Ancient Town Hoi An in photos

This blog posting will be less tell, more show.

First a quick intro: Hoi An was a major shipping port in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Dutch, Japanese and Chinese traders passing by these very walls. It would have become a much bigger city, but in the 19th century, the river silted up and big ships were no longer able to pass through. The town  languished until its 1999 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site turned it into one of SE Asia’s most popular tourist destinations.

IMG_0043The tourists are here in huge numbers, and that is the one critique I have of this town. Ancient Town is a madhouse and as a tourist myself, I am adding to the mayhem, so my criticism is hardly fair. If it is uncrowded streets and mellow moments you are looking for, get here really early in the morning.

IMG_9752Since Hoi An’s tourist life revolves around the river, we will begin there. Boats are for hire, for short cruises at sunset or for longer tours.

IMG_9991While Ancient Town runs back from the river on both sides for several streets, the riverfront promenade provides a natural gathering place and events are held most nights. A Food Festival was on one night, with two intense and sweating chefs  stirring the pot.

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Further down the promenade, we watched two girls wade into the river, which is really filthy.  Here, they’re gathering around to show off their catch – big black snails.

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As the late afternoon turns into early evening, the light and atmosphere on the waterfront is magical. The heat and sun has been replaced with a welcome light breeze.

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There are outdoor art displays, buskers, food vendors and good old-fashioned people-watching.

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These kids were having a great time pushing each other around on this little bike.

IMG_9760This little one was quite unabashedly twirling her skirt and mugging for the camera.

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I watched this beautiful woman for a minute or two – she never moved. Deep in thought or just enjoying a quiet spot away from the tourist throngs.

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Many Vietnamese carry parasols – an excellent idea now when the sun is so hot.

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I was caught by the expression on this mother’s face. She was showing something to her little children and had their full attention.

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There are so many twisty little alleyways – it would take days to explore them all.

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Great boughs of bougainvillea and flowing shrubs hang over doorways – bright bursts of colour against the ocher walls.
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Hoi An has a number of art galleries, with striking contemporary art by young artists.

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This young man was painting on the sidewalk, and took a moment for a smoke break.

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To enter Ancient Town in Hoi An, you must buy a pass (about $8) that entitles you to the entrance of five old shophouses, or assembly halls or museums. That money goes to a foundation to help preserve the old structures.  I took this photo from the second floor of a Chinese merchant hall. The railings and staircase felt a little fragile, and the walls are dark, but we got a good sense of how the town must have felt in its trading heyday.

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The Japanese Covered Bridge is another example of the carved wood and rolled roof design of the structures in Hoi An.

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Tailor shops and  textile handiwork is huge business  in Hoi An. In this room, a number of young women were at work embroidering fabric. They spoke no English, so I was unable to ask them about their work, but I suspect they put in long hours. If you look carefully, you can see two women sleeping on the floor.

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There are hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An, but only a few of them are well-regarded. In this case, you really do get what you pay for.  Many turn out identical garments in 24 hours or less and they can be of poor quality. Having a suit or dress made here requires careful  research and word of mouth recommendations.

We wondered who the target market is for these bouncy and confident suits.

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I stopped to take a photo of the catchy sewing machine display – an homage to one of the town’s big industries. But then, the model caught my eye. Where did they find this Caucasian mannequin with mussy bedhead and a slightly regretful expression in her eyes?

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The food in Hoi An is fantastic, and the range of restaurants is staggering. Everything from ladies selling sweet potato cakes on the street to reservation-only hot spots with American prices. We ate so well, and darned if I did not take one photo of food. I just kept forgetting – the food would arrive, we’d start to eat and make a mess of our plates and then, I’d remember.  You’ll have to take our word for it.  This was our view from a favourite restaurant.

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And now, a sunset and evening tour of Hoi An:

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Lanterns are a big deal in Hoi An. The streets are strung with them, people buy small floating lanterns with candles to launch on the river, and they are for sale everywhere. This display proved to be an irresistible backdrop for a holiday photo.

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The bridge over the river is adorned with two graceful signs –
especially beautiful when lit at night.

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Good-bye Hoi An. Thank you for giving us such a relaxing and elegant vacation.

The exquisite beauty of perfect Hoi An

Walking through the streets of old Hoi An is a photographer’s dream – you can feel like a creative genius just by showing up.  Ancient Town is filled with museums, Chinese and Japanese shophouses, art galleries, assembly halls and pagodas, bridges, old wells and masses of flowers. Every street is intersected with dozens of alleys, so you could spend a couple of days happily wandering and see a different sight at every turn. The 17th century merchant halls are now filled with Tiger Balm and silk scarves, but otherwise the area is a living museum – beautifully preserved.

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Look up and see lanterns swaying in front of a crumbling roof; look down an alleyway and find bougainvillea spilling over a doorway and look straight ahead…and you’ll see this:

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Oh yes, the tour groups have discovered Hoi An as well.  Wiry chain-smoking drivers wheel flocks of tourists through the narrow streets like oversized toddlers on an outing. Vietnam is solidly on the senior tourist radar and Hoi An is one of its most popular destinations, with very good reason. It’s small, walkable, flat enough to cycle out to rice paddies and the beach, filled with amazing restaurants and hotels  and shopping and day trips are varied and affordable.

There is so much to tell you about Hoi An and area that I’ll do two blog posts – beginning with the countryside. There is as much to see in the area around Hoi An as there is right in town. Our hotel is about halfway between the ancient town on the river and  An Bang Beach on the ocean. This has worked out perfectly for us, as we’re tucked on a quiet side street and can hop on one of the hotel’s (rusty, squeaky but free) bikes and make a quick escape. About five minutes from here we come across this scene:

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Just outside of town, there are rice paddies for many kilometres on both sides of the highway. We’ve discovered the joy of hopping on one of the many small roads that run through them and being transported into the most green, serene world you can imagine. Every ride is different  – you never know what creature you might run across.

These guys gave us a wary look, and we gave them a wide berth, but going on the theory that cows are docile, we felt comfortable enough.

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The water buffalo are a slightly different story. I’m quite sure they would not do us any harm, but their horns are intimidating, so they were fun to watch from a distance. We first saw a big male, submerged up to his ears in a mud-hole, and then realized we were in the middle of a herd. As we rode on, so did the buffalo, leaving their grazing to head for water.

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We were getting quite blasé about water buffalo sightings and then we came upon this man. Traveling around in the paddies can feel like being in the middle of an Asian silk painting – so timeless and peaceful. That man on his water buffalo has been around for hundreds of years.

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This was not a sight we expected to see…

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We were heading down that stone wall to see the tomb of a Japanese trader who is buried in the middle of the rice paddies. (on dry land – more on that in a minute). This man was ahead of us  and he suddenly stopped, put a cage down and called out a command. This macaw emerged from the cage and then took off – flying and swooping before landing again and waiting for treats.   It was quite the sight; even more remarkable that the bird didn’t seize his opportunity and fly to freedom. Stephen spoke to the owner for a bit – apparently the bird is just 7 months old, so the two of them will grow old together.

As we were walking back, the macaw flew about and landed on Stephen’s shoulder. He started pecking at his hat, then spied the better prize – a silver necklace. Before he could lacerate Steve’s neck, the owner called him off.

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The Japanese tomb is visible in the above photo, a low flat stone structure on the horizon to the right of the bird.  It holds the remains of a 17th century Japanese trader, as a testament to the historical  friendship between the Japanese and Vietnamese. Interestingly, the massive rice paddies, which are mainly in water, are interspersed with squares of dry land and home to random tombstones, small homes and vegetable patches.

