South East Asia

The country, the coast and the king: Chambok, Sihanoukville and a return to Phnom Penh

After a free morning, we departed Phnom Penh for Chambok. Chambok village is a small community deep in the hilly region of southwest Cambodia. This village, we would find out, was one of the villages that had been abandoned during the Khmer Rouge resistance, after the regime fell, and had lain fallow for a time as it was land mined. After being cleared, an NGO had assisted the village in finding new sources of income, and suggested ecotourism as a source of money, which the villagers had gladly embraced.

We wound down the highway for a time before detouring through a town and out onto a dirt track. despite tropical rainfall, we made good time and arrived at the community just before sunset, and in we were able to check out where we’d be sleeping for the night.

The traditional Cambodian house is essentially a room on stilts, used only for sleeping. The family all sleeps in one room, though a girl undergoing puberty usually gets a partition. There’s no queen beds here- a 2 person mat on the floor and a pillow under a mosquito net are all you’re going to get. Having inspected the digs, we continued to the village proper.

Chambok has set up a common eating area in the centre of the village for visitors, so shortly after arriving we were seated and fed with simple local curries and rice, a little different to the restaurant quality stuff we’d been eating but still pretty nice. After tea we were led over to what during the day is the classroom, but tonight would be the performance space.

The local children have been trained in several traditional dances, including the fisherman’s dance, several greeting dances, and what’s apparently the kids’ favourite, the coconut dance. For a bunch of small children, they were very good, and we were thoroughly entertained. The host, another local with excellent English, said that performances like these were used to keep the traditional culture alive, after it had been so thoroughly ravaged under Pol Pot.

After the performance, it was time to head to our sleeping quarters for the night. We had 2 houses, 8 people to a house, and after thoroughly dousing ourselves in mosquito repellent and using the happy loo (I dodged the bullet, but apparently a fairly happy squat toilet) we settled onto our sleeping mats for a night’s rest. I actually slept pretty well, once I’d settled in. It was hard, and I was a little stiff in the morning, but it was OK.

We were woken up in the morning by the assorted farm animals; it’s easy enough to ignore roosters, but cows at close range are a little more difficult to ignore. I went outside and down the stairs in a cloud of DEET to say hello to the family.

Cambodian families are very large and very young, and the family here had at least 4 children under 7 that I spotted. In the early morning they were all up and about- in the absence of mains power the family rises with the sun. After chatting to the kids and families we headed back to the village centre for a morning waterfall trek. Following a local guide and accompanied by the village dogs, we headed up a leafy green path near a stream to the local waterfall, a multi stage jungle fall that eventually waters many of the village’s crops. After taking some pictures and a brief stop for some of us hikers to swim, we headed back to the village for a breakfast of fresh baguettes, omelettes and bananas.

We left Chambok and made our way to Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is one of Cambodia’s major ports, expanded greatly in the 50s with French and American money and used as a staging area for South Vietnamese aligned forces in the Vietnam war. During the Lon Nol regime Sihanoukville was used heavily by the Americans to stage in Vietnam, but that of course all changed during the Khmer Rouge. Following the establishment of the current government, Sihanoukville has resumed its role as a major port.

It’s also a beach town and backpacker haven. While I thought the main beach in the town was crowded and a bit rubbish, there are many, many beaches along the coast and on the surrounding islands. The beach near to our hotel, Occheuteal beach, is lined with bars and restaurants, and at night it’s pretty much a club strip, as I found out that evening.

Cheers from sihanoukville! #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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The next morning we boarded a boat to cruise to a couple of the nearby islands. Our first stop, Preas, was a small rocky island, and we jumped off the boat for a quick dip in the ocean and snorkel if you desired. After a lovely bob in life jackets marred only by a couple of misplaced feet standing on sea urchins, we headed to our next stop, Ta Kiev.

Ta Kiev is a lovely secluded beach about an hour’s cruise from Sihanoukville. It’s been set up with beach shacks, which are apparently super cheap, and the shore is dotted with beach chairs and hammocks that could be rented for 50 cents for the whole day. I rented a hammock and lay there for a while, but the water was too inviting. The shallow beach was lovely and sandy, and the water was a perfect temperature, able to be waded out a fair distance with minimal current or temperature variation. Over the 3-4 hours we spent there I probably spent 3 hours in the water (too long, foolishly sunburnt) because it was that good, and we threw a Frisbee and a volleyball around in the shallows as the sun moved across the sky.

Close to our predetermined leaving time, we could hear a rumbling in the distance, and the wind picked up as we left. The night before in town it had bucketed down, torrents of water turning the streets into canals, and we weren’t eager to be in a boat if that repeated itself. Despite a sprinkling of rain, the weather held enough for us to get back to the town, and we walked back to the hotel along the beachfront.

Life’s tough.

The next morning we rose early for the public bus back to Phnom Penh, and we arrived back in the city around 1:30 pm. After a brief (as Ly calls it) Nana nap and a leisurely lunch we decided to walk the short distance to the Cambodian royal palace.

