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.

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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.

 

Overwhelmed in Angkor Wat

We were on a don’t-miss-it pilgrimage to one of the world’s greatest (and most-visited) sites, armed with some preconceived notions that had been reinforced by fellow travellers.   Many tourists skip the rest of Cambodia entirely, and hop over from Thailand or Vietnam to fit in their requisite one-to-three-day visit to Angkor Wat.

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In 1993 there were 7,650 visitors to Angkor Wat. Numbers for 2016 came in at just under 2.2 million visitors. The 400-sq.km. Angkor Wat Archaeological Park has become so saturated with tourists that many articles have been written advising on “best times to beat the crowds.” (Hint: at lunchtime, when everyone else is eating, but the noonday heat is enough to drive you mad).

There are many factors having a negative impact on this “bucket list” site. The structures are being weakened by the millions of footsteps that climb their sandstone steps and run their hands over their bas-relief carvings. The government is in discussion as to how to protect this priceless national treasure and control tourist visits in a sustainable way. It’s complicated.

We began our day at 8:00 a.m. and carried through to 3:30 p.m. We were picked up at our hotel by our tuk-tuk driver, Totiha (s?) He was with us for the entire day, taking us from temple to temple. All the tuk-tuks look like this – like little chariots – pulled on two wheels behind a motorcycle. They feel tippy but are remarkably maneuverable, and the biggest bonus for us was the fabulous cooling breeze we experienced after each scorching temple visit.

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Angkor Wat is just outside Siem Reap. After our hectic ride through the city, we landed on a long stretch of road leading to the temple complex. It was our first glimpse of the immense scope of the park.


The surrounding acreage is peaceful and atmospheric – jungle coming right up to the sites and wide lakes to cool things down a bit.

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On the advice of our hotel manager, we went for a 1-day pass, which made for a very long, very tiring day, but worked for us. In a move that was considered controversial for its potential impact on ticket sales, prices jumped dramatically on February 1.  A 1-day pass rose from $20US to $37 US, and a 3-day pass rose from $40 US to $67 US. Our first stop was the ticket booth, situated beside the tour bus parking lot.

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There were easily 100 tour buses – maybe 150, each with a capacity of 50 passengers. There were dozens of mini-vans. Tuk-tuks – too many to count. Motorcycles and scooters – well, you know already how many;  a few die-hard souls even rode bicycles.

I’m not a big fan of crowds and as we made our way through the throngs at the ticket booth, I felt quite crestfallen. We had skipped the sunrise start – were we already too late?  However, they’ve got the system down pat – we had our photos taken, passes printed and were back on our tuk-tuk within 10 minutes.

Before I go any further, may I tell you about the newly strict dress code at Angkor Wat. Since a percentage of the population does not understand the meaning of “skimpy attire”, and since another percentage of the population thought taking topless selfies of themselves in temples was a good idea (???), administration cracked down. Code of Conducts sheets are posted everywhere, and on many temples, women must cover their shoulders and their legs to be admitted.

For my temple visit I had chosen a light airy dress that hits below my knees, and planned on bringing a shawl to cover my shoulders when necessary. Our hotel manager told me that dresses and skirts were not allowed – I must wear pants, and a top with sleeves. While this information did not match with my research, I complied and went to the market to find a comfortable top. If you promise not to laugh, I will show you the result of my cobbled together outfit. We call the look “Travels with my fashion-victim aunt.”

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I bought the top in a hurry. This is what happens when one walks through a hot, sweaty market and harassed by market vendors to the point of distraction.

But the crushing blow is this – Angkor Wat was awash in tank tops, shorts, dresses, bra straps – I could have worn my respectable little dress and felt a lot more presentable.

Anyway…on to the main event. We began with the most important, most iconic temple, Angkor Wat.The entrance is as dramatic as every  photo you’ve ever seen, but the size and scope has to be seen in person. It is staggering and deeply moving.The outer walls stretch for 1.5 kilometres and are encircled by a moat. You cross a long bridge and walkway to approach the temple; as is fitting for a temple of its importance. It stands back and gives you plenty of lead time to admire.

