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

Posts tagged ‘Angkor’

Family & Friends in Cambodia

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Cambodia boasts many interesting things to see and do. There are the many spectacular old temples — the magnificent ruins at the Angkor complex being the most famous, but that’s only a fraction of what exists — and beautiful natural wonders, from lakes and rivers to caves and mountains. But the reason I keep going back there so often is because of the people. Much like the qualities that endear me to the people in Myanmar, the Cambodians I know are kind, considerate, and unfailingly polite.

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During my recent trip to Siem Reap, my friend Chamrong met me at the airport and drove me to my guesthouse. He also works at the airport, but he took the day off in order to greet me and take me around, which I greatly appreciated. The four Try brothers took the bus from Kandal province (near Phnom Penh) to see me, and another friend, So Pengthay, managed to meet me a few times during my stay, which wasn’t easy due to his tour guides duties. A big group one day, a couple of more tourists the next day; he was constantly having to go somewhere.

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On the one day that he didn’t have any clients, Thay invited me to the new house he is having built, not far from Psah Leu market. He and his wife just celebrated the birth of their third child the week before, so they are definitely going to need the extra space for the growing family. Plus, it’s getting mighty congested — and noisy — living with the in-laws, so this new home will be most welcome in other ways too.

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The ground floor is already finished, but Thay is waiting until the end of rainy season — as well as another infusion of money from summer tourist business — to finish the second floor of the house. Meanwhile, he’s already installed kitchen appliances and a wide screen TV, so the house is pretty much read to live in. While Thay showed me around the house and talked about the changes in Siem Reap, his young son was busy doing some impromptu “landscaping” with rocks he found in the yard,.

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I’m enormously proud of what Thay has done in the past twelve years. This is a young man who came from a very poor rural village and has made something of himself in Siem Reap. After working for me at my bookshop in Siem Reap, Thay passed an exam and became a licensed tour guide at Angkor, and now he’s busy all year. He’s also been able to travel to other countries; one company invited him to a training conference in the United States a few years ago, and they have also sent him on tour to Thailand several times. He still hasn’t had time to visit my bookshop in Bangkok, but I’m hoping that will happen later this year.

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With the house almost finished, his next goal is getting his children enrolled in international schools, believing that they need to learn English language skills at an early age. Another good idea!

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Dry Season Blues: the Water is NOT Rising in Kampong Pluk

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The big news this year in Thailand — and in most countries in Southeast Asia — is the current drought. It’s dry out there, the worse in decades, and there are severe water shortages in many areas. Pray for rain? Whatever it takes, but in the meantime thoughts turn to conserving the water that is on hand and in the depleted reservoirs.

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When I was in Cambodia last month some friends and I visited the floating village of Kampong Pluk. It’s one of several such villages on the Tonle Sap Lake that attract tourists who are visiting Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. This year, however, the water level has dropped to dangerously low levels and the boats that ferry tourists to the village and back don’t have as much water to navigate.

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Despite the low water level, our trip to Kampong Pluk was still very pleasant. Walking around the very dry village, we passed a wedding reception that was about to start, dropped by the village monastery (where a sign is posted, requesting that tourists “don’t drum” the big old drum on display), and then paid a short visit to the primary school where classes were in session.

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A woman was outside the school selling pencils and notebooks, supposedly for the students to use. The idea was basic; donate money and give the school supplies to the kids. You will be doing a good deed! Yes, that seemed obvious, but I also was wary of a scam. Would the students actually get the stuff that I donated, and if they did, would they really use the stuff?

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My friend Chamrong assured me that the woman’s sales pitch was legit and that the kids could indeed put this stuff to good use. So I ended up buying a few packs of pencils and notebooks, and then we walked up (and up it was: you needed to hike up some steep wooden steps!) to the classroom and asked a teacher for permission to distribute the bounty. She approved the operation, but halfway through the task of dispensing the supplies to the students it became apparent that I hadn’t bought enough for everyone. Luckily, the woman selling the notebooks was perched outside a window and promptly sold me some more! Hmm … that was almost too convenient. Nevertheless, the kids seemed happy with their new notebooks and pencils and I left feeling like my donation wasn’t a total waste of money.

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On the boat trip back, we stopped at an overpriced floating restaurant and had a good meal, although I passed on the crocodile steaks that were on the menu. And yes, that was legit too; they actually had some of the small critters in a cage for diners to ogle. Fine dining in Kampong Pluk!

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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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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!

 

Signs of Siem Reap

Here are a few more shots I took in Siem Reap last month. When I wasn’t touring the ruins at Angkor, or eating meals at Hawaii Restaurant, I spent time walking around town and looking at funny signs. One day I went with a group of friends to West Baray for a long overdue swim. Maybe not the cleanest water around, but it felt mighty refreshing in the middle of a hot afternoon.

 

 

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