The current King of Cambodia is King Norodom Sihamoni, who succeeded his father, Sihanouk, in 2004. A ballet and classical dance teacher (who according to his father “loves women as his sisters,” whatever that means) Sihamoni has been a strong advocate of Cambodian culture and generally a reasonable head of state, though most of the power lies with Hun Sen and his corrupt cronies (I’m typing this in Vietnam so I won’t have my door kicked in for saying so). Some sources say Sihamoni is a near prisoner, performing his official duties under close surveillance by Hun Sen loyalists, and his existence is apparently fairly solitary and controlled, which is quite sad for someone most people identify as a gentle soul.

One of the temples in the Cambodian royal palace complex #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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The royal palace was built in the 1860s, and has been the centre of royal life since then. It’s very opulent and grand, and inside the throne room it’s covered in gold and crystal, with elaborate chandeliers and a throne that is only used on coronation day. The palace complex contains a number of treasures, especially on display within the temple of the emerald Buddha. The temple contains many jewelled statues and crowns, including one giant Buddha with over 2000 diamonds worked into the Buddha’s robe.

Not bad for a religious figure known for giving up his worldly possessions.

Kayla and I had this discussion- for a country so poverty stricken (and it is even visible within a block of the palace) what value does a golden statue have? Apparently Sihamoni is reasonably modest, but you wonder if some of the resources used to support the royalty could be better spent. On the other hand, we and the hundreds of other tourists who entered the royal palace all paid in our foreign dollars for the privilege, so maybe like the crown jewels (or, to go back to my last trip, the silver altars and paintings in the Cusco cathedral that sat in an area of subsistence farming) the real value of them is in their tourist value. Like the ecotourism of Chambok or the bars on the beachfront, foreign tourist dollars are perhaps the best direct way to alleviate some of the poverty in this country.

Stray observations

-Ly is a pro. On our way out of Phnom Penh, our original bus’ air conditioner had died, which, in tropical heat on rural roads would have been hellish. Within a quarter hour of realising this, Ly had rustled up a replacement bus and driver to not only drive us to Chambok but to sleep there overnight and get us all the way to Sihanoukville. We tipped the driver handsomely.

– Our bus driver at one river crossing on the way to Chambok got out of the bus and checked the stability of the bridge. A pessimist would worry about driving across such a bridge. An optimist would say at least the driver checked first.

– the house we slept in in Chambok wasn’t a guest house- we actually turfed a couple of families out for the night. Seems unfair, but apparently it is a roster system amongst 300+ families so the load is spread out. Still had all sorts of posters and things that were a personal touch.

– Power: the family had a generator, but most of the stuff we saw was running from car batteries, including the lighting and the fan in the house. I asked Ly if solar power was used, and he said not for powering the entire house, but that small panels were starting to appear to charge the batteries. 10-15 years and I imagine the story will be very different

-Chambok is a collective, governed by a local organising committee, and all of the profits are sunk into community projects including education, infrastructure and environmental management. Great model.

– Chambok villagers take their environmental responsibility very seriously, and I had a chat with Leng, the local guide, about their sustainable forestry and the challenges of climate change on both his and my countries.

-Kayla didn’t come on the waterfall walk. She said she had a lovely conversation, albeit in limited English, with a Buddhist monk who lived in a local monastery.

– One of our Canadian tour members is deathly afraid of spiders. He has managed to find spiders in every location we’ve visited, but he thought he was safe in the ocean. Of course, when we stopped at Preas, he turns over a floating coconut, and SEA SPIDER! The fact that it was later revealed to be a crab was a mere detail

-If you want to see Ta Kiev in its current state, be quick: apparently Chinese developers are planning a 5 star resort for the beach front.

– all this bus travel has given me a great chance to catch up on my reading. I’ve read most of The Dresden Files series on assorted buses as we’ve gone along

– A Ly-ism (and there are several): if something is not going to take long, he says it’ll take him one minute and twenty four seconds to do

Next: we farewell Cambodia and enter Vietnam

South East Asia

A cultural wound: The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng

This will not be a pleasant read. I promise the next entry is much nicer, and if you go back to the last one there’s a lovely picture of a bridge. Trigger warnings for everything.

We left Kompong Cham in the morning for Phnom Penh, arriving at about lunchtime. After a nice lunch (I’ll talk about that later) we boarded a bus for our tour to the killing fields. To understand this, we need to talk about Pol Pot and King Sihanouk, and do a little bit of history.

Cambodia was a French colony, like Vietnam and Laos. Like many colonial regimes, it was oppressive and cruel, trying to destroy local customs and languages, and the French influence is visible everywhere. Finally, Cambodia became independent in 1953 as a Constitutional Monarchy with a western style parliament. It was corrupt, and torn between competing American and North Vietnamese interests, and turbulent politically.

Pol Pot was a teacher, originally. Born as Saloth Sar and from a decent family, he was educated overseas in Paris in the 50s and while there him and his contemporaries became committed Maoists. A crap student, he returned to Cambodia and taught French Literature and history, all the while spreading and converting people to Maoist ideals. Pol Pot would travel to country areas with cash from foreign backers and claim they were the spoils from communist countries, and that only through communism could Cambodia prosper. The country people were poor, and poorly educated, so of course they believed him.

