8/25/08 – 9/05/08
I spent the last 2 weeks exploring Eastern Cambodia. This mostly meant the provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri which are somewhat remote areas compared to where I have been so far.
On the first leg of my trip I met a great Londoner named James. We had similar plans for the next few weeks so decided to travel together for a bit.
I won't go through the list of things that we wanted to do but couldn't for some reason or another, we'll just say that there were many more plans but the things I ended up doing were great!
First stop Kratie! A nice enough town on the river front home to the most aggressive moto drivers I have met in Cambodia. We spent a night in the town, saw some river dolphins and headed out to Ban Lung in Ratanakiri. We had a fun night at a local pub that owned by an American from Chicago. The night consisted of us participating in the Kratie Olympics (I won a gold for coconut-put and James won one for javelin).
Ban Lung – On the bus to Ban Lung James and I met a few more people a ended up hanging out with them for the next several days in Ban Lung. We swam in a crater lake, hit some waterfalls, and did a 3 day jungle trek. It was a lot of fun but I will spare most of the details.
The one story I will relate is James being eaten by ants.
The story is a good one, but here is the short version. James got out of his hammock during the middle of the night and was swarmed by thousands of ants. The decided to stay on him and hang out in his hammock with him. (These are giant black ants that don't actually bite but secrete acid onto your skin. This is nice because after about 20 minutes it doesn't hurt or itch and leaves not bumps, the downside is that acid hurts really really really bad. ) For next several hours ants chewed away on James inside his hammock. The rest of us were helpless because we were in hammocks also and the floor was teaming with these ants. It was mostly funny to hear James describing where the ants were biting him, and they were biting him EVERYWHERE.
Bus transfers back to Kratie set us up to head out to Sen Monoram in Mondulkiri province the next day. The roads out to Sen Monoram are not passable by bus so we are riding in the back of a 4x4 pickup to get out there. We thought it would be fun experience but we had no idea how great it was going to be.
Picture this: 1999 Toyota Tacoma + 40 50kg bags of rice + several large coolers of fish + a large crate of live chickens + luggage for 24 people. You take all of this and put a tarp over it. Now, the load in the truck is about 3 feet higher than the cab and wrapped in blue tarp. The next step is putting people on. 8 people get into the cab and 16 more scale the side of the truck to atop of the load and hang on for dear life for the next 7 hours. Fun barely describes this experience.
Sen Monoram was the nicest place that I have been in Cambodia in the sense that it is tucked away on top off rolling mountains. It was a great place full of great people and I highly recommend it to anyone that has the time and the stamina to make the trip.
Sunday 8/17/08 – Wednesday 8/20/08
After working hard in the middle of no where a few of us headed up to Sieam Reap for a few days of Templing. Templing is a bit of a sport in Cambodia where there are over 3000 ancient temples that were built by the Khmer people over the past 1200 years or so.
I will post a few photos but in general these are very cool places to visit but not that amazing to tell about. The highlight of the trip was heading outside of town to a temple that is off the beaten track. It is unregulated and has not been restored in any way so we were able to just climb around all over it. This was a very different experience when contrasted through moving through a World Heritage sight swarming with thousands of people. We spent the first hour and a half climbing around without seeing another tourist, it was awesome.
I headed back to Phnom Penh to attend a couchsurfing meetup in the evening. I was lucky enough to be surfing with a friend via PEPY (Tim) so I had somewhere new to crash and Tim's apartment was great.
The meetup was pretty incredible. It was the first one in Cambodia ever and 28 people attended. Many of the people were not couchsurfers and we had 12 countries represented. I made several friends and got a good amount of advice for Vietnam.
Nothing much really happened today, it was great. We went out to a Riverside Bar/Restaurant and found out that it was actually only a bar so ended up leaving pretty early in search of food. It was an early night topped off by some mediocre pizza.
Today was really fun. I accidently found a different market in town that I had not been to and it was really really cool. I wandered around for over an hour and didn't see another white person inside. Next, I met up with Tim and Lisa and we went to the Casino in town. The casino is new and still under construction. The bulk of it is done and it looks really dull from the outside but the inside surprised us, it was quite nice.
We spent 2 hours hanging out at the casino and came out $5 down. But...we all had a few free beers so I think we broke even.
Next up was the Pirate Party. Tim had arranged for a boat to take us up and down the Mekong River for a few hours and everyone was going to dress up as pirates. This actually turned out really well as we had a large variety of people come and many of them dressed up. The highlight of the evening was when we boarded another large boat on the river and took it over. Oh, and I was dressed as the Pink Pirate, it was a hit.
Nothing day! Internet day.
Monday 8/25/08 ..... I am heading east into the mountains of Cambodia, no clue how much internet I am going to have over the next two weeks or so.
