Day 54 | Researching Angkor civilization and experiencing life in a Siem Reap slum

We spent most of the day learning about the Angkor civilization at Siem Reap’s Angkor National Museum so that we could better appreciate Angkor Wat and the other temples we will visit for the next two and half days. After that we visited a school in a Siem Reap slum where we met Cambodian kids. We ended the day on a happy note with tasty pizzas and a quick evening walk back to our hotel.

We started the day with a very nice breakfast at our hotel’s restaurant. The a la carte menu had both Western and Asian options and we opted for the Asian ones. We also got a nice sample plate of exotic fruits.

By 9 AM, we were out and ready to explore Siem Reap by foot. Check out our hotel’s beautiful lobby.

Sarai Resort & Spa's lobby during the day

We crossed the Siem Reap River and walked on 2 Thnou Street. It’s a very touristy street with lots of restaurants, souvenir shops, cafes and spas. We passed by a fish spa with a very large tank filled with much bigger fishes than the ones who fed from our feet’s dead skin cells in Chiang Mai. We will have to try it out if we have some extra time! A little later, we saw a street sign advertising for a bar named “Yolo Bar”. We had to go check it out right away! The bar was located on a small street perpendicular to the main one and pretty easy to spot with its colorful graffiti. We both posed in front of it and also took some not so great selfies.

Posing in front of the Yolo Bar in Siem Reap

We came back to the main street and walked towards the Angkor National Museum. We thought it would help us better appreciate Angkor Wat and the other temples in the next two days if we first learned about the Angkor civilization and Khmer history.

On our way to the museum, we stopped by a travel agency to purchase tickets for the Phare Cambodian Circus, an attraction highly recommended by one of the two British people that we met while on the bat cave tour in Battambang.

As we were one large block away from the museum’s entrance, a tuk tuk driver called us. He asked where we were going and upon hearing our response, he tried to scam us, in a very obvious way. He claimed that we were going in the wrong direction (we were not) and also that we could not buy tickets at the museum itself (a complete lie). He added that for just $1 he would take us to the right place from where we can buy tickets. That guy really had no shame. Of course we declined and kept walking.

On our way I spotted a tree that immediately reminded me of the photoshoot we did of Lulu back in New York, a few weeks before leaving for our Asia trip. I tried to replicate her pose, see the resemblance?

Copying Lulu's famous pose on a Y tree

We got to the museum at 10:45 AM and purchased tickets as well as audio tours. We have been really pleased with the quality of audio tours in Cambodia so far and for a museum such as this one, it seemed important to learn more about the background behind statues and other exhibits.

We started our tour on the second floor. After watching a short introduction movie about the museum, we entered the One Thousand Buddhas gallery room, a room filled with… one thousand statues (we actually tested the count by approximating) representing Buddha in various forms. The statues were from several different centuries and were made of different materials, from bronze to wood, from clay to stone.

Statues inside the One Thousand Buddhas gallery

Next we went through the other galleries on the floor, including one that focused on the history of the Khmer Empire starting with its foundation. We relied heavily on the content in our audio tours to better appreciate the exhibits. We finished with the second floor and passed by the beautiful pool in the middle of the museum.

Pool inside the Angkor National Museum

Downstairs, Mimi got to pose in front of her favorite statues representing elephants (but only after chanting the infamous “We love elephants” mantra).

Elephant statues inside the Angkor National Museum

There was also a room dedicated to the evolution of the Khmer script over centuries, with a table showing the successive versions of each character of the script as centuries passed. The room also had stones with ancient Khmer inscriptions on them. At least one of the stones was dated from the 6th century. It’s impressive to see that they were able to preserve this in such a good state all the way through present time.

Khmer inscriptions on an ancient stone

Another cool gallery focused on Angkor Wat specifically and in particular on the temple’s architecture. The highlight of that gallery was a very realistic model of Angkor Wat temple located in a large circular room that was also featuring a very well done short movie about the temple and the equinox phenomenon.

At the end of our visit, we stopped by the museum store where Mimi bought an elephant shaped pencil holder made of recycled metal. She really is obsessed with those fat pachyderms! We then left the museum around 4 PM.

With no specific plan for the rest of the day, we walked back in the direction of the city center. We passed in front of the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, the second Raffles hotel we saw on our trip after walking inside the Raffles in Singapore.

Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap

In front of the building was a perfectly manicured garden that belonged to the Raffles. As we walked through it, we saw a man walking towards us with a binder. I immediately spotted him and whispered to Mimi: “Be careful, this guy is about to try scamming us!”. Of course he stopped us and introduced himself. He said he was an English teacher in a tiny school in a nearby village that he and another guy had founded a few years back. He added that he was trying to collect money for building a roof over the classroom, so that kids could go to class even when it rains. His English was excellent but that was not enough to convince us. However he had a binder with plenty of pictures of him with the school kids in what looked like a classroom. Some of the pictures also had foreigners on them that he presented as past or recurring donors. He also had a donation list with names and emails of recent donors. With this additional evidence, we went from being totally skeptical to just unsure of the veracity of his claim. I thought the only way to know if he was sincere was to ask him to take us to the school so we could see it and the kids with our own eyes. If it’s all just a scam, he would find an excuse to not be able to honor my request, I thought. But to my surprise, he accepted. He said he just had his motorbike but that the two of us could sit on the back with him. The ride would only take a few minutes, he added. We were convinced. We gave him a $20 bill and hopped on his motorbike.