Sihanouk was the King of Cambodia, also very educated. In 1955 he abdicated in favour of his father and ran for Prime Minister, running an anti-western campaign and succeeding, so for a while one family controlled all of Cambodia. Sihanouk’s mistakes, according to our guide, was trying to have his cake and eat it- he accepted aid from the Americans and even let them build the main road from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh- then let the Russians move military hardware along it. Sihanouk repressed opposition and was unpopular but powerful

Eventually there came a regime change. In 1970 an American backed coup installed a new government, the Lon Nol regime. Saloth Sar fled to the countryside, amassing a force and controlling districts along the Vietnamese border, which would act as test beds for several of his regime’s programs. Sihanouk lived in exile in China, biding his time and entering an alliance with Saloth Sar to overthrow Lon Nol. The regime branded the communists in the north as enemies of the state, and these “Red Cambodians,” these Khmer Rouge, must be destroyed. Many of the peasants supported Sihanouk, not communism, and his imprimatur caused the numbers under Saloth Sar’s command to grow massively

So, come 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. Following the takeover, very quickly they called the residents of the city to meetings. They told the people that Americans would bomb Phnom Penh in retaliation, so it’d be much safer to leave the city for just three days until it was over. Of course, the people were never allowed back, sent to labor camps and work farms, no belongings left. Separated from families. Work or die.

If you were suspected of being disloyal to the Pol Pot regime, you were imprisoned. Also, if you were suspected of being educated, you were sent to a reeducation centre, ostensibly so that you could be given training to better use your skills in the new regime. Of course, these centres, such as Tuol Sleng, were certainly not for education. Once there, you were interrogated and tortured relentlessly. Electrocution. Fingernails. Heads immersed in sewage. Beatings. Men and women- women were raped and their babies threatened, their breasts mutilated. You were kept in a tiny brick cell and hosed down once a week.

Our tour guide for this tour worked in the forced labor farms. As a 5 year old at the time, he had to scare birds from the crops, and go to sessions with the officers every week for brainwashing. He’d get a few spoonfuls of rice, while all the crops they’d farmed were eaten by officers or officials or exported. Our guide remembers that the youths at his camp genuinely believed that if they joined the army they’d get fed, and have a better life- they believed the propaganda. These child soldiers had to swear loyalty above all else. Some had to kill their own relatives as a test of fealty.

So, the Killing Fields. When you had outlived your usefulness from interrogation, when you had been “reeducated” as much as you were ever going to be, you were loaded on a truck and taken to the fields. They told you this was where you’d get your new job, now that you’d proven your usefulness You were held in a shed, and then the officers at the fields took you to the edge of the pit. They played games. They raped the women. They dashed the skulls of babies against trees, in front of their mothers. Then they killed you. They didn’t shoot you, waste of a bullet. They beat the back of your head in. They cut your throat. They disembowelled you. Then they threw you into a mass grave, and if you weren’t already dead you died there

They weaponised the trees. Theres a palm tree that grows near the fields with a serrated edge to the fronds. For a laugh, they’d use that to kill you.

Today the fields are a quiet place, covered in grass. Many of the mass graves have been excavated, but of course the remains are impossible to match to specific people. The Chuong Ek centre, where we went, one of many, is a small area. Everywhere you walk, there are pieces in the soil- bones, clothes. They’ve excavated many of the pits, but the Prime Minister has stopped the process as he states that they’ve dug enough and bringing up more won’t help the nation heal. You walk through this place and feel the grief. It’s sad, and moving, and mundane- like much evil, it’s banal and mechanical in its efficiency.

At the centre of the Chuong Ek centre there’s a stupa, containing many of the remains. Some of the skulls are fractured. Some of the legs and wrists are still bound in wire. Young. Old. Men. Women. Children.

There is one grave separate from the others. All the bodies within were headless. In Buddhist mythology, a spirit cannot rest if the body is not whole, and the spirits must wander restlessly until they are reunited or hopefully pass on themselves. All of the bodies in this grave are for Khmer Rouge, perceived traitors or dissenters or “lazy” or those that had simply outlived their usefulness. The heads have not been found.

We left the Killing Fields for Tuol Sleng. The Sleng is a poisonous native nut, and Tuol Sleng is therefore poison hill. The name predates the Khmer regime, and indeed so does the building- it was originally a school. Following the evacuation of Phnom Penh the building was repurposed, walled with barbed wire and began its new life. Across the four buildings, over the course of the Khmer Rouge regime more than 17,000 people were processed in this centre. Not just locals either, international prisoners including an Australian journalist were held and accused of colluding with the CIA.

The Pol Pot regime ended in 1979, when a Vietnamese backed force assisted by Cambodian generals invaded the country. They reached Phnom Penh on Christmas day, the Khmer Rouge forces withdrawing from the city. About nine days later, several Vietnamese journalists attached to the invading force were scouting the cleared area when they noticed a barbed wire fence. Investigating the abandoned building, they discovered on the ground floor, in the “VIP” section, the final victims of Tuol Sleng, executed during the evacuation and left to rot. They called the Vietnamese forces, and they secured the facility.

And found survivors. Hiding in the kitchen were 5 children, including two babies, who had survived the withdrawal. The babies were adopted by German couples, and most of them are still alive today. One even works at the facility.

