Friday, 24 March 2017

CAMBODIA !!




Cambodia, is my favourite country in SE Asia !  

...Are you surprised ?    I know I was ! 
When I heard the captain’s announcements after our plane had landed in Siem Reap:  
“Welcome to Cambodia”
I thought to myself: “Now there’s something I never thought I’d hear! ”

Why ?
I guess it's because I grew up in the 70’s, and I remember hearing about the atrocities and the evils of the Khmer Rouge ……and so, I guess, it never was a place that I’d ever thought I’d visit, that is, until recently !
When I talk about hardships in other countries I’ve been to, none of them compare to the hell that the Cambodians endured between 1975-1979 (and beyond). We are talking about 1.7 million people killed, under the command of Pol Pot… an entire city (Phnom Pen) was marched into the fields, the young, the old, the healthy and the infirm….. everyone became a slave to the state.


At our arrival at the airport,  the line of immigration agents that processed your visa and paperwork was a wee bit intimidating. So our first impression was that of an extremely austere and serious atmosphere ....but then. we walk out and see: 



A more gentle side: it is quiet outside the airport, there are hardly any cars, we see trees, and farmers fields before us, we see motorized TukTuks  (In this country: a motorcycle with a hitch pulling a cart which seats 4- plus room for luggage!), comfortable and ornate, slowly puttering down the streets, there are no traffic jams, the streets have a very rural feeling, even though there are almost one million people living in Siem Reap, it sure doesn’t feel like it!  


Meaning no offense to the other countries we have visited on this trip but, to me,  it feel like we have finally made it to the “real" SE Asia.  I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but somehow, everything in Cambodia just feels more authentic than what we had experienced so far.



"Mister" Maps, our TukTuk driver
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Sitting on the concrete planter, just outside the front gate to our hotel, I enjoyed watching this lively scene before me: 

“The hotel sits at an intersection where four streets meet and, even if we are in the middle of Siem Reap city, the road in front of me is unpaved and dusty. There are no traffic lights, no stop signs, and yet the traffic, consisting mostly of bicycles and motor bikes, never ceases to flow, weaving seamlessly around each other, on either side of the road, not a single horn is heard… it is actually quite serene!  In the midst of all this, sellers slowly push their carts, the occasional car drives past and, at one point, a large farm tractor makes its way through....I smile at the surprises this country always seems to offer, anything goes here !”



The intersection in front of our hotel, Siem Reap



These 'tractors' were everywhere.  Picture a large self-propelled snow blower,
without the snow blower on the front, hooked up to a large trailer running down the road at about 15 mph.
They carried everythingfrom logs, to cement, or in this case newly made furniture.  

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In Cambodia you can have a cold beer beer served to you for $1 (or less), a delicious hot meal for $2. You can see children riding their large wheeled bicycles all around town, in the middle of the road, and you can still  see every imaginable thing being carried on a motorcycle.  The most interesting thing I saw was; not one but TWO, WHOLE pigs, and I mean BIG pigs, laying on their backs, attached to the backseat behind the driver of a motorbike.


And the people....oh, don’t even get me started.....I just LOVE them. They are the MOST genuinely warm and kind people I have had the pleasure to meet...The recentness of the terrible events in the 70’s explains why the majority of the population of Cambodia is very young (compared with other nations)...the few people we meet who are our age, we realize,  were around when it all happened, some were very young children of course but would surely have been affected, but you would never believe it from their warmth and their genuine smiles. The people of Cambodia are, truly, a remarkable example of the enduring strength of spirit and of survival. 




So, I am sitting by the beautiful pool of our $38/night hotel in Siem Reap. We are living great  luxury here,: there is a pool, a nice restaurant, a beautiful big family room. I am sipping on a $2 cocktail ( A Singapore Sling actually, which, in Singapore, would of cost me $34! I am glad I waited, this one tastes just as good I am sure!). 

 I'm enjoying a quiet break from the rest of the family, when 5 local kids, neighbours of the hotel, aged about 4-10 arrive...they are clearly excited about swimming in the pool, they are wearing bright orange lifejackets...and squeal with delight as they jump in. 

