The moments that matter – Angkor Wat with the Love of My Life

The choice of Cambodia, as a destination for work, had a fair amount to do with my fascination with the ancient civilisation of the Khmer.  Angkor Wat was the one place Kevin and I both had on our travel bucket lists so we decided to visit together. I found other places to explore in the fall and waited until he arrived in November that we began to make plans.

My research had led me to a company of professional guides and we booked a 5-day tour package.  This blog is going to talk about one – half day.  Now, if that statement doesn’t give you an idea of the prolific nature of this empire, I don’t know what will.  We both felt it important to really learn, albeit in a short amount of time, about the history of this great civilisation.

As I have said before, my education in this area was woefully minimal and travel vlogs and Trip Advisor are superficial sources at best.  Names were so unfamiliar and uncommon that reading about them was a challenge as I found it hard to remember the names one king to the next and who did what.  Add to that my absolute ignorance of both Hinduism and Buddhism I knew I needed someone who could answer my inevitable questions.  I would wonder about the symbolism of the decorations and art and Kevin’s questions about how everything was built. 

My choice was well made and this meant that we could take our time, ask questions and discover the many facets of this impressive site.  Our diver kept us well hydrated and cool with water, AC and cloths to wipe our faces with.  Our guide even pointed out bugs and critters when we found them…but that is for another story.

Most people may not realise that that Angkor Wat, while easily the most spectacular monument in Cambodia, is only one of innumerable temples and sites of the Khmer civilisation.  Siem Reap is the city from which we explored, as do most people, but temples and sites are found all over Cambodia and into Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

My ignorance was like imagining that the Chichen Itza was the only site of the Maya or that the Great pyramid of Khufu is the only pyramid of the ancient Egyptians.  I know it sounds obvious, but I admit I had not considered that there would be so many sites before arriving in Cambodia.

650 feet wide, 13 feet deep, perimeter of almost 3 miles

We arrived by van from another major site, Bayon, and walked towards the moat.  Still full of water the causeway was Canadian made and made me smile.  Monkeys greeted us on the other side, they hassled other tourists that had plastic bags or snacks out.  We skirted around them and took photos from a distance.  Standing on this side of the first gallery we still did not grasp the enormity of this, the greatest Angkorian temple.  We passed through the first wall and enter to behold the central temple building unobstructed.

Once we had the ability to tear our eyes away from the main towers, we headed down one of the galleries that form the perimeter of the temple.  Our guide was patient as he recounted the stories laid out before us on the gallery walls.  As he spoke the bas reliefs came alive with characters from Hindu mythology.  We learned about ancient enemies, battles and beasts.  There were lessons about the afterlife and about common life.  I have to say that it was almost too much.  We visited only a single section of the five-kilometer gallery and my brain was already overloaded.  The level of craftsmanship was tremendous, equal or better than what I’ve seen in Europe.

With my back to the main temple this is the causeway we just walked over. You can see the ponds on either side and the two libraries flanking the walkway.

The main gallery, we would walk through only a small portion of this gallery. The bas-reliefs were unbelievable. Detailed, rich and easy to read if you understood the symbolic references.

Our tour continued towards the centre tower.  We walked on a causeway with side railing topped with Naga protectors.  We passed two libraries and two ponds before entering the second level.  Here there were even more bas-reliefs lots of apsaras and all kinds of decoration.  Apsaras are carvings of girls dancing.  There are over 1800 of these goddess carvings in Angkor Wat.  Many with different clothing, jewellery and dress.  I was mesmerised by the individuality of each one I passed and stunned by their myriad of diversity. Following the gallery around we entered the base of the third level. 

Looking almost straight up we could see the top of the main tower.  Steep and tall it was like looking to the Heavens, no doubt something the designers had intended.  The five towers in the shape of a lotus are meant to represent Mount Meru, the centre of the Hindu universe.  The day was hot, we had seen quite a lot (take that to mean walked and climbed a lot in the heat) and while I was feeling sluggish and apprehensive about climbing the stairs there was no way in Heaven (meant literally here) was I going to pass up going all the way up.

I climbed up last, not wanting to worry about holding up Kevin or Shokufeh and held the metal rail for dear life.  Vertigo was my companion as I climbed to the top…but once there…WOW.  I just know that my poor words and small photos can not do any justice to what we saw.  Every where we turned out head another carving, decoration or gallery.  So amazing and unbelievable to visit virtually alone.  Our guide left us to enjoy this top level on our own so we were able to walk and wander following only our own curiosity and wonder at what was around the next corner.  We peered out from the openings down on the jungle around the temple imagining how this space at one time would have been filled with the city buildings of over a million people.

I read somewhere that there more stone here at Angkor Wat than all the pyramids in Egypt and that the stone came from farther away.  Knowing that the Khmer empire was vast and had a huge population compared to what Europe was like at the time made my imagination run away with me.  The middle ages were coming to an end in Europe and this civilization was at its peak. The sounds of the jungle were easy to hear even from this great height.  In my mind, I could hear the chaotic sound of city life below me.   I could imagine elephants working, farmers minding rice crops and gardens, cooking fires smoking, artisans carving and people praying to Vishnu and their pantheon of Gods.

Kevin standing next to me as we looked out was special and I am so glad he was there with me.  The photos will pale next to our memory so it especially meaningful to share in these moments with him.

Climbing down was as challenging as going up but it had to be done.  Again, I went last, nose down I watched my feel carefully as I raced to get back to solid ground.  We passed new galleries and visited the other side of the temple as we worked our way back out.  Exhaustion making our exit faster than our entrance.  We all kept looking back as we walked back towards the van.  The enormity, the beauty almost impossible to describe was hard to turn away from.

The day had run its course and we were off to see sunset from another location so we headed back down and out.  We would return a few days later for sunrise and I can promise you now that I intend to head back to look around some more before I leave Cambodia. 

Lest We Forget

November 11th a private affaire for me this year.  I watched remembrance ceremonies from Cambodia alone in my apartment thinking how important it is for Canadians to remember the sacrifice of those who fought for our freedoms.  The longer I am here the more I struggle with my own ethnocentrism.  For years I’ve taught children about the importance of remembering the fallen. I have a deeply held belief that we must honour those who made it possible for us to live freely.  In the act of remembrance, we remind ourselves to never let it happen again yet the horrors of this genocide happened while many Canadians at home turned a blind eye to what was happening here.  How do I reconcile my own value of honouring the fallen in a place where only 5 members of a maniacal murderous regime were ever brought to trial?  Where the bones of the murdered now, 40 years later still rise out of the earth at killing fields across the country.  Where the official government policy was to find peace and invite back into society those same men and women who obliterated almost 3 million of their fellow citizens.

