Well Wishes from Siem Reap

Contrary to what most tourists may think, Siem Reap is more than a jumping-off point for temple enthusiasts. It’s a quaint and lovely city on the river, adorned with local markets, volleyball courts, historic monasteries, selfless non-profits, and the occasional crocodile farm – that just happens to be surrounded by the biggest, most amazing complex of temples in the world. But most importantly, it was in Siem Reap that we volunteered with The Trailblazer Foundation – a very admirable NGO that focuses on clean water projects and sustainable development in some of the poorest communities in Cambodia.

After our solemn excursions to the Killing Fields and reading Huang Noir’s memoirs we developed a bit of a soft spot for the country. Wartime and genocide doomed Cambodia’s people to a long recovery from a dark past – both financially and structurally. Before making our way to Siem Reap, we coincidentally met a past Trailblazer volunteer at a (very) local market in Phnom Penh and discussed the organization over a bowl of noodles and a couple of beers. It was exactly what we were looking for in an organization. Nick and I had been researching potential water-related non-profits since the conception of our trip but hadn’t found the right fit until then. It was sort of serendipitous.

We lived and worked in Siem Reap for about two weeks. I say “lived” because when you’re constantly on-the-go, as we’ve been, staying in the same guesthouse for so many days with a set work schedule is a strangely comfortable change of pace. Every morning after breakfast we’d hop on our bikes and pedal over the river, through town, across a few dusty roads to the office. After a round of morning greetings we’d head to the warehouse to see what was shaking.

Some days we spent digging and installing wells in the rural villages. Other days, we stuck around the city with the filter crew and helped with production tasks like sifting sand, washing gravel, and painting filters. Everyday we saw the results of the foundation’s efforts materialize in some form or another.

It’s easy to take for granted something as seemingly simple as clean water. At home, we hold a cup under the faucet without giving a second thought about the stuff coming out. I guess you could say that we expect it will be free of parasites and bacteria when it hits our lips but really our only expectation is that we don’t have to think about it. That’s our reality.

The people in these villages are beyond poor. Their shelters provide minimal relief from the elements and their sanitary systems are primitive. If they want water, they typically have to retrieve it, bucket by bucket, from an infected source. These villages see a low life-expectancy and many children don’t make it beyond 4 years old due to water-born illnesses that could easily be remedied. Life is tough. That’s their reality.

Despite their difficult circumstances, the villagers manage to maintain a warm hospitality and a kind spirit. As we worked on the wells, the families prepared lunch for the us. Mealtime generally consisted of heaping bowls of steamed rice, cabbage, river fish, and watermelon. If we were lucky they would prepare red ant salsa with cucumber chips – it’s very earthy, tangy, and though it doesn’t taste like chicken, it’s quite good.

The great thing about working for Trailblazer was seeing the immediate impact of our work. We knew our peeps would love to be a part of it, even if they weren’t there themselves; so after an internet appeal to our generous  friends, family, and extended network, we were able to raise enough money to build 10 wells and 22 filters. That means that up to 480 rural Cambodians can now focus on something more productive and enlightening than recovering from sickness. Students can attend school regularly, parents can prepare meals faster, and more children under the age of four will make it to see their fifth birthday.

Life wasn’t all work in Siem Reap. After a hard day at the office, we’d often go for a jog around the riverfront or play a few games of volleyball in the local courts. In case you didn’t know (because we didn’t), Cambodians are incredible volleyball players. We bought a ball for $6 and moseyed over to the courts to play a few casual games with the locals. What we got was a couple of ringers that schooled our asses. Not much taller than 5’6″ these guys could pass, set, and hit with the strength and precision of semi-professionals. But they weren’t semi-professionals. And I walked away from our first game with massive black and red bruises on my forearms from digging hits from a waiter and a hotel janitor.

Even the weekend work was fun. A group of volunteers spent a Sunday helping school children with an art project. Nick and I were inspired by our Texas roots and helped the kids build a hillbilly golf set. Bolos were flying everywhere as the eight-year-olds instantly took to the game.

For more than two weeks, this was our life. We ate wonderful food, hung out with the locals, and helped to improve the lives of numerous underprivileged families. Most tourists come to Siem Reap to view the past, we thought the present and future were just as intriguing.