Much of what the visitor to Siem Reap sees are streets filled with restaurants, hotels, spas and other services geared towards foreign tourists. There is another side to life here, however, one that is neither shiny nor prosperous.
Friends International Street Children Center
Located near the main market in Siem Reap is a small Friends International center that serves as a place where street kids can come to learn, play, paint and just have a break from the street. We came across this place thanks to a sign announcing a photography exhibition by street kids. Their stories are heartbreaking and often fuse a combination of abuse and alcoholism, problems which span cultures and countries, unfortunately.
Most of the kids are scavengers who rummage through garbage to find salable bits. Kids have outfitted their bicycles with bags to collect garbage that they hope to sell later. When we were there, the kids were just leaving the Siem Reap Street Children Center after watching cartoons and an educational video on the dangers of sniffing glue (which is unfortunately quite common here as well). They hopped on their bicycles and took off for their standard garbage scavenging beat.
Book Carts and Postcards
A common site in Siem Reap is a book cart with a sign in English explaining the seller’s story – a land mine victim, disabled parent, or widowed parent. The idea: purchase one of their books or postcards and you help support the person and his/her family.
We had no need for books, having brought too many with us in the first place. So, we gave books we had already read to one of these booksellers. He was a landmine victim and his English was good enough for him to share his story about his two boys and his real love for weaving traditional Khmer belts. Unfortunately, weaving takes too long and the products yield too little money.
Cambodian Landmine Museum
When asked what to do in Siem Reap, one foreign restaurant owner recommended the Land Mine Museum and summed it up perfectly – “You really should see the good, the bad and the ugly.” The Cambodian Land Mine Museum is located off a small dirt road between downtown and the entrance to the Angkor temple complex. The museum is primarily outdoors in a series of small huts. Exhibitions are scattered with a plethora of information on land mines and examples of deactivated ones, whose guts dangle from tables and trees. It's an informal setting where pigs and chickens seem to own the place and provide a bit of comic relief in a serious and tragic context.
The museum was started and is run by Aki Ra, a former child soldier for both the Khmer Rouge and after he was captured, the Vietnamese Army. As a child soldier, he laid the mines. As an adult, his mission is to rid Cambodia of them and assist land mine victims. He and his de-mining teams continue to uncover land mines with shovels and sticks for around $3-$5 per mine. In comparison, foreign NGOs charge thousands of dollars for the removal of each land mine. You do the math. The museum also sponsors a few children who are victims of landmines. In some cases, they are able to secure sponsorship for their higher education.
During our last days in Siem Reap, we discovered a booklet entitled Stay Another Day – Cambodia that profiles organizations and businesses giving back to the community all over Cambodia. The booklet described ways in which a tourist could participate. For example, you can spending time conversing in English with disadvantaged kids or take in a meal at a restaurant like Soup Dragon that donates 7% of its sales to the Angkor Hospital for Children.
Digging under the surface in Siem Reap exposes its and Cambodia's reality. It's not all pretty, but it's the context in which the majority lives. In spite of their dark history, the Cambodian people continue to prove themselves resilient and generous in spirit.