Where on earth is Banteay Chmar?
The great thing about being around a ton of tourists and expatriate workers is that if you need something, it becomes exponentially easier to find it. In this case, we were in a bar called “Angkor What?” on Pub Street in Siem Reap when we met a really kind lad from Belgium who was working there as a waiter. He asked us what we were doing next, and I told him that I was picking out places on the map where there were huge swaths of green and few towns. After Angkor Wat, I decided I wanted a little more of a secluded adventure. I asked this young fellow if he heard of this place or that place. He said, no, but his girlfriend had been in country for a long time. She recommended a couple places, including Banteay Chmar, a very secluded northern village with another 12th century wat.
We left Siem Reap at about 7 AM to head to Banteay Chmar, which lies about 200 Km to the northwest. The ride was relatively uneventful, but there were a couple highlights, particularly when we saw all the school children on their motorbikes headed to class. Imagine streams of thousands of children between the ages of eight and thirteen taking over the streets, swarming and buzzing like a particularly densely packed and loud swarm of bees! And then, you look a little closer and these little ones are wearing their school uniforms as they ride like bikers going to the big Harley rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Mind you, I take these kids a lot more seriously than so many American “bikers” who truck their bike between towns so they can ride to the bar from the hotel. These little kids, like most Cambodians, really do “live to ride, ride to live.” Little motorbikes are integral to life here. Cars are in the periphery in this country.
I wished so badly to pull over and capture the shot of all the little boys and girls riding in their school uniforms, but sometimes I make choices about safety first in spite of the fact that it pains me to deprive my dear few readers of visual images. Nonetheless, it just wasn’t safe to pull over. And so we motored on until both Shalma and I decided we were hungry. Cambodia isn’t littered with familiar places to eat, so you are always kind of rolling the dice. As we came into one tiny village I saw a man with a sandwich cart attached to the side of his bicycle. I pulled in front of him, waved him down, and we ordered a couple of the typical Cambodian sandwiches, which seem to include a combination of a uniquely Southeast Asian version of paté and bits of pig snout. the sandwiches cost us about 35 cents each.
Shalma has a lot of trouble with the bits of pig, and to a degree I do too. I don’t like eating the unclean animal, and I certainly hate eating anything as smart as a dog. If I had my way, I would probably be a vegan. I tried it once, and it really didn’t work for me, and so here I am bathing in my own hypocrisy. For Shalma, it is a little different; coming from Iran, pork is haram (unsanctioned, unclean, etc.) under Islam. She isn’t religious, but the culture that she grew up in kept her from developing a taste for pork. Having said that, her mom told me that they have cousins in Iran who hunt and eat the plentiful wild boar there. Anyway, the point I am making is that we are kind of eating what is available to us. A lot of times, it isn’t exactly our first choice, and I think vegetarians would suffer greatly in certain parts of Cambodia. I cannot imagine how a vegan would survive outside of larger cities like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.
After our breakfast sandwich we continued, but I still hadn’t had coffee and it was making me a wee bit grumpy. We stopped in another small village just as the monks were coming around doing prayers and collecting offerings. I had a cup of Khmer coffee with sweet condensed milk, gave the monks some dough, and was ready to hit the road. Shalma pointed out that the locals seemed rather amused that I gave offerings to the monk. I actually didn’t notice their reactions at all. I may have tuned it out. At this point I have been in enough remote villages that I am kind of used to the curiosity. Most tourists are traveling by busses, all of which pretty much stop in the same spots. On a motorbike, we go on roads and stop at places where the busses do not go. Needless to say, I stand out in these places for my size, blond hair, blue eyes, and tattoos. Fortunately, Khmer people are relatively discreet about checking you out. Shalma sees it more than I do.
As we continued north on the last leg of our journey (it was a little over 3 hours), the landscape became incredibly rural. The rice paddies were still in place, but now they were joined by other plants, especially cassava (another staple crop). The land became more rugged and the road rougher, although still paved. Cars and motorbikes gave way to women and men herding cattle and water buffalo down an elevated road. In no time at all, we were the only ones on the road who were neither cow nor master. The people and villages became fewer. And then we turned into this small village, and we were at our destination. To be honest, we actually didn’t know we had arrived because there isn’t much there, but then we began seeing the remains of an ancient temple.