The man who brought them,  is about my age, he has a seat at the table near me. I can’t help but think: “This guy was around during the Khmer Rouge Regime…He lived through that....when he was just a little kid, but he probably remembers...he was probably about the age of these happy children currently swimming in front of me ....what a difference 40 years can make!"

The man is sitting alone, and I wish I could invite him to sit with me, maybe offer to buy him a drink and to ask him: “Do you mind sharing with me, what it was like, growing up in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge ?”   I don’t have the nerve to do this of course, so I just sit there.wondering…trying to understand this man, this country...



The next day, as we are visiting the temples in Angkor Wat, I come across a book: “First They Killed My Father, A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers”  written by Loung Ung. I buy the book and, that night, I immediately dive right in.  

Of course, this is a very difficult read. It is just heartbreaking, but I can’t put it down.  Reading the story of this little girl, (which really is the story of the people of Cambodia), while visiting Cambodia, has such an impact on me. I feel I have a much better understanding of the horror of it all, and I am grateful for the words...for her story and her honesty....it makes me appreciate the gentle smiles of the people I meet even more, it makes me hopeful for this new generation of children, in this country which has only just pulled itself out of hell....( Even if the Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979, It’s leader, Pol Pot, only died in 1998 and that is when the guerilla fighting finally stopped, for good).

I love Cambodia, I love its people. Most people I meet here make me want to take them into my arms and embrace them. They are survivors of unspeakable horrors, yet they do not seem embittered or hardened. They are gentle and sweet as can be and their genuine smiles burry themselves deep into my heart .

 I know I am gushing here.but, hey, what can I say?  I'm in love! 





At the hotel, we were welcomed and treated like family. When we first arrived, Cheo, the front desk clerk brought us cool towels to wash our faces and a cool lemon grass drink, ....and on later days, after a busy days out visiting temples, he always asked us about our day and made sure we had everything we needed.

We also got to know our tuktuk driver, he was with us everyday of our 6 day visit. “Mister” Maps didn’t speak very much english and was often quiet,but he always greeted us with a smile, was always polite and happy to indulge us in every way. On our final day, as he drove us back to the airport, Maps surprised us with a lovely gift; woven cloth depicting  the temples we had visited together, we made sure to show him our deep appreciation of this lovely gesture.

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Our visit of the great temples of Angkor Wat: 


























We bought a 3 day pass to this otherworldly place called Angkor Wat and, with the help of Maps, we managed to see many of the temples in it (seeing them all would take weeks!). We got up at 4:00 am one day to make it to the main temple for sunrise. 



































Along with hundreds of other tourists, we climbed amongst the giant faces of gods in Bayon temple. 











































We joined in the general fascination as we approached the Southern Gate into Angkor Thom, peering up at the towering face looking down on us as we crossed it.






































We marveled at countless stone carvings along endless walls, climbed steep steps which brought us to the top of temples offering us a view of the jungle beyond.





























































We looked up with apprehension at stone blocks making up ceilings that often seemed on the brink of collapse.



























We stood in wonder before the temple called Ta Prohm, which has been partially  taken over by nature, giant trees growing over and above the crumbling walls transforming this temple into a very eerie looking place..making it the ideal setting for a movie, such as Tomb Raider, which was filmed there.







In three days, we had walked and climbed through enough temples to last us, a lifetime, I am sure, and we are sure glad we did !  If you ever go to Angkor Wat, we recommend that you do what we did: Which is to go and visit the excellent National Museum the day before, to get a much deeper understanding of what you are about to see, It made all the difference for us ! 



          


















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The long lasting after affect of war : 

There are still an estimated 3-4 million land mines hidden in the ground all around Cambodia and people are still getting injured and dying becase of them today!  Many organizations are working to clear them away, and educate the children about the danger. 

We visited the Cambodia Land Mine Museum, one afternoon, which was founded by Aki Ra. He is a Khmer man, who was trained as a child soldier by the Khmer Rouge, and he himself had laid many mines down before defecting from this army and joining the Vietnamese army, helping them to defeat the Khmer Rouge. Later in life, seeing first hand the damage done to the innocent people of Cambodia by landmines,  Aki Ra decided to remove as many landmines as he could, on his own.... many thousands of landmines later...he was honoured by CNN, becoming a TOP 10 CNN Hero, in 2010. 