Feel free to skip to the bottom for pictures.
It is nice to wake up with a swim in the river. I headed out shortly afterwards for a short caving trip. The cave was nothing spectacular and I was only allowed in a few parts of it. It have a 7th century temple inside of it which was pretty damn cool to be able to look at and touch something that is over 1500 years old. The fun part was the tour and my guide.
For many of the caves in Cambodia you get through them and are shown around them by kids. The kids do this as an after school activity to earn a little bit more money. On my way to this cave I was snagged by a little guy on a bike about 2km from the cave. He seemed cool and spoke great english so I told him to hop on. Next thing I know, he is driving my moto with me and his 10 year old brother on the back, it was pretty fun. He showed me around the cave and we kept up a pretty solid stream of conversation about his school, family and what he wants to do when he is out of school. When the cave tour was over he took me by his school to show me around and then we went and met his family, it was really fun.
I spent the rest of the afternoon eating Sri Lankan food at a local restaurant and hanging out with the owner who was a Sri Lankan ex-pat It was a great afternoon.
I headed over to the bus station at about 5 and picked up my friend Lisa who was coming down from Phnom Penh to hang out for the weekend at Bodhi. Her bus was about 1.5 hours late but I had great company chatting with several of the tuk-tuk drivers. The rest of the night was spent out at Bodhi, hanging out with all of the other travellers and playing a little pool with Map.
This day was the greatest example of why it is good to travel alone sometimes. At 9 am Lisa and I were ready to go on this waterfall hike that Hugh was setting us up with. Apparently only a few people know how to get to the waterfall and we were hiring one of them as our guide for the day. The problem occurred because not everyone gets up early in the morning. While I had been up at 745 and Lisa had rolled out of her room around 8 many others were not functional until 930-10. Other people wanted to go on the hike so we ended up sitting around for an extra 2.5 hours waiting for everyone to get ready. This is not to knock on the others because it was a fun hike with everyone, but whenever you are trying to coordinate a group it simply takes longer.
The hike was amazing! Wandering through a jungle of and through bannana trees for several hours and then ending up at a 15 meter watefall falling into a great swimming hole is pretty much my daily dream. When we got there our guide, Tikko, immediately jumped in and started swimming. I quickly followed him and we climbed partially up the side of the waterfall for a 5 meter leap into the water below. It was a pretty incredible day.
The evening consisted of more good Sri Lankan food, a massage by a blind masseuse, watching the last bit of the sunset from a bridge with a lot of Khmer folk and then getting randomly stopped and invited out for dinner and drinks with Tikko.
An evening with Tikko – This was perhaps one of the funniest moments on the trip so far.
Tikko was a pretty good guide for our waterfall trek so when he rode up next to Lisa and I on the bridge that evening and asked if we wanted to grab a drink with him we thought it would be fun. We headed over to a place on the river relatively nearby. Tikko's english is good, but not amazing so much of the conversation revolved around simple topics. Mainly we probed him on how a successful good looking guy like him was not married yet. He explained that he wanted to marry a foreigner and we pulled a better description of a blonde foreigner from Europe out of him. He was not interested in Americans or Australians. During this conversation Tikko had a few drinks, which for an American of normal size is no big deal, but Tikko weighs all of 120 pounds so his alchohol affects him a little more. He also excused himself for a few minutes and clearly went away to smoke a joint. So... Tikko was a little drunk and high during the rest of this story.
The bar owner joined us on the patio as he and Tikko were friends and now we had a white guy from Norway who spoke decent english with us also. Toby had owned the place for about 3 months and was a bit of a downer. We kept asking him about good places eat both there in Kampot and in Phnom Penh and all he could talk about was how much all the food in Cambodia sucks. He shot down everything that we suggested even if we had been there and knew that the food was really good. It was a bit comical actually. He even said his place's food was bad but was tolerable so he ate there.
At some point in the evening I went inside with Toby to get a beer and be shown around the place a little. When I came back out Tikko had walked across the street to talk to someone and Lisa told me that had been trying to get her to tell him that she loved him. Tikko was obviously trying to hook up with Lisa. From this point on the conversations seemed a little forced and awkward. I was really tired so kept dropping hints that it was time to go and finally I just said that I was tired and ready for bed. Lisa agreed and headed inside to get the bill. At this point Tikko asked me if Lisa and I were sleeping together. I wasn't sure how to respond because on one hand I wanted to say yes so that Tikko would not hit on her anymore but on the other hand I didn't want to lie since we were in no way together. Since the question was sprung on me quickly I said no before I got a chance to think through the answer. The quick follow up was even more awkward since he asked me if I could hook them up. I panicked. It wasn't a good decision, but it was the best one I had available at the time. I told Tikko that Lisa was a lesbian. I said I wasn't sure but I thought that she liked girls. This pretty much blew his mind. He asked me why?! I told him, probably or the same reason that we liked girls and that pretty much ended the conversation. I waited a minute or two and then ran inside to tell Lisa that she was now a lesbian and she better act like it not thinking it would be a big deal because up to this point everyone thought she was a hooker since she had tattoos. I was wrong. Apparently this is a little bit of, a sensitive spot for her, who would have thought?