Yesterday we visited both the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison.  As with our visit to Auschwitz in Poland we left shocked and in pain for the unbelievable atrocities that occurred in both places.  The 60’s saw a civil war in Vietnam influence conflict and civil war in Cambodia as well.  The Khmer Rouge initially a communist group living in the northern jungles was little more than a group of guerillas until a military coup toppled the monarchy.  Joining forces, the Khmer rouge claimed absolute power and began its plan to remake Cambodia into a glorious communist state.

Our testimony to these atrocities began with our visit to one of the killing fields just out side out the capital.  It was as expected.  Scenic and quiet, yet as our guide explained how soldiers of the Khmer Rouge went about their business of killing people the quiet became heavy and haunted.  A boardwalk was built for people to follow.  Not because the many visitors were wandering off where they should not go, rather so they would not further desecrate the bones and evidence the earth continued to release year over year.

Many of the mass graves have been exhumed, their contents now properly laid to rest but the entire area is really just one large mass grave.  Palm and bamboo trees growing seem lovely until you learn they were used as implements of death.  Victims sledged on the back of their neck with a bamboo pole then had their necks torn open with the edge of a palm branch.  Thrown into pits full of dead and decaying bodies those who did not immediately succumb to their wounds had DDT poured all over them.  The DDT served two purposes, to kill anyone who was not yet dead and to eliminate the smell of decay, something that might give up evidence to the work being done here.

Daily people were trucked out here from nearby prisons where they had “confessed” their sins.  If you were guilty your whole family was put to death.  This meant that there were children and babies sent here to be killed.  They were shown no more mercy than their parents.  Grabbed by their feet they were swung head first into a tree and tossed in the pit.

The soldiers who tended to these grizzly tasks were also routinely put to death so a true and accurate account of where all the pits are located remains unclear.  There are killing fields all over the country and it is impossible to grasp the level of depravity of those in power leading this assault on humanity.

A 17-story pagoda filled with skulls and other objects of remembrance fill the inside.  The number of stories is to recall the date of the 17th of April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country.  This group could be simply characterised as authoritarian and xenophobic.  They strongly believed that a full return to an agrarian society was the ideal.  These beliefs meant that intellectuals, entrepreneurs, people with mixed ancestry were immediate targets for the regime. Teachers, government officials and local business owners were arrested and taken to prisons all over the country. 

The one we visited was housed in what was originally a school.  I have to admit that since I love my profession this location was especially hard for me to internalise.  In Auschwitz, the memorial tour began in what had once been the military barracks, here at S-21 this place had been a school.  Four large three story buildings, I could easily imagine the sounds of children entering and exiting, the sound of their laughter and games.  A courtyard to play and eat lunch, chalkboards and shuttered windows the whole space like so many that we’ve seen through our travels here.  Yet walking into the rooms seeing a metal frame bed with shackles on it and photos on the wall of bodies, broken and bloody, was such a juxtaposition it made the horror of the trauma all the worse.

Anyone who possibly thought differently or had different skills from a simple farmer became, overnight, an enemy of the state.  Government officials, intellectuals, monks…they were all rounded up and sent to prisons to be re-educated.  These sessions were nothing less than torture.  Lashed, strung up, electrocuted, beaten, finger nails pulled off…The photos of blood-stained bodies even in black and white offered grotesque evidence hung on the walls.

Barbed wire, bars and makeshift cells made it clear that this was not a place of care but one of madness and pure evil.  Meticulous records were kept and images of those who came here were on display.  Board after board of men women and children with numbers pined to their clothing starred at us begging for us not for forget.

For days on end prisoners were told to offer their confessions.  Ultimately their stories would talk about being an agent for the CIA or KGB, they would name family members and friends who were also collaborators and they would invent plots against the Khmer Rouge.  These confessions allowed the Khmer Rouge to round up even more people, their families and begin the process again. 

The audio tour was not available and while I am certain that there was lots more to learn the depth of depravity was clear.  Looking down one hall you could see through a row of classrooms cells on either side and a chalk board still hanging on the far end.  My soul felt ripped apart, I am not sure I could have handled knowing more.

As we finished walking through the fourth building, we saw two men sitting at a table selling books.  When we approached, he explains that he was one of the children who were found by the Red Cross here at S-21 when the country was liberated from the Khmer Rouge.  We took a photo, but both Kevin and I were destroyed in the moment.  A little way further an old man, a victim of this place also was selling his story.

Words were not possible.  We bought both books somehow feeling that our money would help to remember and honour those who came here and never left.  From now on when I attend ceremonies of remembrance on November 11th I will take some time to think of Cambodia and the nearly quarter of their people who died in the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge Genocide.

COVID in Cambodia – take 2

I asked on Facebook what you’d like to hear about and to my surprise COVID took top billing.  I don’t have photos on this topic but certainly have plenty to share.  I will back up in time to early November.  I was getting into the groove of life here; the rainy season was wrapping up and school had settled into an ordinary and predictable routine. 

Unknown to most of us the Hungarian Foreign Minister was in Cambodia attending to international relations business.  As a diplomat he was not required to follow the same rules as other foreigners who enter the country.  The November 3rd visit was as I imagine pretty normal, meetings, discussions and of course a reception.  The minister was only in the country a day or two before he departed for Thailand.  All of this would have gone unnoticed by all of us little people.  On his arrival in Thailand, however, he tested positive for COVID.

This is where things got serious.  The phone lines burned up among the elite and government officials of the capital city, emails sent and plans made at lightning speed.   Immediately sent to quarantine were people who had come into contact with the diplomat, including Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen.  Of the emails zipping around the city, one landed in my inbox saying that my student would be isolating at home because a parent had attended the reception with the foreign minister.

Diligently, I forwarded the email to my school administration to let them know.  The next day concern about community transmission and outbreak mounted the school waited for instructions from the government.  The leadership team reallocated staff and modified the timetables of some classes on the spot.  By lunch time, the full class of the student in isolation and that students’ teachers were sent home to be in isolation for 14 days.

Our typhoid Mary of this story is the Hungarian Foreign Minister.  He met with many Cambodian officials, many of them very briefly and few wore masks (despite it being more common to wear one than not).  At one of the diplomatic functions was a parent from our school.  This parent in turn spent about three hours with their children before they attended school.  The children in this family spent one day at school.  The result: the entire class and the teachers who taught them were also sent home for 14 days.  Minister (tested positive) – Parent – Student – Teacher (me) in case the story was too complicated.

