Monday, September 18, 2017

Friday, July 28, 2017

Cambodia: Yay or "Neigh"

     As Allyson Jolly, my favorite part of our stop in Siem Reap was our last day. Why? Well, I might just have been horse-crazy enough to convince my parents to do a two hour horseback ride in the country side of Siem Reap. We woke up not to early, as our ride was at 9:30 am. We took our time and ate breakfast for the second-to-last time. We all wore long pants and a breathable shirt. We got a tuk-tuk driver from outside the hotel. The small group of drivers made fun of my dad because he continuously asked the driver if he knew where we wanted to go. Soon enough we were on our way to the ranch. I was of course very nervous, because when we left town, I could not recognize my surroundings.
   



After a twenty-minute tuk-tuk ride we pulled into a gate adorned with cattle skulls. I quivered with excitement. We thanked  We had arrived at the Happy Ranch Horse Farm. Our driver, he insisted on picking us back up again. This ranch was horse haven. Horses were getting washed, rode, groomed, and fed. Some played with large blue barrels. My family and I entered the office. We had to fill out a form. I was so excited that my parents sent me outside of the office with Alec. Thankfully, there was a 6 year old horse in the stable right-beside the office. His name was Mexico, kind-of ironic, as we are in Cambodia. Suddenly, Alec clicked and would not stop petting the horse. My parents were given fanny-packs to put items to carry in. I was so excited, I could not stop moving. Finally, after we were sunscreened and bug-sprayed, my family went out to meet our horses. My parents both had bays (brown horse with black legs) and Alec and I both had grey horses. I immediately mounted with imagined grace, whereas Alec and the others struggled. I quickly informed our guide that I could trot and canter. Alec had a guide to walk with him, as it was his first time riding. 

     We exited the ranch and entered the busy street. My horse, Diamond, followed the group basically, doing whatever they did. All the walking was nice, but I felt my need for speed and asked Alec to pass the message up the line. We walked for a little while more and finally our guide gave us the cue to move into a trot. Alec's guide had to run along side him. My horse had a smooth trot and I enjoyed some fine posting (pushing yourself up and down in the saddle to the same rhythm as your horse's trot). Alec was having a blast. Soon we were back to a walk again. We stopped at the edge of a large rice field. The horses were tied to a fence and grazed. At the same time, us humans, had our fill of water. Alec enjoyed horse-back riding, and I knew I had created a monster, a crazy, horse-loving monster. On the way back our guide asked if he could take me for a canter. My parents agreed and we split. Our guide, Kong, showed me to many different local plants, like the banana tree and lemon grass plant. We crossed another road and I saw the rest of my family down the dirt path. We kicked our horses into a canter. It was amazing, Diamond knew just what to do. We quickly arrived at the group. Soon, we all trotted again. My mom's horse, Bunny, did not enjoy being apart from the guide. So after several failed attempts, we were able to fall behind. We cantered again. At one point, my horse, desperate to keep up, galloped. We caught up to the group and walked back to the ranch. We let our horses go eat their lunch. 
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      At the office was a new face, the owner of the ranch. We talked together for a while. Apparently, the owner had lived in Grass valley California for a while.  My parents insisted on taking a picture together. Though we were late, our driver from earlier was waiting for us. 
      We took the tuk-tuk back to the hotel. We took a shower and went swimming. Then we took the same tuk-tuk driver out to the town. We went to the long anticipated Blue Pumpkin ice-cream shop. We all got ice-cream and french fries. Then we went shopping for ourselves and friends. Then we took our favorite tuk-tuk driver back to our hotel and had dinner at the bar and got to bed. Our flight was early in the morning so we needed all the sleep we could get. 
      Little did we know our morning would be quite hectic.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cooking and Artisans....

     So happy...sleeping in!  Our driver would pick us up at 9:20 this morning with only a short distance to go to Champey Cooking School.

     Once there we met our instructor, Charley (not his real name, but his Khmer name was too hard to prounouce).  We were joined by another family from South Africa, but living in KL (Kuala Lumpur) with a daughter a year older than Ally.  We set off on foot around the corner to the local market to find our the ingredients used here in Cambodia in their dishes.  Unlike Thailand we weren't dealing in limes and currys...now it was amok pastes and more vegetables.  Alec did not like the market one bit...the smells and the sites of the wet portion (aka fish) as well as the chickens and literally an entire pigs head had him in tears.  Mom dusted baby powder on his scarf to help him with the smells, but the tears still rolled.  He claimed to be vegetarian after that.  We had to have a talk about food access, especially protein.