Anyway, the night ended with everyone very embarrassed and Tikko offereing Lisa free trips next time she came down because he felt so bad about his comments. I felt bad for Tikko because he is an awesome guy and just made a few mistakes when he was not sober. Wow, it was a great day.
Today Lisa and I jumped on my moto and headed out to do a little caving. It was a fun morning spent exploring several small caves that were part of a large Limestone. The caves we considered a holy site and many Kmers would come to them seeking healing. It was a pretty cool area and definitely trumped the last caves that I had visited. Of note, our tour guide was a 15 year old girl. She was the only girl that was guiding and constantly got crap from all of the boys that were there. She was a rockstar and gave us a great tour.
On our way back we decided to swing through Kep to see the seaside and grab a snack at Veranda. It was a nice drive along the ocean and turned into a pretty afternoon.
Sunday was Lisa's last night at Bodhi so we stayed up pretty late playing cards with Chiat, one of the bartenders. It was a really fun night of silliness and learning Khmer.
It was a rainy morning so it was spent lazing around Bodhi eating and reading. I saw Lisa off for her mid-day bus back to Phnom Penh and then hopped on my moto for the 2.5 hour drive down to Sihanoukville. The rain let up just enough on my drive to be able to make it without being to messy and the drive down was amazing. This one drive was worth the rental of the moto. It was very nice to be able to stop at my leisure and look at the mountains and rice fields laying out in front of them.
I rolled into S-ville and took about 45 minutes to find my guesthouse. It was a nice place for $6/night and only about 3 blocks from the beach. Since it was still raining I didn't have a strong motivation to do much at the time.
S-ville is the main tourist destination on the coast for Cambodia. The beaches are as nice as they get in Cambodia and the night life is suppose to be rocking. This being the off-season, it rains all the time and the place is not very crowded. For a tourist destination this is not up to most American's standards, the beach bars are not much more than shacks but they are full of papasan chairs and quite fun.
I decided to go out for a walk on the beach and wander down to another beach that was about 5km further down. I also wanted to check out a guesthouse/bar that was owned by a couchsurfer further down the beach. It was a nice walk down the beach and I got rained on quite heavily. I discovered that when it was raining all the white people stay inside and only the Khmer folk hit the beaches, this was fun because the kids loved to swim with the big white guy with a beard. I had a great walk and then ate an ok dinner of curry on the beach and called it an early night.
Tuesday 8/5/08 – Wednesday 8/6/08
The two days basically consisted of it raining and me wandering around in the rain. Tuesday night I went out with a Khmer-American guy from Massachusetts and we ended up sitting at Chiva's Shack hanging out with a few Australian girls. He called it a night and when I left about 130 I was pretty beat also. On my way back down the beach I discovered a rocking dance party at another bar and stopped in to check it out. I ended up dancing till 5 am with a group of 4 Khmer guys who were all off-duty bartenders. It was a blast and a pretty rocking party up until the end.
Other things of note.
I won a poker tournament that paid for a chunk of my trip to S-ville.
I was offered every drug I have ever heard of and many I have not.
I had at least 15 dealers tell me “you don't want pot? But you have a beard??”
I spent 2 hours sitting on a taxi corner chatting with a group of about 6 tuk-tuk drivers.
I did a LOT of walking.
It was fun, but not the highlight of Cambodia so far.
I left S-ville to head back to Bodhi for a night and then to Phnom Penh for the start of my volunteer trip with PEPY. The drive back, sucked. It rained really hard the whole time and was extremely windy. I had to pull over several times because the weather made me too nervous to drive.
It was nice to roll back into Bodhi and be welcomed by friends. The rooms were all booked so I stayed in the dorm for $3. The dorm there is actually really damn nice and I probably should have been staying in it the whole time.
There was a HUGE storm that night and the whole villa was shaking like crazy. One of the guys working there got up in the middle of the night to make sure that the floating bungalows were still attached (they were).
I took the early bus back to Phnom Penh to make sure I was there in time for our first group activity at 3pm. When I arrived I headed over to the hotel to drop off my bags and laundry but discovered I was a day early... The trip did not start until the next day.