This clearly was a fear response.  It takes a certain amount of time for the viral load in a human body to develop enough to become contagious.  Regardless, the country was on high alert and I was back in isolation.  This outbreak sent ripples of fear through the city and over the next few days the fear only mounted.  Several days later on November 8th the government shut down school, sports and entertainment venues.  This now meant everyone at work was online.  Interestingly though, most were expected to work from campus, broadcasting out to homes from school.  For me and the unfortunate few teachers who had been in contact with the student we remained at home running distance learning from there.

I live in a large apartment community that includes the Olympic Stadium and as such the pool and fitness centre also closed on the 8th.  Not able to tolerate much more solitary time in my exceptionally beige apartment, I reserved a room at a local hotel for a few nights so I could take a swim and get some sun.  The hotels in the city are ghost towns, since the borders have been closed for months, with neither guests nor staff to talk to.  I could work in the room all day and then swim and sit in the sun alone for a few hours every night.  It was an expense that kept me sane.

The closure lasted only 2 weeks and despite fears to the opposite the case count did not grow and infect the larger community.  Contact tracing, serious vigilance of those in isolation and lots of testing made sure of that. 

Free to return to work I begin to focus on getting organised for Kevin to join me.  We watched as the case count in Alberta is rising steadily and worry that at the 11th hour Kevin may have to cancel his trip.  Forms and money sent to get a visa, flights booked and our fingers crossed.  To be clear, yes, Kevin is travelling out of the country, yes, the recommendations are not to.  The quarantining and testing that will have to happen make this decision a safe one, but I will get into that a bit later.

Barely back at work a week and the staff receive an email about a positive COVID case in the community.  If we had been at certain locations on the previous Saturday you won the isolation lottery and the prize was to be at home again.  Yes, lucky me.  I had made a rare run to the mall to get a few household items and to go to The Body Shop for a couple of things and poof! I am back in isolation again.

This time the government reaction was much larger as they could not identify patient zero and there was clearly going to be community transmission.  The biggest mall in the city closed, hotels closed (both in the city and some in nearby provinces), shops were COVID positive people had been in were closed, all schools were back on distance learning.

After a few days on aloneness again it was determined that I had not been at the mall when the sick person had been and I would not be required to remain in isolation.  The community spread, however, was still very real and schools would remain closed.  Mass testing centres were set up, news papers published the names of shops, hotels and restaurants were COVID positive people had frequented.  After days and days of new cases being reported it finally seemed that the massive efforts had indeed stemmed the tide of this community outbreak.  The fear of COVID in general and the fact that this community transmission was virtually on the heels of the previous incident meant that a return to normal was much slower than before.

During this time, Alberta continued to have ever more cases.  Kevin went through all the same processes as I had in August, though with a few less COVID tests than I had.  He benefited from the systems now in place for travelers to have their tests expedited.  He ran into the same trouble in Seoul with airline agents not understanding that his $2000 deposit slip was as good as cash, but after a few calls Kevin and the attendant were able to iron it out.  Kevin landed in Phnom Penh November 25th.  With the help of the staff of my school he was taken to a sanctioned quarantine hotel to begin is 14 days of living in a single hotel room.

For those of you think this sounds attractive, please know it is not.  There was a guard at the end of the hall and Kevin was not able to even pace the length of the hallway to get some movement in.  The hotel room was not large enough to set out a yoga mat and work out.  His food was delivered and for each meal he had two choices.  2 – 500mL bottles of water were provided daily.  I helped get Kevin sorted out to receive some groceries, a larger work monitor and food delivery.  These little things helped, but he was still stuck in a room with no ability to go outside, workout or open a window for fresh air was incredibly trying.

Day 13 he was escorted by school staff to a local hospital for his final COVID test.  As soon as the negative result was reported back to the hotel Kevin would be free to go.  So he continued to wait and 14 days passed.

Out in my world work was trucking along.  Most teachers were better at delivering a distance learning this round than in previous iterations.  Our school is a for profit, tuition-based school.  Parents had been given some discounts last year when learning went online and the comments were already being received that should distance learning continue parents might seek the same discount.  So, with approval from the board on a Tuesday night we were told that our December break would start a week early (and we would return a week early).  This was a hopeful effort to reduce the number of days we operated a distance learning model and with any luck our return in the new year would be live and in person.  I was astounded, I could not imagine any board back home being prepared to go to that length to avoid distance learning in the hopes that in person teaching would return down the road.

Kevin’s freedom came Wednesday late in the evening.  It was so amazing to be able to give him a big hug and show him a first glimpse of the city.  Exhilarated to see him I skipped arranging school transportation and I met him at his hotel.  A true arrival meant that we loaded up a remorque with his bags and squished ourselves around the cases for our bumpy ride through the city. We also got word that his work was going to allow him to shift his three-week holiday to match mine.  We took off on our holiday three days later!

Meanwhile, in Alberta the case count had risen to crazy levels and on December 13th the province went into lockdown, essentially cancelling all gatherings for the holidays.  Mom guilt hit home big time.  Kevin and I were off exploring the Kingdom of Wonder and our son is alone for his first Christmas.  In the end Mike coped really well.  He was able to meet at a distance various family member and when the rules changed moments before Christmas day it meant that he was able to join his girlfriend’s family for the main event.

Our holiday took us from the easternmost province to the westernmost province.  We saw elephants, jungle, rode a bamboo train, ate great foods and saw all kinds of buildings left from the Khmer civilisation a thousand years ago.  So much more to tell you, stay tuned.

Treasures in Ratanikiri

Ratanikiri was not chosen completely by chance.  The province held many beautiful and cultural sights that appealed to me greatly.  This northern province is one of the places in Cambodia where there are gem mines.  Over the years, I have shared wonderful gem mining experiences with my family and this seemed like the next special rock collecting adventure.  Many years ago, in Montana we purchased buckets of gravel from the local sapphire mine and tried our hand at panning.  Then we repeated this process in the outside of Prague but this time directly from the river bed and found garnets.  Seeing where peridot, amethyst and zircon are mined, and made into fine jewels would be a great addition to my worldwide quest for treasure.

A bit of research lead me to learn that while zircon (not cubic zirconia!) is the most common gem in the region most of the stones found now are not the beautiful blue that people admire.  In order to get that colour the brown stones must be heat treated.  A bit more research, meaning the use of Google maps and Facebook, and I was in touch with local jeweler who was willing to sell us raw stones and then fire up his kiln to heat them.

Since we arrived very late, we slept in we set off to visit the market and wander through BanLung a bit later in the morning.  The local market was bustling as it was truly the centre of the town, Kate and Jasper were able to help us navigate some of the offerings and even made a few purchases for us to try.  Most of the market was just like we’d seen elsewhere; the meat sellers however were not.  Sitting atop their stands with small chopping blocks the set up was simple, but perhaps not what I would consider hygienic.  All bits and pieces of the animals was for sale at different vendors.  From head to tail, and all of what is in-between was up for purchase on someone’s stand.