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We have found our routine while we’re here – up early and out by 8:00 am to hit the rice paddies for our dose of zen time. Then, when we have gathered enough nerve to hit the highway on our bikes and compete for space with dozens of motorcycles, scooters, delivery trucks, buses, minivans and assorted and sundry other vehicles, all of them speeding and honking and passing one another…we head for the beach. So far, so good, but you really need to be on your game, as regard for the safety of others is not at issue here in Hoi An. We were told the driving here is the worst in Vietnam (an unscientific opinion) but I’m inclined to believe it.   Anyway, just another 10 minutes from rice paddies to beach and this is our reward:

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We stake out a sun bed and thatched roof shade (ours for the day for the price of an iced coffee). We bring a book and a towel, and alternate between swimming in calm, delightfully refreshing water and sitting on our sunbeds, reading or napping. When we’re hungry or thirsty, we eat or drink. It is quiet and civilized and such a tonic – our first real beach time since we’ve been travelling.

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The beach has lots going on besides lazing about. We ran into a family who brought this massive inflatable beach pool with them from their home in Switzerland. The kids and Dad were having a grand time.  We must have stood there for 5 or 10 minutes while the same scene repeated itself. Dad fills pail with water from the ocean and pours it over his son. Son shrieks. Every time. We had a good laugh with the mum and she let me take a photo of the goings-on (similar scenes repeated daily on beaches around the world.)

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These distinctive round basket boats were on shore – possibly to be rented and taken out, or maybe they are simply fishing boats, but no-one was around to talk to about them or their history.

 

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The one downside of the beach and also of Hoi An, is the persistent and aggressive nature of the vendors. They walk the beach and come up into the restaurants with very similar wares – fans, little dolls, tiny china cups, place mats, plastic jewellery – cheap stuff that nobody wants.  A simple “no thanks” is ignored. Most of them speak English quite well and the line is always the same, “Where you from? Canadians help me feed my children. I need money for my family.”
By not buying, what you are doing is not turning down the chance to buy a lacquer mirror, you are refusing to help her family. It is very difficult, because although the line is the same, the circumstances are likely legit for most of the vendors – they are poor and struggling. We talked to Ming for a few minutes.

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Ming was quite forthcoming about her situation. When she found out we had two sons, she told us we were doubly lucky. Having a son is important in Vietnam – a family with only girls is at a disadvantage. She has three daughters and seemed so disappointed by that – once they are married, they will go to their husbands’ homes and  she will be left with no-one to care for her.

We told her we would have been happy to have a daughter as well, but now we were lucky to have a daughter -in-law. She was unimpressed – girls and women have less value here. So much more to talk about on that subject, but at another time. It left us feeling so sad for Ming – she has spent her life being devalued because she’s female.

There is still a culture in Asia that crosses all economic levels –  the cherished boy who is brought up to be catered to and waited on and becomes spoiled and lazy. We have heard the anecdotal stories and witnessed some examples of it already – groups of men, young and old, hanging out during the day and doing little.

This is not the case in every family, of course. We have met many gentle and hardworking young men and devoted family men. But it does say to us that cultural understanding is so complex, and we would need to be here for a long time to make sense of things, or at least not believe they are wrong just because they are different.

See you in Ancient Town Hoi An in a few days.

Nha Trang: The Russians are Coming!

For those of you too young to get the reference, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming! is a 1966 Norman Jewison comedy that played into American fears of a Russian invasion.
Nha Trang is a Vietnamese beach town that is as famous for its long white crescent beach as it is for the very literal invasion of Russian tourists and expats who have made this their personal playground.

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Oh sure, you’ll see Asian tourists and a few Europeans and even the odd Canadian, but Russians outnumber us all by 10-1. Hotels, restaurants, tour groups and stores cater to the Russian market. Most menus are in Vietnamese, English and Russian and if you are hankering for a massive wooden platter with potatoes and five varieties of grilled meat, you have come to the right place.

We had heard iffy reports from fellow travellers, but we were there for a day and two nights to break up our long travel north to Hoi An.

The promenade along the ocean is lovely, lined with high-rise hotels and softened with a shady, sculpture-filled park. Walk two streets away from the beach and Nha Trang is not a pretty place. It’s got a bit of a reputation for being a hard-partying town.

Nha Trang could be a beach in a lot of places, but nothing about it feels like Vietnam.Any nationality in large numbers will dominate and define and ultimately change a place. The dignified and modest Vietnamese residents have been bombarded by people who look fresh from auditions for “What Not to Wear”.

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Butt floss and banana slings are alive and well in Nha Trang. But it’s not all tacky t-shirts and buckets of booze.  There are plenty of Russian families, many of them multi-generational,  playing in the sand with their kids.

I didn’t encounter many friendly Russians – my smiles were met with stares, but hey – they’re not here to make new Canadian friends. They’ve got their squad with them.

The Asian ladies on the other hand seem fascinated with me. When we were in Laos, I saw three women staring at me and smiling and one of them surreptitiously took my photo. On our bus from Saigon, I had two ladies come to me and start stroking my arm and laughing.

And yesterday Stephen and I were sitting in the park beside the beach, watching two women posing for photos. The next thing we knew, they were cuddled right in beside me, with their friend snapping away madly. We think it is my white hair – many Asians have dark hair until they are very old, so I am a bit of a novelty.

Stephen told them I was a famous Canadian movie star, but I don’t think they understood him.

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We continue to be amused and curious about the sometimes quite intricate choreography that goes into the Asian photo or selfie. I would love to have access to some of their photo albums.

This lady had posed by a tree with her scarf draped provocatively, one leg kicked back, and hair tossed. Then… another, more serious and reflective, gazing skyward. She will have at least 20 similar shots, not including the many they took with me.

We watched this group for quite a while. They had four or five people photographing them as they clapped their hands, waved them overhead, did small steps , etc. At first I thought they were practicing for a routine and we would be treated to an impromptu performance.

 

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and another group …Mum, daughter and friend. I think the whole world’s gone mad.

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We dipped our toes in the water and Stephen went in for a swim, but mainly we entertained ourselves by people-watching and walking the promenade.

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Halfway down the beach is a massive complex with multiple pools, sunbeds, umbrellas, food kiosks  and all manner of beach accoutrement catering to the Russian tourists. The facilities were lovely and prices were extremely reasonable (a sunbed rental was about $3), and its easy to understand the appeal of a foreign destination that speaks your language.

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It’s not all borscht and blini though. As we walked by, this crocodile was slowly turning on the rotisserie. Two hours later on our return walk back, all that remained was his head and skeleton – he had been picked clean. We haven’t tried crocodile yet -they say it tastes like chicken.

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Here’s a healthy food choice – the tempting array of fruit that can be found on most street corners in Nha Trang.

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We came to Nha Trang not expecting much, and yet it was still an intriguing place to see –  just for a couple of days. If it’s not our cup of tea, that’s not holding back the many work sites in full swing. Like much of Vietnam, Nha Trang is in the middle of a building boom.

We wonder about the saturation point – at what point will there be too many hotel rooms in this city ?  We had building sites all around our hotel and across the street. This big project says it all (in English!)

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Dalat: Le Petit Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower

Dalat became a vacation favourite of French Colonialists because of its temperate climate, abundant flowers and mountain and lakeside setting, and the name “Le Petit Paris” stuck. The French influence is still evident – many older Vietnamese speak French and the architecture and food have a strong Gallic stamp.

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Dalat is also known as the City of Eternal Spring, and I am overjoyed because for the first time in two and a half months, I am not schvitzing. Last night, I put on a sweater to go out. Dalat is a small pretty city at an elevation of 1500m with clean air and pine trees. The streets wind up and around hills with numerous roundabouts and sightlines to the lake. Walking or biking is a pleasure as the circumference of the lake is ringed with a tree and flower-lined path.