The rest of the day was spent getting my Visa extended for Cambodia and then grabbing some dinner with Lisa before heading out on the town for the night. We headed over to the backpacker area to see what that scene was like and saw it. It was pretty much as expected.
I crashed at the PEPY house Friday night so was there in the morning when the phone started ringing. Most of the PEPY crew was gone for the weekend and those that were there were not early risers so I got to play a little bit of secretary for the morning. One of the trip participants called to say that she had been at the airport for 1.5 hours waiting on a pickup and wasn't sure what was happening. I didn't really know what else to do so I hopped in a tuk-tuk and went to get her, thinking that it was only 20 minutes away. It was actually about 45 away, but we made it back ok. When we got back Tim was waiting and we learned that he had been in a minor tuk-tuk accident on his way to pick Vanessa up and that is why she had been stranded.
The afternoon was spent hanging out with the group for the volunteer trip and then eating a nice dinner. After dinner about half the grouip crashed and the rest of us hit the town. We ended up at this crazy dance club that was full of very rich Khmers and was a ton of fun. While out we ran into a few other PEPY people who were at the club and had a great night dancing. One of the other trip participants (Ross) and I ended up hanging out with a group of about 7 other folk from Cambodia and the states and playing pool at another place late into the night.
We spent the morning touring the Killing Fields and then S21 which are both relics of the Khmer Rouge's reign in Cambodia. I won't go into detail hear except to say that it is very impactful to see the evidence of a history so recent. When the Rouge was in power in the 70's they killed 1/3 of the population, around 2 million people.
The afternoon was spent haning out with a group called Tiny Toons. Pretty much the coolest thing I have seen here. It was started by a guy named KK who is Khmer-American. His idea was to get kids off the street and teach them to breakdance. The results blew my mind. These kids were incredible dancers. We spent a few hours at one of their studios and then were asked to help judge a break dance fight between two groups at a park. We piled 13 white people and about 30 kids into 3 tuk-tuks (designed for 4 people) and drove over the the park, the ride over was absurd and felt like it should have been a movie.
The break dance fight was one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Kids as young as 3 were on the floor dancing. Basically teams took turns dancing and danced against each other. Some of the dancers were individuals and some were pairs of doing a coordinated dance.
Of note, One of the 4 instructors is a woman. There are no other women who dance regularly but she has started to develop a small group of girls that she is teaching and they are slowly growing in their confidence to perform. Very cool.
After seeing all the dancing we realized that we needed to do some more of our own and headed back out to Riverhouse after dinner for another evening of dancing.
The first thing that we did today was drive down to RDI's offices and see what they are doing. Innovative and cool does not even begin to describe this NGO. Basically, they blew my mind. I cannot even begin to write about the cool things I saw and what they are developing. It is safe to say that many of the things that RDI has pioneered are beginning to be used globally.
Monday – Friday 8/15/08
Basically, we worked, swam in the river, jumped off a bridge and played with kids, over and over and over again.
The work was hard because it was hot and humid. We were building a water collection tank for a school to collect rainwater. The groundwater in this area is highly polluted by arsenic and should not be used for drinking. We know this because RDI conducts thousands of water tests all over Cambodia to acquire data like this. So... we built this thing.
I got 7 blisters on my hands because the tools were rougher than I am used to and it was so humid my hands were always sweaty. I also tore good holes in my left foot and got an eye infection. Pretty much a rough week on me.
The clear highlight of the week was playing with the kids constantly. They were awesome! There was one kid who had acquired the nickname David Beckam and was the “cool” kid. He was also the smallest 10 year old I have ever seen weighing in at around 45 pounds. The funniest thing that happened all week was when we were launching the kids off of our shoulders into the river and little David Beckam climbed on Ross' shoulders.. The next shot was David flying through the air, but naked, spread eagle and about 8 feet above the water, pretty much the funniest thing you can imagine.
We jumped off the town bridge ever day into the river and this quickly turned into and afternoon event for the village. The banks and the bridge would be lined with people waiting for the white people to do crazy things off the bridge. The bridge was only about 12 feet off the water so it wasn't that crazy but a lot of fun as by the end of the week the kids were jumping off with us.
It was a great week and our group was incredible. I think that we were all sick and torn up at some point during the time, but it never hurt the moral or attitude of anyone. I was extremely impressed by how tough everyone was and how hard everyone worked.
We were up at 630 am to pack up and leave the village. We ate some breakfast and headed bac to Phnom Penh where we got our first real showers in about a week. This was great for me because I needed to clean the cement out of several of the deep cuts I had earned on my feet.
After cleaning up we ate some lunch and headed over to the Russian market. I have learned that I love bargaining and got a few good deals. Next we headed to Olyumpic stadium.
