Delilah and I are running behind our guide up the dirt paths that count as roads a few kilometers outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Delilah is happy with our speed, using up all her youthful energy. She is pretty too, a lovely brown color with a white spot on her forehead. Delilah is a horse.
We had left The Happy Ranch, a Western-owned trail riding enterprise which, though it’s only a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride outside of town, seems to be in another world.
Immediately we are amongst rice fields in which I see people accomplishing various stages of the rice-growing process. A group of women asks if I wanted to help them (with my guide as translator), and I can’t tell if they are joking. I am told the typical Cambodian farmer, a profession which much of the country engages in, earns about US $3 per day.
And here I am, sitting tall on the back of an animal that these women could never afford and, were it not for their fields being near the Happy Ranch, would probably rarely see. I’m white, I speak English, and I’m paying US $35 for this experience. In other words, I’m unimaginably privileged.
There are a few ways in Siem Reap to see “the countryside”, which could in part be considered poverty tourism. Perhaps none present the local population with someone of such stark contrasts to themselves as riding through the villages on a horse. On the other hand, this is also an extremely hands-off, interaction-free approach beyond the occasional person saying something to me via my guide.
Mostly, during my ride, I don’t talk to anyone who’s not my guide. Except the kids, who shout hello and “Falang! Falang!” I certainly don’t give anything to anybody or even interrupt anyone’s day beyond the couple seconds they might choose to spend staring at me.
And I’m not doing it to go out and “see how the other side lives.” I’m doing it because I love riding, the land is beautiful, and because my guide is teaching me a lot about Cambodian culture.
We walk in the populated areas, like the place where we pass a school – primary and secondary – and a functioning, brightly-colored temple. I learn a few things here. First, no school is compulsory but primary schools are free and therefore well attended. Despite that, I saw plenty of kids of the right age who were not at the school. Secondary school is not free and many children receive only a primary school level education. The secondary school had far less students.
The other thing I learn at this small intersection is that the stupas you see dotting temple grounds are for ashes. The crematorium in the background is pointed out, and appears to be operating right now. Each of the community’s wealthiest families has its own stupa, so your ashes go in with all your relative’s ashes. If you can’t afford your own stupa, your ashes go in the communal ash pile, which is a special building. In Therevada Buddhism, cremation is of key importance because you cannot be reincarnated and have the chance to grow closer to enlightenment if you are not cremated. This explains why the Khmer Rouge’s mass graves were especially horrific for the Cambodian people.
We continue on through more rice fields and small clusters of houses, and even out here I can see a pretty big disparity of wealth. There are big houses with cars, and small houses that are little more than shacks. Everywhere there are animals – cows, water buffaloes, chickens, dogs, pigs.
My guide speaks of his life and his dreams. He went through training to be a monk for 8 years. He said the work was hard but you got free housing and the opportunity to learn English for free. He wants to improve his English which is why he is working this guide job. He wishes he could take classes with a native speaker, for English and for Spanish which he knows a bit, but he cannot afford the $300 per month fee. His dream is to become a guide at the Angkor temples. Why? It is by far the most lucrative job available in Siem Reap. A guide there can make $50 per day if he is lucky enough to find someone to guide that day. When you consider what I learned that a farmer made, that would make you pretty rich, comparatively. If you could get a client every day (which is unlikely, I think, considering the amount of guides hanging out at each temple trying to get your business) and they hired you for about 8 hours of temple-going, you could be making approximately US minimum wage.
At this point we have made it to our destination, Wat Athvea, known as the temple without a door. It was built by Suyavarman II, the same king who built Angkor Wat. This temple, though, was never finished. Due to its middle-of-nowhere location, there are no tourists at Wat Athvea. I see some pre-teen boys sitting in one of the windows, and a couple of similar-aged girls standing around in front of the stairs. But they don’t try to sell me anything; they don’t even really acknowledge me.
I walk into the quiet temple and see three adults talking and sweeping. They look up at me but don’t engage with me. I wander around taking pictures, happy to be so alone. I come out and return to the guide and the horses. “There,” he points, “there is the Buddhist school I went to. And over there past those trees is my home.”
As we walk, trot, and canter back to the Happy Ranch, I think about this slice of Cambodian life I have seen. My upbringing was very different and yet I can’t help but feel a sense of something shared, perhaps simply humanity itself.
On the last stretch, Delilah pulls while we are cantering and tries to take off. I ease her back down into a trot, because I don’t want to lose control. I can’t blame her, though, for wanting to go home.