December 7, 2007
$1USD=$1USD (=4000 Riel)
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Day 4-Morning at Koh Ker School
Ponheary and Lori pick us up early in the van, with the back loaded with supplies. We head out of town on the road to Koh Ker stopping a couple of times. The first stop is to buy some coconut sticky rice. This roadside vendor is a favorite of Ponheary's and she buys about 10 of the bamboo sticks filled with cooked sweet rice and black beans. The rice is poured into the bamboo sticks and filled with coconut milk. It's then cooked over a long fire pit. After they are done, the outsides of the bamboo are shaved down with a machete, making it easy to peel apart. We also stop to buy bar soap for the school at the last large town along the way and stop at the toll both where there is a nice western style clean restroom. Oddly enough, after the toll booth the road gets worse, not better,
Scenes from the drive to Koh Ker...
Koh Ker School
We arrive at the school after about two and a half hours on the road. The school sits off the main road, about 1 k. down an oxcart track in the middle of nowhere. Much of this region is still heavily mined and is in the process of being cleared. The school itself sits literally in the middle of a cleared mine field and consists of three classrooms and an outhouse.
We had planned for some of our donation to go toward digging a well for the school as up until now they had been relying on rain water collected in shallow pools (see photo left).
The pools, dug behind the school, sit too close to the outhouse and are essentially big malaria breeding grounds covered in green algae.
Three days before our arrival, CMAC, the organization which clears the land mines, returned to the school and dug a well donated by a Japanese group called “Peace Boat”. Our first reaction, “Hey! That was our well!” gave way quickly to the realization that there was now more money available for the kids. The “malaria pits” are being filled in with dirt and the kids now have clean water. It’s a good thing.
This school is in stark contrast to the Knar school. To begin with, it is not a government sanctioned school, so it receives virtually no financial support from the Cambodian government. This means there are no official teachers; the two who are here today are volunteers from the village with no credentials other than they are people who have more education than most there (maybe secondary school, maybe not). The third teacher, the only one with a government credential had disappeared weeks before, leaving the 3rd and 4th graders with no one to teach them. There are no 5th and 6th grade classes yet.
Besides the uniforms and school books purchased with the money from our donation, we also have food and drinks for the kids. When we pass them out, most of the kids do not smile or say anything at all. Lori explains to me later that these kids are very malnourished and suffer from what she calls “general malaise”. She says the students at Knar School were much the same when they started there. What a difference two years and daily breakfast makes!
Because the other teacher disappeared, here are only 1st and 2nd graders here today. Put all your notions aside of what age “1st” and “2nd” grade is here in the US; there, the children could be any age in any grade and we see children up to the age of 10 or 12 in the 2nd Grade classroom. In addition to that, there are toddlers in the class; many of the students are responsible for caring for their younger siblings or face not being able to go to school so they bring them along. There are also an estimated 30% more who were absent due to it being harvest time and they were out in the fields working.
There quite a few of the parents here and this can sometimes prove to be a sticky situation as they often ask for food or clothing for themselves. It’s very hard to say no, but Ponheary is adamant that the foundation stick to it’s focus on the children. As it is, the kids are all given 5 packs of noodles; one to eat at school and the others to take home. They found that if they only gave one per child, they would not eat it, preferring to take it home to their family instead. We also passed out some extra flip flops to some of the moms.
During our day there, kids who had been absent on the first visit were measured for uniforms. Big wall clocks were given to the teachers for each classroom (so they could know when to start and end the day’s sessions) along with boxes of chalk, clothing and shoes for them, and extra food for the kids who were absent.
Lori had brought about a dozen Frisbees with her and near the end of our time at the school we take them out and show the kids how to throw them. It was a challenge for me to try to explain the concept of throwing the Frisbee “right side up” and “from you to him” (they all wanted to throw it back to me instead of each other) in pantomime.
Family portrait; the man in green is the one who started the school in his house. His wife, in purple is one of the volunteer teachers as is the man in the white shirt.
Village gossip; It was explained to us (through Ponheary) by some of the villagers that the the man and wife #1 were married for over ten years and could not have children, so he was encouraged to take another wife rather than divorce her. The woman sitting with the two children is the man in green's second "wife". Apparently the little boy in the red shorts acts as if wife #1 is his mother and all are "happy" with the situation.
Leaving Koh Ker School
So, about $450 of our donation was spent on the supplies for this day. What’s going to happen to the rest you ask? Good question. As of right now, the rest of our funds are slated to go for uniforms, supplies, a school garden and irrigation. This amount should help them make it through the rest of the school year to October 2008. After that, if the school shows improvement and the kids show progress, the PLF would like to continue to support them and will looking for further donations of about $2000 a year total.
In addition to this, their goal is to get the breakfast program up and running. The breakfast program puts food in the bellies of the kids who come to school making it easier for them to learn, and that means one less meal their parents need to provide them (extra incentive to send them to school).
For this to happen, the first plan of action is to build an outdoor kitchen which will cost around $600 for the structure and the stoves. Lori is hoping the first group of tourists who visited the school will sponsor a year of rice and canned fish for them since it’s next to impossible to get the World Food Program to donate the food to a non-government sponsored school.