A collection of Landmines and grenades, and other explosives which have been disarmed and are now part
of the Land Mines Museum, Siem Reap

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The floating village :

One day we asked Maps to drive us to the “Floating Village”. He picked us up in the morning, and off we went. It was a long drive in a Tuktuk, and about an hour later,  (after seeing many wonderful sights but not having the good reflexes to pull out my camera in time!), we arrived at a dusty road along side a shallow canal with yellow water and more river boats than I had ever seen. 





Each wooden boat is equipped with a long shaft with propeller at the end of it. Each has a little cabin built on, with about 6 wooden seats. We paid the admission and were then led by an 11 year old boy to our boat. Once we were seated, the captain fired up the engine and we watched the mustard coloured water spew up behind us, spraying  so high up in the air that we all felt the need to capture this on video...(we did), as no one would believe it otherwise. 

After a few minutes  we started to see houses built high on stilts, along the river side. We saw many young men and children with fishing nets, chest-deep in the river. 




Then we saw a large half submerged wooden “box”. It looked like a raft, but with walls and a roof...as the boat got closer to it, I wondered aloud “ Now whats this for?” followed seconds later by my loud scream “ Oh MY GOD!!!  ITS FULL OF CROCODILES!” , and it was....full of crocodiles (or alligators?) , as I saw their unmistakable scaly skins through the gaps !


The "box of crocodiles"
























Turns out the river, leads into an enormous lake (the largest in Cambodia), and there are many crocodiles in the lake and river, where the kids are swimming, bathing and fishing !

The floating restaurant in the lake



Matthew relaxing after lunch at the floating restaurant


The boat brings us to a floating restaurant in this large lake, and wouldn’t you know it, one of the items on the menu was ....crocodile meat!  There is a cage attached along side the restaurant were we can see them half submerged like the ones we had passed by earlier.

The 11 year old "First Mate" who was, at the moment of the photo, driving the boat!

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The Chantiers Ecoles

There are many positive stories to come out of Cambodia. Many organizations have been created to help the people to make a better life for everyone here. 

One such organisation is “Les Chantiers Ecole” otherwise known as “ Artisans Angkor”. This is an organization which teaches young people the traditional trades of Cambodia, free of charge, offering them skills, and later: fair salaries. The visit of the centre and the silk farm is also free for visitors, they rely on donations and also on people shopping in their gift shop which features the beautiful art pieces made by the students. We bought a silk scarf of course ! 

We spent an afternoon touring the workshops, and visiting the silk farm, seeing every step of the process from the worm, cocoons, retrieveing the silk, weaving, dying and finally to the finished product

Silk Worms

Silk Cocoon



Mark found a book about Marco Polo (actually, Marco Polo's Book, with some analysis and interpretation), and spent all of his spare time reading it while in Cambodia. He told us that it was him who brought the knowledge of silk production to Europe. More precisely: that one must use the Mulberry Plant to feed the worms to get them to produce silk, as previous attempts using other plants had failed. 

Here is Mark reading his Marco Polo Book while being driven around in the TukTuk
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Phare: “The Cambodian Youth’s Circus”

 This is another great success story. Children who were left homeless, living on the streets in poverty, were taken in and taught circus skills, and not just any circus skills, but incredible, amazing, jaw-dropping skills, and have been showcasing these talents in Siem Reap for over 4 years now...






These youngsters have had the chance to travel with their craft, performing in countries as far as the USA, Norway, Germany, Korea etc... It was wonderful vibrant show, packed with action and comedy, death defying stunts intermixed with beauty and grace. We could feel the positive influence that the kids (now young adults) have received from this training. It was a great feel-good outing for all of us to take in!  We will never forget it, and we will never forget Cambodia!





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More Photos of  Cambodia : 


Mark bought me this brass bracelet at Phare's Gift shop. It is made from recycled bullets. I like that it takes something negative and turns it into something positive, like Phare, how they turn the lives around for the youths at risk. 


The Curry Seeds that give us the delicious curry flavours!


Many TukTuk drivers set these make-shift hammocks up while they wait for
their fares to return from the temples!



A view from Inside Angkor Wat's main temple: 

Looking up through the ceiling






Extremely detailed and intricate stone carvings










I find the Brahma cows beautiful !


Water Buffalo with little bird groomers