4.2 million tourists came to Cambodia in 2013—most stayed 3 days and 2 nights—the minimum time required to get a rushed overview of the ancient kingdom of Angkor Wat and a few Khmer meals in Siem Reap.
Rush hour on the Angkor Causeway any time of the day
Chinese and Koreans use umbrellas to “stay white”
Reese and I received a 30-day “visa on arrival” by bus from Bangkok and we discovered a whole world not covered in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Our month inspired this post as a response to a Mar 8, 2014 Huffington Post article, “Why You Should Take Bali Off Your Bucket List”.
This is “Why You Should Add Cambodia to Your Bucket List: Stay Awhile and Volunteer”.
The difference for us was intel from Steve Grace.
The Back Story:
During the 1980’s we were both writer–producers for NBC’s Today Show. In 1988 I attended his wedding in St. Louis. Two years after I left New York the second time, Steve also moved to Boulder, Colorado [in 2009], to become the executive director of Colorado University’s President’s Leadership Council [an honors program annually guiding 200 freshmen].
Steve, my wife Reese,
Steve Grace and Reese Murphy
and I sat in a sports bar in 2012 and watched the Colorado Buff’s basketball team win the Pac-12 tournament for CU’s first March Madness in decades. Then he slipped off our radar until Facebook posts began to emerge from Siem Reap, Cambodia, where he established the infrastructure for Angkor Expeditions–White Water Rafting on the Siem Reap River through the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park.
Boyd Matson [the Today Show correspondent who was my “suite mate” for a month in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia before and during the 1984 Olympics; but, probably better known as the host for National Geographic TV] had previously been here with Steve as his tour guide.
Boyd Matson & Steve Grace
Reese and I had looked forward to having a friend in one of the 7 countries on our SE Asia tour. Then, we got a call from Steve Monday, July 19, while in Bangkok saying he just accepted a new job in Saigon and would be leaving Friday. So we scrambled … finished some dental work and arrived by 7-hour bus at 5 PM Wednesday.
Ironically, I received a message from Boyd Matson asking if I was going to be in Boulder Friday. He was coming to visit his son Taylor who had graduated from Colorado University.
Back to the Present:
Steve met us at the station and took us first to our hotel, then for a quick pre-sunset drive through Angkor Wat Archaeological Park and then to dinner. Over the course of 2 dinners and 2 morning coffees, we received his verbal download and his “Things To Do in Siem Reap” spreadsheet. He talked us off the ledge of buying a 7-day Angkor Wat pass and instead connecting with a strong and supportive expatriate community that embraced us for 30 days as we crossed Viet Nam off our August calendar. Instead, his guidance allowed us to morph into 30 days of rejuvenation, connection with beings who would become friends-for-life and a kinder, gentler tour strategy for the temples.
We would quickly discover that the largest temple area is Angkor Thom, a 9 km square with entrance gates in the 4 cardinal directions plus the “Victory Gate”.
The Four Directions are the foundations for all the temples, ritual ceremonies and now the basis for our bucket list:
1] West: River Garden Inn
The River Garden Inn is West of the Siem Reap River [North of the landmark Old Market].
Siem Reap River in front of the River Garden Inn
Just 200 yards from his apartment, this most-frequent morning coffee stop for Steve was where he was sitting when he received a call from the place where we had reservations. “They” were calling to say that they were “shutting down for renovations”. Deb Saunders is an Australian who moved to Cambodia 7 years ago and created her dream of the
Steve introduces us to Deb Saunders
the River Garden Inn. She immediately stepped up and gave us a deal during this, “the rainy season”, to stay in her rainforest with a salt water swimming pool.
Garden from the River to the Pool
Fountain by the Pool
The first evidence of “something different going on here in Siem Reap” is that the pool is “free” to her Khmer neighbors and ex-pats if they simply purchase “one drink”.
The menu’s at River Garden carry Deb’s message: “We’re here because Cambodians are such wonderful people. They are honest, gracious, respectful and a joy to be amongst. We’re lucky to be here”.
The other stark contrast from the West is that Deb’s Khmer staff is nearly all under 25 years of age.
“Khmer 25” Staff
Steve explained that ten years ago the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia remarked that 75% of the population was 25 or younger.
Cambodians have a glorious past [as long as one thousand years ago and as recently as in the 1960’s in Phnom Penh] and recent tragedy going to hell and back. President Nixon ordered B-52 “carpet bombings” that wiped out 250-350,000 people. The Khmer Rouge then killed 25% of all Cambodians between 1975-1979 [see “Khmer Rouge Convictions” August 17 below]. That was followed by the civil war through the 80’s. The 1990’s task was to identify and defuse land mines around the whole country including the Angkor Wat temples [Remember the charitable work of Princess Diana].