     Back at the kitchen we were geared up and off and cooking.  First up fresh spring rolls...which use simple water and rice paper wraps instead of the fried.  This is Mom's favorite.  Next up was our main of fish amok (except for Ally it was tofu and Alec was pure veggies).  And lastly was a friend banana dish that involved passion fruit, honey, and coconut milk.  YUM!  Our instructor was really good and we enjoyed the class.

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     Kanha collected us afterwards and instead of dropping us at the hotel we asked to go to another Angkor Artisans location in downtown Siem Reap.  Here we got another tour and go to learn about carving in woods and various stones, also silver plating, and more.  They even had a chunk of soapstone for us to give it a try.  After a bit of shopping the wind was picking up, so we decided to hurry back to the hotel before rain set in.
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     This afternoon was bittersweet as we had to bid Kanha good bye.  We hope we will see her again with her having connections in Folsom.  She's been a wonderful guide and we highly recommend her to anyone traveling to this area.  Here's her Trip Advisor link.  Knowledgeable, friendly, and flexible....great experience!
     Later that evening and Mom's stomach still a little on edge we went into town for dinner.  After all we haven't been to the famous Pub Street yet.  We enjoyed dinner at a little Le Creperie tucked back in another little alley.  After dinner we ventured out onto pub street...basically it is a street blocked off for only pedestrians (and tuk tuks) lined with shops, restaurants, and of course pubs.  People overload, including lots of strolling vendors.  It was good to check it out, but not our scene.
     Tuk Tuk back to our hotel and off to bed....as Ally's wish was coming true tomorrow, horseback riding in Cambodia.

Circus, Reclining Buddha, Waterfall, and Our Last Temple

     So if you've been reading you now know some how we got our evenings/dinners off by one night, so a quick catch up.  Last night we really had Kanha drop us in town for a little break from Khmer food - PIZZA!  at Il Forno.  Tucked in one of the alleys it was good and quick because we had one hour to eat and get back to the hotel as we were being picked up to attend the Cambodian Circus called Phare.

     Kanha got us to the circus and at the front of the general admission cue where we got great seats (really this place is so small all seats are good, unless behind a structure pole).  More than just a circus, Phare, the Cambodian Circus performers use theater, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories; historical, folk and modern.    Phare artists are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school and professional arts training center.  We saw the show "Same, Same, but Different, which through a series of everyday situations explores the different habits and ways of living between Cambodians and foreign visitors."  It really was a spectacular show that we all loved.
     There was only one bit in the show that was troublesome...Mom, finally met her match with her stomach.  About 15 minutes before the show ended she felt faint and she and Dad ran out.  Some water on her face and cool air and she would be back, but after some thinking we are pretty sure it is not the local food that got her, but rather milk.  All the milk in Cambodia is imported and we had noticed ours at the hotel while cool was not being kept on ice (because otherwise she and Dad have eaten the same local dishes).  No more milk in coffee or cereal the rest of the trip.
      Next morning there was a lot of talk about what to do with Mom.  Today we were headed about an hour and a half away to Kulen mountain.  Did she go?  Did she stay back alone?  or with Ally?  In the end after lots of meds she came along and did really well.  It was decided she'd rather be with us and a knowledgeable guide if something took a turn versus in a hotel alone.

      On our way to the mountain we stopped at Banteay Srei, a pink temple with beautiful carvings.  This 10th-century Cambodian temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.  It is the only temple to have not been built by a king, but it was built by a king's adviser.  This temple is also referred to as the citadel of women due to the numerous carvings of women throughout.  It is also famous for one of the more historic well-known art heists, when a famous French novelist and Minister of Cultural Affairs stole several of these female reliefs.  He was actually arrested and the figures returned in 1923.

        About another 30 minutes and we climbed up into the mountains.  Kanha again gave the kids a story that led them to think again.  School here for village kids is tough.  When she was a literature teacher in a middle school in Siem Reap (1.5hr away) two girls came down from the mountain and attended her school.  Every weekend they went home to get money and food to last them the next week.  One girl only made it one year and missed her family too much.  The other made it another year, but as well gave up and returned to the mountain.