There is a moat with ancient sculpted rail of men or deities pulling some kind of rope. I don’t know what this means, only that it is a common theme in the entrance to ancient Khmer temples.
Shalma and I rode the xr into the temple grounds. The administration of the temple is an informal operation, to say the least. There is indeed someone there to take money in the odd chance a foreigner comes along, which isn’t incredibly often. I paid two dollars after Shalma and I entered. We were both very excited to see this place and almost had forgotten that we had not secured a place to stay for the night. When we pulled around the temple we saw two young Western-looking fellows who were eyeballing us. They seemed genuinely surprised to see us. They turned out to be volunteers from Spain, and they were helping to clean up the grounds by pulling weeds an such . I asked them if there was any place to stay around there, and they told me there was. They were finishing work for the day and told me that they would lead me somewhere to acquire lodging. Shalma decided to stay and hang out at the temple while I took care of the formalities.
At this point, I thought maybe we would be staying in perhaps the one tiny bed-and-breakfast in that town. It turns out, there is no bed-and-breakfast there. The Spanish lads took me to the village community center. There I learned that all the tourism in Banteay Chmar is community-based. There are no hotels; you stay in traditional Khmer stilt houses with a local family. Most of the homes are down a rough dirt road. They are packed together in almost a random order. The homes are simple, made of very plain wooden slats. There are no glass windows, only open windows with shutters you can close in case of a storm.
Above you can see a couple pictures of our room. In order to maintain community-based tourism they offer mosquito nets, which are are better than gold when you’re a delicious foreigner. I am still waiting to see if I contracted malaria on this trip, but I am hoping the precautions will save me.
After securing our room for $7, plus another $4 per person for our dinners that night, I made my way back to Shalma at the temple. She was sitting there and managing to have a leisurely conversation with the men who were working on the grounds. When left to her own devices, Shalma will charm and make polite conversation with just about anyone, even people who speak almost no English. She has some fantastic qualities, and that is one of my favorites!
There is a small stand within the temple grounds that sells food and beverages. Shalma and I decided to get something to drink before exploring. This was the perfect opportunity to have a beer in the jungle, and I couldn’t resist it. Shalma had a Coca-Cola, and we shared some water. After sitting there for a while, another foreigner arrived. He started talking to the numerous children in Khmer and ordered some satay skewers and hard boiled eggs in the local language as well. We were impressed by his linguistic skills. He struck up a conversation with us, and we discovered he is French and called Paul. He told us that he runs a local silk production place that empowers women and invited us to take a tour the next day. We had a nice conversation with him, and he gave us some tips about local places to explore.
Shalma and I headed into the temple. I turned to take a picture of her, and right then a little guy jumped into the picture with her. I see serious issues with people who go into the Peace Corps (or similar missions) and end up spending the entire time using children as photo ops, props, and tourist attractions. I reluctantly post these pictures as I do not wish to be exploitative. In this case, however, they kind of rushed the photo, so I am including the picture. Otherwise, you would see no pictures of children posted by me.
The little kids seemed pretty excited to see Shalma and really wanted to impress her. They, using makeshift sign language, asked us if we wanted to see three big things in the temple. We agreed, and we were off to explore this space. These are the best tour guides you could ever ask for, and probably the best in all of Cambodia. Where is their Trip Advisor page? They reminded me of when I was a little guy; I had explored all the wild spaces around my home and knew the area better than any adult. I am positive these little fellas are the foremost experts on temple topography. They took us through tunnels and through small areas of the collapsed ruins, and they even showed me some kind of giant chameleon lizard. Below is a gallery of pictures from the temple. Note how the jungle has reclaimed so much of this once-civilized space.
The kids did a fantastic job, and they were hilarious with their antics the entire time. They would try to impress Shalma by breaking twigs over their forearms as a show of strength. They seemed very keen on showing her how fast they could run down a mound of giant stones or how far they could jump from one stone to another. Periodically, they would also tackle one another. There was a point when one boy was on standing on another boy’s shoulders to pick a bit of fruit. Then, a third boy kicked the child on the bottom, and they all came tumbling down with a great roar of laughter!
