Cambodian Climes – Chapter 1

After my uneventful border crossing into Cambodia, it was on to Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is the closest city to the famous Angkor Historic Park where you find some of the best Khmer temples still in existence but that’s not all that’s going on around the city.

I stayed at HI Siem Reap hostel and was incredibly pleased with my choice. The location was fabulous, the dorm was clean and the staff were immediately helpful and welcoming. I spent 6 nights there and would happily have spent 6 more. Consider this hostel if you are looking for places in Siem Reap. The pool table and hot tub are also excellent.

Anyway, back to my main point; Non temple based things to do in Siem Reap.

The first, and my most highly recommended, thing to see is the Cambodian Landmine Museum. The museum is about 25km outside of Siem Reap. Our tuk tuk (from the hostel) cost $15 there and back. It’s $3 to enter the museum but this fee goes straight to keeping 36 Landmine victims with a roof over their head and in education.

The museum has a fairly unassuming entrance but inside you will see and read things you find hard to believe and accept.

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The founder of the museum is a man called Akira. He was a child soldier of the Khmer Rouge begore he defected to the Vietnamese army. He tells his story throught the museum and it’s a very heartfelt and honest rendition. Akira doesn’t hide anything. What you see is his truth and it’s very humbling when you acknowledge that one man has mastered his pain in order to try and heal others. Akira is a great man who continues to do great things. Every single item in the museum was recovered and defused by Akira in his mission to make Cambodia safe.

The first sight is a huge container full of various mines, bombs and munitions. Every single side is packed full of things that kill but the tower itself is surrounded by a nice tranquil pond. Such is life I suppose.

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There are severl rooms in the museum. You can get a printed guide which leads you to each section and explains more about the exhibits. I would highly suggest you get a guide from the introduction room and follow it’s instructions.

The rooms vary in content. Some look at why the mine types found in Cambodia were used and how they work. Others look at recording and clearing mine fields but the majority of the museum is dedicated to revealing what human suffering comes alongside the landmine legacy in Cambodia. There are many first hand stories of landmine explosions in the museum but, for me, this child’s painting summed it up.

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Once you have walked around the museum, you’ll probably feel very somber but, despair not. The museum is there not for blame or shock factor but to educate and help heal what has been left so broken. It’s a fabulous museum that robs your faith in humanity with one hand before giving it back with the other. I would not miss it.

The next activity was not only excellent but also incredibly free.

There is a workshop in Siem Reap called Artisans D’Angkor. Visitors are welcome to walk around quite freely and see the various crafting skills first hand. The idea behind the place is to get people from villages outside of the city to learn a craft which they can make a living from. This helps the rural population build an industry and stops overcrowding in the city. It seems to be working.

At the workshop, there is painting onto silk, painting onto wood, wood carving (rubberwood, rosewood and teak), stone carving (sandstone and soapstone) and metal working. Each skill has it’s own room.

The silk painters are all either unable to hear or unable to speak. Charts of sign language are found on their walls alongside various instructional posters. There are also a few tourist type boards dotted around the work rooms but, mostly, the paraphernalia is for the use of the craft people.

Here’s a picture showing the different painting stages a rubberwood statue goes through from bare wood to finished article.

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There is more intricate wood painting that happens on site. See below for a painter creating pure beauty onto wood tiles.

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The stonework rooms were by far the loudest, as you might expect. Each crafter had their own work to be getting on with. The sandstone pieces varied in size from small hand sized items to enormous, bigger than man sized, statues. Here’s an elephant I took a liking too.

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Some of the sandstone crafters are actually busying helping with conservation work at various Angkor temples so they spend time between the temple and the workshop.

The soapstone items were generally no bigger than a decebt sized vase but I think that’s because soapstone is just less robust than sandstone so large pieces are very complex and tricky to make.

The workshop is interesting and definitely an eye opener. Everything in the gift shop has been made on site by the crafters and, had I not been travelling for such a long time, I would have bought a few things.

Associated with the Siem Reap workshop is a silk farm. The farm is about 16km outside the city but a free shuttle bus and tour leaves from the Siem Reap workshop twice daily (10:30 & 1:30 I think). You have to sign up before hand and when it’s full, that’s it. It’s definitely worth a visit too.

The silk farm tour takes you from worm to finished products. Speaking of silk worms, here are some.

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It’s actually a silk worm cocoon that provides silk thread. There’s two types; a yellow coloured, rougher, raw silk and a whiter coloured, finer, silk. Raw silk is the outer cocoon, fine silk is the inner cocoon. Heres a snap of raw silk being extracted from the outer cocoon. You basically dunk it in hot water and use the contraption you see here to tease the silk off.

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Once the silk is off, you need to get it onto spools but, before you can do that, you must untangle the strand. Here’s the master untanglers at work.

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After you have the silk untangled, you can dye it and wind it onto spools. This is all done at the silk farm and you can see all the machinery and processes on the tour.

Once you have dyed and spooled silk thread, it’s time to weave. Theres lots of people involved in weaving. Theres people who set up the looms, people who sort the patterns out, people who rewind thread onto smaller spools if needed and probably lots of other people I forgot about too. Basically, there was room after room after room of people working on just weaving and the various stages. Eventually though, something like this is created.

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After seeing how manual and intensive the whole process is, I desperately wanted a silk scarf but I’d only ruin it going around the world so I abstained from buying.

All in all Artisans D’Angkor workshop and silk farm are a definite yes, go see it, thing in Siem Reap.

The final place I went to is the Khmer Ceramic Centre. It’s nowhere near as good as Artisans D’Angkor but its free and their gift shop is also good. You can see pottery being made and there are courses you could do if you want to. I didn’t do a course. I wandered around, read the signs and lamented the things I couldn’t buy in the gift shop.

There’s also cooking courses and day trips you can take to a floating market from Siem Reap but I just ran out if time.

Other things I found in Siem Reap:
Angkor Herb – Pub Street – Tasty fried rice for $1.50
Old Market – almost nothing you can’t buy. Haggle to approx half the asking price. Less if you can.
Blue Pumpkin – Pub Street – baked goods make excellent breakfasts/lunch to take with you. 30% off after 8pm. Amazing ice cream.
Angkor What? – Pub Street – beer. Lots of beer.
X Bar – rooftop bar with a half pipe and pool tables.
The Warehouse – charity quiz on Thursday nights at 8:30. Proceeds to the landmine museum.

So, Siem Reap, it’s not all about temples.

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