Asia, Southeast Asia Travel Diary, Travel

Day 7: Landmine Detecting Rats and Exploring Siem Reap

September 3, 2018 

After two full days of exploring temples, we were ready for some relaxation. There were just a couple other things on our list to do in Siem Reap before we left.

I was glad I left one day open for us to take it slow and breathe before we moved on to another country. It worked out perfectly because we woke up to a monsoon outside our door. I couldn’t imagine exploring temples in the pouring rain.

Around 8:00 am we enjoyed breakfast in the open air restaurant in our hotel as it poured. Everything went from dry and crispy to super green and lush overnight. After two days of intense dry heat, I was beginning to wonder why they called it rainy season.

After breakfast, we gathered our things, met Mr. Socheat one last time in the lobby, and made our way to Wat Thmey, better known as The Killing Fields.

I’ve already filled you into some of the horrific history of Cambodia and how the Khmer Rouge murdered millions of their own people in the 70’s. Wat Thmey was used as a prison for thousands of innocent Cambodians and The Killing Fields are where over 8,000 people were murdered by their own government. Few made it out alive. The pits where they put the bodies were about 250 meters away from the pagoda. There are Killing Fields all over Cambodia, this was just one of them.

When we first pulled in to Wat Thmey, it looked like any other temple compound. But as we got closer and walked through the grounds, there were many big signs explaining what the Khmer Rouge did and what we were looking at as we walked around. It’s a very somber place. I’ve never been to a concentration camp in Germany, but I think it would feel very similar. It didn’t help that it was raining.

One other thing that made this place hard to visit were the poor children who followed us around. They would follow close behind wherever we went. When I went inside one of the temples to see the giant Buddha, a little girl was there “keeping watch” over my shoes. Eric was standing right next to my shoes the whole time (he was in shorts so he couldn’t go inside), but when I came back out, she was expecting me to give her money.  We didn’t give her anything. It felt so wrong. I wanted to give money to every little one we came across, but we didn’t have that many dollars and I knew it would only hurt them in the long-run.

Also, Eric had another baby run up and hug his leg. I wondered if that was a tactic to get money out of tourists or if Cambodian babies just really loved Eric’s hairy white legs.

After Wat Thmey, we moved on to the APOPO Visitor Center. This was a place I was so excited to visit. APOPO is a non-profit organization working to clear countries still plagued by landmines (not just Cambodia).

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Cambodia is still one of the most heavily mined areas in the world with almost 65,000 casualties due to landmine explosions since 1979 (20,000 of those resulting in death). They are the second most mine-affected country in the world after Afghanistan. Last year (2017) there were only 32 casualties down from over 60 in 2016. While the number of casualties due to landmines has dropped drastically in the past few years, there’s no number that’s acceptable except for zero.

APOPO is an incredible organization with unique methods to demining. They use landmine-detecting rats (called HEROrats) to locate the explosives.

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African giant pouched rat – known for their high intelligence, exceptional sense of smell, and low maintenance care.

These aren’t your everyday sewer rats, these are much bigger and have incredible noses that make their mine-sniffing detection accuracy 100%. I won’t go too far into exactly what they do because their website has so much information including videos to show their methods.

Basically, the HEROrats are given a 200 square meter of land. Then they are harnessed and guided by a handler. The HEROrat goes back and forth sniffing every inch of that land and if a mine is found, they scratch the surface of the land to show where it is. A single HEROrat can check a 200 square meter minefield in 20 minutes with 100% accuracy. The same task would take a human technician with a metal detector between one and four days. Pretty incredible, if you ask me.

Why Rats?

These little guys aren’t only used for mine detection. They are also used to detect tuberculosis. “WHAT?!” I heard you exclaim through the screen. Yes, these incredible HEROrats can detect when humans are infected with tuberculosis. I was skeptical too but somehow this works and has increased TB detection by 40% in areas where this infection is prevalent.

A single HEROrat can check 100 samples from possible TB patients in less than 20 minutes. The same task takes human lab technicians over 4 days to complete. Any samples detected by the HEROrats are confirmed by a lab technician. This isn’t foolproof (although, human detection isn’t either). But the speed that the HEROrats can sort through the patient samples has significantly increased TB detection which means more patients are being identified, treated, and saved. For more information on the use of HEROrats in TB detection, check out APOPO’s site.

We arrived at the APOPO Visitor Center and were welcomed by one of the APOPO employees. He brought us over to a big map where we were joined by another couple. Another employee came over and started explaining where APOPO is currently working in Cambodia and which areas they’ve already cleared.

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Sorry, it’s blurry, but you probably couldn’t read it anyway!

He then brought us over to an area where they had examples of all the different types of explosives they’ve uncovered in Cambodia. They even had an area showing what these mines look like when they are in the ground. Some were obvious, although probably not as much if there were significant overgrowth, but others were so hard to see it would be impossible to avoid even if there was no vegetation around.

