I spent most of a year planning a solo trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, with a short stop in Dubai on the way, finally taking the trip over Christmas 2011. While the trip itself turned out to be fabulous, I have found that planning, researching, and investigating a trip is almost as much fun as the trip itself. I love looking at all the hotels, trying to find the one with just the right ambience, in just the right location for just the right price. I look all over the internet for cheap flights and the best route to get from here to there. So, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to arrange for a private guide to take me around the Angkor temples in Cambodia. From everything I’d read you need to hire a guide and a driver, this isn’t a do it yourself kind of thing. I’d read that you would have no idea what you were seeing, if you didn't. And now, having been there, I completely agree.
|Angkor Village Hotel, Siem Reap|
I ended up arranging for my guide and his driver through my hotel. I had chosen a pretty nice, authentic place a little off the beaten path in Siem Reap, the town nearest all Angkor temples. In my emails back and forth with the hotel staff coordinating my arrival, they suggested reserving a guide through them and after months and months of planning, thinking and organizing, I finally just decided to go with it. And it being a pretty nice place, I knew they would charge me more than what I read many guidebooks and websites said I could expect to pay just hiring someone off the street, or at any one of the many local shops geared toward tourists. The books said I could pay as little as $5 a day for a driver and same amount for a guide. But I was told by my hotel that my guide would run me $20 each day and another $10 for the driver. Which, while more, is still not a lot of money. Especially considering what they ended up doing for me.
They both spent 8 hours a day with me, for two days. My guide was a man named Pol. He was, I am guessing in his mid 30s, and was a petite guy. Maybe just over 5 feet and not much more than 100 pounds. He and I spent the days walking in the heat through temple after temple, him talking almost nonstop about what we were seeing. We'd spend an hour or two at each stop, each temple. The driver, who spoke no English, would drop us off and would stay with the car, and then usually later he would drive to pick us up at a temple exit different from where we started.
|First view of Angkor Wat!|
We spent two days visiting the temples at Angkor and what an amazing, incredible experience. It was truly unbelievable when I came upon that first view of Angkor Wat that is in every article or website about the place. And Pol turned out to be good. His English was dicey, but he was eager and knew what he was talking about. Or if he didn’t, the stories he made up were good. But it wasn't until we went 40km into the countryside to see another couple temples, and then to the largest freshwater lake in Asia, Tonle Sap to see the floating villages, that I really started to think about Pol's life in Cambodia.
We made small talk throughout the two days. I knew he had a wife and twin sons, who were about 10. I knew that the sons were not biologically his, that he’d married his wife who was widowed when the boys were babies. I knew he’d gone to school to become a licensed guide to the temples and had the official patch on his shirtsleeve to prove it. He’d never been very far out of Siem Reap, and had never been out of Cambodia. And I could tell that Pol, with his relatively white collar job, was doing far better than most Cambodians I’d seen.
After driving into the countryside and thinking more about Pol and the driver, all of the sudden it hit me that Pol was making his living on the $20 a day I was paying him. As his full time job. And the driver, using his own car, was making $10. And that's assuming they got every dime I paid my hotel for their services.
Toward the end of our two days together we went to some villages. And in his not so hot English, Pol told me, "They are poverty." And I was able to see that yes, indeed they are. These people have nothing. Literally not a pot to piss in. They live in shacks. On stilts because of the horrific flooding the area encounters every year with the monsoons. And it was rare I saw anyone wearing a pair of shoes. But yet, most little homes I saw looked well taken care of. What they had looked clean, swept and orderly. I also saw that these people will do anything for money. They have to, to survive. They sell coconuts, water, trinkets. Cut down trees and sell the firewood. They fish. And still they are poverty.
They are a small people, Pol included, and I am not sure how much of that is genes, or malnourishment. We spoke with a young girl selling jewelry at one of the temples. Pol, speaking to her in English chastised, "Why aren't you in school? How old are you?" And she replied that she had been in school, earlier that morning. Pol explained that kids in Cambodia go to school only 4 hours a day, but 6 days a week. They’re expected to work and help their families, when they’re not in school. She went on to say she was 11. My daughter was 11 at the time. I could not even begin to picture my own daughter working to help support her family.
Oh Pol, if you only knew.