Other than the children, there were 7 other survivors. The withdrawing Khmer forces took 7 prisoners with them who they deemed useful. This squad was intercepted by the Vietnamese forces, and freed. Of those seven, two survive today. One, Bou Meng, was an artist who was forced to paint propaganda pictures, and Chum Mey. Chum Mey was a mechanic, and had worked in a western factory before the regime. Brought to Tuol Sleng in late 1978, he spent 2 months at the facility before the fall, being beaten and interrogated. Following the fall of Phnom Penh, Chum Mey and the Khmer Rouge officers had a chance encounter with Mey’s wife and fourth son, who were added with others to a prison. Following two days march, they were marched into a field and the soldiers opened fire.

Mey survived. His wife and child did not.

We met him. Now an old man, Chum Mey supports the museum and runs an association to help the people who were imprisoned, and has testified in trials of Khmer Rouge officials. I bought his book, autographed, but I’m not convinced I have the strength to read it.

Following the Vietnamese occupation, Pol Pot and his senior leadership fled to the Thai border, attempting to fight a rearguard action and consolidate his power base. Pot received support for this from the Chinese and the Thai and, indirectly, the west, who wanted them to check the power of the Russian backed Vietnamese and stop a “red tide” sweeping through Thailand and further south. All those countries of course decried the killings, but still.

The Vietnamese occupied the country until 1989, when UN peacekeepers took control and oversaw the transition to the current democracy. Sihanouk, having been used by Pol Pot as a puppet and a prisoner and had fled in 1976 to China, assumed the throne again in 1991, his role written into the constitution. The Cambodian general, Hun Sen, who had lead the forces that unseated the Khmer Rouge and had been administrating the country on behalf of the Vietnamese, was elected deputy prime minister (though really controlling all of the power) and then Prime Minister outright in the following election in 1998.

He is still Prime Minister today. His rule is corrupt, he surrounds himself with essentially a small private army, and the elections have been plagued by allegations of fixing, to the point where the previous election he lost, but his corrupt control of the electoral agency meant he “won” a large number of seats and strong-armed another party into letting him form minority government. He brutally represses protest and dissent. His time is, one hopes, nearing an end- with a large number of Cambodians coming of voting age before the next election, he will not be able to cheat his way in again. What happens to his corrupt system though is anyone’s guess.

Sihanouk died 3 years ago, having abdicated in his son’s favour in 2004.

Pol Pot died in the western area of Cambodia in 1998. The Prime Minister declared a general amnesty to former Khmer Rouge who would join the government, and many of the prominent figures in the government today were former Khmer Rouge. Our guide said that one of his neighbours was a Khmer Rouge official, living openly over his back door. He said that he and his neighbours had been angry at finding this out, and had plotted revenge…but where would it stop? It is not the Buddhist way.

5 senior Khmer Rouge officials have been tried for crimes against humanity. One, Khang Kek Lu, nicknamed Comrade Duch, was the chief administrator of Tuol Sleng. He had been a mathematics teacher. He was convicted and is now in prison. 2 have escaped trial, as one died of a heart attack and another, his wife, is suffering severe dementia. The remaining two have received life sentences but are still under trial for other charges.

Bou Meng and Chum Mey testified at Comrade Duch’s trial.

The total cost of the trial, largely foreign aid backed, is over 200 million.

Millions dollars were also found in the bank account of dead Khmer Rouge officials, so who knows where it all is now.

Over the course of the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, between one and a half and three million people died. If not directly executed, they died due to starvation or illness.

So that’s the killing fields. It’s horrible, and unpleasant, and really fucking upsetting.

It’s also important, and should be remembered, and never repeated.

Stray Observations

-Lunch in Phnom Penh was at the Friends restaurant, another charity run restaurant supporting hospitality education for orphans and supporting a couple of orphanages, including one next door to the restaurant. They serve a number of great dishes, I had the ant dish I mentioned in the previous entry, and on our second visit to Phnom Penh Kayla and I went there again. They also have a charity ship selling handicrafts, several of which we bought as souvenirs. Total guilt free purchases, given the cause.

– The history here is of course brief and simplified. Any errors are mine alone.

Next: a remote village and a tropical beach.

South East Asia, Uncategorized

Running Amok and Bamboo bridges: Siem Reap and Kampong Cham

After a long day and a big drinking session the previous night I was a bit slow to start, but I pulled myself together by 9:30 am for our Cambodian cooking school. Our teacher, Sim, was a chef at a local restaurant, so we met him there and he escorted us through the food market, pointing out as we walked through the assorted spices and ingredients we’d be using. The markets were packed, with tight corridors next to tables piled with vegetables and fruit. The markets were loud and claustrophobic, and got doubly so when you got to the meat section, with chickens and fish being gutted and filleted on the spot.

Luckily, Sim already had the ingredients we’d be using, so we followed him out of the markets and a couple of streets away to his home, where we would prepare our meals in a little pergola that he had set up for his school. We started with an entree of fresh spring rolls, very similar to the ones you get in Australia, though the Ines rolled by the pros usually look better than mine. We followed that with our main course, Amok curry fish. Amok is a specialty Cambodian curry, with strong flavours of lemongrass and turmeric, but the signature ingredient is the Amok leaf, a large leaf that grows here and is sliced and added late in the cooking process. The yellow curry is traditionally served in a folded banana leaf bowl, so our hosts provided them for us to spoon our curry into. Pretty damn good. Our dessert was a bit simpler, bananas fried in butter with passion fruit pulp, honey and coconut milk. Very sweet, but really tasty.