     Phnom Kulen is considered a holy mountain in Cambodia, of special religious significance to Hindus and Buddhists who come to the mountain in pilgrimage.  It is also symbolic for Cambodians as the birthplace of the ancient Khmer Empire.  As we wound our way up the stairs we would be struck by the Hindu connection immediately as we were greeted by a group who obviously had made a pilgrimage and were performing some sort of ceremony using the holy water and turmeric. Our guide asked all the locals in Khmer what was going on, but no one knew.  So we just sat back and took it all in.  When they started flinging the turmeric water on the crowd we moved on to climb the stairs to see the reclining Buddha...which is actually a massive rock outcropping,
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probably 3 stories high that a reclining Buddha has been carved out of the top.  It was impressive and the more recent increase in tourists has the locals learning how to manage the crowds and ensure things are cared for.
     After we got down our poor driver found our van would not start.  Rather than stare over his shoulder we took off through the forest to the waterfall.  Along the way Kanha stopped and got us another local snack.  Breaded and deep fried bananas...YUM!  A beautiful waterfall about 60 feet high Dad, Ally, and Alec went for a swim, but Alec was soon out with the fish nipping at his toes.  Ingenious locals had created a couple of changing shacks and charged $0.50 to change.  And then they had coolers all stacked up you could rent for a $1 and use as lockers.  Pretty place we enjoyed a good hour before heading back up to find our driver had gotten help from villagers to pop the clutch and get the van going.
    We decided we couldn't make it back without lunch, so we stopped along the way and due to Mom's stomach we for once asked for the air conditioned room versus sitting outside.  Mom had a clear soup , Dad more curry, Ally spring rolls, and Alec...waffles.
     On the way back one more roadside stop to see palm sugar.  We saw the ladders on the trees where they climbed to get the palm liquid from the flower and then ladies would sit and stir it over a fire to get it to caramelize or crystallize.  It was delicious!  And a jar only costs $1.50.  So we bought some to bring home.
     Getting Mom on the mend we just stayed in that evening and relaxed.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Angkor Wat, Silk, and Water Buffalo

     Awake at 4:15 Kanha and our driver would be arriving at 5AM to drive to Angkor Wat.  Now this seems really early and yes it is open all day, but now that we have do it we totally agree the way to go.  For starters it is much cooler and and second it is really neat to watch all the features pop out as the light brightens.


     As we cue'ed (lined up...we know America seems to be the only country in the world that does not use the word "cue") up we saw how popular this was...buses, tuk tuks, bicycles, were all flooding into the park.  And here's where the guide knows best...we crossed the floating bridge (a replacement while the restore the original...which the kids thought was so cool to walk on) with everyone else and then proceeded right across the lawn to one of the less crowded reflecting pools.  They would not allow anyone actually in until it was light enough to be safe.  There were hundreds of people...taking pictures or just sitting on the lawn taking it all in.
     Once we got going we admired a large outside wall depicted the story about the demon and the monkey king and the epic battle for a beautiful girl.   Alec asked "why are all the battles over pretty girls?" Good question. We walked and saw several libraries, which impressed Ally.  We also saw the four inner pools representing earth, fire, water, and air.  We also went into a small room opposite a large Buddha where several monks were.  Here our guide told us to make a wish and thump on our chests.  It echoed and apparently this activity is one many Cambodians do. (BTW, the video does not give the echo justice, but you can tell by the looks on our faces).
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We proceeded then over the the opposite side and along the way passed the "center of the universe."  It is believed that Angkor Wat is created and laid out as such to have that point at the middle.  On the other side we came upon the Buddha and two monks.  We decided being in the largest religious site in the world it only made sense to get blessed here.  After that we
then proceeded to the back towers where Andy, Ally, and our guide got in a ten minute line to go up (much better than the 45 min one our friends who had visited some days prior passed on).  Alec and I explored more areas while waiting for them.  Towards the end of our waiting we noticed the monkeys were starting to come out of the forests and move into the temple (I am sure as they knew the tourists were there to feed them).  Kanha always knowing how to avoid the crowds had us exit the back of the temple.  Much less crowded and a beautiful view as well.
     Back to our hotel we got a good rest until the afternoon then we went to a silk farm.  Run by Angkor Artisans, it is a semi-public and social Cambodian company that was originally created to help young rural people find work near their home village.  It has grown a lot, but still maintains the same guiding premise, but now a lot of sites have lodging for the students to live there.  We got a beginning to end tour of the silk process...including the raising of the silk worms, how they manage the cocoon creation, how they harvest the inner and the outer silk of the cocoon, how they remove the gum, and how it is spun, dyed, and then weaved into incredible creations.  Having seen the process and the amount needed to weave even a simple scarf made one appreciate the handicraft skill...and honestly the cost then attached to pure silk.  We did learn it is mostly women working in silk due to the patience required in all the steps of the process.  Did anyone see our trying deep fried silk worms, bbq-flavored in Thailand, well Andy was daring enough to try a boiled one straight from the de-cocooning pot.  The guide was very proud of him.

     Before returning to our hotel we got to finally get up close to a large beast we have seen in our travels in Thailand and here.  A local community has started giving ox cart rides as a way to raise money.  They take turns between community members, so there is still plenty of time to get field work done.  The boys took one cart and the girls the other, even with Kanha joining us.  We enjoyed the ride, especially as the kids got to see many animals they are missing from their own farm at home, ducks and chickens.  By the way...ox...are actually water buffalo.