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After we were shown the different types of mines, they brought us to a big sandpit. A minute later, another APOPO employee walked out holding one of the adorable HEROrats wearing a tiny harness. We weren’t allowed to hold or touch the little guy, much like how people are not allowed to touch therapy, drug, or bomb-sniffing dogs.

Just look at those tiny feets!

The HEROrat handler placed the tiny mine-sniffer on the sand and hooked him up to a zip line (the best way I can describe it). There were two handlers that guided the rat through the rectangle. They stood on either side and moved with the rat slowly across every inch of the rectangle while maintaining a safe distance from the possible explosive area. Luckily, HEROrats are light enough that even if they walk across a mine, they will not set it off.

We watched the HEROrat go to work as he sniffed every inch of his possible explosive area. All of a sudden he found a mine! To show his handlers where it was he intensely dug and scratched at the surface. After he showed them where it was, he was called to his handler where he was given a treat (which he was VERY excited about).

It was very cute to watch but at the same time so incredible to see how quickly this HEROrat was able to uncover the buried landmine. We were both in awe.

After the demonstration, we were brought to a little cafe where we were shown a 15-minute video on APOPO’s efforts in Cambodia and the impact they’ve had on the country. To say that the impact is significant is an understatement.

After the video, they brought us into the main building where they had even more information, statistics on landmine issues around the world, examples of mines they’ve uncovered in Cambodia, and pictures of their team out in the field.

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HEROrat

As we looked through all the information, the employee who showed us around the visitor center told us it was his first time giving a tour and his first week with APOPO. He apologized for his poor English and asked us if we had any critiques for him. We told him he was wonderful and not to apologize! We truly loved the tour and told him to be confident because he was a great tour guide. He was delighted and asked if we would spread the word about their APOPO center. Apparently, they had just opened 6 months prior to our visit and many people didn’t know they were there. So here I am doing my best to get the word out.

The APOPO Visitor Center is open Monday – Saturday from 8:30 am – 5:30 pm. They ask for advanced reservations. I’m sure it’s so they can make sure they have someone to give the tour and demonstration. Each tour guide is an actual APOPO field agent.

After our visit to APOPO, I was feeling a little better. The Killing Fields were hard to see, but witnessing the incredible work by APOPO to help the people of Cambodia was very uplifting.

As we got back in our tuk-tuk, Mr. Socheat asked us where else we wanted to go. We had as much time as we wanted but we had no idea what else there was to see. Mr. Socheat didn’t speak English very well so we knew we couldn’t really ask him, so we just asked him to take us back to the hotel.

As he was driving, he turned around and told us something we couldn’t understand. We came to realize he wanted to show us something.

He brought us to a beautiful temple. Luckily the rain had stopped for a while so the ground was dry and there were no raindrops to dodge. He stopped the tuk-tuk and told us we could walk around.

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We were the only ones there. It was very peaceful, even though I had no idea where we were. Later we found out we were at Wat Preah Enkosei which is actually a modern-day monastery built around ancient ruins.

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We walked around the temple and eventually made our way over to where Mr. Socheat was talking with someone. As we approached, Mr. Socheat introduced us to his friend. He said that he had just finished his time as a monk and was about to return to normal life. We talked to him a bit just about random things. He asked us where we were from, why we chose to come to Cambodia, and what we enjoyed most. Then we said our goodbyes and returned to the tuk-tuk.

We enjoyed getting to see a different type of temple and speak with someone who was a monk there. We thanked Mr. Socheat for bringing us there and he seemed so pleased that we were pleased with the visit.

Once we were back at the hotel, we changed clothes and then caught a tuk-tuk to The Christa for lunch. It wasn’t anything fancy, just an open-air restaurant with inexpensive Khmer food.

We ordered a few small plates like shrimp tempura and spring rolls. Eric got another dish with meat. It was all very good!

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As we were sitting there, we heard very loud western music coming from what looked like a motorbike repair shop right across the street from The Christa. Then out from behind a wall, a little boy no older than 4 came out dancing. He was having the time of his life; it was the cutest thing! Everyone in the restaurant (which was about 6 people) were all cracking up. He suddenly realized he had an audience and ran back inside before I could get a picture.

After lunch, it was drizzling. We contemplated just going back to our hotel, but then we decided to go get a massage. We had been in Asia for almost 5 days and still hadn’t gotten a massage!

We found a great place called Lotus Dream Spa. It was mid-range in terms of price. We quickly found out that while yes, you can get dirt cheap massages in Asia, price typically determines quality. A one hour massage at Lotus Dream was $20.

Spas are a little awkward in Asia. All the ladies sit outside until they get a client. So when you walk up to the spa, there’s 6 – 8 ladies all there asking, “You want massage???” When you say yes they ask you to remove your shoes and then escort you inside.