For both of us, it was our first time riding an actual motorbike (to go with our first time riding an e-bike in Bagan). A little scary at first but he drove carefully and there wasn’t much traffic at that time of the day. As he promised, less than ten minutes later we stopped at the entrance of a small community. And as he said, there was a classroom with benches, tables, a whiteboard and no roof.

Class room in a Siem Reap slum

With the exception of some of the communities living around the Yangon Circular Railway in Myanmar, this place was definitely the filthiest and poorest place we saw on our trip so far. The people lived in shacks made of wood and corrugated metal. Trash was everywhere. The inside of one of the habitations had old stinky mattresses laid directly on the floor and no electricity. Young men were working on extracting scrap metal from old office computers and printers, with the help of little kids.

Collecting scrap metal from old computers

In the back, a group of about a dozen kids aged four to twelve were playing and running around. We walked towards them. Our host asked one of them that he presented as one of his best students to practice his English skills with us and to sing the ABC. The little boy was very shy at first but eventually accepted.

After that we took a few pictures of and with the kids. Some of the more shy ones stayed on the side.

Mimi and I with kids from a Siem Reap slum

Another shot of the group. All of them were happy to see foreigners in their village and many had a big smile on their face and were following us around while laughing discreetly.

Group of kids in a Siem Reap slum

We also saw even younger kids – perhaps not even three years old – play with a bunch of large plastic jugs that were probably going to be reused or resold by the adults.

Three years old kids playing with plastic jugs

We asked the teacher if some of those kids were orphans and he said some have no parent at all, others have only one parent, and some are lucky enough to have both parents.

Then we came back next to the open air classroom and he asked if we wanted to make another donation to help the orphans. There was a donation box next to the white board with a few envelopes sealed inside it. We asked what the donations in that box were for and he answered that the money was both to support orphans and to build the roof. We were not clear on what our first donation was for then and he said it was for miscellaneous school expenses such as buying pens or notepads for the kids. His explanations were confusing and did not make much sense to us, but seeing the kids around us, we felt like we had to donate once more. I put a second $20 bill in an envelope and asked one of the kids to drop it into the donation box for us. My apologies for Mimi ruining the audio track of this otherwise touching video with her annoying laugh!

After that we saw a couple of really adorable puppies come next to the kids who then started playing with them. I think Mimi had a cuteness overload.

It was almost 5 PM then, and we asked the teacher if we could stay around until the evening class (which he told us was every day at 5:30 PM). We really wanted to see the kids learning at school. It’s not like we had anything better to do. Unfortunately he said he had to meet with another foreign donor to buy books and other school supplies. He added that he didn’t want to leave us alone in the village with no other English speaking adult around us. We did not insist although we were quite disappointed. He said he would pick us up from our hotel tomorrow and bring us back to the school so we could attend the kids’ English class then. Mimi and him exchanged email addresses. Before leaving, I had a session of high fives with three of the boys under the amused eyes of elderly women behind us.

The teacher drove us back to Siem Reap on his motorbike, we thanked him for the authentic experience and asked him to email us to arrange the details for tomorrow. We felt pretty happy that we contributed to a good cause and wanted to celebrate by getting pizzas for early dinner. We were hungry too since we skipped lunch (yolomimo style).

On our way to the restaurant, we started doubting however. What if it was a very elaborate scam after all? A few things in particular contributed to our doubts:

  • On the classroom’s whiteboard, the English lesson consisted of the alphabet letters with a word for each letter (“A -> Apple”, “B -> Ball”, etc.) Who learns a language like that?
  • His explanations for the two types of donations were very confusing and we felt pressured to give a second time.
  • He really did not want us to stay an extra half hour for the evening class to start even though we could have easily found a tuk tuk to get back to the city on our own.

We decided not to think too much about it and just enjoy the rest of our evening. Tomorrow we should know whether it was a scam or not depending on if he emails us or not! For dinner, we chose Happy Special Pizza, a restaurant with reasonable prices and excellent TripAdvisor reviews.

In front of Happy Special Pizza

We ordered fruit juices and two large pizzas. I was much more hungry than Mimi so I ended up eating about two thirds of the total number of slices. We both loved the pizzas.

Happy pizza with fine herbs

We left the restaurant and walked around town towards our hotel. We bought some snacks at a local supermarket just in case we got the munchies later in the evening. It was just 6 PM after all! We walked on Pub Street, a central street very popular with tourists who like to come there to relax after visiting the Angkor temples for the entire day.

Pub Street in Siem Reap

We crossed the Siem Reap River once more. It was beautiful at night with all the colorful lights glowing in the dark.

Glowing lights over Siem Reap River

We got back to our hotel before 7 PM and where greeted by a staff member that suddenly talked to us in Burmese, “Mingalaba” he said to us as we walked through the outside entrance. We ended the day the same way we started it, with a picture of our hotel’s lobby but at night this time.

Sarai Resort & Spa's lobby at night

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