After our cooking class, Sim presented us with a recipe book and a certificate of completion, and we went on our way to explore the markets, grabbing a couple of souvenirs and some postcards. We met back at our hotel for our trip to the floating village of Kampong Phluk.

Floating village near Siem Reap #nofilter #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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Many communities in Cambodia live on the river in stilt houses, which are normal villages in the dry season and entirely water based in the monsoon. We took a bus to the edge of lake Tonle Sap (largest lake in Asia) along a road that was underwater for a large chunk of the year and boarded a rickety wooden tourist boat to go to the village. Motoring past mangroves and fishing nets, we approached the village and docked near the local temple, which was raised high above the water. The village was pretty busy, and the afternoon school was just breaking for the day so there were kids everywhere, running and chattering through the currently dry main street and playing volleyball, which is the most popular sport. The streets were filled with plastic rubbish- apparently during the wet rubbish is thrown into the lake, so come the dry there’s plastic bottles and bags everywhere, but the kids were unperturbed, waving hello and chatting to us in English as we walked through. The locals seemed pretty fine with our presence, and we weren’t hassled by sellers or anything like that- Ly says that this village isn’t the super touristy one, and he visits it to show a bit more of an authentic experience.

After walking down the main street for a bit, we made our way back to the boat to head out to lake Tonle Sap for the sunset. With a cold beer from a seller in a motorboat cruising around, we sat and watched the sun set.

Life’s tough.

After returning home and dinner at a cool Chinese restaurant, kayla and i did one last pass through the night markets and then headed to bed.

The next morning we had another early start, catching a 730 public bus to Kompong Cham. Kompong Cham is a large town further down the Mekong River, and we stopped there after our four hour trip for the night. We had lunch  a little restaurant called Smiles, run by a Buddhist charity that teaches orphans hospitality skills. Despite having to be a little patient with the service, the food was excellent.

After lunch, I hired a bike with some of the group from the hotel (Kayla stating that she’d rather watch from the pub with a cold cocktail) and we went across to an island nearby. The island is accessed by a bamboo bridge, that is completely rebuilt each year after the monsoon season sweeps it away. The monsoon season ending only a month or two ago, the bridge was currently incomplete, so we rode our fixed gear bikes with their baskets on the front down to a wooden ferry and joined the locals with their scooters for the short trip to the completed section.

We rode along the bridge (clack clack clack clack) and up a sandy hill to the island village, stopping for a thousand riel bottle of water, and then along the flat dirt and concrete roads past the houses and buildings. We waved and shouted hello to children as we rode, and they ran to the street for high fives. After riding for ten to fifteen minutes, we stopped to examine the crops. The island grows lots of sesame, corn and beans, and is run as a cooperative for the residents. We also stopped at the local temple and Ly explained the burial rites, which we’d heard the chanting of that morning in Siem Reap. When the father of a family dies, the oldest son is expected to become a monk for a time in his honour, and lives for a couple of weeks in a monastery. Much of the education in the small villages is provided by the monks, and many people become monks for a few years to further their education.

We also inspected the town’s dragon boat, recently returned from the water festival. These long 80 man boats are owned by the village, and they compete through regional competition to win a place at the big races in Phnom Penh. The prize money, provided by the government, is decent, and the bragging rights for winning are nothing to sneeze at.

We continued our ride through the island, cruising through leafy streets, and stopped at a stall overlooking the lake for grapefruit with chilli and salt, washed down with sugar cane juice. As the sun started to set, we rode back down the hill to the bridge, and watched the sun set as we waited for the ferry with the locals

Life’s really tough guys.

Stray observations

-Worst thing I’ve eaten so far: at a rest stop between Siem Reap and Kompong Cham I ate a local soup made from stuffed bitter melons. Not a nice flavour, so I added a lot of chilli and soldiered it down. Kayla had one of the other options, which on closer inspection appeared to be a ginger and offal stir fry. She did not finish it.

– Best thing? Guys, I am an Amok pro. Just ask me. I have the spices for it so hopefully I can get them back through customs.

-Weirdest thing? This:

On the road from Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh there’s a village that’s famous for being the spider and bug eaters, and no sooner than hearing this story did we notice that across from the bus stop was a lady selling crickets and spiders to east.  I decided to bite the bullet, or spider as it were, and grab one to eat on the spot, much to the alternating disgust and fascination of the rest of the tour group. It was cooked in a soy and chilli sauce, and once I’d psyched myself up a bit I ate it. Pretty good actually, a little bit crunchy and with a nice meaty inside. I’d recommend trying it, and as of writing this an hour or two later I’ve kept it down.

UPDATE: just went to spider village. Tried the crickets, the spider was better.

UPDATE UPDATE: Ants for lunch!

Lunch: chilli, beef, ginger, soy, garlic…red ants #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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– The Mekong: the Mekong is the lifeblood river that runs through Cambodia, though it actually runs through 6 countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Chinese are planning to dam the river in 7 places upstream for hydroelectricity generation, but the other five countries are understandably concerned by this, citing already lower water volumes from the 3 completed dams. Given that something like 55 million people rely on the Mekong in the region, watch this space: it’ll be a bone of contention for a long time.

