I am not an archaeologist; I am a travel writer, and I appreciate learning as many new skills abroad as I can. I truly value someone who has traveled the world and lived as others do, gaining a genuine empathy for other lifestyles and cultures. That’s why I like to observe and experience as much as I can.
That is why this past year I decided to volunteer for an archaeological dig in Cambodia. When one thinks of Cambodia, they think of the great temples that the country is known for which you can read about here https://vivaglammagazine.com/the-top-3-temples-to-see-in-angkor/ but may not realize the state the country is currently in. The average annual income per capita for a Cambodian family is slightly over $1,300. When most people think of archaeology in Cambodia, they think of the great temples, but I volunteered for work elsewhere. While I did visit the grand temples of Angkor, I traveled to Battambang for the archaeological work. There has been so much research done focusing on the great temples and how the elite of the Angkorian time lived, but there is no such abundance of study on the everyday people of that time. So, the dig I volunteered for under Miriam Stark and Dr. Alison Carter took place in someone’s farmland just behind the temple Prasat Basaet.
Coming from the states, I expected the lifestyle in Cambodia to be more of a village-lifestyle, but I was surprised to find that most homes are small sheds on stilts without any electricity or modern conveniences. The farmers of Cambodia are extremely hard-working, and the directors of our dig hired the family whose lands we were digging on as labor for the dig, and they were happy to accept.
As far as lifestyle experiences, I brought my own toilet paper with me, as it was next to impossible to find a restroom with toilet paper, and I found that you can’t flush any paper in the public toilets where we were. So, if there were no waste baskets, one must carry a small plastic bag with them to collect their used toilet paper until a waste basket could be found. I found that some toilets flushed modernly while others required you to flush them yourself with a pale and a basin of water. But it was worth it to meet the kind, hard-working families of the village of Battambang and to learn archaeology first-hand from the pros.
In Cambodia, many people throw their trash on the ground rather than throwing it away, so the archaeological finds were numerous. We were already finding items from the Angkorian period within the first 10 inches of digging. Since pots would break and pieces were left where they had been broken, the amount of pottery sherds that we found were surprisingly high, and the sizes varied greatly. Aside from that, we were most likely digging where a kitchen used to be, as we found many small animal bones.
At my trench on the project, I learned how to measure the trench, record it on the map, and photograph its progress. I learned how to properly dig, collect and sift through the dirt, and clean up the pottery sherds. We would all gather at a pagoda for lunch, and the local ice cream man who sold treats from his bike learned our schedule and would come by at lunch to ensure we could purchase ice cream from him. It was only 7 cents for a popsicle. There were times during our lunch where a local woman would come by and collect the trash people had strewn about (not ours; we were very respectful and collected our own) and burn it. While the idea was interesting, we would try to move out of the way of the smoke, as there was a lot of burning plastic in the fumes.
By the time I left my volunteer work, I could tell you the difference between types of pottery sherds and could differentiate between bone and pottery (which can be surprisingly hard at times). I could properly map, measure, and record finds in a trench, and I experienced a lot of the Cambodian farmer’s lifestyle firsthand.
The day I was leaving the country, I stopped by APOPO in Siem Reap to learn even more. Apparently, the Cambodian countryside is still plagued with landmines that were never detonated during the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam War. An alarming number of farmers are killed annually while working their own fields because they come across a landmine. This is clearly a real danger, especially to the farmers, who account for roughly 60% of the Cambodian population and those living in rural areas, who account for nearly 80% of the Cambodian population. An estimated 15,000-20,000 people are killed by landmines each year in Cambodia. The people behind APOPO brought their program from Africa to Cambodia to help with the problem.
What APOPO does is train Giant African Pouched Rats to sniff out landmines. These “HeroRATS” are too small to set off the landmines themselves, so they are perfect for the job. They are trained on a basis of positive reinforcement and train regularly to learn how to detect the smell of a landmine. When they find one, they scratch at the ground over where the explosive is so it can be tagged by their handler and properly dealt with. These little guys are very important to APOPO’s mission in saving lives, so they are very well taken care of. The trainers develop a loving and dedicated relationship with their rat partners. These HeroRATS are given a specialized diet with regular exercise and much personal care and playtime. They also have weekly care from a dedicated onsite vet. At four weeks, the rats begin to be regularly handled by their trainers and begin training with a treat-reward system. First, they train safely with tea eggs filled with the smell of TNT to learn the smell and gradually work their way out to the field with real explosives.
APOPO works in solely African countries with the exception of Cambodia-the first country they have begun work in outside of Africa. Over the years, APOPO and its HeroRATS have detected and destroyed 107,633 landmines, saving the lives of 957,350 people from the threat of explosives.
I think it’s important for people to know the struggles that these farmers face in Cambodia, as most have no idea. This means finding a greater knowledge of their past through archaeology, as well as learning about their present circumstances. And it’s inspiring to see all that is being done to help in the cleverest of ways. We all need to aim to see as much as we can of the world, picking up new skills along the way. This way, through empathy, we can learn to give back and help those less fortunate than ourselves and to appreciate the luxuries that we are given.