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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Week Nine in Review (Goodbye Thailand)

We have entered the Kingdom of Cambodia, a country of around 15 million people, and a beautiful, tropical landscape. To many tourists, Cambodia is a country of Non-Governmental Organizations, poverty, Angkor Wat, and genocide. While these are certainly all very real realities and histories of this growing nation, they are not definitional, and our quest during our three weeks here is to seek out the art, adventure, and acrobatics that exist alongside these tourist pulls, but do not immediately jump out at the short-term traveler.

To arrive here in Siem Reap, we took three transit days from our community stay in Baan Tamui. These days took us to Ubon, Gai’s hometown, where we spent an evening eating tacos and listening to his lifemap. It also brought us to Surin, where we had a slight bed bug scare–a good reminder for the constant traveler to be ever vigilant–and ended our Thailand time with a relaxed evening at a night market full of coconut smoothies, grilled fish, pork dumplings, and fruit salads. It was sad to be leaving this long country after such a short stay, and to be moving away from the Mekong and home-stays, but we also felt ready for the chance to push forward into new territory.

As we stamped out of Thailand and into a new Kingdom, we were met by Seavyi, another Dragons Instructor who will be joining us for our final days. Having just finished his own Laos/Thailand/Cambodia (on bike) adventure, Seavyi greeted us with energy and insight that were warmly welcomed. We took a morning bus ride to Siem Reap, the capital city of the Siem Reap province, and the gateway to the Angkor region. In contrast to where we have been traveling the past month, Siem Reap is busy and bustling; a constant flow of tuk-tuk’s transporting tourists to and from resorts, cafe’s, and historical sites. We are tucked away into a quiet guesthouse and it has been the perfect setting to introduce us to our final country on this Mekong journey.

One major highlight from our first few days here included visiting Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer Empire, which was inhabited between the 9th and 15th centuries. Our day began with an early wake up to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world. As the sun’s first rays filtered through the trees, we wove our way through the temple, examining 12th century bas-relief stone sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist stories. From the main temple complex of Angkor Wat, we bicycled to other monuments from the Khmer Empire. We visited Angkor Thom and had lunch in the shadows of Ta Nei. While we were able to find quiet paths along the canal to bike along, and corners of the temples to sit in, we were all struck by the hoards of others who were driving between the sites. Many stuck to their tour buses or tuktuks, and were whisked from one site to the next to take photos, walk a short while, then drive on. It led to conversations about visiting tourist-heavy locations and why we do it, when it feels comfortable to do it, and when we maybe are okay passing something by. Regardless of the throngs of visitors vying for that perfect photo above Angkor Wat or the chaotic feel of pushing to see a place in silence, our day at Angkor was absolutely worth it and allowed many in our group to feel into an experience they had been hoping to have this entire course.

On our last full day in Siem Reap we met with PEPY Empowering Youth, a locally run NGO that focuses on supporting youth to build technical and interpersonal skills, which allow them to further their education and meet career goals. During our morning at their center, we played games, practiced Khmer dance, and engaged in conversations about what life is like for young adults in Europe, Cambodia, and the United States. After our full morning, all the students went to the market and had lunch in small groups. We are not staying in home-stays during our time in Cambodia, and this morning’s interaction was a nice way to practice language and have a cultural exchange with people of the same age.

Our final evening in Siem Reap we had a pool party barbecue for Mikey’s birthday. We grilled vegetables and chicken, ate crickets and cake, and watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. It was a fun celebration of Mikey and of all the work the students have done to prepare for their upcoming expedition. The next ten days will be entirely student run. They have worked hard to book accommodations, find transportation between our locations, and plan activities and lessons that are fun, engaging, and allow us to learn about Cambodian culture. We are excited to take on more of a participant role and be a part of their planned experiences.