Gold vendors in the market

Produce vendors

Fish vendors

Meat vendor. Look carefully, and reread what I wrote, I’m trying to be funny.

From the market we aimed to find our jewelry and gem shop.  It was easy to find and we quickly engaged with the young man and his mother about stones.  We learned a lot and he was keen to explain, no doubt seeing that we were prepared to spend money.  In the end, we all picked out a few heated, cut and polished stones to bring home as gifts, or to keep for ourselves.  We also settled on a number that we would ask him to heat treat and kept the rest as they had been dug out of the ground.

Jeweler helping select which stones would be best for heat treatment

Picking out the ones we like best, we really have no idea what we are looking for


Once we had truly exhausted our pocket books and his selection, we headed out to watch the heat-treating process.  As with so many things in this country the kiln was not what I expected to find.  It was an old metal barrel lined with bricks and heated with charcoal. Our stones were placed in a small crucible, cemented closed, then placed in a second crucible cemented closed.  The whole container set atop the kiln to dry before being placed inside.

Kiln, I will point out that there is flammable sign on the barrel. Use what you have access to I guess

Putting cement around the crucible

Getting the coals ready to put the crucible in. It is resting on top until dry

Now you can tell this fellow was raised, he is the third generation to do this work, with this process and both knew what he was doing but that he was fearless.  Quick glances inside the fire raging kiln was all he needed to know when the temperature was just right.  Flip flops, t-shirt and bare hands was all the “protective” equipment he used.  We chatted and talked among ourselves for the 40 minutes or so it took to heat the rocks enough for them to change colour, then watched as he dug the container from the kiln and let it cool.  Watching him break open the cement seal was like watching someone open a treasure, or at least that’s what it felt like for us.  Once opened he poured out the rocks, the beautiful blue stones poured out and we were amazed.  The science is simple, heat and pressure allowed the atoms to arrange more perfectly and the colour emerges. To our eyes, in this moment the beauty of the process felt magical.  He also took out his grinder and showed us how he could shape and polish stones.

The stones, once brown and now a beautiful blue!

We took our treasures and continued back to the hotel.  Our tour of Ratanikiri would not have been complete however without seeing how these remarkable stones are mined.  While exploring the countryside we stopped amid a rubber tree plantation and went to see how it is done.  I had some idea from my internet searches but seeing the miniscule holes these men climb down and dig in shocked me.  Our phone lights would not reach the bottom of the shafts, their widths hardly big enough for the slight frames of the miners. No rigging, no ladders, no elevators, headlamps and small digging tools are the only equipment the miners use to carve hand holds out of the dirt and lower themselves down.  They excavate deeper and deeper seeking a deposit of rock, the dirt is taken to the surface and sorted there.  When a vein of good rock is found they begin to follow it, heading horizontally.  There are no safety measures so fatal accidents happen.  We bought a few more stones from this group, but not many.  We had all hoped to buy directly from the miners as they are the ones taking all the risk but they did not have nice stones and their asking prices were really high.  Our jewelry had warned us this would be the case.  While really interesting to see, I think we were all disappointed in not really being able to purchase more.


Mine site. Tucked between the trees of a rubber plantation

Negotiating the purchase of some more rocks

Mine shaft

Looking through what the miner has to offer, our guide translating when necessary

Our treasure was complete and we knew the story from beginning to end.  While the stones and jewels are not likely the best, they will forever tell us a story and to us they are our Ratanikiri treasures.

Stones in the miners hands

I’d like to thanks my friends, Jasper, Kate and Jamie for allowing me to use some of their photos.

4 friends and a funeral

Our visit to the province of Ratanikiri was a spectacular, not only because of the things we were able to learn about local and Khmer culture, view and experience wonderful natural sights but also because we happened to visit a village celebrating a funeral.

Now let me say from the outset I realise that we were intruders to the event and that I am really not certain how welcome we were to participate.  Our guide tried to reassure us it was fine, but I feel like he too was a stranger to the village and the permission was not really his to give; I get ahead of myself…

Our tour this day was mainly to visit some of the hill tribe people or the northern part of Cambodia.  There are a number of tribes but collectively they are known as the Khmer Loeu.  There are challenges for these people in some way similar to home.  They are underrepresented in the government and while they are supposed to have access to traditional lands, in practice this is not always the case.  We visited three different villages and had different experiences at each one, the last was the most amazing in case you want to keep track in my story.

Our first village visit was to a small community where we stopped to see traditional weaving.  It was great to be able to walk into a home and to see how it was built and how things like cooking and working was done.  The weaving process was unique because there was no permanent loom.  The strands were attached to a wooden panel that was placed behind the back of the weaver and as she leaned back the strings were held taught.  We spoke to her for a bit and watched as she wove, she described that it would take her about 2 weeks to finish one piece of fabric, longer if the patterns were more complicated.  She was selling each of her fabrics for $25 USD.  I could not imagine working for that little money, it was clear that they had to rely on their own ability to grow food and raise or hunt animals to survive.

Traditional home
Lady of the house weaving
The first village. The side of the home in the foreground done in traditional style

The family also showed us beaded necklaces made from seeds of one of their trees.  The father, just as we were to leave brought down his hand-crafted cross bow and showed us how it worked.  He described how he would use poison from local trees on the tips of his bamboo arrows and hunt at night with a headlamp.  Each piece of the weapon was hand made and of amazing quality.  Light and efficient I can easily imagine this man walking through the jungle quietly scanning for the lamp’s reflections in the eyes of an animal soon to become dinner for the family.

A Look at the crossbow and bolt

Showing how to load the bolt

How to load the bolt

The second village was larger, maybe 200 homes.  This village seemed prosperous in the sense that there were clean wells, lots of gardens and the children seemed clean and well dressed.  We had passed a school just outside of the village so I optimistically think that many of these children have access to some form of education, even if it is minimal.  We stopped to talk with a group of mothers and children having a snack.  They were enjoying a fruit something like a gooseberry I think, they would dip it into a mortar containing salt and chillies.  After a bit more walking about we headed back to the van and continued on our way.

Water well in the second village

Drying tobacco

A cooking fire with lunch in the pot. Clothes hung to dry and a hammock for resting

One of the newer/more modern homes

Berries with seasonings for snacking

Our last village stop at first seemed to be less prosperous that the previous two, but on reflection this might have more to do with the fact they were at the end of a funeral celebration that lasts days rather than any serious lacking of food, water and sanitation.  It seemed when we climbed out of the van that there were not too many people around despite it looking like a good-sized village.  The first group of people we met were smoking their homegrown tobacco.  Jasper bought some and then requested to be shown how to roll the banana leaf and smoke it they way they were.  The women were happy to show us how it was done and soon everyone had the chance to take a puff or two from the prepared cone.  The others described it as smooth and rather tasty, I’ll have to take their word for it.

