I love this photo. I love the color, the focus, the position, but mostly I love the innocence portrayed in it.
This is the hand of my tour guide, a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old.
The bamboo train in Battambang had stopped at a ‘tourist trap’ where there was nothing to do but buy a tee shirt or a drink, and a slew of little children had run up to our group asking if we wanted to see the rice factory.
Taking me through fenced gates and over rooster filled yards, this little girl finally stopped outside a giant barn door through which dozens of bags of rice were visible, and started explaining the varieties of rice to me.
“This rice is brown and is for people to eat. This rice not good. People no eat. This rice for the pigs. This rice is for…”
She was adorable and seemed decently knowledgeable, taking me through the rice production process, explaining which machines did what, which rice came out of where and what was done with it, rambling off the information like a seasoned pro.
I guess she was doing her part to support the community, and when she stuck her hand out, this time empty, quoting one dollar each, we did ours: we paid up.
I’ve mentioned my extreme like for Siem Reap a couple of times now, but I know that there’s a lot of people that are simply turned off by its touristy hustle and bustle.
Well, let me fill you in on a hidden little beach getaway that’s close enough to touch yet well off the beaten tourist path of Angkor, so off the path in fact that it’s only through a friend with a local contact that I heard about it at all.
West Baray: Not Actually Hidden and Actually Quite Significant
Referred to locally as just Baray (and pronounced more like the first part of “pariah”), the beach is in fact part of a two kilometer-square reservoir hidden 12 kilometers from the center of Siem Reap.
But the reservoir isn’t really hidden at all, in fact, it’s quite blatantly there as a giant chunk of water when viewed on a map.
It’s also remarkably close to the Angkor complex (see those square marks in the top right corner?), and, along with the East Baray, now dried up, was a phenomenal reservoir in the Angkor civilization, thought to have either spiritual or agricultural significance.
The reason that the reservoir is ‘hidden’ at all is simply because it is highly overshadowed by the glamour of Angkor, with tourists rarely following the main highway to the narrow road that leads to Baray.
West Baray Today
Today, Baray is used by locals and very few tourists for swimming and occasional boating.
When you arrive at the end of the narrow road, vendors to the right and left wait to greet you. There is fresh cut pineapples, durian, mango and papayas. Sugarcane juice, coconut juice and coca colas. Grilled birds and fish and raw meat. And all the overpriced patterned souvenir dresses, hippie pants, bracelets and purses you could want, in case you haven’t gotten enough in town.
From the bridge, you can see the reservoir:
The Beach at Baray
A set of narrow stairs takes you down to the sand where boats line the water and hammocks dot the shore. A lady will come up to collect money for the tented hammocks – 1000 riel per person – $0.25 that’s more than worth your time watching the locals dip into the water fully clothed, the fishermen tidying up their boats, and families peeling and eating quail eggs next to you.
The women and children that come around with food baskets will provide a much deserved snack. Almost anything edible is available: pineapples and mangoes, boiled eggs, crickets, beetles and scorpions.
The water is warm and it is a welcome reward, but the tented hammocks beckon – they are low to the ground, and wrap you in their pleather fabric unconditionally. Without you noticing they will lull you into slumber and you’ll have no choice but to pass out in the 35°C shade.
And between snoozes all you’ll be able to think is that two hours here is simply not enough: so close from everything and yet away from it all.
Fun fact: You can see where East Baray was very clearly on the terrain map above – it still shows up as a block of blue!
I’ve been quite lucky on my travels – the worst that I’ve had happen out of all the things I’ve been warned about was getting overcharged by 70Baht (so maybe $2 whole dollars) at a 7-11 and…that’s about it.
Everyone warned me ad nauseum: “Watch your purse – guys on motorbikes will drive by and snatch it.”
Guidebooks everywhere reminded: “Prepare to let go versus getting your arm broken.”
And I get it: be cautious. But I rolled my eyes at every warning – I’m not stupid, I don’t walk around alone at night in dark scary deserted neighborhoods, I don’t flaunt money around, and I don’t dress inappropriately. I’m cautious, but I don’t believe in living in fear. How careful could I possibly be?
And then on my way to a bus station in a tuk tuk in Cambodia, I saw something that would replay itself in my mind for the next week and changed the way I handled my belongings while I traveled.
It was myself and two other women in the tuk tuk, on a main street in Phnom Penh; it was almost midnight and besides the occasional motorbike or pedestrian, the streets were quiet.
Up ahead I could see two girls walking in the middle of an intersecting street, heading away from us, and I saw their reactions before I saw the motorbike.
