The border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia is notoriously troublesome, especially for people from the United States. Besides being charged and extra 200 baht for being American and a long wait to have my visa stamped, making it across the border and to Siem Reap, Cambodia without a pre-arranged set up from a travel agency was not as scary as I anticipated. All the guys working for the bus company I found myself with in Cambodia were kind, funny and laughed easily. I've discovered this to be a common characteristic among the people here, as long as you're willing to make silly jokes and laugh at yourself when you finally understand their jokes. You can probably imagine how I'm doing with that.
I am here in Siem Reap volunteering with the Trailblazer Foundation (www.thetrailblazerfoundation.org). I found them through my friend Erin whose parents Chirs and Scott started the NGO. They build bio-sand water filters and distribute them to villages around Siem Reap, as well as training the people how to build and maintain the filters, hold them responsible for paying the cost back to what becomes a village fund and eventually a small mirco-loan program within the village. Chris and Scott's vision is to phase themselves out and give the people ownership so the program will be sustainable. They have also sponsored through grants and helped build three schools in Cambodia and are putting together an agricultural program for the future as well. Not to mention they are totally laid back and super dedicated to their work. Very, very good people and I am so glad to be able to help them.
So what am I doing? Well, I mainly work to help Narem, a young Cambodian man who knows his stuff about agriculture and loves organic farming. He spent three years studying ag in Thailand and speaks English and Thai very well, which is extremely helpful for me since the other guys don't speak much English.
Narem and I have mostly been making really good organic fertilizer from cow manure and rice husks mixed with what he calls EM, or Effective Microorganism, which is made from a bunch of organic things and smells like really strong vinegar. We use it for the fertilizer and also as a natural pest repellant. We mixed all the components together the first day and covered it with a plastic tarp and the next day when we mixed it all together it was already really hot to the touch, all kind of good micro-stuff happening to make the plants happy!
I also spray the plants with EM to get rid of little red beetles that eat them, water the plants and do a lot of weeding, which, strangely enough, makes me happy. Narem works on his school paper regarding organic farming and what he's doing with Trailblazer in the afternoons, so I'm left to myself in the garden after getting directions. Usually Scott comes over to chat or show me interesting things like the fact that there's a crocodile farm on the other side of the wall about 10 meters away from where we all work, or to tell me they had to kill a lethal snake they found by the front door while I was on my lunch break. I've also found and released a tiny, very poisonous scorpion without knowing it's dangerous (the brown ones are fine...in Costa Rica at least) and Narem removed a three inch long poisonous millipede from the manure the first day. Cute.
I really like all the people working at Trailblazer, they are so kind and good-natured. Scott said hopefully I can get out on a water filter delivery with the guys to a village and see the real Cambodia; Siem Reap is pretty touristy. By that I mean disgustingly touristy, especially the mind-blowingly beautiful ruin complex, which I got to visit this weekend.
Angkor Wat. It's kind of a big deal. Pretty fantastic and I got to spend the entire weekend there. Yesterday I went with a motorbike driver because I wanted to go to some ruins that are pretty far away from the main complex; carvings in a river and Banteay Srai. Unfortunately I felt sick all day because I got food poisoning the night before and didn't sleep much, then felt nauseous all day but stuck it out and also saw Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat for sunset. This morning I woke up early and rode a bike out for sunrise over Angkor Wat, explored the temples there more then went to some smaller, less visited temples and had them mostly to myself except for the occasional Japansese tour group. It pays to get up early, and to ride a bicycle.
There was a half-marathon around the Angkor complex this morning so the whole Angkor Wat area was flooded with runners amped on life and ready to run! It made a fun atmosphere and I wished I was running too, but it also created tons of traffic jams for tour buses and tuk tuks because the runners were on the only roads through the area. Luckily I was on a bike and could just ride up the opposite side of the road and cheer on the runners as they neared the end of their grueling run. I'm pretty sure that's why there weren't too many people where I was this morning, which was just fine with me.
Let me just say that when entering an area such as this, tourists are everywhere are are accosted from all sides from kids and adults alike trying to sell you the same thing right next to each other. You get off your bike or out of your tuk tuk and people are shoving post cards, bracelets, tour books in your face, women are yelling at you to buy cold drinks or food or telling you to park your bike here and come back later for some food. It's my least favorite thing. I really really dislike being viewed as a money bag, not a human being but there are people visiting who pay $1,800/night for hotels, so I guess their persistent badgering and shoving of wares in tourists' faces must work. I just wish there was another way.
I have also had incredible experiences with locals. The first evening I was here I stopped by a food stand to eat some noodles. I must have looked confused becuase a girl about my age came up and asked it she could help me, and then proceeded to order noodles for me, pay for my noodles and her spring roll, then show me the pagoda down the street and talk and laugh with me for an hour before going home to do homework. Her name is Seiha and we met again the next day even though she's at work at 5:30am, works all day, studies for two hours in the evening then goes home to study and help her family. Wow. I hope to meet up with her again this week sometime!
OK, that's long enough for now. Pictures on the way when I get a better computer that will load them. Love to you all!