Globe Trotting and New Beginnings

Archive for November 2009

There truly is a magic about Cambodia, the minute you get here you just feel the inspiration, optimism and smiles pulsating in the people.

From the Lonely Planet (and the only reason I am quoting these lines is because it spells out exactly what I have felt when we reached this country).

  • Welcome to the conundrum that is Cambodia: a country with a history both inspiring and depressing, an intoxicating place where the future is waiting to be shaped.
  • Despite having the eighth wonder of the world (Temples of Angkor Wat) in its backyard, Cambodia’s greatest treasure is its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through the years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. Thanks to an unbelievable spirit and infectious optimism they have prevailed with their smiles intact. no visitor comes away from Cambodia without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.
  • Cambodia has been inspiring on many levels – ability despite disability; determination in spite of circumstance.
  • Cambodia is the comeback kid of the new century (You can see the capitalism in 3-5 yr old kids!)

Quick Facts about Cambodia

  • Cambodia came into being through the union of a princess and an Indian Brahmin (Kaundinya). The kingdom they came to rule was called Kambuja.
  • 80% of the population still live in the countryside i.e. villages
  • Population – 14.071 million
  • Restaurant Meal – 2-10$ (and $10 is pricey! all our meals were $5 or under and they were scrumptious)
  • Income levels remain desperately low for many Khmers with annual salaries in the hundreds of dollars (note: not thousands)
  • Some country’s mandate their citizens to join the army (eg: Russia), Cambodia while not mandatory, most villagers choose to be monks for a certain amount of time in their lives (1 month, 2 month, 1 year, 2 year – this number is determined by the family)
  • Currency here is Riels. 1USD = 4075 Riels but all transactions occur in USD. Most prices (in grocery stores, restaurants etc) are listed in USD. It really felt weird doing all money transactions in USD while not in US.

We got to Siem Reap from Bangkok earlier this week. We had signed up for a tour called “A day in the life of…” for the following day.  The idea of this tour is to see what life really is like in a Cambodian village, to spend some time helping a poor village family go about their daily life.

The next day after breakfast, bright and early at 7 am, the Tuk Tuk came to pick us up for this tour.  After meeting our guide and the other people in our group (5 Australians), we got in the van and off we went to Kompee Village for the day!

Kompee Village is about 25 km from Siem Reap. It is a village with 263 families. Our first stop in the village was the house of the village chief. The chief gets elected by the people of the village. The chief can be elected for 1 day(if he is really bad), 5 yrs (usual term) or 10 yrs (2nd term). Our guide introduced us to the chief and after getting acquainted with the chief we took oxcarts from the chiefs house to our host family’s hut. Neither Sahir or I have ever rode on an oxcart before so this was definitely a very fun experience! The 15 minute ride was very bumpy and rickety and we saw the ox poo two times! It’s pretty clear sight when you are sitting RIGHT behind the ox 🙂 On the ride, we passed many huts with the villagers sitting outside and chilling, when they saw us they would wave and scream out hellos. If I was taking a picture of the people some of them would raise their hands up with the peace sign too. Their friendly attitude was awesome!

IMG_3911On the oxcart, ready to go!
IMG_3943Sahir gives it a whirl 🙂

The unique thing about houses/huts in the villages of Cambodia is that they are made on stilts. This is to prevent the house from flooding during the wet season and to make sure termites do not eat up their walls. Some Cambodians consider termites a very powerful force of nature and even pray to the termite mounds. So understandably no one wants to mess with them.

We got to our Khmer host family’s house and said our hello’s and got to work pretty quick. This family’s hut needed a new thatch roof. Roof’s usually last about 5 years and it was time for theirs to be replaced. The family had all the material and we had to help make the thatch roof panels for them. I will let the pictures describe it.

IMG_3955Sowing the palm leaves on the bamboo stick to make the thatch panels.

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This is kinda fun! 🙂
IMG_3962The whole gang working hard.

IMG_3968Almost done with one!
IMG_3975Finished product! YAY!

IMG_3988All our hardwork!
IMG_3998With our hosts’ children.
IMG_4005The house cat kept coming to say hello to us

We worked through the morning making the thatch roof panels. After 3 hours we had made 20 panels. Our guide informed us that these thatch roof panels are sold in the market, 13 for $1. So if we were to sell these in the market  we would get about $1.20 for our hard work!That helped put a lot of things in perspective and also made our desk jobs (that most of us hate) look very fun and exciting! 🙂

After a hard mornings work, we washed our hands and cooked a few local dishes with the instructions of the host family. We made rice, seafood soup and steamed Paroc (fish paste) with red ants (a delicacy in Cambodia; made with fish paste, lemongrass, red chillies, salt, garlic and red ants)!

