Mysore: City of Palaces

Oh, I know what you’re thinking,”can’t wait to hear all about the palaces.” I promise you this post will have so much more; Mysore is our first big Indian city and there are lots of interesting things to tell you about.

Such as: There is no shame in pretending you are Indian royalty.

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As much as we have read about the many scams at work in India, didn’t we fall prey to one on our very first day here. We were approached by a tuk-tuk driver who wanted to show us the “old market” for 30 rupees. ( 60 cents). We were tired from hours of walking and gratefully climbed in and rode along for about 10 minutes – into a neighbourhood we might otherwise not have discovered on our own. Much of Mysore’s centre area streets and alleys look like this – at first glance rather sketchy but in fact simply modest.

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We passed by several little structures like this – not much more than lean-tos.

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A quick stop at the “special market” and then the scam unrolled – we, the guileless tourists, were escorted to some shops that will kick back a decent commission to the driver if there are sales. First to  a shop where rosewood was being carved and polished. The tuk-tuk driver assured us the white inlay was wood but when I picked up a small piece of plastic cut from the “wood inlay” off the ground, he said nothing.

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Next up – An aromatherapy shop where we were greeted by three very excited people. Before we knew it, we were being swabbed with sandalwood, black jasmine, ylang-ylang, geranium, etc.  Stephen was laced with some essential oil that promised  (with a wink) to give him “eight hours of manhood”. Tempting, but prices started at $60 for tiny vials so we had to disappoint them. It was awkward.

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Somehow I have managed to reach this stage in life and still be surprised to discover that not all people are honest. Being in India requires constant negotiation and second-guessing –  a big push-pull game of Let’s Make a Deal. We have money and they want it. They will tell you what you want to hear (your laundry will be ready by 5:00) and they will blithely overcharge you on just about anything. We are learning how to haggle without being insulting – not wanting to rip off or be ripped off. You never really know. Stephen developed a deep fondness for these luscious potato buns, filled with onion chutney and served warm. He has paid 10, 15 or 20 rupees, depending upon who was behind the counter. That felt more comical than anything else – a lovely family business with no malice intended.

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I am coming to terms with my situation in India now that we are out of beach-y Goa. Our hotel in Mysore is in a Muslim area (we awaken each morning at 5:30 am to delightful call to prayer) and many women are dressed in black burkas.Our first morning here we ventured out to explore the back streets and soon raced back to our hotel.  I was treated to several disapproving stares as well as that nasty tongue-clucking sound that makes me want to pick up a rock and throw it. My crime was wearing a knee-length, scoop-neck, sleeveless dress. I grabbed a shawl, wrapped it around my shoulders and went out again without a problem. The other issue is legs – they need to be covered or at least mostly covered. I bought these pants which are very fine cotton, incredibly comfortable and cool, and roomy enough for a few more veggie pakoras, but I’m not happy.

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I’m not happy with the bold stares, the open contempt, and my feelings of discomfort. I am a visitor to India and as with any other country I want to respect their culture and customs, but it is such an unpleasant feeling to be judged so harshly. To clarify – most of my encounters with Indian men have been positive and warm. I believe the divide is a fundamentalist religious one as well as an uneducated one. The educated moderate Indians do not hold those views toward women – they are gentle and kind.

I discussed this with a gentleman here who warned me to be very careful, especially up north in smaller towns and villages, where a woman’s smile or gaze is interpreted as an invitation to have sex. With or without consent.  Clothing choices would obviously also be an issue.

Currently,  in many states in India violence has broken out over the release of the movie Padmaavat which has offended the sensibilities of some Indians to the point that cars have been torched, a schoolbus full of children was stoned and several women had to be stopped by police as they were planning to self-immolate. A reward has gone out for the delivery of the nose of the lead actress. 

I may not be happy with my status here but you can bet I’ll be keeping those feelings to myself. So…with that off my chest, on to far more positive things. Like, the palace.

Mysuru Palace is one of the big tourist draws – a staggeringly impressive structure that was home to the maharajas and has interiors worthy of one of India’s premier royal buildings.

The Public Hall

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The Marriage Pavilion, used for royal weddings.