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We saw packs of cyclists doing laps – as it turns out, they are on the local soccer team and this was part of their training. The green space in the background is a golf course.

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The city is just on the verge of bursting out, flower-wise. The jacaranda are in full bloom, and the cherry blossoms are about two weeks away. This is the time of year the locals wait for – when the city is so colourful and fragrant and they can finally strip off their parkas. The flower garden on one end of the lake was gorgeous.

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We passed a lot of men fishing, either in companionable groups or quietly solo. Since the lake is quite dirty, I imagine any fish would be caught just for sport.

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Around ten percent of Vietnam’s population is Christian, and the grounds around the  Notre Dame Cathedral were filled with people in quiet prayer. The church was not open, but we enjoyed just walking around the gardens.It is called the “Chicken Church” – look closely at the top of the steeple and you’ll see a chicken.

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Like much of Vietnam, Dalat is growing by leaps and bounds. We were told that just ten years ago, this was a quiet small town with no big buildings and simple houses with vegetable gardens out front. Now, the traffic is non-stop, grand hotels are springing up and modern government buildings like this one have transformed the landscape.

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Just around the corner, we found Hang Nga Crazy House, which defies description. One can call it surreal, outrageous, artistic – this house has enraged and offended the neighbours and delighted almost everyone else. It sat empty for almost a decade until legal skirmishes were settled. Architect Dang Viet Nga put her life’s work and finances into this dream and it is not finished yet. The molten walls and vertiginous stairways lead the visitor from one acid-trip room into another.

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Crazy House is massive in scale, and spreads over several buildings, joined by tiny little steps with 2-foot railings that would never pass code back home.

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I posed for the requisite “middle-of-the-bridge” shot.

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Dalat is the breadbasket of Vietnam, producing much of the country’s fruits, vegetables, rice, silk and coffee. We booked a tour which took us to a number of locations outside town. Seventeen of us took part – from Quebec, the U.K.,  Norway, Finland, Germany, Singapore and Canada. Our charming guide Chi gave us an excellent day and told us not only about what we were seeing, but offered some insights into life in Vietnam. She is 23 and works 7 days a week as a tour guide. It is not untypical for a lot of Vietnamese to work that hard. Here, she was explaining the distillation process of rice wine and offered us a sample. She called it “happy waters”  and made veiled references to how much many of the local men partake.

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About 20 minutes outside of town we began driving into the agricultural belt. Acres and acres of greenhouses grow all manner of fruit and vegetables, with strawberries and artichokes being the local speciality. Flowers are the other huge cash crop – everything is grown year-round and much of it in greenhouses since the rainy season and the bugs would otherwise destroy the crops.

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We stopped to walk through a huge flower operation. Roses, carnations and sunflowers were currently growing. Beautiful roses like this one sell for about 20 for $1.

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On to the silkworm farm and factory. This was such an interesting process to actually witness the path from pupa to silk scarf. Chi carried out the first stage on her hand – pupa, silkworm and cocoon. Silkworms are eaten in Vietnam – a couple of brave souls tried them and agreed they tasted like potato.

imageThe cocoons are put into boiling water, and only the pure white ones are kept. The inferior ones are sent to China. Once they are sorted, they are assembled in a huge machine with workers at each little hook. They take the fine thread of silk that emerges from each cocoon, attach it to the hook, and the spinning begins. Silk threads are first wound around spools on one machine and then transferred to this section, where the silk is gathered into long strands. After these strands are dried, they are ready to be dyed and woven.

On the subject of eating strange and unusual things, Chi told us “Vietnamese eat everything.” Whether this comes from a history of deprivation and necessity or whether it is cultural, but our next stop made all of us a little queasy. We were in search of crickets, washed down with rice wine, but first we went on a tour of the facilities and came into a holding pen where the crickets were kept. In the same room was a couple of civets (destined for someone’s dinner plate), some porcupines (ditto), some bamboo rats (same-same), and then three or four cages of these little critters.

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Chi told us they were being raised to be sold as pets, but we’re not sure. Guinea pigs are popular in South America and if the Vietnamese eat rats, these little guys cannot be far behind. Cats and dogs are eaten here , although only among the locals.

Crickets, though – that is why we were there and we moved on to the tasting room. They were served, roasted, with a splash of chili sauce, and they tasted like a salty, crunchy snack – full of protein, apparently. This little girl was not sure about them, but she gamely tried one and didn’t go back for seconds.

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The area around Dalat is full of waterfalls and even in the dry season, there was still plenty of water. We visited Elephant Falls, which required us to climb down to the bottom by hanging on to steel poles and overhanging vines.

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The climb down was worth it – the falls were impressive enough, but as is often the case throughout SEAsia, there is so much plastic and garbage, it spoils the view. Chi explained that education about littering is slow here –  people see the outdoors as being a dumping ground, and they either litter or burn toxic substances, so it is still a problem.

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We stopped by a village of the K’ho minority people who work on a coffee plantation. The village consists of about 800 citizens and it is a matriarchal society, in terms of authority, certainly not of advantage. The women must pay for their husbands, who do not work but stay home all day and drink. The women and children work on the plantation all day – the children do not attend school.

Chi walked us through part of their village and showed us inside one home – dirt floor, dark, no electricity or running water. There were few people around and it felt uncomfortable.

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Our last stop was a coffee plantation tour and tasting. Vietnam has grown to become the world’s 2nd largest producer of coffee beans in the world, and this area is one of the prime regions for growing Robusta beans and increasingly Arabica. A speciality  coffee that is produced here is weasel (civet) coffee.  The civet  cats are fed fruit to flavour the beans as they make their way from one end to the other. Once the beans are cleaned, dried and roasted, they produce a coffee that is a bit sour. Only a couple of our group tried the civet coffee and they didn’t care for it, so it might be regarded as a novelty item.

There were a number of sleeping civets in cages – this one was awake for his photo.

imageThe rest of the coffees were exceptional – we enjoyed them while looking over the valley and the plantation.

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And back to the city of Dalat. We booked a room with the stupendously misnamed hotel “Nice Dream”. It is right in the centre of town, with the night market all around us, and non-stop traffic, so noise is a bit of a problem. The hotel is newly renovated and run by state tourism, with all the warmth and charm that implies. At first, we thought the front desk staff were cyborgs, but we have been getting smiles, so it may just be old-fashioned corporate training.

One final shot  – the night market in front of our hotel.

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Chasing Graham Greene: Finding history on every corner

Number 214. The Continental Hotel, Saigon. This is the room Graham Greene stayed in while he wrote his epic novel, The Quiet American, about American involvement during the demise of French colonialism in Vietnam in the 1950s.

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And this is the Continental Hotel – I can imagine Greene parked at a corner table, drinking and writing. The hotel’s history is brought to life through photos and datelines, in an exhibit down one hallway off the lobby. The Continental does not appear to have been updated much. It is Saigon’s first hotel, and the luxury hotels since then are far grander and more well-appointed. But this hotel has such interesting ghosts!

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From The Quiet American to The American War of Aggression, Vietnam’s history of oppressors has left an indelible mark in Saigon.  You can’t visit here (or you shouldn’t) without seeing the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace.

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We began with the Reunification Palace. The Vietnam War was such a strong marker of our youth; imprinted even more throughly by the books and movies that followed. A stroll through the Palace was deja vu all over again. The tanks crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon surrendered, and everything in the Palace looks exactly as it did on that date. We strolled through two floors of rooms, frozen in 60s limbo – drawing rooms, the President’s office, dining rooms.  I recognized the teak furniture and the scratchy yellow and brown upholstery from my childhood.