Wikipedia estimates that there were 60,000 to 80,000 Buddhist monks in the early 1970’s. Some escaped to Thailand. Less than 1,000 survived the slaughter.
Baby Boomers in Cambodia, the souls who quickly reincarnated after their great war, began to appear in 1992. The monks are back.
Monks walking across the river
Blessing a store and owner
Back to the 25’s:
On the placemat at our table, Deb describes what she calls her “Twenty-Five Khmer Staff”:
“Nearly all of our staff are under 25 years of age. They’re all studying, getting married, having children or contributing to extended family. We try to support and accomodate them in a safe and happy work environment”.
Everyone’s name tag includes one word added to their names by “Madam”.
Sima [often forgot her name tag]
Steady and always available was “Patient Phim” …
And “Service Sihong” who instantaneously became “Sassy” to us.
We renamed Chea, “Sunshine” partly because she leaves home before the sun rises to ride her bicycle 5.4 miles from her home near the Prasat Kravan Temple in order to arrive at work every morning at 6:45 AM .
Friday morning Steve came to say goodbye.
Steve Grace, Reese Murphy and me
After Steve left, we did not leave the hotel grounds for 48 hours.
Then on Facebook July 28, a picture appeared of Boyd Matson and his son at the summit of their hike up Mt. Sneffels.
Taylor and Boyd Matson
Boyd was in Colorado. Steve was in Saigon. We were in Cambodia.
2] North: Sunday Morning Trekking Club–A Strong and Supportive Ex-Pat Community
Two doors North of the River Garden is “1961”, an art gallery on one side
Chinese Art Gallery [lower left]
and an office hub primarily frequented by ex-pats from multiple countries.
Steve suggested we team up with Stephane De Greef and fully recommended his Sunday Morning Trekking Club.
Stephane De Greef
Stephane is a Belgian cartographer, photographer, guide [for Boyd Matson’s National Geographic adventure] and data cruncher ; but, we primarily know him as the “Indiana Jones of Insects and Spiders”. Verification: 90% of his 95,732 digital photos are bugs.
a.k.a Bug Man
He takes friends and visiting associates for a 6 AM Sunday trek through the jungle beginning just north of Angkor Thom.
Sunday Morning Trekking Club
For our Sunday morning, we were joined by Kurt Xu, impresario of 1961.
Also above in the peach shirt
Two Chinese students volunteered to work for one month with a photographer at 1961. They were able to stay at the River Garden for a discounted rate arranged through conCERT, another NGO supporting environmentalism and responsible tourism.
Valeria is a Russian fashion model who moved to Siem Reap 3 years ago to work for a travel agency.
This hike turned out to be our introduction to the Kingdom of Angkor Wat. Imagine trekking through the woods and coming out to see the South entrance of Preah Khan just the way French explorers discovered it circa 1914 [see Reese’s 17 August post about Preah Khan, “Heaven on Earth“].
Approaching Preah Khan
Preah Khan South entrance
We saw contemporary Cambodians fishing what used to be the moat of Angkor Thom.
Stephane informed us that the ants
and termites were actually more dangerous than Angkor snakes.
Of all the trees in the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, Stephane actually knows which one is the largest,
Our brigade passed through the North Gate.
We walked along the northeast wall of Angkor Thom
where we saw the source of the largest vine in the Park.
and the length of it’s extension.
And we were actually introduced to a “bleeding tree”. He took out his keys and made a vertical cut and instantly, this one started to bleed.
We exited through the North Gate gate; but not without seeing some of the real tourism crowd.
Preview of the temples
Alternative ways of getting there
$15 Elephant Rides
Elephant “Airport” Boarding Area
With such an introduction to the archaeological park, Reese and I postponed the purchase of our ticket into Angkor Wat for another two weeks while we sunk back into the nourishing River Garden rainforest.
We would also discover that there are other ex-pat groups on Facebook, Siem Reap Ex-Pats.
Before going to the temples, we chose to explore some of the recommended non-profit ventures.
3] East: Touch a Life
Wednesday morning we took a tuk-tuk across the river to the home of Mavis Ching, Four mornings each week her house is also the setting for Touch A Life.
Quite simply, on Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Friday’s, Mavis along with a paid staff of Khmers plus many traveling volunteers and a few ex-pat regulars, prepare over 5,000 meals a month and feed children.
Reese prepared a coconut vegetable curry for 120.
Reese Stirs the Pot
Coconut vegetable curry
Then each Saturday, 670 meals are prepared and delivered to villages near Angkor Wat [see “Touch A Life” below posted 20 August].
These 4 girls go to school until 11:30 AM and then get their bikes and hunt for plastic and card board to earn money from the recycling center.
There is an “accepted exploitation” at the schools. Teachers earn $100 per month. It is commonly known that their income is supplemented by charging extra fees to students for their classes. Kids pay 5 cents per day just to park their bikes at school.