Village woman enjoying her smoke

Jasper with some new friends

As we took photos our guide learned that they were celebrating the death of a man in the village.  I choose the word celebration very deliberately as these people spend several days celebrating that the person has gone to the afterlife, a good thing in their view.  At the end of the three days the coffin is taken to the jungle and buried with a number of items and they are no longer of concern to the village (meaning no one really visits and thinks of the dead once buried).

We arrived in what could be described as the village square.  Here, people gathered to visit and dance.  There was much drinking, smoking and overall carousing.  We were able to stand back and take it all in for only a few minutes.  Eventually the three of us girls were pulled, prodded and encouraged to join in the dancing.  The women of the village were in perfect synchronicity in their steps, me, well I was awkward.  There was a kind of half step swing back that I just could not catch onto.  If was fun for a bit, but there were a few men that were far gone in drink or gone enough to have the courage to be more hands on than any of us girls enjoyed. 

Jasper was having a different experience with the men and while us girls had had enough of the dancing; he was enjoying the experience with the men.  We left him to enjoy more time in the village and we continued our tour.  This last stop was at a cemetery in the jungle.  Bug spray was generously applied again before heading into see the graves and off we went.  There were moments where my skin crawled as the cobwebs stuck to my sweaty skin, not really wanting to think about the size of some of the spiders found in this part of the world.  The dead are surrounded by the things they will need in the afterlife.  Food (buffalo bones from the beasts eaten at their funeral), rice wine, mosquito nets, mattress, even motos. They are placed into little shelters, something like a mausoleum but open.  Wooden statues on the four corners.  While super interesting the jungle bugs were feasting on us and we didn’t linger too long.

Returning to the village to pick up Jasper we arrived in time to see the village taking their family member to the jungle for burial.  What a sight!  As we stood near the van the whole village come down the road, the cement coffin hanging from logs the men carrying it along….and of course Jasper too!  We followed the procession out of the village and down the road where we saw them enter the jungle, bury the coffin and leave again in very short order.

Overall, the day was a huge success.  I can honestly say that being present and participating even a little in the funeral celebration is what travelers dream of when they say “I want to have an authentic experience with the locals”.  This kind of experience is unique and very hard to come by so I know just how privileged we were to be in this right place at the right time.  I might even say it makes the top of my travel experiences.

Crater and Cascades

End of October brought the celebration of Water Festival. Due to COVID all the interesting events in the city were cancelled and since borders remained closed four of us decided to head to the very northern province of Ratanikiri for a break.  Our base for this first part of the trip was the town of BanLung.  We were about 80km from the Vietnam border and not much further from Laos. The choice of this location proved to be an amazing decision.  My internet searching had scored big time with a company offering a 2-day tour.  The first day was nature and outdoors while the second was cultural.  All in all, there are really four or five stories to tell, you’ll have to wait for each one as they each deserve a good telling.

We headed out on our first day to visit several waterfalls and the famous crater lake.  The weather was perfect for our adventure.  Clear sunny skies with a bit of wind, this norther province generally cooler that what we get in the capital.  Our guide and driver were kind and generous with their knowledge of the area.  We started at the 7-step waterfall, here the water was fast and the river was swollen with water from the recent storms.  The water cascaded over the rock from side to side, in the dry season however the river would narrow and the water flow more gently.

While it was early the guide encouraged us to go for a swim.  Kate, Jamie and Japer jumped in, I help back simply because I know that I would have lost my footing on the rocks and fallen hard.  I waded in and the water was a wonderful temperature, definitely a fun place.  There were spots in the falls where you could sneak in behind the water and look out from behind the curtain.  Locals who were picnicking decided to join in the fun after seeing our group get in.

We spent a good amount of time here, just taking it all in.  While I didn’t swim, I enjoyed watching the butterflies and water, it was just the soothing thing that was needed as a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Our playing finished up we continued to drive through the province of Ratanikiri.  This is the province with the least development and lowest population in the whole country.  We enjoyed seeing farms of rubber trees, cashews, casava, and fruit as we drove by. We stopped at villages to learn more about the indigenous people of the region. 

Our second waterfall was Kachanh waterfall.  Here the river is slow, wide and lazy above the falls.  This makes it perfect for families to come and picnic.  There are huts to rent complete with mats and hammocks.  It would be easy to spend the better part of the day just lazing in a hammock and talking with friends.  The jungle offered so many new plants to look at, I was frequently delighted to see all kinds of butterflies.  Any birds and other critters were well hidden to my inexperienced eyes.

We wandered around above the falls then walked down stream to a wooden bridge to observe the falls from the other side.  While I am not afraid of heights, this bridge had me a bit nervous.  Like all suspension bridges it swung as people moved along, narrow also, it fit – just – two people.  The railing was barely waist high and I felt like it would not really prevent me from falling.  The wood in places creaked and made my heart skip a beat.  The view however made up for it!  Waterfalls are so beautiful to watch and this 12m high fall surrounded by rain forest was just spectacular.  This is where we saw two gentlemen we would meet again later for a bit of multilingual karaoke.

Our last waterfall reminded me of the fall in Iceland where you could walk behind.  Here the water fell over a shelf about 10m high.  From the top of the fall you could climb down to the pool below and if you were sure footed and well balanced could have gone much further underneath than I did.  The river here like the other places was full and fast.

We stopped for lunch back in town and then headed to the star attraction of the day.  Yeak Loam is a crater lake, formed by an ancient volcano and since filled in with water.  The pool is over 45m deep and clear.  We walked the circumference and enjoyed the 3km walk through the wild bamboo, wild banana and jungle that surrounds this protected area.  The noise, smells and sights were lovely and we took our time to walk the short distance.  The day was hot and when we finally made it most of the way around, we arrived at a dock meant to facilitate swimming.  We changed and jumped in.

The water was warmer than the water of our hotel pool and the whole experience just breath-taking.  We floated, talked, and generally just enjoyed being in the moment.  Surrounded by jungle, we had the lake to ourselves just a few locals and other families further down closer to the main entrance area but none other in the lake.  I honestly could have stayed longer but we were getting late in the day and I was turning into a bit of a raisin.

This place is one to which I will return if I ever get the chance to show any of you, this pristine lake and the path around rivaled walking the lakeshore of Lake Louise and swimming in the Okanogan.

Our day ended as we returned back to town, happily worn out from our visiting the natural sites of the area.  We decided to eat at one of the local restaurants that set out mats along BanLung lake in town.  The food was, well more adventurous than I had tried before.  My travel companions were fun as they gently pushed me to try chicken feet and nibble at everything offered.  Not all was great, even the street dogs left the unidentified meat bits from the noodles we ordered. 

