musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Noodles amidst the Ruins

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After taking in the ruins at Angkor’s Preah Khan temple recently, my Cambodian friends spied a mobile noodle vendor on the dirt road adjacent to the temple. “I know this lady,” said my friend Chamrong. “I used to buy from her before. Her noodles are very delicious.”

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With that declaration, Rong and the Try brothers all ordered bowls of noodles. The woman had arrived on her bicycle, packed with bowls and bags of noodles, vegetables, and spicy condiments. It all looked very tasty, but I passed, seeing as how it was only about an hour until my planned lunch, plus this woman was using her hands to dish out the noodles and frankly, it didn’t look very hygienic.

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But my friends all wolfed down their noodles, declaring the treat most delicious, while other customers, including a couple of young women, waited for the lady to prepare their orders. It certainly looked like she was doing a very brisk business there under the trees at Preah Khan. Just another charming Cambodian moment!

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Faces and Crowds at Bayon

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The Angkor archaeological complex boasts hundreds of atmospheric ancient temples, from small to large. The most famous, of course, is the sprawling icon itself, Angkor Wat. Another very popular spot is Ta Phrom and its distinctive tree-sprouting ruins.

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There are plenty of other fascinating temples too, ones that I’ve visited countless times, but the one I’m most drawn to is Bayon, the temple “with all those faces” in Angkor Thom. There is just something about gazing upon those huge enigmatic carved faces that fascinates me. Pick just the right spot and you find yourself surrounded by a gallery of stone faces. I must have visited Bayon about 20 times over the past 15 years and the place still spellbinds me.

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The downside to visiting Bayon nowadays, or any popular temple in the Angkor park for that matter, is trying to appreciate the ruins without being trampled by hordes of other tourists. And it’s not a case of a few backpackers getting in your way; it’s the large tour groups — many of them hailing from Asian countries such as China, Korea, and Thailand — that are the problem.

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Wanting to see Bayon early in the morning, but not so eager that I wanted to get up for the sunrise, I arrived with my Cambodian friends about 7:45 in the morning one day recently. Too late; the tourist hordes were already swarming all over the place, mostly snapping photos with their smart phones or posing with members of their group for more shots. A few other people could be seen trying to touch the carvings, even though posted signs asked them to refrain from doing just that. Good thing I wasn’t carrying a gun!

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Although I love visiting Bayon, after this latest tourist infestation I imagine it will be a few years down the road before I’m brave enough to attempt another visit.

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Burmese People Power!

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As this year winds nearer to an end, we’ve seen many changes in Myanmar, not all of them positive ones. The general consensus among those folks seeking Democracy and greater personal freedoms — everything from a free press to uncensored Internet access — is that there have been a disappointing number of setbacks this year. All the much-vaunted reforms and progress seem to have strayed from the intended — or hoped for — path.

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But Myanmar is not alone in the struggle for human rights, democracy, and a free press. Look at many other countries around Asia and there aren’t a lot of positive trends to be found. Things are looking bleak in Hong Kong, not to mention in the rest of mainland China, Thailand remains under martial law after the coup this year (and don’t get me started about the new rash of police harassment targeting foreigners in Bangkok … very disturbing!), activists are disappearing in Laos, and Cambodia is still suffering under the iron-fisted rule of Hun Sen.

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Even across the waters, in the once free country known as the United States, they are experiencing new waves of political protests and racial unrest. Hey, if you are looking for stability there are always the Scandinavian countries. That is, if you can afford the high cost of living and don’t mind being frozen most of the year.

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So, wherever you are living, just watch your back (and your wallet!), don’t trust your government, monitor the police, and fight the powers that be … whenever and wherever possible.

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Meanwhile, here are some more photos from my last trip to Myanmar: the young and the old, people fighting the good fight, living day to day, and trying to keep from going under, amidst the turbulent seas of ineptitude and corruption, not to mention the spiraling cost of living.

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Sand Art at Preah Khan

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One of the most impressive things that I saw during my recent visit to the Preah Khan temple at Angkor was not a bunch of ancient carvings but some creative “sand art”. On the dirt path leading to the main entrance, several children have put their artistic abilities to use and are making drawings in the sand. The sand art all has a distinctive Angkor and Khmer look.

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I thought that this was a supremely cool idea and a good way for the children to make a bit of money (hopefully, a few passing tourists will see fit to tip them). It sure beats being pestered by flocks of kids peddling postcards.

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Preah Khan Surprise

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While I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia late last month, a spent a half-day touring various temples around the Angkor archaeological complex. One of my favorite temples there is Preah Khan, a spot I visited with my friends Chamrong and the four Try brothers; Hach, Hoich, Channo, and Pov.

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From the road there is a long path leading to the first gate of Preah Khan. While walking down that path I heard a woman call my name. I looked to my left and say a young Cambodian woman waving at me. Who was she, I wondered? She repeated my name again and asked I was indeed that person. I replied in the affirmative, still wondering who this lady was. “You remember Lyna and Moey?” she asked. Indeed I did. “You took us to Kbal Spean when I was little. I still have the photos you gave me.”

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Ah, it suddenly dawned on me. This girl — er, rather young woman — was one of the group that I took to the waterfall at Kbal Spean one time. Must have been a dozen or more kids in that group, all from the same village near the West Baray reservoir where I had first met them. This must have been 2001 or early 2002, before I opened my bookshop in Siem Reap. I asked the woman two questions: What’s your name? How old are you?