Then we went to the bunker, where the President and his family lived towards the end, and where the command post was secreted away, complete with maps and phones.

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That visit was a trip down memory lane, but it was a whole other story with the War Remnants Museum (once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes).

It is no secret that the American War was a disaster that cost billions of dollars, millions of lives and millions more ruined, but the most gruesome part of this museum was the section devoted to Agent Orange and its ongoing effects. Originally used by the Americans as a defoliating agent to make detection of the enemy easier, the secondary effects were devastating beyond anyone’s imaginings.

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We walked through one exhibit hall of hundreds of photos of malformed fetuses, conjoined twins, children born without limbs, horribly disfiguring facial features, mental retardation, blindness and skin diseases. We could not bear to walk through the whole thing, but the most horrifying aspect of Agent Orange is that it did not disappear with the first generation. The chemicals appear to have become part of each victim’s DNA, so that children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still being born with significant deformities. Forty + years later and the effects of Agent Orange aren’t over yet.

Another hall showcased the great photojournalists of the day – Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, etc. – who died while documenting the war. Many of the photos are iconic; all of them are extremely poignant.

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These great photojournalists captured such emotion -the viewer feels the fear of those children.
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The section  of war crimes on unarmed women, children and the elderly  was stomach-turning. The My Lai Massacre is well-known and so is the attack led by Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, who confessed to those crimes decades later (as a U.S. Senator).

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The Fine Arts Museum is a refreshing antidote to the heaviness of the War Remnants Museum. It is a stunning colonial building, whose architectural details alone are worth checking out ( old wooden lift, wrought iron everywhere, stained glass, soaring ceilings), but much of the art is contemporary and has war influences.

Young soldier home on leave.

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Son and wounded father

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And now for some random Saigon moments. I will begin with some Stephen silliness to change the mood. Lisa took us to the Russian Market and if you are a fan of Nike, Adidas, North Face or Under Armour, this place would put you in a cold sweat.  Under Armour T-shirt = $8 CAD, three-season North Face down jacket = $35 CAD. These are not knockoffs – they are made in Vietnam, and that is the “firm price.” Lisa and I made Stephen buy a shirt, and with his requisite purchase in hand, it was time to entertain the ladies.

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After our shopping excursion, we walked through the neighbourhood of modest apartments, alleys and pho stands. We were reminded of how sometimes we only see the outer layer of life as we walk by. Stephen spied a picturesque clothesline and backdrop outside a window,  and as he was aiming his camera to take a second shot, a woman’s face appeared and she threw a glass of water down on him. It was only when he looked at the photos later that he saw why she might have felt invaded.

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Alleys add to the mystery of Saigon – so little revealed from the street, but they are the arterial flow of the city. People live there, work there, have businesses – you just have to walk down one to discover a whole other side of the city.

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Stephen photobombing the selfie girls.

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On our last day in Saigon, we visited the Botanical Garden. The garden is a lush hideaway from the city, with a butterfly garden, orchid garden and many bonsai. The downside to the garden is it is ringed with a sad zoo – giant squirrels imprisoned in giant birdcages, demented gibbons hopping about in domed cages the size of an average suburban bedroom and a couple of hyenas sleeping on concrete  – I couldn’t look any further.   We did see lovely birds though – we think this is a giant ibis. Whatever it is, it is the size of a nine-year-old kid – this is a very big bird.

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And this bonsai – dozens of them on display – beautiful.

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There is so much more to tell you about Saigon – not nearly enough time or space. I’ll sneak in this one photo of the subway they are working on – hoping to relieve current traffic congestion and anticipating future growth.

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But will a new subway or monorail lure the Saigon residents away from their motorbikes? As long as one is able to cut through traffic by hopping up on the sidewalk (warning pedestrians with a gentle beep) it may be a tough sell.

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Good-bye Saigon – over all too soon.  Next stop – the mountain town of Dalat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Before I talk about Saigon I want to share a cautionary tale about the importance of checking your visa dates before you attempt to cross into Vietnam. I’m about to make a long story short (first time for everything).

We went to the Vietnam embassy in Vancouver in November to arrange for our 3-month visas. They arrived in the mail, we tucked them in with our passports and never gave them another thought.  Four days ago, we discovered our visas had been incorrectly dated – to end May 2018 (not 2017). This did not sit well with the border guards, who took over  an hour and a half to determine what to do with us. In that time, we a) held up our bus and our fellow travellers while they waited for us, b) entered a Kafkaesque state of despair and fear as the guard holding our passports and visas had disappeared and no-one knew where he was, and c) discovered what breaking the rules in a socialist republic country feels like (hint: no need to try this yourselves). Finally, an English-speaking official was called in on her day off, it was determined we posed no threat, a work-around was figured out and we were on our way.

This inauspicious start to our six weeks in Vietnam was soon forgotten as we neared Saigon’s downtown. Among the mad swarm of motorcycles that buzzed around our bus was this rider and his eager little passenger.

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You know how you visit a new place and complete strangers offer you a place to stay for a week? No? Well, this happened to us – and while the Chute family are not complete strangers – they are friends of friends – we had never met each other.  I have a deep-seated worry about putting anyone out, so the idea of doing anything more than meeting them for dinner made me uncomfortable.

Lisa, Tim and their son Simon moved to Saigon seven months ago to begin their new life there with an international school. They live in a beautiful, leafy area of the city with a park across the street and a landscaped canal running beside a main shopping street.

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Before we knew it, we were ensconced in their home (on our very own floor) and I was having my hair cut at Lisa’s hairdresser.  Tim took my misbehaving computer to his workplace (it is now fixed), and Lisa took us out on an insider tour of Saigon.

Their incredible hospitality has been a highlight of the trip for us, and best part – they are now our new friends.

The Chute family and friend Sierra about to enjoy fabulous pho at one of their favourite restaurants.

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We’ve told you about the legendary traffic in SEAsia, but Vietnam probably earns top spot for sheer volume. We’ve navigated the roads all the way along, but I was having difficulty understanding why I wouldn’t be  run over. Surely there would be at least one biker with a grudge against Westerners? Someone texting or eating or carrying parcels and children while driving with their knees?  But no, as with the other countries, there is a flow and Lisa explained it perfectly.”Think of it as the river and the rocks. The motorcycles are the river – you move through slowly and they flow around you like water. Anything bigger is a rock – they are immovable – you wait and walk around them.”  For all of you who have been here already – you know this. For anyone else contemplating a visit here – pay heed. This tip is the exact image you need to be safe and confident on the roads.

In this clip below, our strategy would be to wait until the crush of bikes went by, look for a break in the traffic, and wade through.

So…on to Saigon and our impressions. I’m calling it Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City because that is what most Vietnamese call it.  Also, I like the name Saigon – it conjures up romance and history and danger.

Our immediate impressions of Saigon have  been overwhelmingly positive. Of course – it is a massive city – I’ve heard anywhere from ten to fourteen million people, but the areas most tourists want to visit cover a small, almost entirely walkable part of the city called District 1. The impressive skyline is dominated by the distinctive lotus-shaped Bitexco Financial Tower with a skydeck jammed into one side.

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This is the view from 68 floors up; a city with moderate high-rises, bisected by the Mekong, and intersected with numerous canals.

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The joy of Saigon is how they have combined their modern growth with respect for heritage architecture, which leads to some intriguing sightlines of old and new. Every street brings another perspective and strolling down the alleyways could keep a visitor occupied for days.

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Lisa took us past the big French influences – the Notre Dame Basilica…

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…around the corner to the Central Post Office.