While they waited for leftovers. they drew pictures.
Unexpectedly, this one was for us.
They wait to get bags of left over’s to take home so their families can eat.
And then they are off to work.
4] South: ConCERT & Sister Srey Café [Friday]
After we moved to be closer to the Old Market, the first place we went was to Sister Srey Cafe for breakfast.
next to the Buddhist Temple
While Banteay Srei is the “Citadel for Women”, Sister Shrey is actually two Australian sisters who created a “Citadel for Temple Boys” [for the explanation, see Reese’s 17 August post, “Serving Humanity from the Heart of the Universe”].
Everyone knows that a good barista remembers a patron’s drink.
Sister Lauren hugging her barista
Here, Mr. Grace is known as “Steve Americano”.
One of the first NGO’s to fund themselves by opening a restaurant was the Sister Srey Café.
It is also a portal into the clearing house for many other restaurants and hotels that have united for this central purpose:
ConCERT “Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism” is anot-for-profit social enterprise based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our vision is a Cambodia free of poverty; our mission is to turn people’s good intentions into the best possible help for the most vulnerable people in Cambodia.
New Leaf Book Cafe
5] Victory Gate: Beatocello [Saturday Night + Thursday’s in High Season]
We passed by the sign
Free Concert Saturday
in front of Kanta Bopha Children’s Hospital
every time we entered Angkor Wat; but, did not go to the free Saturday concert until our last weekend.
Quite simply, this block of Charles DeGaulle Boulevard is the Victory Gate of the 21st Century.
If there can be a victory in Cambodia’s recent history, it is the lifetime achievement work of a man better know as “Beatocello”. He is the synthesis of Dr. Albert Schweitzer and the Mother Theresa. This pediatrician has saved the lives of countless thousands of children.
Steve told us this was a “must-see” night of a cello solo, a French documentary and appeal for funding and blood donations.
The Beatocello Trailer on YouTube does not reflect justice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6XNFdbn0Rw
Dr. Beat Richner is a Swiss pediatrician, cellist and founder of 5 children’s hospitals in Cambodia. As edited from Wikipedia, he is a cellist and a medical doctor known by patients, audiences, and donors as “Beatocello”.
Beatocello, street musician
After receiving his medical degree in 1973, Dr. Beat Richner specialized in pediatric care at the Zurich Children’s Hospital. Working for the Swiss Red Cross, he was sent to Cambodia where he worked at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh in 1974 and 1975.
Dr. Beat Richner with patient
The hospital was named in memory of the daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk who died at a very young age (1948–1952).
When the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia, he was forced to return to Switzerland where he continued his work at the Zurich Children’s Hospital. In the process of pursuing his medical career and with an interest in music and entertainment, Dr. Richner developed the character of “Beatocello”, an artistic and comedic clown who played the cello.
Richner also published many children’s books based on “Beatocello”.
In December 1991, Richner returned to Cambodia and saw the devastation that had taken place following the ensuing conflicts with the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam.
He was asked to re-open and re-build Kantha Bopha by the Cambodian government. Creating the Kantha Bopha Foundation in March, 1992, Richner officially returned to Cambodia to begin reconstruction. Kantha Bopha was reopened in November, 1992. The foundation has funded the expansion of Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals to include five hospitals.
Currently, of the 2,500 Kantha Bopha staff members, Dr. Richner alongside the head pathologist Dr. Denis Laurent, are the only expatriate staff members employed at the hospitals.
The Kantha Bopha hospitals treat half a million children per year free of charge. Japanese encephalitis, malaria, dengue fever and typhoid are common, often exacerbated by the presence of Tuberculosis. TB is the number one killer affecting 65% of the population. Kanta Bopha has decreased the infant mortality rate from 6.5% to an astonishingly low 0.3%.
The hospitals are primarily funded by donations from individuals in Switzerland where Richner is somewhat of an icon. He was named “Swiss of the Year” in 2003.
As “Beatocello”, Richner performs free concerts at the Jayavarman VII hospital in Siem Reap on Thursday and Saturday nights, during the high season. The evenings include songs, played on his cello, and talks on the health crisis in Cambodia.
Dr. Beat Richner
He asks the young tourists for blood, the older tourists for money, and the ones in between for both.
The Foundation has raised $370 million. Kanta Bopha Children’s Hospital is the Victory Gate for the 21st century.
Dr. Beat Richner is the Albert Schweitzer of the 21st century and the Mother Theresa of Cambodia!
Saved from the ambitious plan of spending 7 days at the temples, there was more space for reflections on the personal impact of Angkor Wat [September post, …] and the 5 key questions provoked by our month in the kingdom [September post, “Cambodian Temples for your Bucket List”.