Jasper dug out his karaoke mic and we began to enjoy some music after dinner.  To self conscious to sing I enjoyed the fun company and after a few songs the two gentlemen we had seen earlier joined us, they took their turn to sing in Chinese.  Not long after we were joined by three other gentlemen for Vietnam, they too sung a bit (yes, I know I need to get over my fear!).  It was really fun and exciting to just enjoy each others company even though we couldn’t really carry on a conversation.  We did exchange contact details with the gentlemen as they also work in Phnom Penh.

I am grateful that COVID prevented me from flying out of the country during this week-long break as I surely would never have made a point to explore this virtually unknown part of Cambodia.

A big shout out to my three travel companions, Jasper, Kate and Jamie for the great times and use of some of their photos.

A seaside town with lots to tell

Our Pchum ben holiday was altered slightly by the arrival of a tropical storm. Rain like I’ve never seen before and wind much like the anger of a thunderstorm at home forced us to chill out at our hotel, eat dinner in the dark and be disconnected from the web for most of the night. In all honesty, the weather was not so concerning because of years of summer vacations at my families cabin on Crane Lake. Surrounded by simple accommodations we had only our friendships and a couple of card games to keep us entertained, it was angry outside but the three of us laughed and enjoyed the games. The following morning we set out to explore the area. The storm had not completely passed but it was calming down quickly.

All over town, like in the city there is clear evidence of humanities stupid and arrogant love affair with single use plastic (single use anything really). The more I travel and the more I see of our amazing world the more I am angry that single use remains an option. I am not perfect, but when I see things like this photo on the right, the white is not sea foam it is garbage mostly single use plastic bottles and containers I am pushed to do more. Enough of those depressing thoughts, back to travel.

Our guide and driver was a local fellow who normally makes his living touring people around his home community. With COVID he has been forced to quite his French lessons and take a construction job to provide for his family. We were lucky that he was not working this job and that he was generous enough to offer his services on this special holiday. In all honesty, he probably made more offering us this tour than he normally would in a week or more of working construction. The fact that as expats I am part of a very privileged segment of society is never really far from my mind.

We started out tour along the waterfront, wind, water and waves still raging. Kep, being most well known for its crab market has a cute little ocean statue of a crab for us to pose in front of as we headed out of town towards the salt pans.

Kep crab statue on the waterfront

Waterfront with storm waves

Garbage on the shore, so much it almost looked like seafoam

The history of Cambodia is also very evident here. When Cambodia was a French Protectorate there was a great deal of development here. The Europeans built villas and grand homes in this seaside village thinking to grow and develop it into a sort of Cambodian riviera. The place was quite a destination for many years. This town, like so much of the country suffered great losses during the Khmer Rouge government. Kep and its European grandeur was a symbol to a way of life despised by Pol Pot so during the fours years of his power these buildings were gutted. All over town we could see the shells of these buildings. In some places the jungle was taking back the land, in others you could see the poor and homeless squatting.

Our driver explained that most of these properties are not owned by locals, that as foreign and rich developers decide to build a new hotel, resort or shopping these ghosts of the past will be lost. I hope that the town is able to preserve some of ruins as a memory to what took place here.

The home of the King when he would visit Kep

Villa ghost

Villa ghost

We left town and came upon an area that seemed more desert like than coastal. Ditches and shacks surrounded large flat areas full of water. No one around at all as it is the rainy season and no salt is produced. Salt production occurs only in the dry season when the water is given the chance to evaporate. We stopped by one of the salt sheds and hesitantly took a peek inside. It was somewhat like a barn but no funny smells or animals. Upon reflection, my fear of critters was really quite sille even bugs can’t live in a saline environment like this.

The process was explained to us. In the early days of the dry season workers will flatten the pans rolling by hand concrete rollers over the clay. ditches and channels for water are repaired and everyone gears up for a couple of months of backbreaking physical work. The first harvest takes about 10 to 12 days then the pans produce salt at a 7 day interval. Workers with rakes and baskets gather the salt and store it in these sheds until trucks come to take it to a refinery where impurities are removed, salt is packaged and readied for sale.

Salt pans and sheds

Salt pans and sheds

Salt pans and sheds

inside a salt shed

Small baskets left behind from the workers

Roller used to flatten the pans

Our tour also took us past these swallow homes. These buildings are fitted with artificial swallow song loud speakers, beckoning the birds to come nest inside. These nests are then harvested and sold, at ridiculously high prices, to countries like China as a delicacy. I have to admit that while I had heard of this delicacy I truly thought it was some kind of noodle soup not actual birds nests. My western-centrism showing clearly.

We continued along and passed a fishing community. we could see the boats anchored in the bay as the sea was still to angry for people to head out. Then we drove through the village. These people have so very little while my heart was breaking for them the children playing tells me that they are able to find happiness in some simple ways.

Bird nest barn/farm

Local fishing boats

Home of a local fisherman and his family

Turning away from the coast we headed inland up the hills to the local Pagoda. I am sorry to say that I can not tell you much about it as out guide stayed with his tuk tuk and the little signage there was was all in Khmer. Like all churches and religious sites I have seen they have a serenity that speaks to me. The iconography different that I am used to was interesting and strange. Naga heads at the bottom and top of railings with the snake body running the length. Hippo statues flanked the stairs like ferocious guards of this jungle sanctuary.

Stairway up to the Pagoda

Naga head at one end of a railing

I am loving the naga ornamentation

Inside the Pagoda a main centerpiece looked like many other religions altars. Figures of the Buddha, candles and golden ornamentation was beautiful to look at. The walls were covered with paintings depicting what I can only assume as stories or teachings from Buddhism. In Europe I was getting fairly good at being able to tell what the stained glass and iconography was trying to tell me, here I was at a complete loss. I certainly felt like I need to read and research further with some of my free time here.

The altar inside the Pagoda

Paintings on the walls inside the Pagoda

The jungle creeping over the the stairs to the top of the hill

I also wouldn’t be me if I didn’t share with you a few of the critters we came across on our walk in the jungle. All interesting in their own right we watched the snail moved down the railing edge to the underneath of the stone handle his large yellow shell dangling from his body, incredible the adhesiveness of the body to the stone- isn’t nature just grand!

Caterpillar of some kind…maybe?