It seemed to come from between them, and they turned with it as it passed, in confusion and anger and shock. The passenger on the back of the bike seemed so impassive, I was sure that it was some sort of accident.
I could see something like a strap connecting the bike to the girl walking on the right, and I thought that maybe she got caught on something on the bike, or that the motorbike got caught on something of hers. Except then there was a scream, and the girl holding on to that strap was falling on her elbows, chest and knees, and then was being dragged behind the bike on the cement.
Luckily, she let go immediately, and I turned back in the tuk tuk, shocked and confused. It wasn’t until one of the women riding with me said, “I think he grabbed the girl’s purse,” that I actually realized what we had seen; that I’ve just witnessed the ‘motorcycle cowboy’ phenomenon I’ve heard so much about.
It was terrifying, and that guttural scream reverberated in my mind all night.
We all sat in silence the rest of the way to the bus stop. Was there anything we could’ve done?
I hope that girl’s alright, but I’m grateful I saw what I saw because it smartened me up a bit: it made me realize that things like this do happen, they’re not just urban legends or stories mothers tell you to scare you from traveling.
Did it scare me from traveling? Of course not, but it made me think.
If the girls had been on the sidewalk, if they’d been keeping their belongings hidden, keeping them close, if, if, IF – could this have been avoided? How careful can you possibly be?
I, for one, stopped letting my wallet-purse swing around my shoulder wildly on its centimeter-wide strap when I walked around, and started paying attention more to my surroundings.
The thing is, I still don’t believe in living in fear, but there’s really no need to tempt crimes of opportunity.
Have you ever been a victim or witnessed any crimes during your travels? How did it affect your usual attitude towards safety while abroad?
If this looks like a bunch of rubble and chaos, well, you’re right. But I love this photograph, so take a closer look.
A couple weeks ago I wrote that Bayon was one of my favourite temples in the Angkor Complex, but Ta Prohm, often referred to as the Tomb Raider temple, was a close runner up for beauty.
After the Khmer empire fell in the 17th century, many temples were abandoned and left behind for nature to do with them as it pleased. Ta Prohm was consumed by jungle, its rooftops covered in seedlings carried there by wind or bird, and what resulted was nothing short of an art form: giant cotton and fig trees sprouting from the temple roofs, their roots slithering through the small crevices in its foundation, cascading down its walls, strangling it into ruin.
Now, held together by those very roots, Ta Prohm is in a sensitive position – allowing the growth to continue will result in the trees ripping apart the stone, but removing the trees will tear the building apart. Ironically, it is the trees that add so heavily to Ta Prohm’s magical appeal, the aspect that tourists remember best.
Luckily, restoration has been in the works for a couple of years now – a collaboration between APSARA (the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) and the Archaeological Survey of India for conservation of the temple…and the trees.
Stay tuned for more photos of Ta Prohm and the rest of the Angkor Archaeological Park coming soon!
Our tuk tuk driver had pulled over to the side of the road and was now staring back at us expectantly, waiting for an answer.
Because the last ten minutes of the ride had been spent much of the same way, but with questions more along the lines of “How do you put an elephant in the fridge?” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
Finally, Dan sputtered, “Uh…yeah? Well…no…”
“Do you want to?”
And off we went down the streets of Battambang.
We pulled up to the back of a house where a woman sat on a bamboo deck amidst various bowls and baskets. She was repeatedly dipping her hands into a bowl of soapy water, pulling out wet white strings and folding them neatly into a banana leaf lining.
What we were looking at was effectively a homespun noodle making factory, and as she and her husband silently continued to work, our tuk tuk driver ‘David’ explained to us the process of making fresh rice noodles.
The first step is to grind the rice into meal. Then you want to strain the meal, clean it, and put it into bags and compress it. The next step is to cook it, and once cooked, to pound the meal until it’s sticky. Then? Knead the meal by hand until it’s even stickier.
Strain the sticky meal through a press into the noodle ‘shape’ that we’re familiar with (above), and then hand wash the noodles – a process with multiple bowls with varying types (or levels perhaps) of soap. Finally, rinse the noodles one last time, and fold.
The couple that we were fortunate to see has been doing this for years (I can’t recall now but I would venture to guesstimate at at least two decades), and would originally go to the local market in Battambang to sell it.
However, the quality of their noodles was so consistently high, that eventually restaurants and other re-sellers (like street vendors) that had become loyal customers began coming to them directly.
They now no longer have to go to the market to sell their stock of noodles but receive daily orders which they fulfill without having to leave the house.
As they seem to supply most of the customers in the area, I’m not sure how they ever sleep – the couple can sell up to a 100 kilograms of rice noodles a day!