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One of the interior courtyards

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The side entrance to the Palace

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St. Philomena’s Church is another Mysore attraction – a Neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral that is currently under restoration and was covered with scaffolding and tarps. I didn’t take any photos but while we were inside the crypt we spent a few minutes checking out the names. “Captain and Mrs. Ross”; “Federico Coelho” – mostly Portuguese and English names, with a smattering of Indian. I noticed a couple – Barbara Gordon and Tony Gardon – and wondered at the obvious typo engraved in marble for perpetuity. It would make me so upset to imagine a similar fate would befall me when my time comes and I would be laid to rest as Ginny Muller.

And on to the marvellous Devaraja Market of Mysore – a photographer’s delight.

This scene repeated itself dozens of times – we loved the elegance and strength of these women.

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For all the squalor and disorder outside the market, the stalls are a study in geometric perfection.

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I love red onions, but back home they are often too big or a bit mushy. These were just perfect.

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The heaping cones of kumkum, which are the coloured powders used for bindi dots.

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Flower garlands everywhere

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Incense, especially sandalwood, is quite particular to Mysore, as are many essential oils.

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This scene could make a vegetarian out of me. The chickens were being slaughtered, plucked and cleaned right on the counter, in the heat, with the flies swarming. As much as I love meat, I will try to stick to vegetarian dishes for our stay, as FoodSafe is not a thing here.

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And Gandhi – his skinny, bespectacled golden figure standing guard over the madness of roundabout traffic.

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Traffic – how does it work? In India you drive on the left side of the road, unless you prefer to drive on the right. In that case, you cut across three lanes of traffic and go wherever you please. Cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and tuk-tuks zoom along with inches to spare and no-one hesitates – as in SE Asia, it flows. One of our new friends in Hampi advised us not to drive in India. “Too stressful for foreigners.” We wouldn’t know where to begin.

The van you see on the left? He will simply drive through the line of motorbikes. The concept of  “After you. No please, I insist – you go first.” does not exist here – either on the road or on the sidewalk, or lining up at the ATM.

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We kept seeing black and yellow cows and finally asked someone. There was a festival last week and the cows were coloured yellow as part of the celebration.

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I stopped these young women to ask them about their tops – it is not easy to find tops that don’t go to the knee or longer. While the clothes here are exquisite, I’m trying to find things I will wear again in Canada. We had a nice chat, followed by the inevitable selfie.

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We hired a tuk-tuk again to take us to Chamundi Hill where there is a sacred temple and the usual complement of monkeys.

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Today is Republic Day (representing India’s freedom from British rule) and a national holiday. There were dozens upon dozens of busloads of tourists and the queues to enter the temple were terrifying. We stayed outside and watched as the crowds arrived; many passed holy men for blessings and bindis.

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We were quickly surrounded by a very friendly Indian family who wanted our photos. The funny thing we have noticed about many of these group photos is that once the selfie-stick or camera is in place, everyone assumes a very serious demeanour, even the little kids.  I felt very much like a smiling white-haired lady towering over everyone.

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A view of Mysore taken from a lookout on the road up to Chamundi Hill. We have not had a lot of bright blue skies since we’ve been here. There is a haze over the city with smoke coming from hundreds of small fires that are set daily (people burn their garbage). Both Stephen and I have sore throats and cold symptoms.

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I was not as captivated with Mysore as I thought I would be. It is a smallish city (just under 1 million) with many historic buildings and monuments, but with the exception of the Palace, many of the attractions were in disrepair.

This was a good introduction to an Indian city, as it sharpened our travelling wits a whole lot.  We are not planning to visit any of India’s huge cities, except for Delhi in April. There are so many places to visit that don’t demand such stamina and perhaps offer more reward – tea plantations, bird sanctuaries, backwaters, tiger reserves, elephant reserves, the desert cities with their forts and palaces and the Himalayas.

We fly down to Cochi tomorrow and then we will be firmly in Kerala State for a few weeks.  We’re still very much in the early days of being in India and still being swamped by new impressions and emotions to sort through.

One final note on our hotel: Unlike the horror show in Hampi, our Mysore hotel is a dream. Polite, professional staff on the front desk and in the dining room. Huge spotless room, with tiled floors, comfy bed and modern bathroom. Air-conditioning and wifi  – both of them in good working order.  Big breakfast included. And…we paid almost the same as we did in Hampi – just under $50 a night. We have made a decision not to skimp on our hotels in India – the $25 room beckons and is often just fine, but we really want to have a sanctuary to come back to after our sightseeing each day. We’re staying at Casa Mia Homestay in Cochi  – we’ll see you again in a few days.

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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.

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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.