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The distinctive lotus-shaped spires set Angkor Wat apart from the others.

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As we walked through the main entrance and came out the other side, a balloon was just rising over the structure.

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I won’t go into great detail about the history of Angkor Wat – that is all easily and comprehensively available elsewhere. But of all the temples, Angkor Wat was never entirely abandoned and forgotten – it has always functioned as a place of Buddhist worship.

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We expected the greatest crowds at Angkor Wat and there were times when things got a bit congested, but the site is so enormous that we frequently found ourselves all alone.
Visiting important ruins always elicits the same response with us – we are flummoxed by the effort required to build such spectacular structures, in ancient times, before modern tools were available. In this case, sandstone was quarried 50 kilometres away and floated downriver on rafts. It took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to complete. It was a pleasure to sit and take it all in.

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It is a reality check to be a tiny human speck, surrounded by massive stone structures. So many people walked this way before us, and so many will follow when we’re gone. What was this room? We’re imagining a giant swimming pool.
One disappointment about Angkor Wat was the dearth of signage. It would have been so helpful to have information to digest as we went along. I would highly recommend hiring a guide for the day – we “poached” a few times – pretending to take photos as we stopped to listen.

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Our next stop was Ta Prohm, the temples that are being slowly and photogenically swallowed up by the vast octopus arms of massive trees –  silk cotton trees and the aptly named strangler figs. Much of the complex has been propped with steel supports, but the jungle appears to be winning. This was my favourite of all the complexes.

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Stephen propped up at the roots of one of the trees.

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We fell into a sly vendor trap when we landed at a nearby temple where Tomb Raider was filmed. As we walked through, a friendly young man offered to show us the “exact  spot where the Tomb Raider poster was photographed.” We followed through and got our money shot.

 

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He kept following us, pointing out various things and it became awkward and apparent that he was after money. After 10 or 15 minutes, we thanked him and he asked for money in Thai baht! We gave him $5US, and he asked for $10, and at that point we politely parted company, feeling both naive and bit annoyed.

We visited a number of other temples, but as you are probably already feeling it – we were experiencing temple fatigue. Our last big temple – Bayon, in the middle of huge Angkor Thom – was the most surreal in every way.

The main feature of Bayon is 216 massive smiling faces that stare at you from every angle – they are strangely lifelike and powerful.

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We would have spent a lot more time wandering through, and examining the bas-reliefs that cover the outer walls, but for this obstacle course.

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Busloads of tourists had arrived, and there was nothing to do but follow the queue, and hope for a breather somewhere. Alas, it was not to be found.

I have to come to terms with selfies, they are here to stay. But there is a uniquely Asian twist to selfies that I’ve never seen anywhere else – they are choreographed and posed endlessly.

We watched this woman strike this pose in front of a statue, and hold it for numerous takes. Then… just as we were about to try and grab our own shot, another woman took her place, and struck the exact pose. It became apparent that we were unable to get our shot, so we left.
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Our final thoughts of our day at Angkor Wat and surrounding temples? Yes, it is crowded a lot of the time, but it is also possible to find your own quiet place to take it all in.

Trying to do it all in one day might have been a mistake, but we didn’t have the stamina to spread it out over two or three days.

The vendors are relentless – selling everything from guide books to scarves to elephant pants to artifacts, they are in your face in a really unpleasant and aggressive way.

It is hot – really, really hot, and there is very little shade. You need a broad hat, sunscreen and buckets of water to get through a day here.

There are lots of uneven stairs to climb, which require a  level of  attention and determination. I took a pass on two of them – I was so overheated at the time, but Stephen took them all on.

We wholeheartedly enjoyed our day, in spite of the discomforts and annoyances. We are at least a decade too late to see Angkor Wat the way it could be properly visited, but that is the way of many of the world’s top sites. That is not a reason not to go.

We left the park with this final serene memory.

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