Olympic Stadium – Pretty much the most absurd place I have ever been. On a nice day there will be several thousand Khmer's dancing to 1980's jazzercise and several thousand more playing soccer, basketball, tennis, bocce, badmitton, volleyball, tennis, and many other sports. There is also an Olympic size pool with diving boards and diving platforms up to 10 meters. This was our destination on Saturday,
It cost foreigners $1.50 to swim in the pool so 4 of us decided to pay for the privledge of jumping 33 feet off a platform into questionably clean water. The first discovery was that the entry fee also rented us bathing suits which we had to wear. These were of the tight cycling short variety but because we were big we received the largest ones they had. Mine were the equivalent of 44's. It was good thing they had cinchable waistbands.
Caleb, Ross, Casey and I hit the diving boards with a furry. We went off of every board many times over about an hour and even staged a few synchronized dives where the 4 of us went off of 4 different boards at the same time. It was one of the best hours I have spent in Cambodia as far as just having fun goes.
After dinner we headed out to see some music. The music was incredible Reggae from a strange mix of people playing live. The band was lead by an Argentinean but the two female vocalists were Khmer and Filipino. They were all incredible musicians and it was a trip to hear the Khmer girl singing in Spanish with a Jamaican accent, and she was incredible. I danced until about 1230 when they stopped and myself and Lucky were the only two still standing. Lucky is a local guy who drives a tuk-tuk sometimes but is more notably member of Cambodia's national cycling team and one of the premier bike tour leaders in the country. He is also an really awesome guy and a lot of fun to hang out with.
Election day! This is Cambodia's 4th Democratic election ever. They are held every 5 years and the same people have won every time... coincidence? Daniella, Maryann and I spent some of the morning riding bicycles around the city and looking at the voting areas. Everything seemed to be going well and the observers that we talked to seemed to think that things were going smoothly. Then we met up with one of Daniella's friends whose name was not on the list as a registered voter. She had voted we d in the previous election so she knew that she was registered. She was openly anti-ruling party though so we had the suspicion that he name was intentionally not there. We ended up talking to quite a few people that all had the same problem, most of them would have been voting against the ruling party... interesting...
I spent most of the day hanging out with a British couple that were friends of friends of friends and we had a great day walking around the city together. We took in many of the sights of Phnom Pen and had a nice meal on the banks of the Mekong River. In the evening I went out with Shannon and Tom to meet up with Lisa and her co-worker. I knew Lisa through a travel site called travbuddy.com. We had the worst service I have had so far at a Mexican restaurant. It was so bad it was hilarious. It took 1.5 hours to get the chips and salsa we had ordered and it came out 15 minutes after we had finished eating. The quesadilla I ordered didn't really have any Queso in it but what was there was pretty good. (tortillas and whole black beans) the funny part was that I had ordered the black beans to be added extra and they were the only things that were inside of it, I think it would have just been two tortillas had I not ordered the beans. At any rate, it was a really fun night and I enjoyed it immensely.
I spent the morning riding a bicycle around Phnom Penh and saw some areas that I hadn't yet. I rode through the slums and on some pretty busy roads. It was a lot of fun, for some reason I like riding bicycles in traffic... go figure.
In the afternoon I caught a bus south to Kampot which is a small town on the River close to the coast. I am staying at a very cool little guesthouse run by an Australian couple called Bodhi Villa. It is right on the river and very relaxed. Great guests and staff and you can swim right off the back porch. Anyone coming through this town needs to stay here for sure.
It was a relatively lazy day today. The morning was spent swimming in the river and lounging around the villa reading and hanging out with some of the other occupants. In the afternoon we grabbed some bikes from the villa and headed north to some rapids that I had heard about. They were pretty cool and were flowing fast. I think that later I am going to borrow a tube from the villa and tube down them. A little further along there was a suspension bridge to cross the river to an island and on the other side of the island the rapids were a little smaller and swimmable. My Dutch and Canadian companions were not interested in swimming but I had a nice dip.
Wednesday evening was spent playing pool with two of the locals, one of which owns an Eco-resort in a nearby beachside city (Kep). It sounded very cool because it was almost entirely built of local materials. I think that I will visit it tomorrow as I was going to Kep anyways.
This morning 3 us us rented motobikes (125cc) and took a little road trip to Kep (25km). This was a beachside town that had been a big resort for the French pre Khmer-Rouge and then was a stronghold of the Rouge during the war. There are many abandoned villas dotting the roadside but the city is slowly starting to come back with lots of Khmer and foreign tourism. The city is known for its beautiful setting, beach, and seafood. I was pretty excited to see all 3.
