This post is by Chantal Griffin, who visited an orphanage in Cambodia along with her husband Mick during a Southeast Asia adventure. Through a contact at their hotel in Cambodia, they were directed to a local town market to buy school supplies (pencils, markers, crayons, etc.) to give to the kids. They also purchased 100 pounds of rice, 20 pounds of sugar, 20 pounds of salt, ten liters of cooking oil, soy sauce, fish sauce and cleaning supplies. “It was very satisfying to know that 100 percent of our contribution went directly to the kids whom we met,” Chantal says. For the rest of their story, read on.
We traveled to both Cambodia and Vietnam to see sights such as the spectacular temples of Angkor, Cambodia. Built in the 12th century and numbering over 100, these stone temples are the single largest religious monument in the world. Their remarkable scale and architectural ingenuity can only be appreciated from a personal viewing. Rather than stay at one of the many large resorts that line the main road, we opted for a boutique hotel called the Golden Banana, in the nearby town of Siem Reap.
Cambodia is a country that has overcome many challenges (centuries of war) and is one of the poorest countries in the world. We found the people to be extremely friendly and approachable, however we also encountered much poverty and despair.
Like many visitors, we struggled to find a way to handle the difference between our own (relative) wealth, coming from more a privileged society, and the poverty around us. While it is easy and tempting to give money to street kids selling beaded bracelets for a dollar, we learned they were kept out of school to “work” the streets. Therefore, we wanted to give in a way that would offer lasting support rather than encourage young kids to stay out of school. Through our hotel, we found an agency in town that referred us to an orphanage where we were able to see what was needed. With a list in hand, we went to a nearby outdoor market to buy these items.
A little goes a long way in Cambodia: $60 buys a pig and food for the pig for one year giving a family a new source of income; $150 supports a child at school for a year; $200 buys a hand water pump for one family; $1000 buys a safe and lasting home for one family. The following agencies work to help the people in Cambodia:
A non-profit Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism
A non-profit group focusing on education
For $50, a second hand bicycle can enable a student to attend school
Assisting Cambodian Orphans and the Disabled Organization (this is the orphanage that we visited)
In addition to Cambodia, we spent two weeks in Vietnam where we visited the north, south and central parts of the country, each offering a diversity of scenery, climate, food and activities.
We started in southern Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where we toured the sites (through chaotic traffic) on motorcycles driven by locals. We also visited the food markets and many Hindu temples. Through our hotel, The Rex Hotel, we took a half-day cooking class which turned out to be a delicious adventure.
From Hanoi, in the north, we took a side trip to Halong Bay and spent three days and two nights on a Chinese junk boat cruising around the hundreds of pinnacle-shaped, limestone islands (called karsts). We were able to kayak to secluded beaches, explore grottos and caves with stalactites and stalagmites as well as see the many floating villages that thrive among the karst formations.
Also from Hanoi, we took an overnight train to the mountain village of Sapa which is just a few miles south of the Chinese border. Sapa is home to several minority tribes whose distinctive colorful dress identify the various groups including the Black Hmong, the Red Dao and the Flower Hmong. With a local guide, we spent a glorious day hiking from village to village and were able to see how the locals farm, build their huts, cook, make tools, textiles and clothes.
Vietnam is also a shopper’s paradise. There are tailors and cobblers on every street corner where custom-made shirts and shoes can be had within 24 hours. Undoubtedly, Hoi An, in Central Vietnam, is the best place to shop. Hoi An’s riverside location is enchanting and it’s bordered on the east by the South China Sea making it a great beach destination too. This ancient town prohibits motorized vehicles so it’s a walker’s delight and bicycles, which are easy to rent, abound.
We had been warned not to travel by car because the roads are bad and the traffic can be terrible and we were happy we took that advice.
Also, we were warned before going and when we were there that the overnight train to Sapa can be a very unpleasant experience due to the condition of the toilets after several hours on windy mountain track. We opted to take the Victoria Express which can only be booked in conjunction with staying at the Victoria Hotel in Sapa. What could have been a major challenge turned out to be a first class trip.
Finding enough time to see and explore all that Vietnam has to offer was the biggest challenge. We felt that we could have stayed another week to visit the southern beaches and the Mekong Delta.
We flew to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) from SFO on Cathay Pacific Airlines. From Saigon, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Vietnam Airlines. We traveled by chartered bus to Halong Bay, train to Sapa and flew from Hanoi to Central Vietnam to the city of Hue. From Hue we hired a driver to get to Hoi An and from Hoi An, we flew back to Saigon. Internal flights are very inexpensive and service all of the major destinations. Of course, motorcycles and cyclos (big three-wheeled bikes with a single passenger seat)
are a MUST.
Who would you recommend this experience to?
Architectural and history buffs would delight in the rich pasts of both countries. Beach lovers, hikers, foodies, shoppers, nightlife-seekers would also find great pleasure in visiting Vietnam. We met travelers of all ages from around the world and with equally diverse budgets. The least expensive room we stayed in was $15 night and the most expensive was $180–so there is truly something for everyone.