The family was kind enough to let us try what we made and it was delicious. (Yes we did try the fish paste with red ants and it really was yummy! I just had to make sure that I wasn’t directly looking at what I was putting in my mouth).  We then got our “picnic” lunch which was quite boring compared to their food! Our lunch was vegetable and egg sandwiches, fruits and brownies.

IMG_4021Red Ants! ready to get cooked.
IMG_4035Fish paste + ants. See! It doesn’t look that bad 🙂

After lunch we sat around and chatted with our guide, who gave us a lot of information about village life in Cambodia. Later we said goodbye to our host family and went on a walking tour of the village. We walked through the rice paddy fields and saw many fruit trees (papaya, mango, tamarind, pineapple and dragon fruit). Rice harvesting season was coming up so all the rice fields looked gorgeous with the tall rice plants.

IMG_4064The luscious green rice paddy fields

The amazing thing about Cambodia, which is mostly evident only in the villages, is the red sand. As soon as you step into the countryside the color of the sand is a beautiful dark red. I have not witnessed this color of sand anywhere. The guide also showed us the clean water filter that is purchased for the villagers from the tour proceeds. One in five cambodian children die before the age of 5 because of water borne illnesses, so providing clean water to them is high on the NGO priority list. It is only $45 to provide a water filtration system for 2-3 families. This filter lasts for 20 years! For more information on helping provide clean water to Cambodian villages please click here.

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The water filter
IMG_4128This girl did not stop smiling! I had to take her picture, she was such a cutie!

After walking through most of the village we came to the local school. This was an open air classroom with about 60 kids sitting on the floor.

IMG_4098Our cambodian classroom

The guide didn’t give us much information and just asked us to teach the kids English and walked away. The kids were very excited to have us and took to learning very easily. We started with the normals A B C’s but they were all beyond that,  so we moved on to animals, days of the week, months of the year and then just random words. We asked some of the enthusiastic ones to come up and say something to the class but the kids weren’t used to being put on the spot like that so they just giggled a lot. This was a very fulfilling experience.

IMG_4100Teaching the kids
IMG_4112SO much fun!
IMG_4121What did you think Sahir was going to teach them how to spell?? 🙂

After 3 hours of learning, it was “Activity” time. We played Dodgeball, Hockey-Pockey and Skip-Rope with them. Towards the end we went to the local store and got some lollypops for the kids. After seeing the kids thoroughly enjoy the lollypops, we were all craving it too and ended up having one each. It was delicious! Either those were some damn good lollypops or I just haven’t had one in a long time.

IMG_4125Skipping
IMG_4132Enjoying the lollypops
IMG_4134The coolest kids in Cambodia 🙂

Once school was out, we boarded the minivan and started our journey back home. On the way we also stopped at the local monastery and took some pictures. We reached home around 6 pm and called it a night after a nice hot shower and dinner!

From the few conversations I have had with friends family back home, I realized that Cambodia is not a country that many people know much about or that is on anyones travel radar. But if my blog has inspired you to find out even a little bit more about the amazing and beautiful country, here are some recommended links/reads –

  • The 8th Wonder of the world – Temples of Angkor Wat. I don’t have words to describe them.
  • Lara Croft Tomb Raider was  shot at the temples of Angkor Wat.
  • First, They Killed my Father. True story about a child’s experience during the totalitarian regime of Khmer Rouge.
  • If  you are interested in booking some good tours while in Siem Reap this is a good tour company we recommend. The owner is a really nice guy, who actually accompanied us on our tour of the flooded forest.

After reading these if you are interested in visiting Cambodia you should start planning soon before the tourist tide gets here!

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“Camp”

In order to get from Yangshuo to Hong Kong, we decided to take a “Luxury Sleeper” bus from Yangshuo to Schenzen and then walk the border to Hong Kong. After 10,000 Kilometres of overland travel, how hard could a 10 hour overnight “Luxury Sleeper” bus be? The bus had three columns of double story sleepers (one along the right windows, one in the middle (the bitch sleeper) and one along the left windows). Each column was divided into about 10 beds. I was lucky enough to get the lower middle sleeper right in front of the bus, the Bitch Seat.  Even though each “bed” was sized comfortably for your average 5’2″ human being, a very thick and comfortable blanket was provided, which would have been ideal if we were in Siberia, not South China. Once we were all tucked into our undersized beds while reading books, eating snacks and generally hanging out, it felt like I was at a Camp.