It was and adventure to get there involving 2 flat tires and a 3mph moto accident that resulted in little more than a lot of locals laughing with us. When we finally arrived the beach was, in the words of my Dutch companion “quote terrible”. It was only about 12 feet wide and a little dirty. For you Texans out there it was a lot like Galveston. We went swimming anyway and I ate some crab because I felt like I should. It was a pretty big pain in the butt and I think I worked up more of an appetite trying to eat the damn thing than I filled. It was an experience though and that is what I was hoping for.
After swimming we headed over to Map's resort Veranda to grab some shakes before hitting the road. This turned out to be the nicest place that I have seen in Cambodia yet. Amazing stonework formed all of the paths that wove through the bungalows and down to the restaurant/bar. The bar had an absolutely amazing terrace that looked out over Kep and the ocean. It was incredible, incredible. Veranda sat up on a hill above the town so the the views were amplified by the elevation and lush vegetation that was all around it.
We had an uneventful ride back and headed back to Bodhi for the evening. The evening turned into a bit of a party with most of the the guests sitting around the patio and bar till midnight chatting, listening to music, dancing and singing poorly. It was a really fun night and I heard all sorts of great stories from Hugh (Bodhi's owner).
*Sorry if I misspell everyone's names. I will do my best to spell them all out correctly but I am not used to a lot of the spelling of names and places in Khmer and I often do not see them written down. If I forget anyone I apologize again, I have been meeting a lot of new people lately.
I arrived in Phnom Penh Friday evening and was picked up by my friend Maryann who is the Director of a NGO based in the city. We rode a tuk tuk* back to to Maryann's house where I deposited my stuff before hit the town for some food and a little wine.
*tuk tuk – a scooter pulling a small carriage. The carriage is an attachment that will fit on any moto.
Arriving at night into a new city in a developing country can be a little bit intimidating. I was EXTREMELY fortunate to have a friend in the city to welcome me with open arms. We saw a little bit of the city before calling it a night because we had to catch an 830 am bus the next morning.
Graduation at the PEPY Ride School is set for Tuesday so we are heading up early to do a little cleaning and a lot of preparation. I say we not in the sense that I have any idea what is going on, but in the sense that I am along for the ride.
Saturday we take a bus to Siem Reap which is home to the Angkor Wat Temple complex, pretty much the largest tourist attraction in Cambodia and often referred to as the 8th Wonder of the World. I didn't have a chance to see the temples on this day but will be seeing them later. It was a 5 hour bus ride up to the city and I rode up with Maryann, Shannon (office manager for PEPY), Caitlin (Intern for PEPY), and Lilly (Caitlin's friend). Once in Siem Riep we grabbed some lunch at a great little place called the Singing Tree Cafe. Good food that at least partially came from their garden, the restaurant appeared to be somewhat a center for progressive socialites.
After Lunch Maryann and I headed out around town with the help of a great tuk tuk driver and dropped off flyers and some of the local schools trying to recruit teachers for a literacy camp that PEPY will be running in a few months. It was fun to be able to see a variety of High Schools in the area.
Back at the hotel we met up with the rest of our group and made plans for dinner. Dinner was done and everyone headed to the hotel except for Maryann and I who opted to get a massages before calling it a night. Our group now added Daniella (one of the PEPY founders), Tawry (Phnom Penh native who is sorta working with PEPY), Laura (PEPY intern).
The massage was a Khmer massage which is a little like Thai massage but less painful. I was still pretty tight from all the traveling that I have been doing so I think I would have like a little bit harder massage, but I am definitely not complaining about an $8 massage that was pretty dang good. It was pretty funny though to see the Khmer girls gossiping as I did not understand anything they were saying and I don't think that Maryann translated quite everything for me..
We got up early and headed out to the school today. The school consists of several buildings that are in a small village. There are two main classroom buildings that have several classrooms in each, and administrative building and a house that PEPY built to house volunteers and PEPY workers when thee are on site.
We had a lot of school supplies with us so we rented a truck for the 1.5 hour drive to the school. I got to sit in the back, it was fun.
Schools in Cambodia are government run so NGOs don't actually run them. Many NGO's have adopted these schools though and provide support to the school through things like English and Computer Programs. The PEPY Ride school is doing these things and has a fleet of 100 XO laptops that the kids are learning on. English and Computer classes are volunteer and happen during times that the kids do not have other courses. The computers are powered by a solar system that PEPY installed.
At the school we were greeted by many of the kids who were hanging out there on their day off. They were very excited to see us and following the trend I have seen in the few days I have been here, thought my beard was hilarious.
We spent some of the afternoon visiting Child Clubs which are extracurricular clubs that take place in the surrounding villages. They focus on peer to peer education and making it fun so that kids are excited to come to them every Sunday, when they do not have school. The clubs are relatively new for this area but seem to be having a very successful start. The kids here LOVE learning and just need to be given the opportunity to do so.