– Tour Joke: whoever is being eaten alive is the Jam Boy for the rest of the group. Apparently a real thing, look it up.

-Ly is number 9 in a family of 13, and grew up in a village very similar to Kampong Phluk near Phnom Penh. Of all his siblings, a couple of his brothers have died, and he’s one of the only two who were sent to school, which costs a bit of money (enrollment free, everything else costs). He’s the only one of his family who finished high school, and he says he has 58 nieces and nephews, whom he can’t keep track of. Ly has been in the industry for 14 years, working his way up from waiter to tour leader. Super nice guy

South East Asia, Uncategorized

Borders and big temples: Cambodian border and Angkor Wat

Welcome to Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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I have to say, Cambodia doesn’t make the best first impression.

We met our tour group and Ly (Lee) the tour leader on our second night in Bangkok. A mixture of Canadians, other Australians, Kiwis and a token Englishman, we had a good group dinner before heading to bed for our 6:30am start. We boarded a couple of vans for our drive to Poi Pet, leaving before 7 to avoid the worst of the traffic on the freeway. Our Thai driver also introduced us to the concept of the “Happy loo,” the local euphemism for a toilet stop. We left Bangkok, driving through mostly flat areas past rice paddies. After a coffee stop, where we filled out our Cambodian visas, we drove straight for our crossing at Poi Pet. The crossing is a bit of a dump: after leaving the vans, we had to walk through a hot, dusty and rubbishy market to get to the Thai border control. At least the queue area on the thai side was air conditioned, and we made it through fine.

On the Cambodian side, the first thing you see is a casino, or rather several of them, right on the border. Apparently gambling is outlawed in Thailand, so the Cambodian border is a bit of a haven for Thai tourists. Not for locals, as they can’t gamble there (similarly banned), but the casinos also cater for large volumes of Chinese, Japanese and Korean tourists. We walked past the casino in the heat and dust to the Cambodian immigration booth, which was basically a tin shed, slow and low tech. It took a long time to process everyone through, and we sweated until everyone made it through. We boarded a shuttle bus to the bus station, transitioned over with our luggage, and we were on our way.

We stopped at a local restaurant for lunch, eating Khmer curries as our first local cuisine. The bus then took the flat, flat road to Siem Reap, the Angkor Wat town.

Siem Reap is a big town primarily tourism focused, and as such it has great infrastructure and lots and lots of bars, restaurants and markets. After checking into our hotel (pretty basic but clean) we headed into town for tea. The streets of Siem Reap are buzzing, with street food vendors selling everything from fruit, smoothies, satay and ice cream all the way up to one someone spotted selling cooked snakes and spiders (my encounter with which is coming later). Siem Reap also has a number of night markets selling souvenirs, and you can haggle and negotiate deals with the locals pretty well (I haven’t seen it in action yet, but one of our Canadian ladies is apparently a killer negotiator). We made our way to a pretty touristy bar, and over a couple of beer towers we ate Cambodian food including the curry Amok, which I’ll talk about next entry. Others were going to party on, but given our four am start the next morning Kayla and I called it a night, stopping only by a market stall so I could buy a sun hat.

We met out the front of the hotel at 4:30, some of us fairly bright while others (including the aforementioned Englishman) a bit worse for wear. Our bus and tour guide (Mr Chanphallin) picked us up and we were on our way to Angkor Wat, which is six or seven kilometres out of the city to the north. After purchasing our tickets (including a photo pass) we walked across a stone bridge in the dark, finding our way by torchlight while in the distance we could see a looming silhouette. Ly and Mr Chanphallin led us to the edge of a pool where lots of tourists had already staked out a spot, and we waited with our cameras at the ready.

Angkor Wat, pre dawn #SandKinSEA #intrepid17

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The sun rose slowly, first lighting the sky behind the ruin, and over the next 45 minutes we saw the towers of Angkor Wat gradually resolve themselves, reflecting in the pool to give a lovely symmetrical picture. Despite having to elbow and negotiate with a couple of tourists, we managed to get a pretty good view of the sunrise as it came over the ruin and lit up the reflection in the pool.

After a breakfast break, we were ready to explore the temple. Angkor Wat is the largest temple in the whole complex, and is massive. We entered through an ancient gate house, and wandered through a forested path before we reached the temple proper. The temple is built on three levels, on a base of sand, pumice and sandstone, and all of the stones for the entire temple complex were lifted into place by hand or by using elephant power. Crazy. We explored the first level, which has a number of incredibly detailed bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, including deadly sins and their punishment and the story from the Ramayana called the churning of the sea of milk, which is a recurring motif in many of the temples here. We climbed up to the second level, a stone plaza decorated with many carvings of Apsaras, dancing spirits that are associated with clouds and water. The top level is inaccessible at the moment, but the towers are incredibly impressive from the second level, intricately carved with more figures. We wandered around for a good forty five minutes, before exiting back across the causeway that we’d walked so early that morning.

Pretty amazing.

