Monday, 25 February 2013

Cambodia Third (and final) Installment - Sihanoukville

From Phnom Penh we headed south 240 km. by road to Sihanoukville for some beach time. Sihanoukville is a city located on a small peninsula with beach resorts, tropical islands and a commercial port. A trip that in Canada, especially on the #1, would take just over two hours took four. It’s not the traffic so much, but the road conditions and having to share the road with all manner of transportation. Including oxen.

It was a great opportunity to see rural Cambodia. About 80% of Cambodia’s population lives in rural communities, most eeking out a living working rice fields. As our trip was during their “cool” dry season, there was very little farming going on, just emaciated looking water buffalo or oxen grazing yellowed fields/patties. With virtually no rains during this time of year and no irrigation systems the farms lie idle.

I took pictures during that road trip, they would have been great here camera ate them. ARGGGGG!

The highlight of our stay in Sihanoukville was a visit to Ream National Park. It was established in 1993 to protect a threatened environment. The park encompasses 200 km² of mangrove forests, tropical jungle, and bird life in abundance. Our guide for this day was a park ranger. He began our visit with a boat trip that started at one edge of the park and wound its way through the tranquil waterways for 1 ½ hours.

A few families are allowed to live and fish in the park. All activity is carefully monitored for environmental impact.

A little girl came out of one of the huts to wave as we went by.

After 1 ½ hours we were at the mouth of the river where it empties into the Gulf of Thailand and the location of a tiny fishing village. We watched people going about their daily lives... a woman mending a fishing net....

a child and her pet.

There was even a one room school house. Class was on lunch break so our guide showed us inside the sparse looking facility. I noticed a world map on the wall and thought I should show him where we live...and that we live by the water as well and that fishing is/was an important part of life there too.

He then led us on a 1/2 hour trek through the jungle, pointing out various fruit trees, birds, geckos...and just telling us about the park, the people and their life in it. I learned a lot, for instance, that bananas are considered an invasive plant. And that cashews grow on trees and are not just a nut. Who knew!?!

At the end of trail was this beautiful white sand beach. The only sound was the waves hitting the shore and the birds in the trees. I rolled up my pant leg and waded into the water, it was bathtub warm. Heaven.

A couple of children from the village had tagged along with us on the trek, and at this point asked us for a hand-out. But not for money or treats. They asked for pencil or pen or paper. The guide told us that those items are in very short supply at the school. I wish I had known. All I had in my shoulder bag were two mechanical pencils. They wouldn't have done them any good. I felt so bad. I ended up giving them my Canada and Germany flag button. Note to self, travel with spare pencils & paper to give away.

Again we have AboutAsia to thank for arranging our room at the fabulous Sohka Beach Resort. Because after a day of walking around in blazing heat and high humidity, it was great to get back to the hotel, our air conditioned room,  jump into the pool and enjoy some nice refreshments. Erwin, being the professor, did student advising with the bar-keep at the swim-bar, who happened to be a university student. Wish I had a picture of that. Dr. Warkentin on a bar stool in the pool, drink in hand, talking to student about their career beyond bar-keeping.

Our final two days in Cambodia were free & easy. I worked on my tan. Read. Swam in the ocean. Erwin didn’t spend quite as much time in the sun. I tan quickly and easily, he not so much. We relaxed. Went on moon-light walks with only the cicadas keeping us company.

We went into town and browsed the market one morning. Fascinating multi-sensory place again…just like all the other markets had been that we’d visited, but I love going to them. That's me near the bottom left. Lot's of fun the way, the currency used is the US dollar.

Some random signs we saw along the way.

We tried to as much as possible to soak-in the Cambodian culture during our two week trip. For the most part we ate, aside from breakfasts which came with the room, outside the hotel/resort compounds.We never felt afraid or threatened when we went for strolls, and in contrast to other developing countries that we've visited, we were seldom asked for hand-outs. Tuk-tuk drivers were another story, but even there a polite “no thanks, we enjoy walking” was enough to stop them. So polite.