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The interior of the grand concourse have painted maps of South Vietnam and Saigon, as well as a prominent portrait of “Uncle Ho.”

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Ho Chi Minh is a revered figure among the Vietnamese people – his vision of a united Vietnam was shared by all and his portraits and statues are everywhere. Here, he stands guard in front of the City Hall.  Between the City Hall and the Mekong River is a magnificent pedestrian-only promenade.

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This area is fronted by elegant shops and old hotels, such as the Rex Hotel, which had a cherry red Maserati in front of it the day we walked by.

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Most of our friends would love this next stop. There is a delightful small street that is dedicated to bookstores. Just bookstores and coffeeshops – all set on a quiet, shady street – can you imagine anything nicer in the middle of a busy city?

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Saigon is full of trees and parks and places to find a bit of solitude.

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There is so much to take in here – I think Saigon is a city that needs a fair bit of time to begin to understand and discover. We can hit the main tourist spots, but without our insider knowledge, would we have discovered the bookshop street? We are only here for another day and there is so much more to talk about, but I wanted our first blog posting to be about the city and the people.

Some fellow travellers have told us they found Vietnamese to be rude and not that friendly. We have encountered exactly the opposite, and I’ll give you a few examples.

A couple of days ago as we were waiting for our bus to take us downtown, I struck up a conversation with an elegant Vietnamese woman who spoke English and French and who had an interesting story to tell. She lived in New Caledonia, a French Island in the South Pacific, until 1964, at the age of six, she moved back to Vietnam with her parents. That simple fact hung there in the air, as it carried so much potential information about her life. It isn’t appropriate to start grilling people about their experiences during the “American War of Aggression, but like Cambodia, you can’t help but look at anyone of a certain age and wonder what burden they carry.

This lady, Huan, carries her life with grace. She invited us to have coffee at her son’s restaurant, and we were honoured to be asked. We were joined by her friend, who is a Saigon native and retired architect, but for all her urban polish has retained the charming habit of cooking up food (in this case, a sweet potato) and bringing it in a little baggie to share.

Huan (by the wall) with her friend.

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Huan’s son owns three restaurants called Modern Meets Culture – http://m2ccafe.com
They are very modern indeed – he is also an architect and designer. Lisa told us about the phenomenon of the Việt Kiều – the “overseas Vietnamese” who left the country after 1975 for Los Angeles, and whose U.S.-educated children are now returning back to their country as adults. They are bringing new life, entrepreneurial ideas and cash infusions into Saigon – many of them are barely in their 30’s. That, combined with the fact that foreign investment is strictly curtailed, is helping Vietnam prosper and grow independently.

Many of the Vietnamese are quite curious about us and are quite funny. We were at the Museum of Fine Art yesterday when we came upon this scene:

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We stopped to take photos as well, thinking this might be a Vietnamese celebrity, but it was just a fashion shoot. We were turning away when the photographer in the white shirt caught sight of Stephen. He could not believe his eyes, “What a beard you have – can I take a photo to show my brother?” He explained that Asian men can’t grow beards and they are fascinated by them. He took a few shots from different angles – how I wish I had my wits about me to take a photo of Stephen’s expression!

While we were in the museum (more about that in the next posting), we met one of the artists whose works were on display as part of the “Hanoi artists” exhibition. We were especially drawn to his work as it was contemporary and strongly influenced by water. His name is Nguyen Van Trung and our conversation with him was though his interpreter. I told him I was interested in seeing art created after the war, and what those influences would look like. He talked about the “aloneness” of humanity and how that can be both painful and peaceful. It was such a pleasure to be able to converse a bit, since language is obviously a complete obstacle to getting to know anyone here, unless they speak English.
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And the food! Our first dinner out was with Lisa at The Secret Garden – discovered by walking down an alley, up five grotty flights of stairs to a garden-like setting, with simply delicious food. We would never have found it on our own. That is our goal – spend the next five weeks searching out the local gems.

Lisa snapped this shot of us at the Secret Garden on our way out.

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I have so much more to share about this beautiful city – the War Remnants Museum and  Reunification Palace deal with the American War, and that is an inevitable part of travel through Vietnam. But there is a whole lot more – Saigon looks to the future, not to the past.

The Lexus platoon, fake monks and Nagaworld: Phnom Penh’s rising

One of the first things we noticed when we arrived in Phnom Penh was the skyline – green-clad buildings with cranes on every second corner. In fact, on our corner, we have three building projects on the go – a fact we missed in the TripAdvisor reviews until after we booked. It hasn’t really been a problem – there is banging and hammering going on around our  little hotel each day from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., but then the workers promptly knock off for the day and all is quiet.  Progress is being made, as we opened our curtains yesterday morning to this sight.  The concrete truck had arrived.

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Chinese and South Korean investments have set a blistering pace of new construction which is transforming the city.

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The healthy financial infusion is responsible for the creation
of featureless buildings like this, an incongruous backdrop for the gilt temple.

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And this no-frills complex:

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And Nagaworld, the new casino on the riverfront that
resembles a medium-security prison.

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There is a maximum-return-for-investment quality to many of the new buildings. A modern apartment building moves next door to well-preserved history.

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Some fear the distinctive character of Phnom Penh’s French colonial architecture will be lost as old buildings come down to be replaced with new. Some of the new builds are replicating the old, such as this gracious mansion.

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And with the new money comes the spoils. We noticed a disproportionate number of Lexus SUVs and Range Rovers – the vehicles of choice for the newly wealthy (and their drivers). We began a count, much like the blossom count in Victoria each spring, to see how many Lexuses (Lexi?) passed by an intersection in five minutes but lost track. At this point, they appear to be out-gunning the Range Rovers, with BMWs and Mercedes trailing far behind.

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Not to begrudge any hardworking businessperson their just rewards, but “just” does not appear to factor into the picture here. It is under strenuous debate as to whether this vigorous growth will help many Cambodians, or whether the cash flow will simply circulate within a small and monstrously well-compensated circle.

We noticed the men who are working on the building next door to us are living right on the dirty site; some of them with families. The people who live in this appalling building have it little better. The building stretches for a couple of city blocks – probably condemned (one hopes that there is not rent being collected here). We discovered this on a walk, just a couple of streets away from a comfortable expat area.

We’ve seen deep rural poverty, but at the very least there would be a community and possibly a way to grow or catch food. This kind of urban poverty has a built-in trap – no way up and no way out.

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We spoke to two young women who are in Phnom Penh working for NGOs. They are quite torn about their efforts. They feel that some action is better than none and are aware that without the significant presence of NGOs and social enterprise businesses, it would be so much worse.  On the other hand, they are discouraged that after so many decades, the city and country still rely so heavily on their help. They don’t see the lives of many Cambodians improving and they don’t see  significant change with government initiatives and policies.

And then we spoke to our Canadian friend Chelsea, who has been working at an international school for the past three years. We met her for a great catch-up visit at one of her favourite cafes. It was really fun to see her in her native habitat, and hear some ex-pat perspective about Cambodia.

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After breakfast, Chelsea led us down to the riverfront for a bit of a tour, and on the way showed us how the locals navigate a massive roundabout (I can’t say how many lanes because there weren’t any – people came from all directions and just fused together in a moving mass). Wheeling her bicycle as a shield (ha!), we walked beside her (“just keep moving slowly, they will move around you”), and we made it. Then, we did it again. I’m still no further ahead in comprehending how this all works, but I did give a tuk-tuk driver a great laugh today as he watched me jitterbug through traffic.

One stretch of the riverfront walkway is fairly new – a great addition to the city. Phnom Penh is situated on a confluence of three rivers – the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac.  Tourist cruise boats and ferries set off from two docks along the  shore.

