It has taken me a long time to finish chronicling our days in Cambodia, but I’ve saved the best for last. While looking on Trip Advisor at activities in Siem Reap, I came across a company called Backstreet Academy. Backstreet Academy’s tagline is: “Book unique tours, activities & things to do with amazing local hosts.” They partner with locals in a handful of cities in Asia. These partners offer classes, activities, tours, and workshops to give tourists an inside, hands-on experience. From arts and crafts to hunting expeditions to cooking classes, there are all sorts of options. From what I understand, you pay half your fee online to Backstreet Academy to book your activity, they arrange everything with the host, then you pay the second half directly to your host at the time of the class. That was how it worked for us anyway. Some of the options offered in Siem Reap were Fear Factor-style food tours (try a bunch of crazy foods like crickets, worms and tarantulas), rice farming, Khmer warrior initiation, and soapstone carving. Few of the activities were open for kids as young as Zion, though, so I had to do a bit of searching. Then I found it: Khmer Crossbow Making:
The ethnic hill tribes in Khmer used to be hunter-gatherers and the crossbow is an integral weapon in their culture as the main tool used for hunting. Crafted from the strongest bamboo and wood, these crossbows are capable of shooting further than your eyes can see in the jungle with your accuracy the only impediment to scoring a hit. Armed with self-crafted bamboo arrows, the hunters able to shoot with remarkable accuracy and feed their tribes. Now you can join our Khmer crossbow-maker in crafting your own personal crossbow! Made from 1 single block of wood and 1 piece of smoked bamboo then strung together by thick twine, your crossbow can be disassembled for easy transportation back home…
We waited until the morning of our booking to tell Daniel and Zion about the crossbow class. Needless to say, they were pumped. After lunch on Friday, our last day in Cambodia, we went to our meet-up location and met our host and translators. Turns out another couple from Hong Kong had booked the crossbow class at the same time we did, so there were three crossbows constructed that afternoon–one for the other couple, and one each for Daniel and Zion. Our host seemed very skilled and intent on his work, but I knew for sure it was the real deal when the couple from Hong Kong started discussing whether the crossbow would fit in their luggage or not. They asked our host if he could make the bow slightly shorter so that it would fit in their suitcase. He and the translator discussed it for a moment, then came his reply, via the translator: “I guess so. But if we do, it won’t be as strong. You will not be able to go hunting with it.” The other couple assured him that was ok, they had no intention of taking it hunting in Hong Kong. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Making the crossbows proved to be a long process. We had already been out all morning for the ox cart ride and the silk farm. But Daniel and Zion stayed engaged for all four hours. And as you can see above, Knox and Ben got in on the action, too. I probably would have gone nuts being there that long with Clementine, but the workshop was located at the back of a handicraft market called Angkor Handicraft Association (AHA). AHA works with artisans in Siem Reap to provide a location for them to practice their trade and sell their wares. 80% of souvenirs in Siem Reap markets are imported from other countries. Many of the items are mass-produced in China, so tourists shopping for mementos to remember Cambodia or bring home as gifts are more often than not just buying China-made trinkets. AHA “facilitates the promotion of member’s products in national and international markets, helping them overcome the huge disadvantage they suffer against mass-produced souvenirs made overseas.” Needless to say, I was immediately taken with the market and the entire project.
There were souvenirs of all kinds: textiles, jewelry, crafts, decorations, and best of all, ceramics. I got to watch one of the potters throwing cups on his wheel. I got to watch a couple of workers rolling out the clay and cutting out pieces for small, ceramic boxes. I got to watch a couple more workers unloading an enormous, multi-colored batch of mugs, teapots, incense burners, trivets, vases, saucers and pots from the kiln. Some of the items were glazed, some were not. The pictures below will give you some idea of the tantalizing array of items being created. I could have spent hundreds of dollars at AHA, and I probably would have. The only problem was we didn’t have enough room in our luggage, and we hadn’t brought enough cash along. If only I could go back. We did buy a couple mugs and one incense burner, and carefully pack them in one of our two suitcases (space where the diapers had been).
We had a wonderful time at Backstreet Academy and Angkor Handicrafts Association. It was the best afternoon of our trip, and I highly recommend AHA to anyone traveling to Siem Reap. If you’re traveling anywhere in Asia, check Backstreet Academy to see if they have any listings in your destination city. It was so worthwhile to spend the extra time and money to go home with crossbows and handmade ceramics.
That night after dinner Daniel, Zion, and I got our feet nibbled by fish. If you watched the video of our trip, you can see me squealing as the fish eat dead skin from my feet. When I heard about fishy foot spas, I thought the fish were tiny. I was shocked to see that several of the fish were as large as my feet, and one kept putting my entire pinky toe in its mouth. It took every ounce of self-control I have not to scream the entire time, or kick the fish and pull my feet out. It tickled so so much–just like a cat licking your feet.
The next morning we said goodbye to Siem Reap and boarded our flight back to Singapore.