    We had the pleasure tonight of meeting some friends from our REI trip on their last night in Siem Reap for dinner.  We enjoyed the Marum, which is is run by Kaliyan Mith, an NGO that has been working with street children and other marginalized young people since 2005 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  It was a beautiful place and we sat outside in the garden area and enjoyed some creative cocktails as well as meals, including a dish that included red tree ants.  Biding our friends a safe journey back to the US we were off to bed because tomorrow.

NOTE:  We have figured out our dinners are off one night in every blog...opppssss.  We have literally lost track of time.  Between it being a wonderful vacation and the time difference to the US we are constantly asking what the day and date are.

Monday, July 24, 2017

An Eye-Opening Experience at a Lake, Unchanged Temple, and Apsara

   Day two and a brief break from temples.  We loaded up in the van early and were headed about an hour+ out of town.
  

     The highway we were taking is the one to the capital of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.  It is a 6 hour drive.  Along one stretch we saw stall after staff of bamboo pieces over small fires.  We stopped and would find the best road side convenient store dish yet Kralan.  It is a shaved down thin bamboo stick, stuffed with rice, coconut milk, black beans, and palm sugar.  Then the ends are stuffed with rice hay/grass and then cooked over the fire.  Then you just peel it open and eat.  At 50 cents each it is the snack of choice on long drives.

    Eventually we turned off the main road and eventually the straight, nearly single lane road went to dirt and for a few miles we would flanked on either side by houses on stilts.  Our guide told us these were the newer homes, newer families, who have moved into the floating village. Floating village? Where's the water?  We learned we were on the way to the world's second largest fresh water lake, Tonle Sap...second largest because during wet season it would increase 5X in size and these houses miles from where we would find the lake would be sitting above water.  By the way...the lake's average depth...1 meter.  We also learned these homes have only had electricity for a few years, before that they used car batteries for power.  These days some are converting to solar.
The closer we got to the water the larger the homes.  Eventually we arrived at a bridge and there our guide would meet our boat driver and we would take off on a long tail boat through the homes...and eventually to homes that were actually floating.  As the lake fills up the floating homes will be moved closer and closer to the ones on stilts, so they have access to the land.  We also learned when the water is lower many families farm it with a rice that will go from seed to harvest in 3.5 months.  Out into the "main" lake we could not see to the other side (and eventually when we flew from Siem Reap for Sihanoukville we would see how incredibly massive this lake is...even now when it's just starting to fill).  Obviously life here is fishing and this lake supplies 70% of the fish for the Cambodian people.
    Floating along with the homes were floating schools. Our kids would learn here there were primary and a middle school.  But most students don't make it long in school as their families need them to help generate income.  Most help with the fishing, but yes we were greeted at the bus with many children selling things.  It is highly discouraged to buy from children or to give them money as it only supports the notion that they don't need school.  Our kids were quite affected by these sights.  And Ally being only one year away from high school on our way out from the village would see the high school girls leaving for school.  Not on a bus, not even on a scooter like in Thailand, but on a bicycle.  We learned they would cycle 1 hour each way to school, if they were lucky enough to stay in school.  Another profound moment...

     We also learned Cambodia is facing a difficult situation with the lake.  Laos is building a dam on the Mekong for power.  Somewhat understandable, but this lake which also connects to that has a incredibly odd dynamic in that rivers flow different ways in and out (literally reversing direction) depending on the rainy or dry season.  By damming up a major branch this will have a massive impact on environment and people who rely on it.

     On the way back from the villages we stopped at Beng Mealea temple.  Access to this one has only come in recent years and it is still very much in the state one sees when taken over by the jungle. Very little restoration has been done, so you truly get to see the power of the jungle and how these can go undiscovered.  Our guide even said there are certainly many more temples still hidden within the jungles waiting to be discovered.  Alec, the first day was very excited about archaeology.  This one and the work required I think overwhelmed him and he's turned his thoughts back to architecture.


     Back at our hotel we had a little down time, then we were off to an Apsara show at the Koulen  Restaurant.  A huge open hall with long tables and a buffet we met our guide who had secured us a very good table.  The food was so-so, but enough there to find something for everyone.  Loads of tour groups were there.  We enjoyed the show which had several acts, including Alec's favorite a dance involving coconuts and Ally's a little story about a boy and girl in a fishing village crushing on each other.  As the temples are covered with Apsara dancers it was really amazing to see the dancing live.

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    Straight to bed as we had a very early wake-up ... in the van at 5AM we would be headed to Angkor Wat for sunrise.