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We’ve done a few tourist-y things over the past few days. We checked out the Russian Market (good place to buy discounted Western clothes), where I am ashamed to say, we ate lunch at KFC. We could not find any restaurants and we were so hot that we would have sold our soul for air-conditioning.

We walked down to the National Museum, which houses a collection of Angkor and post-Angkor sandstone sculptures. Maybe it’s us, but we both found it underwhelming, although the building and gardens are gorgeous.

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What we really enjoyed about Phnom Penh was just walking around and taking it all in. Although there are few sidewalks and full-on traffic, walking became a pleasant challenge. The reward lies in what is just around the next corner.

Markets and vendors are part of the landscape. Many people work two or three jobs, so sleeping on the job is allowed.

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We did not see any small, detached houses – mainly apartment buildings, hotels or mansions. Like the hold-out whose neighbours have long since left and the high-rises have moved in, I wondered about this house’s history.

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An example of an older apartment, adorned with many plants and lanterns.

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Not far away, a cleaner, sleeker version.

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We wandered along the canal street until the smells drove us away.

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And back again to wide open boulevards and green space.

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Independence Monument, situated further down this boulevard commemorates Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, and is a memorial to Cambodia’s war dead.

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We loved our time in Phnom Penh – it was a good mix of being tourists and of just hanging out with no agenda.  It’s such an interesting city and in a state of massive change – what might it look like five years from now?

We also loved the Cambodian people – almost universally they have been kind and approachable and warm. The staff at our hotel call us “mama” and “papa.”

I’ll leave you with an interesting story about our encounter with a fake monk. We were having lunch at an outdoor cafe, and a monk approached us with a broad smile and somewhat ludicrously, a thumbs-up sign.

We smiled back until he held out his coconut/alms bowl, already filled with American dollars. We waved him away and watched as he made the rounds; he received at least two or three donations.

We were suspicious right away, as this was extremely un-monk-like behaviour. Sure enough, we Googled “fake monks”  (try it – there are loads of articles) and apparently they are a real problem, not just here but all over the world. London, New York and San Francisco have been plagued by them.
They have hit on quite the scam – who would refuse a monk?

Real monks live on charity, but they do not go begging. Their alms walk is for food – they never touch money. They never approach women.  I met the eye of a young monk a few days ago and without thinking, smiled and said hello. It made him extremely uncomfortable.

We leave tomorrow morning for the last leg of our trip – almost six weeks left to explore Vietnam.

The Killing Fields: Simply Heartbreaking

Phnom Penh is changing at a breakneck speed. The city feels modern, bustling and full of life. Old buildings are being renovated and new buildings are springing up on every corner. Nonetheless, the bloody and traumatic history of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime still figures prominently.

The “attractions”  that most tourists come to see are the notorious Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum right in Phnom Penh, and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, about 14 km. southwest of the city. We wanted to visit both sites before we explored the rest of Phnom Penh, to allow us to put the rest of our visit here into context.

Please be warned: Contents of this posting will be disturbing to all.

Yesterday we visited Tuol Sleng, a former high school that was taken over in 1975 and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21, or S21. This was the first stop for prisoners; an agonizing hell of interrogation and torture before being shipped off to The Killing Fields to be executed.

The Museum is excellent – dignified and sombre, with signs asking for “Silence”. Tourists are equipped with headsets and an audio account of the grounds, with each stop numbered and the capability to pause and return. We all walked in our own quiet bubbles, listening to  gut-wrenching stories and first-person accounts  from both survivors and former guards.

This is Building A, where some of the interrogations took place. Each room held a cot, shackles, and in some cases, floor tiles darkened from bloodstains are still visible. A photo of a victim was on each wall. Photos were not allowed.

In front of the building, there are 14 graves. When the Khmer Rouge were defeated, the prison was seized and they discovered 14 bodies that had not yet been moved to The Killing Fields. They are the only victims to have a final resting place with their remains intact.

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The Security of Regulations. If any of these rules were broken, prisoners would be beaten even more severely.

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Prisoners were typically intellectuals, government officials, artists, doctors, teachers, monks – anyone who lived in cities and might have the capacity and intelligence to counter the new regime. The Khmer Rouge wanted to re-structure the society by eliminating education and religion and returning all citizens to an agrarian society.
S-21 became the largest detention centre in Cambodia, and over 100 people a day were tortured, then killed. In total, an estimated 2.5 – 3 million Cambodians were killed, or died of disease or malnutrition during this period – about one-quarter of the population.

Methods of torture were described in great detail. The barbaric imagination of the Khmer Rouge cadres is shocking, impossible to fathom.

This method of interrogation involved tying the victim’s hands behind his back, and hanging him upside down, suspended by his hands from the beam until he passed out.
To revive him, the guards would lower him face-first into the jars on the ground, filled with water and human feces.

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Water tortures were common – dunking victims in ice water and subjecting them to a type of water torture we have all heard about called waterboarding.

Women were subjected to sexual torture, including having centipedes inserted into their vaginas. Their children were often murdered in front of them.

A showcase of the instruments of torture and paintings depicting various torture scenes hang throughout the museum.

Photos were taken of every prisoner, both before and after their torture. I will include a photo of the before shots and spare you the ones taken later.

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In another building, the Khmer Rouge had punched through old classroom walls and built tiny cells where prisoners were shackled to the floor, with a small metal box for their waste. Photos and biographies of Pol Pot and his head henchmen were displayed, as well as details about past and ongoing trials. None of them have ever admitted to the genocide.

Although the photos and images and words are sickening, the museum is a sacred place. I wondered if it would feel voyeuristic, but it was quite the opposite.  The victims and their terrible fates are treated with great respect and the museum and Killing Fields are bearing witness.

The monument in the centre of the grounds is surrounded by granite blocks that contain the names of all the victims that passed through here.

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Today we hired a tuk-tuk to drive out to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, also known as The Killing Fields. What I didn’t know is that Choeung Ek is the best-known killing field in Cambodia, but not the only one. There are over 300 sites where bodies were disposed of in mass graves or in shallow ponds. The dots on the map indicate where most of the sites are located.

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The museum was very difficult to go through because it is compact and the atrocities are in front of you immediately, and don’t let go the entire time.

Visiting The Killing Fields felt a little more diluted, if such a word is possible in this context. Spread out over several acres, it is easier to slow the pace and absorb what you are hearing in your audio set (same excellent set-up as at the museum).

Again, signs are posted asking people to be quiet, and almost everyone complies, lost in what they are hearing and seeing.

The tour began at the area where the trucks would arrive from S-21, full of beaten and terrified victims. Almost immediately, they would be executed, but because the Khmer Rouge did not want to pay for bullets, most of the victims were bludgeoned to death.

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Their bodies were tossed into huge mass graves.  The fields are filled with indentations like this; an indication of where each grave was, and how they have filled in again since their excavation. More than 8000 skulls were retrieved, as well as teeth, bones, and clothes. There is a display holding remnants of cloth that were salvaged. With each season, cloth and bone continues to emerge from the ground.

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Mass graves that were more particular  (women and children only, headless, etc.) are marked  and covered, like the one below. Visitors have left thousands of bracelets as tokens of remembrance. Stephen removed one of his bracelets as well and left it behind.

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One of the sites that was the most difficult to bear was the “killing tree.” Babies and toddlers were murdered by being swung by their feet and having their tiny skulls bashed against the tree. Their bodies were then tossed into the pit behind.

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The following tree holds its own special horror. Victims were held in one area, while each execution took place and then moved when it was “their turn.”  In order to mask the sounds of the victims screams, the cadres attached a loudspeaker to this tree and played music full blast.

