Weeks of yoga retreats, beach lounging, meditation, and the likes put me in the perfect condition – mind, body, and spirit – to experience Angkor. Climbing onto a bicycle for the first time in years (BTW, riding a bike is not just like riding a bike), I set off for the city of temples known as Angkor. The area, scattered with hundreds of beautiful temple ruins built in true Khmer style, is just outside of the modern-day city of Siem Reap, where I was staying. Taking several centuries to construct, the temples were left to the elements until the late 1800s when French archeologists began restoration.
Peddling the roughly 7km from Siem Reap to the entrance of Angkor Wat was an experience in itself. Cars, tuk-tuks, and bikes also heading to the UNESCO World Heritage Site kicked up thick clouds of dust on the road that stuck to me like glue. With the sun beating down on my face I slowly made my way through Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and others, hopping off my bike every few kilometers to venture down a jungle path to a less frequented temple. Wandering through the jungle over large tree roots and stones, pulling myself up the steep steps of temple ruins on hands and knees – I felt like a regular Indiana Jane.
My favorite temple was Ta Prohm. Not because one of my favorite movies was filmed there, but because it is a true testament to the power of Mother Nature. The temple ruins of Angkor are not only a result of neglect, but also a clear example of how small we are on this Earth, and of how resilient nature can be. After centuries of civilization and construction, the jungle began to reclaim its land. Ta Prohm is the most vivid example of this. I heard several tourists ask their guides why “they” don’t just cut the trees down. The answer is that the temples would crumble. The trees now own Ta Prohm.
Without them, there is nothing.
They hold the sandstone bricks in their hands – supporting the temples with their massive roots, they also control their existence.
The rest of my time in Siem Reap was spent volunteering at a small English school run by monks. The monks organize lessons at no cost for local children, but unfortunately, they lack funding, materials, and teachers, and rely on rather unorganized foreign fundraisers. Travelers like myself visit for a few days at a time, but what the children really need are long term teachers and a curriculum – and books. I’m sorry to admit this, but I think I got more out of the experience than the kids.
They were lovely. So eager to learn with longing in their eyes, I felt like I was failing them without books and a proper curriculum. Few had shoes and most of them had rotted teeth. We played games, learned body parts and colors, and they loved seeing themselves in pictures. While I enjoyed spending time with the kids, I certainly got a taste of voluntourism, and I didn’t quite like it. I do believe these monks had the children’s best interests at heart, but the whole experience still felt like a spectacle – tourists popping in and out every fews days, just long enough for some blogging material. With proper fundraising and organization, the school could be very successful. I’m sad to say their sponsors are failing them. If you’ve ever considered teaching English abroad for six months or longer, please leave a comment – I’d be happy to get you in touch directly with the monks.