My sweetie, on our last evening there.

The next morning we got up early to watch the sunrise and say good-bye to this beautiful place.

We were sad to leave Cambodia because as the days went by we were captivated by the spirit of the place. The Cambodian people and their gentle, quiet & respectful nature will forever remain in our hearts.

To all our guides and drivers, and the many others who touched our lives and had a hand in building our memories, our most heartfelt “awkunh ch'ran” (អរគុណច្រើន).

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Cambodia Part Two - Phnom Penh

After our five night stay in Siem Reap we flew (30 minutes) to Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh.

On our drive from the airport to the hotel we quickly realized that Phnom Penh is a very different city from Siem Reap. First of all it’s bigger, about double the size, but less touristy, no tour buses lining the streets like in Siem Reap. It’s dirty, it’s loud, the poverty more in-your-face, the traffic at best is organized chaos.

It’s gritty…a city with an edge to it. 

But there’s something compelling about it too…we were eager to learn and explore.

Our first afternoon was spent touring by traditional transportation method, the cyclo. It afforded us a gentler pace, albeit a little scarier, way to soak up the scenes and discover this city outside the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle. It turned out to be quite enjoyable.

Our guide was a local architecture student (arranged by AboutAsia). Weaving through Phnom Penh's colourful city streets bustling with activity and wizzing motos, he showed us some of the hidden gems of this multifaceted capital. The fusion of past and present and it’s juxtaposition of old and new, a city of contrasts; French colonial, Chinese style, and Khmer. All crammed together.

Ritzy hotels stand side by side with abandoned derelict buildings and elegant temples. 

Tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and North American style fast food outlets that the average Cambodian could never afford to eat at.

You can see that it’s a city still recovering from decades of colonial rule, from civil strife, and most recently from the genocide perpetrated during the Khmer Rouge regime. Glass and steel towers rise beside shanty town shacks. The infrastructure is in shambles while the economy  is rapidly trying to play catch up. In addition corruption is rampant, so we were told, which makes getting ahead even harder.

One of the sites that the guide took us to interested us in particular. It is their main library. Only  it's not a true library at least not in our (western) definition of the word. They have so few books that they do not lend any out. Students have to come in and read the book they require for class at one of the few tables and then only for a short while, because someone else needs to read that book too. Too sad.

This is the inscription on the wall in the portico. Translated to English it means, "Force binds for a while but ideas bind forever". Very fitting for this country and in particular a library.

Ever the professor...talking to our student/guide...comparing notes on their university system and ours.

The following day Cambodia’s tragic past was presented to us in living colour at the Killing Fields (chillingly depicted in the movie) and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Our guide that day was a local gentleman whose father had been a victim of those horrors. His emotional pain still obvious, but he told us that showing us and talking about it was therapeutic for him. I vaguely remember learning about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in high-school, but was reminded again how people (men, women, and children) often for no particular reason were rounded up and systematically executed. It was impressed on us that artists, intellectuals, academics were especially target. 

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum hasn’t been changed much since it served as a torture prison and we were able to walk around the whole site. The prison cells still had the original beds, chains and even blood stains on the floors and ceilings. The instruments of torture were still present along with signs and pictures showing how they were used. Seeing pictures of the victims made it all too real.

Both sights are heartbreaking and hard to take in, as the brutality of the regime is portrayed in very graphic detail. But I think it is important to have this somber eye opening experience… Lest we forget.

This same guide also showed us some of the beauty that Phnom Penh has to offer. In the form of the Royal Palace with its beautiful Silver Pagoda (no pictures allowed)  and the adjacent National Museum which house the world's foremost collection of Khmer art. The grounds were a peaceful retreat, filled with flowers, topiary and art. Our guide noted that our interest in art and flowers meant that we were peaceful people. Cool.

As always we had time to explore on our own. We walked the dusty streets both during the day and at night....constantly being asked if we needed a tuk tuk. We people watched, or they watched us since we're the ones that stand out. We ate street food, browsed the markets and relaxed at our oasis of a hotel.