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We ended the tour with a visit to the memorial stupa. This contains the skulls and remains of the more than 8000 victims.

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Murder weapons are displayed, followed by skulls and then  bones. It is possible to tell how the victim died by looking at their skulls – pierced by a bayonet, clubbed with a wooden stick, or slashed with a knife or ax. Coloured dots on the skulls identity gender and  method of murder, and the skulls are arranged according to estimated age.

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This sign to the side of the memorial stupa is a reflection of the intention of the museum and Killing Fields – a way to respect and honour the dead.

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Atrocities are impossible to understand. Stephen and I spent a great deal of time trying to wrap our heads around such brutality.  Evil paranoid people, given the right circumstances, can galvanize the masses.  Xenophobia, looting, destroying works of art, denying religion – those are easy to figure out. But how do great numbers of people, no matter how oppressed and disenfranchised, inflict such suffering on innocent people, on children? What is their breaking point?

No answers. Both visits were difficult, but we are so glad we went and learned more about a piece of history we knew little about.

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Battambang: Cambodia’s kinder, gentler city

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Regarded as a smaller, sleepier version of Siem Reap, Battambang is same-but-different: beautifully preserved French architecture, a river running through it, a young and growing arts scene, NGOs and social enterprises galore. It is also all about the kids.

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This is a collection from a local photographer that captures the spirit of Cambodia’s children. They are precious, open and curious about foreigners. “Hello”, they call out, waving and giggling. These little faces are everywhere; many of the kids  are with their parents or on their way home from school. These are the lucky ones.

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We’ve also seen kids whose childhoods may have already flickered out, and they break our hearts.  We were on the bamboo train ride which deposits tourists in a small village for 20 minutes before the return trip back.  Upon arrival, one young girl grabbed Stephen, the other one got me, and so it began: “hello, what’s your name, please buy a bracelet.” I immediately forgot the rules (don’t buy from children, as it discourages them from going to school ), and bought two bracelets.

These girls were cagey about school when we asked, but they spoke some English and seemed bright, so we hoped they were still attending. We bought their bracelets, took our souvenir photo and felt a little uneasy, about them and ourselves. Their lives revolve around tourists and money – when the bamboo train stops running next year, they have no Plan B. Actually, they have no plan at all.

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Which brings us to our tuk-tuk driver, Peter. He met us at the bus station and brought us to our hotel. He is bright, charming and sold us one of his  tours for the next day that showcase “the real Cambodia.”

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He was quite open with us and over a few hours, his story came out. He is 25, comes from a large family in rural northern Cambodia and left home at 19 to go to Phnom Penh to look for work, where he missed his family and “cried a lot.” He moved to Battambang to live with his brother; they are both tuk-tuk drivers, but want more for themselves. It is hard to find work in Cambodia that pays a reasonable wage – at the low end, many people earn a dollar or two a day. His English is okay, but he knows it needs work if he is to become a licensed tour guide or improve his lot in life.

He took us on a tour of the countryside and as promised, we saw the rural Cambodia.  The trip began with a ride on the bamboo train, called a norry. After the Khmer Rouge left the transport system in complete disrepair, Cambodians developed this rudimentary system for transporting people and goods. At first, they operated by using poles and muscle but now they have small motors, and the trains are largely used for the tourists.

Bride & Groom departing on the Bamboo Train
With a proper railway due to come back in the next year, this quirky little ride’s days seem numbered. It’s 20 minutes to the village, 20 minutes there and 20 minutes back.

Decidedly bumpy (some mismatched rails), it felt speedier than it probably was – this is a train ride we are unlikely to experience ever again.

Luckily the track is arrow-straight, because when trains coming from opposite directions meet up, both drivers stop and choose one train’s passengers to disembark. The drivers lift the train to one side (seating area, motor and wheels), allow the other train to go by, and then reassemble the other train. It all takes about a minute, and is typically done 5-6 times during one journey.

Peter then took us out into the countryside to meet a few families and watch their food production. At our first stop everyone in the family works, from teenagers to grandmothers, making sweet cakes to sell to the markets. They are up early in the morning and work very hard all day. Their cakes are baked, convection-style, stacked in underneath a roaring fire.

Next, we stopped by a home that makes rice papers  for spring rolls. These girls had a system down – two papers at a time on the grill, which were flipped onto the wooden rods and flipped over onto the drying rack. They typically  make 2000 a day!

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The next enterprise was a little more borderline. The owner ran a cockfighting operation until the police shut that down. He still runs fish-fighting – we saw big jars of fish, but Peter’s English was not good enough to explain how fish actually fight. A rice wine distillery is his other revenue stream, and I was tempted to try a taste from the big sample jar, but saner heads (Stephen’s) prevailed. There were a number of scorpions steeping in the wine, reputedly for “strong blood” (virility), but the odds of being poisoned was not worth the risk.

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I loved this lady. She makes sticky rice and black bean confections which are stuffed into bamboo tubes and cooked over a fire. Once cooled, they are stacked on a table for sale. We bought one, and Peter showed us how to peel it back to reveal the rice. This lady swung in a hammock the entire time, chatting on her phone – seen one foreigner too many, probably.

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We crossed over this extremely dodgy bamboo bridge. As you can see, the river is very low, but in the rainy season, this bridge is swept away, as the water floods the banks. If ever I felt like an old lady, it was then, holding on for dear life to the main pole while trying to balance myself. There are days when blind faith  is all we’re going on.

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Then, then gut-wrenching part of this tour – Wat Sarong Knong and the Well of Sorrows. When Peter first told us the Killing Fields would be part of the tour, I was puzzled. I thought the Killing Fields were near Phnom Penh. Peter’s turn to be puzzled, ” The killing fields are in many places.”

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The wat was seized during the Pol Pot regime and turned into a prison. The stupa holds some of the skulls and bones of the estimated 10,000 victims who were interrogated, tortured and murdered here.  All four sides are engraved with torture scenes, including spearing babies in front of their parents and gang-raping women – each scene more brutal than the last.

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How do you read about this and look at these depictions of torture and see the piles of skulls and even begin to understand the scale of it all? I just finished reading First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a Cambodian survivor who was five years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her and her family out of Phnom Penh. Angelina Jolie produced the movie and was recently in Cambodia for its premiere.  It is a harrowing read; all the more so for being in the country and seeing the after-effects all these years later.

Peter frequently mentioned the Khmer Rouge and the effects that are being felt to this day. He was a little more circumspect when talking about the current government – he looked around and lowered his voice,”you don’t know who is listening.” Pol Pot terrorized and slaughtered its citizens. The current government does not appear to have the best interest of all its citizens at heart. Poor Cambodians – they have such a lot to deal with and while we don’t know their internal struggles, they are outwardly calm, sweet-natured and patient.

Switching from a time of starvation to present-day Cambodian markets.

Outdoor cooking over charcoal fires

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No secret that the storage and handling of meat, chicken and fish leaves a lot to be desired, but there were a few food items for sale that had me rethinking my meat habit.

This is the “chicken with flies” special.

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Frog’s legs are a delicacy, but not after we saw these guys alive and hopping in the street.

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I defy Anthony Bourdain to endorse these – chicken embryos cooked and ready to eat.

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Moving from the deeply sad and the seriously gross, we will take you to the magic of the circus.
Phare Ponleau Selpak, meaning The Brightness of the Arts are so much more than a circus. Sprung out of Thai refugee camps in 1986,  a foundation was formed to help young people express their recent traumas through the arts.