We were told to sit in the lobby while they prepared a massage room. While we waited, we were given some delicious lemongrass tea. Fun fact: lemongrass repels mosquitos and if you ingest enough it, you yourself can repel mosquitos. How much do you have to ingest? I have no clue. All I know is any time someone handed us a cup of lemongrass tea (which was often) we were told very enthusiastically, “no mosquito!”

Once our room was ready, our massage ladies washed and massaged our feet first. Foot cleansing is always the start of any massage in Asia. Then we were given house shoes (which actually fit!) and escorted upstairs. They gave us some time to change and then came back in. At this point, there really wasn’t anything drastically different from a massage we would get at home.

Our masseuses were tiny but wow could they massage. I thought I was going to be bruised from head to toe after that! Other than the intense pressure, we both really enjoyed the massage. It was just as good if not better than the ones we’ve had back home.

Once our massage was done, we paid and went to go figure out what our next stop would be. As soon as we walked out, it was raining. We didn’t feel like walking around town in the rain so we just decided to grab a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. By the way, no matter where we were, finding a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap was really easy. We never feared getting scammed because there were no meters to deal with like in a taxi. Also, there were so many tuk-tuks, if our guy wouldn’t give us the price we wanted, we knew the next guy sure would. We did end up paying $2 one time, but it was the farthest we had ever taken one.

Once we got back to our hotel, I remembered that I needed to pick up my sandals! We grabbed a tuk-tuk there because it was raining. It wasn’t very far at all so we asked our driver if he would just wait for us while we picked up the shoes. He agreed and we ran into the store.

Unfortunately, my shoes were still at the workshop when we arrived. So Eric ran outside to tell the tuk-tuk driver he didn’t have to wait. We still paid him $2 for his time even though he didn’t take us back.

We hung out in the store for about 10 minutes and then the shoes arrived. I tried them on and they fit like a glove! I loved them so much and was so happy I got them. Once the shop owner was able to see them on my feet, he marked the strap and drilled buckle holes for me.

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Since we didn’t have our driver anymore, we decided to just walk back to the hotel. It really wasn’t that far, just annoying in the rain.

It was around 6:00 pm and we knew we wanted to go out for our last dinner in Siem Reap. There are several restaurants in the city centered around giving back to the community. We had a few on our list but ultimately decided to go to New Leaf Eatery. Their goal is to help support education in Cambodia through profits made from their restaurant. Since they opened in 2013, they’ve been able to donate over $40,000 and 2,000 books to schools in the Siem Reap area. All of their food and coffee is locally sourced from Cambodia.

Before dinner, we went to the bar at our hotel for some drinks. I forgot to mention the crazy geckos all over the place. They were everywhere and they made this funny noise kind of like a frog. While we were enjoying our drinks, the walls of the bar were covered in geckos. It almost looked like a strange interactive jungle wallpaper.

Around 7:00 pm we left for dinner and got a tuk-tuk since the restaurant was near the river. None of the tuk-tuk drivers ever knew where anything was even when we tried to show them on a map. I realized later it was probably because they didn’t know how to read the English language so our English map probably didn’t help them at all.

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We ended up just having our tuk-tuk driver drop us off at the night market and walked from there. The restaurant wasn’t far.

No matter where we ate in Siem Reap we were usually either the only ones there or there were just a few others in there with us. The same was true for New Leaf. It was one of the top-rated restaurants in all of Siem Reap but the entire place was empty at 7:00 pm.

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We were greeted by a young girl who seemed shy. Another lady came over and told us this girl was new and she was still learning English. We tried to be as nice as possible and spoke slowly to her so she didn’t feel intimidated.

We ordered spring rolls for the second time that day (we love spring rolls, ok?). For main dishes, I got the vegetarian fried rice while Eric got fish amok two ways.

Our dishes came out and they were so pretty! My fried rice had lots of vegetables mixed throughout and a carrot cut in a pretty star on top. Eric’s fish amok was served in 2 bowls made out of banana leaves with rice in the middle. The presentation was wonderful!

The food was good, not the best we’ve ever had. To be fair, neither of us were huge fans of Cambodian food. Of course, I was shamed when I didn’t finish my meal. “You no like?” How do Asian people’s stomachs not fill up like mine does after I eat 5 spoonfuls of rice?!

After dinner, we were going to find an ice cream place but I was not feeling great so we ended up just going back to our hotel. When we first got to Siem Reap, we saw that the very first Burger King was getting ready to open right down the street from our hotel. On our last night there, it had opened. So let it be known that the Neases were there when Siem Reap got their very first Burger King!

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The best picture I could get

Once we got back, we gathered up our things and got our bags ready to go for the next day of travel. In the morning we would start our journey to Chiang Mai, Thailand!

-Bisous!

Lauryn

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