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She reminded me that her name was Serey Nieng, and she was now 27, married with a young daughter of her own. Damn, does time fly or what? I did some quick mental calculation and figured that Nieng must have been about 14 years old when we took that trip to Kbal Spean, a fairly remote location, but one of the more tranquil and atmospheric spots in the Angkor area. Or at least it used to be. If even a small percentage of the hordes of tourists now trampling the ruins of Angkor are also visiting Kbal Spean, the tranquility has probably vanished completely.

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Thankfully, Preah Khan wasn’t completely overrun with tourists when we visited. Step off the main paths and there are plenty of fun detours and rubble to explore, and you feel like you have the whole place to yourself, a rare feeling in Angkor nowadays.

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90-Day Travel Itch

About every three months, basically a 90-day cycle, I get the itch to travel. I think it’s some sort of Pavlovian response that dates back to the days when I was forced to make 90-day visa runs to renew my Thailand visa.

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Now that I have a work permit and a year-long non-immigrant visa (getting both are complicated, annoying procedures that must be done each and every year) I no longer am forced to make the 90-day visa runs, but I became so accustomed to having to leave the country every three months that all these years later I still end up doing it. If nothing else, it’s just a good excuse to get out of town. Three consecutive months in Bangkok already? Time to travel!

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I finished my latest round of visa renewals last month, and then had extra pages added to my U.S. passport (what used to be a free service now costs almost as much as getting a new passport) at the embassy here in Bangkok (the good news is that they still do it while you wait; less than 45 minutes after arrival you are set to go), so I was once again free to travel, plus that 90-day mark was coming up soon, so last Thursday (Thanksgiving Day in the USA) I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I spent the next three days there seeing friends and basically not doing much more than eating meals at the Hawaii Restaurant and reading books. A half-day touring the ruins of Angkor was the most strenuous activity I undertook. I’ll post photos from that excursion later this month.

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Siem Reap has changed a lot since I lived and worked there ten to twelve years ago. What was once a charming, sleepy little town is now a busy and bustling city, packed with noisy vehicles, generic-looking hotels, and gaudy bars. Frankly, most of this rampant growth all looks a bit ugly and unsettling to my eyes. But the Cambodian people are still sweet and most haven’t yet been tainted by all the changes.

At the Siem Reap airport, going through the security check of personal belongings before boarding my flight, a female security guard was organizing two lines of passengers. This woman was perhaps the most patient and amazing airport employee I’ve ever encountered. She was taking the time to talk to each and every person passing through her post. It didn’t matter if the passenger was Cambodian or Western, she chatted with them, a big smile on her face the whole time. And her pleasant manner didn’t seem forced or fake whatsoever. This young woman truly looked like she was enjoying her job and was eager to talk with every passenger. A true Cambodian jewel!

 

Festival of Death

Thailand’s annual holiday of death and delight, otherwise known as the Songkran water festival, starts today. Songkran is officially a three-day holiday, but invariably stretches out to last nearly a full week when you factor in weekends and bank holidays. Songkran can be an especially fun and festive time with people — both locals and foreigners, many of them tourists — playfully squirting, throwing, and dumping water on one another out in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the “playful” antics can sometime escalate into mischievous or even cruel forms of water warfare. And then there is the powder that celebrants enjoy smearing and wiping over the body parts of anyone that orbits into their range. So no, it’s not always good-intentioned fun.

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I have very fond memories of Songkran, my first exposure to Thailand having occurred during a water festival 22 years ago. What an amazing sight: thousands of people riding around town in trucks and motorcycles all day throwing water and laughing and singing. But there is/was a downside to the happy vibe; some of those celebrants also consumed large quantities of alcohol, became shit-faced drunk, yet reasoned that they could still operate a motor vehicle and of course had an accident, maiming or killing themselves or some innocent bystander. Another happy holiday ending in tragedy.

Death and destruction have become synonymous with Songkran in Thailand. The headline of an article in yesterday’s Bangkok Post blared: Nine Killed in Fiery ‘Danger Day’ Smash. The only reason that this article didn’t make the front page was because the casualties (9 dead and 12 more injured, 4 of those in critical condition) were “only” Cambodians, and probably not deemed important enough for the editors to devote major page space. The Cambodians were travelling in a van that was taking them from Rayong to a border checkpoint in Chanthaburi when the van hit a tree and burst into flames. Most likely these Cambodians were migrant workers heading home to celebrate the holiday in their native country. Like Thailand, Cambodia (and also Myanmar and Laos) have similar water festivals in mid April. In fact, this is THE major holiday in every one of these countries.

I have a Cambodian friend who is working a construction job in Samut Prakarn, a province bordering Bangkok, so whenever I hear about accidents like this (not only vehicle crashes, but also when buildings collapse at construction sites, another sad but common occurrence), I worry about his safety. I always breathe a sigh of relief when he calls and checks in, his laughter assuring me that he’s fine. But with so much constant chaos and a lack of attention paid to safety over here, I’ll always remain worried. Hell, while I was in Myanmar last week, my Thai friend Thanayut was in a fairly major road accident. His car was pretty much totaled but thankfully all that he suffered were some bruises and cuts. It could have been much, much worse.

Like most foreigners who have lived in Thailand for many years, Songkran has lost most of its charm and appeal for me. And yet, I still enjoy the happy vibe that pervades during this time, not to mention the fact that traffic jams in Bangkok are almost non-existent for a full week. So, during this extended holiday, I’ll stay inside my bookshop and work as usual every day, open till close, thus avoiding most of the water craziness, taking taxis to and from work instead of walking or using motorcycle taxis.

Today’s update in the Bangkok Post: 102 Killed and 893 injured. How scary is that? And so, each day when I read the newspaper or check online, I’ll be horrified at the spiraling tally of road accidents and casualties. Have fun folks, but be very, very careful out there.

 

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