Our little tour guides showed us every nook of this temple complex. Shalma suggested that we buy the four of them a soda for their trouble. I was concerned that maybe it would be against their parents’ wishes, but then remembered I am not in the US. Just as she was saying this, another two boys joined the group, and the roughhousing intensified. Shalma said, “Buy sodas only for our original four boys!” She didn’t mean it in a bad way, she just had developed such an affection, and the new boys were indeed interlopers. But I said, “You cannot do that with boys; I will buy all of them a soda.”
We took the little guys to the food and beverage stand, and they each picked out a soda. The lady who operated the establishment yelled at them to not take advantage by getting the most expensive stuff. All the boys walked away with a can of Sprite and gave us a thank you in Khmer. They climbed up onto a large rock within sight, sat down and enjoyed the familiar ritual that men have after a job well done. Shalma pointed out, “Boys are exactly the same wherever you go. They play, try to impress girls, and then kick back and have a beer, or in this case, soda.” Seeing the boys on the rock was so very familiar to me and filled me with thoughts and memories that harken back to my own childhood. I realized how few children I have had in my life, but also how sweet such similar childhood times were with friends. Being a little boy can be a truly exciting and satisfying experience.
A Little More Exploring
The gentleman we met, Paul, also informed us of a few other places around the area to check out. There is actually a very small 12th century temple right inside the village. The main temple that I wrote about above was for the king and the monks, but the small one was for the people. It is actually almost difficult to find even though it is right inside the village. You have to take kind of a small diagonal turn to get to it, and it is hidden in some mangroves. Below are a few pictures.
The ancient Khmer were really into moats. I mean, can you blame them? Moats are magnificent! The problem is that they chose the land by its proximity to water. Instead of building on bedrock and creating an aqueduct to move the water in, they just built where the water happened to already be. This is why so many of the ancient sites are crumbling: squishy ground. I would hazard a guess that these aren’t the safest places to explore, but that is kind of where the wonder lies, and Cambodia is The Kingdom of Wonder, after all.
Paul also told us of a Khmer Rouge water project that is just a few kilometers up the road and requires some off-roading skill. I, of course, jumped at the chance. It turns out that the Khmer Rouge did in fact have some effective public works projects, and this reservoir is one of them. It is a fantastic place to watch the sunset. Below are a few pictures we took there right before the storms came.
The Food in Banteay Chmar and Punching A Wasp In the Face
We had lunch at the market in Banteay Chmar. It was some kind of Vietnamese dish, a cross between a crepe and an omelette with some kind of mysterious meat folded inside. It was delicious, and I think they cost about 25 cents a piece. After lunch, I had a wasp hovering around me, and I am weirdly afraid of them. You see, I know people who have never been stung by anything in their lives. I, on the other hand, have been stung by just about everything: honey bees, wasps, scorpions, and all kinds of things with stingers. So I freaked out a little bit and started flailing wildly and punched the wasp right in his goddamn wasp eyeball. This got a hearty laugh from half the village. Even Shalma was pointing and laughing.
We took a little walk around the market to see where food comes from. The market is tight and dark with various materials draped across the top. It is hot, and there is an open sewer running trough it with a few boards over the top. Meat is hanging in the heat all day and covered with flies. Every once in a while the woman tending the stalls will take a swipe toward the flies with a leafy twig. Ultimately, this is little more than an exercise in futility. Needless to say, there is more than a few health hazards going on in the market. However, Shalma and I suffered no discomfort from our time there.
That night for dinner, our hosts served us an amazing meal with some type of omelette, a beef stew (with delicious tomatoes, mangoes, and pineapples in it), and fresh steamed rice. They also gave us watermelon, which is actually the most dangerous fruit to eat anywhere. People rarely wash the outsides, and the fruit’s natural lack of acidity and high sugar content make it the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, especially without refrigeration. Still, Shalma and I ate every last bite and had no problem with any of the food. It was incredibly delicious.
Toilets and Mosquitos
In order to facilitate and promote community-based tourism, some NGOs helped make the home stays more comfortable for Westerners. The local Khmer are not spraying themselves with deet and sleeping under mosquito nets, but as mentioned above, our bed had a totally effective net. In the middle of the night, however, when I had to pee, I was required to leave the relative safety of the net. I can tell you, although I was doused with mosquito repellent, they swarmed me and sunk their little mosquito beaks into me like I was a fine pan-seared foie gras served with a nice Sauternes. I am still totally paranoid about catching malaria, seriously. It is the night mosquitos that carry the parasite.