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Ready for the Ride

IMG_2841Camp Bus

“Refugee Camp”

The bus had 4 conductors. Not sure why. Once the bus had left Yangshuo, we were all ready to sleep. However, two of the conductors also sleep half the night, while the other two talk loudly to the driver, possibly to ensure that he stays awake. Now, on a full bus, where would these two conductors sleep, you might ask yourself. Well, they have extra blankets, which they lay on the aisle and use as a bed. The conductors decided to make their beds on the available aisle space on either side of me! So in addition to being squeezed vertically (remember the 5’2″ bed), I was horizontally challenged by two chinese men lying down next to me. It was a conductor sandwich, with chinese bread and Indian (halal) meat. It felt like a Refugee Camp.

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Left Side Conductor

“Refugee Camp Disco”

An hour into our journey, the bus started traversing unpaved and bumpy roads. In addition, the bus driver, finding loud conversations of the conductors not enough to stay awake, decided to smoke a cigarette every 10 minutes for the rest of the ride. This was especially noticeable in the bitch seat! Moreover, the ambitious driver took every opportunity to maneuver around slower trucks and buses by overtaking them from the oncoming traffic lane. Having the luxury of being in the middle and right up front, it was quite “interesting” having glaring headlights of oncoming traffic in my face every few minutes. The cramped quarters, smell of smoke, head-bobbing bumpy ride, loud conversation and flashing lights reminded me of a Disco. Ah, a nice Refugee Camp Disco.

IMG_2857Sleeping well in a non-bitch seat

Yangshuo is a small city in Guangxi Province in the south of China. It is surrounded by karst peaks and bordered on one side by the Li River.

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Next to the Li River with Karst Peaks in the background

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Bamboo raft boat on the Li River

The day we got here we just hung around town, walked chilled ate some really good sichuan spicy chinese food.

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In the hotel, before heading out to check out the city

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Goofing off in the city

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Dinner – Chicken Hot Pot and Mapo Tofu – YUMMY!

The second day, I signed up for a Chinese cooking class. We started off this class by walking through the local farmers market where we saw all the vegetables we cooked with. In this class we learned how to make 5 dishes-

1-   Stuffed Steamed Veges (appetizer)
2-   Eggplant Yangshuo style
3-   Beer Fish (local delicacy)
4-   Cashew Chicken
5-    Stir-fried Bok-Choy (chinese cabbage)

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With the cooking instructor

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(Clockwise from top) Beer Fish, Cashew Chicken and Stir-fried Boy-Choy

This was a fun and interesting class. The only problem was that we used oyster sauce in almost everything we made (since that is the typical style of cooking in southern China). So I will have to improvise that when I cook these dishes at home since Sahir is allergic to Shellfish.

After I got back from class, we rented bikes and went around town, we biked about 10 km to this place called Moon-Hill and the Big Banyan Tree and back.
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Destination of our trek – Moon Hill

Moon Hill, a hill with a natural arch, is located on the outskirts of Yangshuo. It is so named because of the semi circle in the middle of the hill that looks like a moon. This semi circle is all that remains of what was once a limestone cave. When we got to Moon Hill we locked our bikes and hiked up to the top.  The annoying part of getting to any tourist destination in China is the touts. They followed us halfway up the hill just to sell us a bottle of water. These touts also asked us to promise them that when we were back we would buy souvenirs from them. The key is just to ignore them and keep walking. We have heard stories about tourists being yelled at when they promised a tout and did not keep the promise. It is also really funny to see the way Sahir interacts with them, he talks really fast and they speak just a little bit of English and he just says silly things like “Don’t follow me, I’m married we cant do this!” And the funnier part is that all women have gray hair and are atleast 65 if not older.

The ride to Moon Hill and back was very exciting since we had to find our way on a map navigating the streets of Yangshuo. China has a very large bike lane (almost the size of a full lane for cars) on the side of the roads to accommodate the extremely large number of people that ride bikes everyday. Biking across roundabouts with heavy traffic was a bit of a struggle and a little bit of a culture shock since neither of us are not used to it. On the way back we had fresh sugarcane juice. It has been a very long time since I had sugarcane juice and it was yummy!

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On my pink bike 🙂

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Sahir enjoying his Sugarcane juice

We were really tired when we got home so after a nice hot shower and dinner we called it a night.