The entrance to Angkor Thom #SandKinSEA #intrepid17

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We boarded our bus, heading for the nearby temple city of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is massive, about 3 km from the cardinal point aligned gates. The gate of Angkor Thom all cross the most, and the bridges all have representations of good and evil aligned forces wrestling over a large serpent- the naga- as part of the churning of the sea of milk legend. The statues on the bridge have been partially restored, with many having replacement heads and limbs based off of castings of the original. The actual gate, large enough to drive a bus through, is flanked by very eroded statues of 3 headed elephants, and the gate is capped by a massive 4 faced Buddha- the bodhisattva, a representation of compassion and resembling the commissioning king, Jayavarman VII.

Buddha faces at the Bayon in Angkor Thom #SandKinSEA #intrepid17

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These 4 faced gates would give us a taste of what would lay inside Angkor Thom. The central temple of the complex, Bayon (buy-juhn) is alternately named the temple of the smiling Buddha, and with good reason. It is covered with bodhisattva carvings, the 4 faces aligned to cardinal points, and no matter where you are within the temple you can see them, smiling serenely. We climbed to the top level of the temple, taking photos and marvelling at the faces, all exquisite, all identical. It’s my favourite of the three we visited.

The other thing Bayon is famous for is the western carving, a large wall that depicts a naval battle with the Vietnamese army, and also depicting scenes from daily Khmer life, including farming, fishing, drinking, washing, and gambling on cockfights. It’s massive, and like all of the stone carvings in the whole Angkor complex the craftsmanship is amazing.

After lunch, we headed to our third temple, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is also known as the jungle temple, as it was chosen early in the Angkor exploration by the French that it would be kept in the state in which they discovered it. That doesn’t mean it’s been allowed to crumble, as even when we were there there was a construction crew on site repairing and reinforcing the remaining structure. For the most part though, the temple is moss covered and crumbled, with large trees (cottonwood and strangler vines) growing throughout and over the structure. You get a sense that without the maintenance it gets currently, it would be swallowed up entirely.

After a long hot day of temples, we left the complex, though you could easily spend a week visiting all the sites. It’s well deserved its recognition as a world heritage site, and it’s stunning. Do it.

Stray observations

– sure, if the toilets are OK it’s a happy loo. If not, sad loo, but still better than a happy bus, which would be happy for about ten seconds before becoming an inconsolable bus

-Thailand drives on the left, Cambodia on the right. At the border, this transition is a logjam.

– a note on currencies: the Riel, the Cambodian money, is pretty worthless, so you have to work in two currencies. Most purchases are made in US dollars, but any sub 1 dollar purchases are given as change in Riel. at a rate of 4000 Riel to the dollar, and Riel notes starting at 100, your fat stacks of cash are probably less valuable than monopoly money.

– Tuk Tuks: a Cambodian tuk tuk is actually a different design than a Thai one. In Thailand, the tuk tuk is essentially a 3 wheeled motorcycle with a canopy running all over the passengers and driver, and seat 2 passengers. In Cambodia, they’re bigger, with the driver in the open and a larger enclosure in the back that seats up to four passengers. We caught lots of them in Siem Reap, at a rate of about a dollar per passenger

– Horns: one thing we’d noticed in Thailand was that despite the chaotic traffic, there was very little honking. Apparently in Thailand it’s pretty rude to blare the horn and as such is only used in emergencies. In Cambodia they’re a bit more liberal in their use, honking when overtaking scooters on the road.

– to the guy taking pictures of Angkor Wat at dawn with only your iPad camera, I officially hate you. A phone I understand (and used), but if you’re going to drag an iPad around totake pictures just buy a damn camera.


– Business idea number one: one of the Canadian blokes reckons if you created a harness that let you carry around a fresh coconut to drink from you’d make millions. Probably millions of Riel.

– interesting note on Bayon: construction on Bayon was begun under a Hindu king, mostly finished under a Buddhist king, whose face adorns the temple, and completed under his successor, a Hindu. This means there are several areas in Bayon where representations of the Buddha have been struck off

-Children: a lot of children are around, Cambodia being a very young country. Schooling is technically free- to enrol. All of the other expenses, however, such as food, materials, uniforms, classroom resources and even payment for most teachers and some specific lessons must be borne by the family, so many children still do not attend. This also means you see a lot of children selling souvenirs etc, to which I’ve only caved once. I did hear one kid trying to sell the magnets others were selling for $1 at $10 a pop, and I figure if he can make that sale he deserves the money

-Ta Prohm is also known as the Tomb Raider temple, having been used (along with a few other sites in the area) as a set for the 2001 Angelina Jolie film. Not only was Jolie not there when we were there, our tour guide said she didn’t adopt him. To be fair, he was in his 40s.


