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

Posts tagged ‘Siem Reap’

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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Twenty Years Gone: Finding a New Life in Thailand

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This month marks a big anniversary for me: it was exactly twenty years ago, in March of 1996, that I left my home in Orlando, Florida and moved to Bangkok, Thailand. Starting a new life in a new country, surrounded by new sights, sounds, and smells. I’d gone from the plastic environs of Disney World and neighborhoods infested by mosquitoes and churches, to a chaotic but vibrant city packed with Buddhist temples, go-go bars, mangy soi dogs, and 7-Eleven branches on every street (actually, it’s sometimes now three or four of those convenience stores per block in Bangkok). Some people might think that moving halfway around the world to a foreign country where English is not the native language, and where the culture is very different, would be intimidating or uncomfortable, but I’ve found that hasn’t been the case for me at all. I’ve adapted, I’ve learned, and I’ve thrived.

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I was getting my hair cut today by a vivacious Thai woman named Pin. She wasn’t the very first person to cut my hair when I moved to Bangkok, but she was probably the second one, and for nearly the entire twenty years that I’ve lived here I’ve let nobody else cut my receding hairline. Happy Anniversary Pin … and Happy Anniversary Thailand! I have never regretted my decision to leave the relative comforts — not to mention the spiraling crime — of the USA and settle in a so-called “backwards” third world country. Hell, if Thailand is considered backwards, let it drop further! Moving to Thailand has given me a new perspective on life, new inspiration, and additional energy. If I was back in the states, I’d be edging towards retirement age and wondering how I was going to survive for the next decade or two, but over here it feels like I’m just getting started and have a lot of life to look forward to living.

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For most of these past twenty years I’ve lived in Bangkok, subtracting only the two years that I moved to Cambodia and ran a bookshop in Siem Reap. It’s not like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. Thailand is far from a perfect place and I see things on a daily basis that drive me crazy, but when I think about the prospect of moving back to the United States I break out into a cold sweat … nd that’s not a funky James Brown sort of groove filled with positive vibes, but a most definite fear of being thrust back into an increasingly disturbing, dysfunctional, and dangerous society. I just sit back and watch the current political soap opera that is unfolding (imploding?) in the USA and thank my lucky San Miguel bottles that I don’t have to be surrounded by all that American nonsense.

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Okay, it’s not perfect over here either, and I admit that there are things that annoy me greatly about Thailand (don’t get me started about the current political situation!), but putting it all into perspective I’d still MUCH rather be living here in the kooky kingdom than back in the United States of Amnesia. Admittedly, there ARE some things that I miss about the United States and my hometown. I miss seeing some of my friends and I miss certain restaurants (oh, that amazing Cuban food in Florida!), but I don’t miss the family dramas, the high cost of living, or the cruelty ingrained in the culture. And I certainly don’t miss all the creepy Christians or the conservative rednecks who think the Civil War is still being fought and that racist jokes are funny. Uh, no thanks. And yet another thing: since I left Florida I haven’t owned or driven a car (or any motorized vehicle) for the past twenty years. I don’t miss the driving, the parking, the car maintenance, or all those insurance payments either. Honestly, it’s a relief to be free from all of that crap.

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Living in Thailand is only part of the equation. Using Bangkok as the hub, it makes for relatively quick flights (one to two hours) to neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar. I continued tt be dazzled, and comforted, by these amazing places and the kind people who live there. And I still haven’t visited other nearby countries in the regions such as Vietnam, Indonesia (and Bali), Nepal, and the Philippines. Maybe I’ll go to these places someday. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the fascinating culture and friendly hospitality of Thailand and the other countries in the region. I’m here to stay!

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Return To Cambodia: At Long Last … Wat Bo

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It had been over a year — fifteen months to be exact — since I’d last visited Cambodia, the longest stretch I’d ever stayed away from the country since my first visit in 1999. I subsequently moved there in 2002 to open a bookshop in Siem Reap, but returned to Bangkok again in 2004 to — yes, once again — open another bookshop. I still keep telling friends in Mandalay: Watch out, you never what I’ll do next!

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In any case, I still go back once or twice a year, but my main focus in recent years has been visiting Myanmar, so I felt that a return trip to Cambodia — in this case, four days in Siem Reap — was long overdue. Long story short; it was great to see my friends again, but that joy was mixed with depressing sights. Look around Siem Reap and you can’t help but be appalled by the ingrained poverty juxtaposed by the rampant growth (some might call it development, but all I see is more people being forced to move from their comfortable old homes and neighborhoods) — and greed — that you can see around Siem Reap. My head was spinning by the sight of more ugly cookie-cutter hotels, the new-rich driving gaudy SUVs, people of all ages begging, and amputees hobbling down the street. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to leave town.

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I didn’t go to Angkor this trip — too many busloads of tourists to contend with, so no thanks! —- but one thing I did do was visit Wat Bo, an old temple in the middle of town. Surprisingly, this was the very first time that I’d visited Wat Bo. I’ve eaten countless meals at restaurants on Wat Bo Road, and stayed at hotels and guesthouses in the vicinity, but for some odd reason I’d never taken the time to visit the temple that the road was named after.

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So, late one afternoon, I snuck away from my hotel and walked alone to Wat Bo, taking a back road that ran parallel with Wat Bo Road. The temple is like most of the active ones you’ll find in Cambodia and nearby Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. There is main shrine, plenty of Buddha figures, some smaller buildings and stupas, plus living quarters for the monks. Like most temples and monasteries, I found the atmosphere at Wat Bo very peaceful and relaxing. There’s just something about these old Buddhist buildings — or complexes, in this case — that is so blissfully tranquil. In the midst of all this so-called progress, it was comforting to spend time at a peaceful old temple.

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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!

 

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