Sunday evening we ate a group dinner that we got from the nearby city of Charang. It was great to sit down with everyone who was living in the house and meet them a little bit better. I tried to stay up chatting the night away with Shannon, but failed and slowly drifted away while laying in a hammock on the porch. It was an early night for me.
I spent the better part of this morning hanging out on the porch and yelling hello to the kids whenever they ran by. Maryann and Daniella were interviewing potential English teachers for the school so there was not a ton of work to be doing.
We did manage to do a little bit of physical labor as a truck with 5.5 kilotons of rice showed up and we needed to unload it. This turned into (as everything does) a community project with lots of kids, teachers, and other random people pitching in to get it done. It really is amazing how fast things go when you have a fleet of kids helping. It feels like lots of ants, not particularly impactful as an individual but as a colony they can do some serious work.
The afternoon was full of work though as Shannon and I started the bike painting project. This involved painting the letters PEPY and a number on all 80 bikes while trying to chat with kids and get them a little involved in our project. I felt a little like a sideshow for the kids as they loved to come and practice their English on me. This led to a large group constantly following me around (I was the only one painting at the time) and laughing up a storm whenever I made a mistake (which was pretty common). They really loved it when I accidently dipped my beard in some paint... The best part was that the the girls kept telling me “pretty” which I am assuming was meant for the bikes, but I had fun pretending I was being showered in compliments.
We painted bikes for pretty much the entire afternoon until about 6 pm when the rest of the PEPY crew showed up to pitch in. Enter Tom (A Brit who is a PEPY intern), Tim, (PEPY employee), Rithy (Tawry's older brother who hangs out with PEPY and helps a lot), Tek (former PEPY intern and a Cambodia-American) and Siek (Ritty's friend).
We did take a little break from painting to watch one of the kids in the school show us some of his break dancing moves. In the picture below you can see him in partial move. He did a handstand, walked on his hands across a classroom, picked up my water bottle with his mouth, turned around and walked back across the room. I won't lie, it was pretty dang impressive. We took our picture together.
There were now 15 of us living in the house including 3 teachers and 12 PEPY staff/volunteers/friends which makes for very large meals and lots of sharing. It is a lot of fun as all the people here are hear so that they can help so the general attitude of the place is amazing.
Tuesday July 22nd
We are scheduled for a 7 am graduation for the 6th graders and an end of school celebration for the rest of the school. The 6th graders all get bicycles as a present so that hopefully they will make the journey to 7th grade which is at a different school. Transportation seems to be one of the big problems for getting kids to school and hopefully by giving the kids bikes it gives them an incentive to try. Every other kid in the school is getting a 10 Kg bag of rice which means we have moved a LOT of rice lately. We have 5.5 kilo-tons sitting downstairs ready to be passed out.
To set up we had an army of kids move desks out of classrooms for their parents to sit on. Again, the army of kids got the job done extremely quickly.
Graduation went very well and there were several speeches given. Daniella gave a great one in English that was translated into Khmer for the kids and their parents. There were probably about 800 people in attendance so it was quite the event for town. I spent a good bit of the graduation playing with some of my new friends as they loved taking pictures with my camera. This quickly turned into taking pictures of me with my camera and then taking pictures of them with me, it was a lot of fun.
In addition to the normal festivities one of the Child to Child clubs put on a Play for us. It was in Khmer so I can't tell you much about it, but the audience loved it. They even took it to the next level and went down the road to another community to perform it again right after graduation.
It was something else to hand out 80 bikes to kids and to see their excitement about receiving a present that gave them a unique ability to get around and was theirs. Very cool.
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing chores around the house and ended the evening with a movie night for the local community. We showed several educational movies similar to Sesame Street, a slide show, and a video of the Drama that the Child to Child group put on earlier in the day. The whole evening ended in an impromptu dance party which involved a few of us, a few teachers, a few kids and some local men with no teeth. Daniella's quote of the night was “Its not a party till the men with no teeth show up”. Personally, I had a great time dancing with the toothless men.
I have spent the last day and a half getting to know one of the Kmer guys that is with our group named Ritty. Ritty grew up on and island near Phnom Penh and now lives in the city
working in Real Estate. He is only 21 but has amazing ideas about how things should be going. His grasp of environmental problems and how to fix them is very profound and he has started several small projects in his hometown to help clean up his island. We had a great conversation about how hard it has been to change his friends' attitudes towards cleanliness and the environment. It was something that he had struggled with and and finally been able to do after lots of pain. He learned that by being an example to his friends he could show them better than he ever could simply telling them to do something.
In addition to all of the cool things he does, Ritty is simply fun. He gets down on the dance floor with me, works hard doing all the misc chores and tasks around the school and never stops smiling. He makes anything more fun and I am loving being here with him.