The organization provides training in dance, visual art, circus, theatre, music, graphic design and animation to vulnerable young people; over 1000 students currently attend the school for free. Many of them go on to perform around the world.

Phare circus

The circus performances, both in Battambang and Siem Reap, tell stories through live music, dance, juggling, aerial arts, fire twirling and overall goofiness. We watched the show under the Big Top – it was an enthralling show.

 

We could have stayed another day or two in this area – Battambang is a city that sneaks up on you. On to Phnom Penh…

Siem Reap – cafes, art galleries and NGOs

While Siem Reap provides food, water and shelter for the temple hordes, it is very much a stand-alone city that deserves its own attention. It has a naturally pretty setting with a mopey tree-lined river that runs through the city and leafy streets filled with stately old buildings.

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It is undergoing a renaissance right now – you can feel the buzz of that perfect blend of historical charm and fresh energy. However, old and new and rich and poor exist side by side; Siem Reap is a long way from being gentrified.

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As we were driving down a desolate, garbage-strewn lane toward our hotel, my heart sank. Is this where we would be staying for the next six nights?

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But no, we stepped out of the heat and dirt and into a frangipani-scented oasis. We were greeted with cold facecloths and glasses of pineapple juice by Ratanak, Ban Rang and Sopheak. They were the first Cambodians we met and they’re quite typical of everyone we’ve encountered since – gracious, helpful and genuine.

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Straight ahead lay the pool.

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Our room – spacious, cool, white linens, dark wood, a balcony. Our bathroom – a separate shower, quality toiletries and a first on the trip so far – a huge, stone tub. Hot water, excellent wifi, breakfast included – just 8 units – very quiet – all for less than $40 a night. Bingo! Sometimes we win the hotel lottery and in Siem Reap it is easy – high-quality boutique guesthouses are in abundance and very affordable.

If you want to splash out a bit, there are a growing number of very high-end properties, including Sofitel, Le Meridien, the famous Raffles, and my favourite, Victoria Angkor.

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We walked through a couple of these dream hotels (Stephen a little reluctantly), and the staff were exceptionally kind. I rather needlessly pointed out that we were not hotel guests and they maintained their poised and professional demeanor and were positively welcoming.  We even got cold scented facecloths! This property is fashioned after the French Indochina period, and there is not one detail they haven’t looked after. Room rates run about $200 a night, which would be worth every penny. This is their pool area.

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Siem Reap is very walkable, but considering the extreme heat, we took each day slowly, and found reasons to go into air-conditioned stores just to cool off. Grabbing a tuk-tuk is another option, as they are just $2 a ride to most places. While there are nice residential pockets in Siem Reap, we didn’t see any gated communities or enclaves – opposite ends of the economic spectrum can be found on one street. I stepped inside the front yard to take a photo of this stately building, and then realized it was a private home.

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Just down the same street, we found this colourful scene. Almost no-one uses dryers here. When you drop off your laundry, you want to be sure your undies are in good shape – they will be hanging out on a clothesline for all the world to see.

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Going to the market is an endurance test as I found out while trying to buy my Angkor Wat top. First of all, we walked about 15 or 20 minutes to cross the river and get to the market. By then, we were “glowing.” We stepped inside the tented market and were besieged by vendors. “Hello Madam, I have nice dress for you. What colour you like? I have all sizes. Special morning discount for you, madam. I have t-shirts, I have scarves.” When I tried to protest that I really just needed to have a look first, they were absolutely undaunted. “Over here, madam, I have jewellery, special price. You need shoes?” If I so much as looked at anything, the onslaught ramped up. They were calling out from half a dozen stalls. By then, I was sweating profusely.

Cambodia uses U.S. dollars as their preferred currency – any transaction larger than a popsicle will be quoted in US dollars.Their riel are 4000 to $1US, and you will receive riel back as small change.

We managed to work our way through one stall long enough to buy Stephen a pair of nylon Colombia convertible pants for $30 and were working on an Underarmour shirt for $8US, but the sales pressure was so great, that we stuck with the pants only. The vendor reverted back to Khmer (I’m quite sure she was swearing at us).  This is not our game – it’s exhausting. We keep imagining our son Dan here – he’d be in heaven.

The rest of the market area (known as Pub Street) is where the majority of tourists find themselves for shopping, cafes, restaurants and bars. There is a mix of same-same vendors with a few nicer stores – well worth a visit.

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The traffic is hectic – although nowhere near on a par with bigger cities – we’re waiting to see how we fare in Phnom Penh. We still have not been able to figure out the right-of-way.  As you watch this video, let us know if you see a pattern emerging.

We walked past this construction site this morning – another old building undergoing a complete re-do. “Safety First” signs are prominent all over town, including here, where we figured perhaps the foreman had yet to make his rounds.

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The restaurant and cafe scene is robust and feel-good – many places in town are tied to a particular cause (almost all child-related), and percentages of sales go toward their charity. In many cases, the restaurants serve as training centres for young people who are disadvantaged, and would otherwise be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We stopped by for coffee and/or food at a number of them, but the one that made the biggest impression on us was New Hope Cambodia. It is set in one of the poorest slums in Siem Reap, and serves a number of purposes – a training centre for youth, a school for children to learn English, music and computer skills, in addition to their regular education. They also offer family counselling, emergency shelter, medical treatment and food and support for over 300 families. It was at their on-site restaurant where we met two of the staff, Rani and Genda.

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They spent a lot of time explaining the programs and the neighbourhood situation to us. Genda is in charge of volunteers – she has people coming from all over the world to spend time helping out in many capacities. We met an Australian couple who take three weeks of their vacation time each year to work in the school.

Cambodia is filled with stories like that and with young people who are determined to bring their city and country around. The ravages of the Khmer Rouge slaughter have taken decades to recover from and the number of amputees (from the land mines) and street kids and desperately poor people need such a staggering amount of ongoing care, money and expertise.

Twenty percent of Cambodians earn $1-$2 per day and the NGOs make the difference between life and death for many of them.

Sex tourism is another blight. While it is not as overt here as in Thailand, it is a social ill that Cambodians want fixed.

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Fighting the sexual exploitation of children is another big challenge. Many hotel rooms in SEAsia have signs posted advising guests that having children (not their own) in their room is illegal.  Brochures outline ways to avoid harming children (no 1-hour orphanage visits, don’t buy from begging children, etc.) They are trying to break the cycle, but when poverty is so dire, families often feel they have little choice.

On the other end of the social scale, we had two beautiful people and a small gaggle of photographers land in on our hotel property the other day. We had just come back and were keen for a swim, so headed down to see what was going on. Not a big fashion shoot as we thought – it was a pre-wedding photo session. The couple will marry in May.

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They picked their day wisely – the next day the sky clouded over by mid-afternoon and got very dark and threatening. Again, we had just gotten back home and the skies opened, the winds howled and there was thunder. We got a humdinger of a tropical storm – watched safely and with great enjoyment from our balcony. Within half an hour it was over and the sun came out.

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We had a sneak peak at the famous Phare Circus. Artists put on a 15-minute street performance to entice the crowds to buy tickets for their nightly show. Since it originated in Battambang (where we are going tomorrow), we decided to catch the show there, but this was a terrific warm-up.

Tonight, we finished our stay in Siem Reap with a thoughtful cello concert, talk and film. Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss national who has lived in Cambodia before and after the Khmer Rouge invasion, performs once a week. He is a much-loved pediatrician whom the locals refer to as “Beatocello”. Through his fund-raising efforts and tireless promotion of Cambodia’s great need for help he has created a foundation that has opened and operated five hospitals.

Our first impression of Cambodia has been to witness hope and forward-thinking action on the part of  both locals and foreigners to bring them out of darkness.