Millipede not small, huge, you could BBQ this guy

Land snail

Our last stop before heading home was the crab market. We had stopped in the first day, but did not walk to the very end and see the best part! Here you can see the crab traps in the water, the fisherman hauling them in, passing them to their wives to sell in the market. We watched several negotiations and I can assure you of the freshness of the merchandise. Squid and shrimp of all kinds were also on offer. Once you made your purchase you could have your food cooked for you at the end of the dock. Having enjoyed crab at dinner the first night in town we did not partake in this exchange. The crab while excellent was so small it was really a pain to eat. The market also offered for sale smaller shrimp and fish in various salts and seasonings.

Looking down the dock at the market

Watching a sale negotiation take place

Crab traps still in the water within view of the dock

Noodles with seasonings, fish, shrimp and sauce

Salted and dried fish and shrimp

Have your meal cooked for you right where you bought it

We left the market and headed to one of the sea side restaurants that our driver recommended. There we enjoyed a great meal. We had seem one several menus morning glory and decided to give it a try. My experience at home was telling me to expect the stems and flowers of the garden plant I know. Rather it was more like a spinach-leek-green onion like green with oyster-soya-garlic sauce. The light coating and quick cooking meant that the greens were not soggy or over salty. Just a perfect crunchy fresh flavour of good green veg. I have since learned that there are in fact three different kinds I can buy in the market, I will have to ask my local friends the right words for the best kind to buy and learn how to cook this at home.

Seaside dining experience

Looking down at the other restaurants

Morning glory greens for dinner

Kep had lots to offer us and I will happily return and share this little town with friends from home when the borders open. There were other things to see and do, but time is always short when you are exploring. Now that we have hit Canadian Thanksgiving it is time to gear up and plan the next adventure! Off to the north we go! Stay tuned.

Mid autumn festival treats

Language and food are so integral in understanding people’s cultures, today is special as I was able to eat mooncakes for the mid autumn festival and attend my first Khmer language class. To start I guess I have to say that I will have to become more informed earlier so I can more fully take part and experience each special day.  Mid autumn festival is celebrated widely, but has its origins in China.  Here in Cambodia it is celebrated by families of mixed heritage, expat Chinese and Khmer families who enjoy the special sweet food on offer.  It is said to originate long ago when it was believed that there was a special relationship between the largest autumn moon and the harvest.

Read a bit more about mid autumn festival

Traditions for this holiday vary slightly depending on where you are, but the many similarities are family gatherings, lanterns and mooncakes.  Unfortunately, I was not organised enough to go make or see lanterns being displayed or released, a co-worker was able to help me buy some high-quality mooncakes.  Independent as I am, when I tried to find a place on my food delivery app that sold and delivered them, most of the information was I Chinese and so I was a bit lost.  At any rate, after exchanging a few texts my friend had me all lined up to have some treats delivered.

Arrival of the treats!

Opening the box

The treats!

The selection I bought had a variety of flavours so it would be perfect to share.  The next day in school (October1) was the actual day of the harvest moon and the official celebrations would take place.  I asked many of my students, Chinese and Khmer alike and asked them how they celebrated at home and what their favorite flavour of mooncake was.  One of the most popular flavours was egg, I guess the sweetness of the dough, the salty and creaminess of the egg yolk makes for a very indulgent treat.

Knowing I had a variety box made me smile, it would be so much fun to share with my fellow expats at our first Khmer language lesson later that night.  We arrived and took a peek at the individual boxes, nothing really distinguished one from the other so we really were at the whim of fate in the type of cake we were about to try.  We dug in with glee, honestly, the smiles and excitement were fun to share.  Some of the flavours were egg, red bean, and taro.  Some we couldn’t identify but enjoyed none the less.  The cakes are made of a thin sweet dough on the outside, stamped with a symbol on top, dense paste-like filling inside.  I would compare the filling to marzipan but smoother and sweeter.

Here is a great article by a Vlogger I follow about mooncakes, Mark Weins and Migrationology

Friends gathering to learn Khmer (our teacher is on the right) ready to try our mooncakes

Last one to try! (I need to get better at the whole selfie thing)

An egg one! Super yummy! I enjoyed it more than the taro one I tried at school!

We gobbled down our treats and began our first lesson in Khmer.  Glad to know that the fist thing we learned was the proper way to say Khmer…think K-M-I.  I’ve heard so many different people say this differently I figured both there fine, happy to know for certain and will try to always say it correctly from now on.  The lesson was straight forward, listen and repeat.  Nothing was written down.  Honestly, this made me rather uncomfortable.  There are many sounds that are very different than English I had been hoping to be able to read the words while concentrating on the sounds.  Here’s the thing.  The written language is very complicated and takes too long to learn to be practice for most foreigners and the language written with the roman alphabet is completely messed up.  The sounds made are not at all like the phonetics we know so reading Khmer words written with the roman alphabet is virtually impossible.  The way we have to attack it is to listen, make our own phonetic translation and practice aloud.  We made it through our first lesson sounding not too terribly bad, but I will definitely have to practice using these new phrases during the next few days to ensure I really master them.

Well, here’s to food and language, two of my favorite things! Until next time my friends.

A Cambodian Sleigh Ride

The first opportunity to travel outside the capital came at the National Holiday of Pchum Ben.  While I am no expert on the meaning or importance of this holiday I can with confidence say that this is one of the most important holidays in Cambodia.  A religious period of two weeks culminating in Pchum Ben.  To celebrate and observe this time many people go to their local Pagoda and offer food and money.  Around town we could hear the monks broadcasting prayers much more frequently and could see people wearing traditional clothing for visiting the Pagoda. For us expats, the holiday meant a time to set aside school work and head out of town.

Two of my friends and I set out to the sea to a little town called Kep.  We left very early in the morning on the first day of the holiday to try and get ahead of the traffic.  Between road condition and volume our 160km drive could have taken much longer than the anticipated 4 hours.  I know for many Canadians I say 160km and you think…what?  That’s hardly a 2-hour ride.  At home this may be true, but here when a million people try to leave the city at the same time and the roads are at best two lanes wide, congestion occurs.  Add to the mix, pot holes washed out from rain and big trucks and, well, it takes longer.  The three of us had a good visit during the ride and enjoyed our first glimpse of the countryside.

We arrived before lunch and while our room was not ready, we didn’t care. We changed into swim suits and hit the pool.  Naps, cocktails and a dip in the pool under a sunny afternoon in our quiet little hotel was just what we ordered.  I do have to admit that the next day I realised I had skipped an important step in my afternoon…. sun screen.  Yes, shake your head.  I’ve lived in this very white sun burn prone body for 46 years and while I was beginning to feel like I had acclimatised to the heat and humidity I can not change the fact that the sun loves to remind me to keep covered.

