and fiction writer who recently returned from teaching English and studying Buddhism in Thailand.