Day 3: Bantrey Srey & Green Gecko
If my second day in Cambodia was mystical, I would describe my third day as compelling. It was a day when we left the tourist confines of Siem Reap to experience the countryside and meet people who were affecting positive change in the country. We hired a driver for about $25 USD to take us around for the day. It is possible to hire a tuk-tuk, a motorized rickshaw, for a bit cheaper. However, when venturing far from town, it is important to consider that you’ll encounter very bumpy, dusty roads and that a tuk-tuk means a significant increase in travel time. Another advantage to hiring a car was that we could leave some of our food and belongings in it while sightseeing without worrying that they’d be exposed in the open.
Banteay Srei: The Citadel of Women
We headed north, through several rural villages until we reached the temple grounds of Banteay Srei. Our guide from the previous day recommended a visit there to view the site’s outstanding architecture. The complex was constructed in the 10th century and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Banteay Srei’s coral pink sandstone walls and niches are covered in elaborate, lacy reliefs. Its modern name translates to “Citadel of Women” because it is said that the temple’s carvings are so delicate and dainty that they could only have been done by the hand of a woman. The architecture definitely had a feminine feel and its dimensions were small in scale compared many of the other mighty temples we visited at Angkor Wat. We read that some of the doorways were intentionally built low because it required visitors to show humility by bowing to enter. We spent time appreciating the beautiful depictions of devatas, Hindu deities, and snapping photos of our favorite monkey and lion sculptures that guarded the interior courtyard. Our stroll ended in the shade of giant ginkgo leaves where we listened to serene, traditional Khmer music being played by a band of blind musicians. Very quickly, our peace was interrupted by several tour buses who quickly invaded the site. Lesson learned: visit sites early!
A Journey to the The River of 1,000 Lingas
Our next stop was the lush, northeastern Kulen Hills—home to Kbal Spean, also known as The River of 1,000 Lingas. Kbal Spean is a sacred site filled with hundreds of lingas, Hindu phallic symbols, that are carved into the sandstone riverbed. We arrived by foot after following a pleasant 2-kilometer jungle trek with scenic views of the canopy below. The trail ended at a series of small waterfalls that flowed over the ancient phallic sculptures. The belief was that the river water that flowed over the lingas, symbols transcendent of the god Shiva, would be blessed once it reached the communities in the valley below. We picnicked by the site with sandwiches that we bought earlier at Blue Pumpkin then returned back to the trail head.
Adjacent to the parking lot is the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodivsersity (ACCB). ACCB participates in wildlife conservation, rehabilitation, and research activities in Cambodia. There are 90-minute daily guided tours of the facility at 1:00 pm, for a suggested donation of $3USD. Unfortunately for us, the guide was sick the day we visited. We were still able to walk around the entrance grounds and peek into the enclosures of rescued birds.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum
On our way back to Siemp Reap, we stopped at the Cambodia Landmine Museum and School for an entrance fee of $3USD. The exhibits were short and simple, but their message was powerful. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and the museum tells the story of the landmines’ tragic impact on the country. The exhibit is told through the perspective of the founder, Aki Ra, and his experience as a child soldier forced to fight and plant landmines for the Khmer Rouge Army. Once the regime fell, he used his expertise to start an NGO that clears landmines from the country—many which he personally deactivated. During his work, he also encountered many poor children wounded by hidden landmines. Many of them were orphans or came from families who did not have the means to support them, so he also set up a facility where they could be cared for and educated (tourists are not allowed in this part). It was an eye-opening look into the turmoil of the country’s past and its lasting impact into present day.
The Cambodian government reports there are 3 – 5 million landmines still undiscovered in the country today.
A Visit to the Green Gecko Project
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world with around one third of its people living on less than $1 a day. Before leaving for our trip, I had done some research on the effects poverty has on children’s health, education, and quality of life. Many kids quit school early to work or beg—making them susceptible to abuse and exploitation. I wanted to offer some type of small token while we were there, but wasn’t sure how. Luckily, Angkor Be Hotel is deeply involved with the community and the owner suggested we donate some supplies to the Green Gecko Project in Siem Reap. We were given a wishlist of supplies and stocked up on most of them before we left the U.S., unsure of what would be available over there. When we arrived in Cambodia, we filled out the rest of our list since it gave us an opportunity to check out the local stores and markets. In retrospect, I could have found all the supplies in Cambodia. I recommend buying over ther for a few good reasons: it’s cheaper, helps the local economy, and is less to pack.
When we arrived at Green Gecko, we were expecting that the front office would take our donations and have us continue on our merry way. Upon entering, we were cheerily greeted by one of the founders, Tania. Since we were visiting in the afternoon after school, many of the children were back for the day and Tania invited us for a tour of the amazing facility. A sweet 13-year old girl, Chan, led us on a tour around the grounds with Tania. We learned that Tania was an Australian journalist who had visited Cambodia in 2004 to write a story on orphanages for an airline magazine. She was so moved by what she saw that she permanently relocated to Cambodia a year later to improve lives of street children. She started by giving meals to the kids at a table on the sidewalk outside of a Siem Reap restaurant but realized it was only a temporary solution to their problem. A local Cambodian man, Rem, was so touched by her dedication that he joined forces with her, becoming the other founding partner of Green Gecko (and later Tania’s husband). The couple eventually rented out a small room where kids could seek shelter and take classes. Their efforts grew and Green Gecko became a registered NGO in 2007.
WHY YOU SHOULD NOT GIVE STREET KIDS MONEY
One reason why I don’t give to street children is because the money rarely stays with them for long. Some of these children have been sold into peddling rings. Lurking around the corner, an adult awaits to quickly take the money and do very little to support the child. If not part of an operation, the child may be begging for her family. This means that the family probably forced her to quit school so she could work. You’ll notice that most children begging in the streets are usually under the age of 12. Once these kids approach adolescence, it get worse. Without education or training, these children have very little options other than being trafficked or forced into a life of prostitution or crime. This is a modern-day form of slavery that needs to be stopped.
There are ways to help and make a difference. Instead of giving money directly to the child, donate to a reputable NGO. Our experience visiting Green Gecko gave us confidence that we were contributing to a worthy cause. For more resources on human trafficking, visit the Polaris Project website at www.polarisproject.org.
Green Gecko is more than a project, it’s a family. It currently provides 70 former street-kids with education, training, support, food and shelter. Green Gecko is now located on a pleasant one-acre facility with housing, classrooms, recreactional areas, and offices. The children, lovingly known as “Geckos,” were excited to meet us and share their stories, artwork, and even a crop of purple rice they had just harvested from their test farm. Geckos are supported into adulthood until they are equipped to live on their own. I was inspired by the bright, confident kids that we met and the empowering reach of project. What I found most noteworthy about Green Gecko is that it not only helps its kids, but it offers support and outreach to their families in an effort to break the cycle of hopelessness. To learn more about visiting Green Gecko or how you can help, visit their website at www.greengeckoproject.org.
– Lara Dalinsky