South East Asia

A collective noun for Buddha: Adelaide to Bangkok

18th and 19th November

4am is an awful time of morning, but generally we an understanding: I don’t see it and it doesn’t see me. When either of us break that detente, however, it’s usually not pretty. So it was this time, when we woke up for or 6am flight at mine and trudged over to the airport. I figured I needed only be awake enough to get on the plane to Bangkok in Sydney, so I endured (reading) through the first flight and we landed safely in that place with the bridge. After a brief hold up at security we made the next flight and were on our way proper. Flight was pretty smooth, and as good as these things are, so at 3pm Bangkok time we touched down. From the air we could see the water as we approached, the rice paddies and canals visible from the air, and the humidity was palpable as soon as we landed. Cleared customs and collected baggage without a hitch, and made it to the taxi rank. After a brief moment t of discussion with the taxi driver, Kayla’s printed google maps coming in handy, we were in the seatbelt free back of the taxi getting our first glimpse of Bangkok. It’s a very flat city, mostly just above water level, and from the freeway we could see a mixture of skyscrapers, shanty towns, apartments and temples. We made it to our (very nice) hotel, greeted with blessed air-conditioning and a cold glass of juice while we checked in. After unpacking and settling a little we decided the hotel restaurant was good enough, and I had an authentic Thai green chicken curry. We went for a walk around the area just to stretch our legs, stocked up on supplies at the neighbouring 7/11, and crashed before that bastard 4am took his revenge.

The next morning we had a free day until 6pm, so we decided to explore Bangkok. After a breakfast in the hotel we geared up and set out, heading south down Sim Sen road towards the grand temple. On the way, our first landmark was the democracy monument. Erected in 1939 to commemorate the 1932 constitutional change that ostensibly brought democracy to Thailand, the monument is at the centre of a large Arc de Triomphe style roundabout- indeed, the French Arc is one of the acknowledged inspirations. Of course, as with many such monuments to democracy, the term was probably pretty loosely applicable to Thailand at the time, but hey, it was a start.

We headed another block or so south to see the Giant Swing, a large frame originally used in Hindu ceremonies, which stands outside a temple of another kind. Wat Suthatthepwararam ( which my tablet autocorrect hates) is one of the royal temples of Bangkok, constructed by 3 successive kings in the 19th Century and containing a large golden statue of Buddha, seated, as well as a large number of other Buddha statues. It still being early in the morning, we had the place largely to ourselves, and were able to spend a lot of time admiring the murals and statuary in the complex.

River boat cruise! #SandKinSEA

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We continued on our way to the grand temple, but were waylaid by a couple of friendly locals (this is probably a schtick, by the way, that we played along with a little too readily) who informed us that the grand temple would be busy and only accessible to thai residents until about 12, so in the meantime we should check out a river boat cruise. He was probably getting a kick back here somewhere, but it seemed OK, so we caught a tuk tuk down to the pier (Kayla had now checked tuk tuk off the bucket list) and paid for a canal boat ride to another temple, Wat Khun Chan. These long boats, low and with an outboard motor, were everywhere on the water, and we cruised for about twenty minutes through canals to the temple, this one known for its twenty metre high Buddha (which was cool, I guess, but the temple was not as impressive as Wat Suthatthepwararam. We looked around for a little while before jumping back on the boat for another 25 minutes, which took us past more canalside houses (many pretty rough and in disarray- unlike most cities, waterfront property in Bangkok is not the domain of the cashed up) before crossing back to the main dock, bringing us out in close proximity to the grand temple, Wat Pho.

The giant Buddha statue at Wat Pho temple in Bangkok #SandKinSEA

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Wat Pho is one of the largest temples in Thailand, dating back to the 1700s, and is known primarily for the Reclining Buddha, a giant status (15m high and 43m high) of Buddha reclining on his side. The thing is massive, and it’s housed in its own building, which I think is actually to it’s detriment- it’s hard to get a sense of the whole thing except from the ends. When you do get close though, it’s impressive- oddly sleek and simple in its depiction, covered in gold and encrusted with glass mosaics, its feet also have a frieze depicting 108 Buddhist symbols inlaid in mother of pearl.

It also has long toes and toe prints, which were pretty cool.

More from Wat Pho temple #SandKinSEA tomorrow long bus trip!

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After taking in the giant Buddha statue, we expired the temple grounds of Wat Pho, which contains many cultural artifacts and writings- it is considered the home of Thai massage, and spiritual and herbal medicine texts, written on make tablets throughout the grounds are on a UNESCO world cultural heritage list. The grounds also contain many more Buddhas (Buddhi? Buddhases?) and statues of various Buddhist figures, as well as many elaborately carved or mosaic covered pagodas. After wandering for a while, that prick 4am came back for another round, so we caught another tuk tuk back to the hotel for a rest, so we’d be awake enough to meet our tour group at 6pm.

Stray observations

– food has been very good, and cheap. As has the beer, but I’ve actually been trying out a Thai soft drink range, which is sparkling tea varieties with flavors like lemon lime and been apple and kiwi. Could catch on

– Thai people have been lovely

– a reclining Buddha is a recurring image in Buddhism, and represents the Buddha in his final illness before death and his ascension to parinirvana (which autocorrect also hates), the nirvana which follows death. Or so the internet tells me.

– speaking of Buddha, I cut my foot while shoeless at Wat Suthatthepwararam. Nothing serious, bandaid took care of it, but I’ve never associated Buddhism with blood sacrifice. At least not until now.

Next time: Angkor Wat

South East Asia

Cobwebs and Cambodia

App behaving and WiFi willing, I’ll be resuming my travel blog here next Tuesday for my trip to Cambodia! The entries will an be under the South East Asia category linked at the to of the entry, so if you’d like to play along at home follow that tag on here. See you next week!