One of the other hurdles is getting the wood for the cooking fires. In the other schools, the kids go out into the forest to gather wood, but they can’t do that there because of the land mines. The other obstacle is security; there is nowhere to safely store the big sacks of rice. However, a former student of Ponheary’s lives in the area and owns a restaurant; he has offered to store the rice and help the foundation buy it at a better price than they can get. So, we all have hopes that this program can get off the ground soon.
Koh Ker Temple
After leaving the school, we drive back out the road we came in on and head to Koh Ker Temple to check it out. This temple is not covered under the Angkor Temple pass and admission is $10 per person.
Lori has seen it before and decides to wait in the eating area and have some "liquid refreshment" while we tour the temple with Ponheary and Fifi.
I admit to being initially under whelmed by the temple. The exterior buildings are still in an interesting state of jumble and ruin, but after 4 days of temples, I think I may have hit overload
Then we come to a clearing and I look up and see this:
I was stunned. I've never seen a temple like this in Cambodia. It much more reminded me of temples I'd see in Honduras. I never knew there were pyramid style temples here. Ponheary tells us it's the same from all sides, no need to walk around it.
We walk though the walls surround it and my mother says, "I'm not climbing that". Apparently neither is Ponheary so I am on my own.
Feeling bold, I declare, "I'll do it!" and start the long walk across the courtyard area to the stairs. At the bottom, they suddenly look steeper than they did at a distance. I feel the need to conquer my fear and take a deep breath and start up. At the top I can see two tourists and their guide. They are the only other people here.
Up and up and up I climb. Suddenly I'm feeling shaky and out of breath. I realize I haven't eaten since early morning and it's early afternoon now. About 30 feet from the top I get to a point where the wood stairs disappear and become the original stone steps. Another 10 feet and suddenly the "steps" become almost vertical and it looks like I'll have to climb it like a ladder. I start to feel panicked and sit down.
The other tourists have passed me by now and tell me there's not much at the top except a flat space. Their guide is waiting for me to come up. I tell the nice man not to wait, I'm not going any farther. I decide the view is fine from where I am, snap a picture and start down. I'm just feeling too hot, shaky and weak to go to the top. While I feel like a bit of a wimp for not making it to the top "a la Rocky" I decide I can live with my decision.
View from my perch.
Love these stones jumbled like giant pick-up sticks.
Out in front of the temple, I'm so hungry now I think I might pass out so we decide to get some food at one of the outdoor restaurants flanking the entrance. Lori is waiting in the shade at one so we go there.
The cooking set up is pretty rudimentary. I choose to ignore the questionable hygiene issues here and pray that everything is well-cooked.
My mother orders some pork with ginger and I order the same with chicken. At some point there is a bit of a commotion at the cooking area as one of the bowls of cut meat has fallen to the ground. After about 20 minutes they come back and tell us they have no more chicken (surprise!) so we just decide to share mom's dish. It turns out to be really good. The fresh ginger is excellent. Lunch costs $4 including two drinks.
After we leave Koh Ker temple Ponheary asks us if we want to see one more temple, Baeng Melea. Since we know nothing about this temple, we hesitate, tired and overwhelmed by the day. On the other hand, we are here, and this is a temple which very few tourists get to visit, so we decide to go.
The entrance to the temple costs $5 per person and we hand our money to some seemingly random "official" who gives us no ticket or receipt. I mention that I'd like a ticket as a souvenir and the driver has them waiting for us when we return.
As we walk in, we see the CMAC sign showing where the mines have been cleared as recently as 3 months ago. That's a little nerve-wracking, isn't it?
Once we get to the temple entrance, I decide that I have to go to the bathroom before we go inside. Unfortunately, there are none. Ooops. However, there's a house on the grounds nearby and Ponheary and I walk over to it. She asks the man sitting on the porch if there's a place we can go and he gestures to the area behind his garden. I can say from experience, there's nothing quite like taking a nature-pee out in the bush in Cambodia while worrying about mosquitoes, snakes and land mines not to mention the fear of having my naked rear on display.
The temple is still in a state of jumbled ruin and decay. However, sometime last year a movie was shot here and some elevated walkways were constructed. These cover only about 1/3 of the complex, but give an interesting vantage point from which to view the carvings and architecture from above.
Once we reach the end of the walkway, Ponheary asks us if we want to go further, noting that it might be difficult in places as we will have to climb up, over and through the ruins. Do we want to go? Of course!
With us is one of the "temple guardians", a smiling young woman who takes our hand and steadies us through the difficult parts. I feel like Indiana Jones and by the end, I think this is my favorite temple experience of the trip.
Later that evening, back in Siem Reap, we have a last dinner with Lori at a restaurant called Carnete de Asie. The setting is very pretty, outside with twinkling lights and reflecting pool. It's part restaurant, part art gallery with a striking photography exhibit of photos of Indian transvestites and another one on the conflicts of Kashmir. The food is decent, but not outstanding and afterward we take one last walk through the Night Market before going back to the hotel.
|Thailand and Cambodia Intro|
|Thai Air LAX to BKK|
|Bangkok Day 1|
Siem Reap-Koh Ker School
The road becomes unpaved about half way through the trip.
Old water source, above.
New well below.
Waiting for new uniforms...
Workbooks in Khmer
Proud mother and daughter.
The bull's head.
Me, at the bottom.
Where they wash the dishes.
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