Ritty's sister is here also and has been here for a day longer than him. The family resemblance in attitude and intelligence is amazing. She is also what I would call a progressive Khmer. She is in college right now in the city. I think the parents of these two must be incredible people to turn out such wonderful individuals in two children.
Oh, I also tried eating meat today. I have been saying for a while that I will be more flexible with my diet while traveling for cultural sensitivity and out of need to be eating well. I put a helping of something on my plate during lunch with the teachers and school staff and started to eat it when I realized it had chicken in it. I probably would not have taken it if I had realized that but it was on my plate so I took it as a sign and ate a piece. I got it down... but did not like it at all. I really didn't think I would have a problem eating meat but I just did not like the way it felt in my mouth. I ended up picking out the chicken and giving it to Tom who ate it for me. The worst part was when I accidently ate a piece of fatty chicken though, I simply hated how it felt in my mouth.
I guess this means that I am pretty stuck being vegetarian for now. I will probably try again with some seafood soon and see how that goes, but I am more wary now... the funny part is that I am really frustrated about it.
Wednesday July 23rd
Early morning for me, I woke up at 6 and started moving because I couldn't sleep anymore. Nothing very exciting today except that after a full day of work we went into town for dinner. It was interesting because dinner was at a place where tourist busses stop and they were the first white people I had seen in a while that were not a part of my group. I felt immediately separated from them since I arrived in the back of a pickup from a local school and they were on busses. It is a hard feeling because in reality I am doing the same things that they are, or at least will be in a few weeks. Kinda a reality gut check in a way that I was not expecting and did not enjoy. I am still not sure how to feel about joining the ranks of the tourist backpackers soon.
Most of the crew headed back to Phnom Penh early in the morning but I stuck around with Maryann and Daniella to help out a little more. Basically, I watched some of the teachers build a compost shed and tried to help a little but didn't serve much purpose, pretty much my fault for not speaking the language. I then spent the rest of the day helping Vanay (another teacher) clean all the sheets for the beds that we were sleeping on. After scrubbing 15 sheets and pillow cases... I have a new found respect for people who do it all the time.
In the afternoon we went back to Siem Reap and met up with Shannon. Daniella and Maryann went out to do a little work stuff Shannon and I did the only logical thing, got massages. I can't say that I am in love with the massage technique that they use here. It is a little softer than I like but I definitely enjoy it.
The decision was made to venture to Preak Vihear the next day.
This is the oldest temple complex in Cambodia that is about 1100 years old. It was just declared a World Heritage site about 3 weeks ago and is the source of much conflict between Thailand and Cambodia as to who actually owns it. This means that there are a lot of soldiers from both sides hanging out around the temple. We were a little nervous about going up there but it did not feel tense at all as the soldiers were sorta hanging out with each other where their camps overlapped. This was definitely the most remote I had been in Cambodia as it was a 5 hour drive north from Siem Reap. It was a good adventure and a pretty cool temple.
The land around the temple still had a lot of land mines as this was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge and was not vacated by them until 1998.
It was a cool visit because there were pretty much no other tourists around. Sunday is the election so apparently the tourists are staying closer to populated areas. I am pretty dang sure that this place was FAR off the typical tourist path anyway. The road up to the top of the mountain that the temple was on was enough to keep most people away. We'll just say I have seen a lot of 4x4 trails in the US that are not even close to as tricky and steep as this road, and it was raining. The fun part was watching the moto's (scooters basically) go up and down the roads also.
These are various Temple shots and group shots. The temple is on top of a mountain so it has some pretty serious views.
The soldiers were enjoying taking their pictures with us. It was a little strange to have men in uniforms with guns and grenades hanging off their vests putting their arms around me for a picture. The second picture is of Shannon coming down some stairs, they were steep.
It rained on us a fair amount also... These are the steps leading down to the Thai border, and Maryann in the rain.
We hopped in the Camry (because that is what 70% of the cars here are) and headed back to Siem Reap. Along the way we decided to go all the way back to Phnom Penh today which meant a solid 10-12 hours of traveling. Not a very eventful day. Tomorrow should be interesting because it is election day.
Here is Shannon and Daniella midway into the first car trip.
I had an interesting realization today. It is going to be very different when I am traveling by myself soon. Maryann speaks excellent Khmer and is pretty much doing everything for us right now. English is not uncommon here, but many of the places that I would like to visit are not on the typical tourist path so I think I am going to end up paying a bit of a premium in order to have a driver with me that speaks English. I will certainly be more limited than I originally thought. This makes me extremely thankful to Marryann for introducing me to the country and showing me the ropes. I would have had a very different experience if it were not for her offer to show me around.