The toilets were perfectly Western toilets, only without the handle to flush them. This is not uncommon here in Cambodia. In this case, there is a drain pipe that catches rain water and channels it into a tub in the bathroom. One is required to take a wee bucket of water and pour it into the toilet in order to flush. It works but takes a little more time, which allows the local mosquitos to enjoy a delightful feast.
Silk, Empowering Women, and Building A More Fruitful Community
The next morning we decided to take Paul up on his offer to tour the silk factory, Soieries du Mékong. Click the hyperlink to find out more about the program, or just read my simplification. The organization was founded by two NGOs in order to help improve the lives of women in northern Cambodia. Anyone who has read Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or even any Marx (a rare point on which they both agree) knows that the key to societal wealth is skilled production instead of farming. The idea behind this program is to give women self-determination while making the village less dependent on cassava and rice farming, both of which can suffer the perils of bad crops and deflating market values.
Soieries du Mékong is staffed not by workers, but as Paul pointed out, by true artisans with a fine skill. The women work on beautiful grounds that are well-kept and have a huge variety of beautiful tropical fruit trees. The program solves childcare issues by encouraging women to bring their children to work when they are not in school. In essence, the program seeks to make a joyous and happy work space where women have few worries. They also only allow only a maximum of forty hours a week in order to encourage a proper work-life balance. The women are often making more than their husbands now, more than doubling household incomes. Soieries du Mékong also pays 80% of the women’s healthcare costs and has other programs to teach the women about home economics and balancing budgets. This is important in a place where people have always been poor and tend to spend every cent they get. Below I have added some pictures of the facility.
Programs like this are important for places like rural Cambodia. They are necessary because they give things back that settler-colonialism have taken away. Typically, a society develops their own local products and economy. They make varying amounts of goods for trade and domestic consumption. Under most circumstances, societies develop and establish their own comparative advantage, wherein they figure out what they can produce the most of (at the highest quality) and focus on those products. They then seek out trade partners who have a comparative advantage in other products and establish a fruitful international economy. I am oversimplifying here, but I think you get my point.
Colonialism kills a society’s ability to prosper long after the colonists are gone. The Belgians, British, Dutch, French, etc. have essentially operated the same way all over the world. No place is the result more stark and evident that the continent of Africa, but it works the same way everywhere. When the colonists arrive, they take the people out of their traditional industries and force them into laboring to create a limited number of products that particularly appeal to Europeans. This lowers the aggregate global price for a product and allows France, for example, to acquire cheap rice from Asia or cocoa from Africa, and sell it cheaply to Switzerland or England while still making a profit.
Those people being colonized become devoid of skilled labour; they lose their trades and cannot go back to them in a post-colonial society. Making matters worse, industries have low factor mobility, meaning it is difficult for the people to move from one place to the other or one industry to the other due to lack of general skills. Obviously, the land cannot be moved either. This leaves post-colonial societies stuck making the same products for the same low earnings as they did when the Europeans ruled over them.
Colonialism abandons societies in a precarious marketplace where all the surrounding post-colonial states are laboring for the same products, not allowing for trade between states within the region. In the case of Africa, for example, there is virtually no trade between African nations. The final icing on the cake is that, in a post-colonial society that has not established its own comparative advantage and lacks diversified industry, no import substitution products are created. This means that Cambodians are stuck with cheap surplus Western clothing and goods and a marketplace that does not allow them to develop. Projects such as Soieries du Mékong are giving back something that was long taken from the Khmer people.
The community-based tourism has also been a great financial improvement for Banteay Chmar. In spite of the fact that there are few tourists there, the small amount of tourism that exists has more than tripled the aggregate income within the community. In most cities in Cambodia, it is really just the wealthy elites (including Westerners) who are making all the money from tourism. This keeps the poor nearly as poor as they were before while channeling money into the hands of a few who hoard it. This is not to say that the increased tourism has not improved lives, just that this improvement is mitigated by power structures and greed. In Banteay Chmar, we found an egalitarian system that works for the benefit of all within the community.
Thank you for reading this long blog post. Next time I will have lots of pictures of monkeys!