At any rate I was able to score a great tour for the next day, something I had been looking forward to since beginning to learn about this country.  When the Cambodia was a French protectorate (mid 1800 to mid 1900) there were a few things that the Europeans helped to develop in this region.  Firstly, this town with its idyllic location on the Gulf of Thailand was quick to be transformed into a Cambodian Riviera.  Secondly, the French and their taste for fine foods developed the production and sale of pepper, thus the desire to visit a pepper plantation.

Off we went on our day trip to one of the local pepper farms, La Plantation.  This place is foreign owned but they take great pride in their social programs.  The place was clean, organised, laid back and very well run.  On our arrival we were shown to the main building and then immediately set off on the water buffalo ride.  I would compare my glee at this experience it to a foreigner from a warn country taking a winter sleigh ride in Canada.  My friends laughed when they heard me giggle like a small child at seeing these animals…I may just get teased for a while about it actually.  We hopped up into the hut on wheels and were off towards the secret lake.  The driver has his own manner of speaking with the animals, quiet grunts and sounds spoken quietly and gentle taps with his stick let them know what he wanted.  They, like sleigh horses, know the routine.

Entering the lake water
Entering the lake water
Entering the lake water

As we approached the lake they seemed to want to get there and moved a bit differently.  The depth of the water deepened and they were able to eat at the shoots and weeds growing in the lake, just like trail horses nibbling on tall grass beside the trail.  When the water reached a certain depth they almost lunged into the lake and proceeded to stop and float.  They clearly just loved the water!  The driver hopped down into the water and gave the animals a bit of a water rub-down and let the animals dunk their heads, blow bubbles and just lounge in the cool waters.  Our driver, clearly a little hot as well dove in and went for a swim as well!  And before you ask…No, none of us foreigners thought it would be a nice swim.  We stayed put in out floating but flooded hut on wheels and watched the animals enjoy the water.  The work beasts were eventually guided to take us home but they made sure to eat  as much as they could on the way…just like a trail horse finding good long grass along the trails edge.

Getting a rub down
Playing and relaxing while we look on
These animals did not care that we did not want to get wet

When we arrived back at the farm house we were treated to lunch.  We began with banana milkshakes and dried plantains with salt and black pepper.  There was no added sugar to the plantains and the black peppercorns were not hard and crunchy, rather they were soft and salty, the heat of the pepper coming to your mouth after the sweet and salty finished.  Truly a great snack, I may have bought a back of this snack later.  We had an amazing green mango salad and beef lok lak as our main dish.  Both the salad and main were perfect examples of Khmer cuisine and we cleared our plates with no complaint.

Plantains with salt and black pepper
Green mango salad
Beef loklak
Homemade pepper ice cream

A short rest and water before we were off on our farm tour.  Our local guide walked us past dragon fruit plants, to the pepper poles.  Two varieties of pepper are grown here, regular and long pepper. They are both a vine plant which they clone via cuttings to plant along four-meter-high poles.  He showed us how they take care of watering and pest control with their own organic home brew of local plants.  Lots of explanation about how they help support local families with both good employment and good education.  They even help pay for the top performing students to attend private school in Kampot and then university.  Banana and turmeric plants were next and our tour ended back at the farm house.

Regular pepper vine
Long pepper vine and flower
Dragon fruit
Turmeric root plants growing between banana trees
Pepper tasting time

The three of us, along with a lovely family with two girls sat for our pepper tasting.  We were given a sheet to accompany our tasting.  Description of aroma and flavours, food and spice pairing and room for us to rank our enjoyment of each taste.  Twenty spices later we were all well primed to shop a bit.  With a warm heart and soul and full belly the pocketbook opened with a certain generosity.  I know that I will make a point to learn more about the school and will continue to buy their products.

We ended out wonderful day here with a dessert of ice cream.  Our choices were lime sorbet with red pepper, vanilla with red pepper and chocolate with black pepper.  They were all yummy and refreshing, I think my favorite was the vanilla with red pepper. Our drive back to the hotel was much the same as the trip outward but this time we knew our driver a bit better and he was happy to explain about Khmer culture and life.  As far as tour go, this was really a great day.  It had a bit of everything, food, culture, adventure and quiet time to visit.  Our evening was filled with laughs and cards as a tropical storm began to rage.  More to tell in the next post!

A lesson in art and culture

Having begun to feel like I have arrived, developed some bravery in exploring on my own and a deep desire to learn more sent me first to the National Museum.  A small museum by European standards, but none the less it had great examples of items from pre-Angkor, Angkor and some more modern items.

I did try to learn a bit of history before my arrival here but as I read articles and listened to podcasts the names and places seem almost apart of a great work of fiction.  Every time I would look up something a whole new chapter in world history would open itself up.  I consider myself a fairly well-educated woman, someone who asks questions and tries to understand.  In terms of the history of this continent I know virtually nothing.  I mean I could tell you that I have heard of things like Genghis Khan, the Vietnam war, French Indochina and Marco Polo but certainly had no idea of Champa, Funan, Arkan and more.  This visit put a lot of those pieces together for me.  I was also able to purchase a few books (those who have travelled with me are rolling their eyes right now), they sit on my bedside table and will give me the chance to dig in and understand these people and their history all the more. While I will share photos, I can not offer too much in the way if details about their historical significance.  I will share my impressions and feelings as a curious traveller.

Main entrance

Beautiful detail above the door

In the garden around the museum. The front of the elephant is the only man made portion. The trees behind fill out the body.

Garuda. First half 10th century. This large statue of the king of birds is the first thing you see as you enter. Visnu’s mount and eater of naga.


A map showing the size and geography of the Khmer empire of Angkor. The Thai here are known as the Mon, people will recognise the region of Arakan from the modern troubles with the Rohingya in Burma. Champa has been swallowed up by modern Vietnam. Current Cambodia is the dark orange in the centre.

Hindu Trimurti.First half 10th century. Siva (centre), Visnuon and Brahma. I came to understand through art how Cambodian sculptors blended religions together.

Monkeys are often shown as a part of the army of kings, I guess there is some truth behind the winged monkeys of the Wizard of Oz.

Nagas are often seen as protectors around important sites here, until arriving here I thought there were a work of fantasy, found in books and video games, certainly not religious characters.

Built in 1917 during the French protectorate.

Too hot to spend too much time outside, sorry for the squinting. The traditional motifs in this building make it a perfect place for a study of the past.

The bronze work on display dates from 7th-20th century.

Buddha seated and guarded by naga. Another example of blending of religions

This Krama is a world record holder. It represents national pride. It shows the spirit of “Believe Khmer Can”. A traditional piece of clothing it is a symbol of the Cambodian people’s efforts to realize their legacy as Khmer people.

After my visit to the museum I found my way to a different spa to enjoy a traditional Khmer massage.  This was an unbelievable experience.  No oils, no aromatherapy.  Rather, it was a strangely therapeutic session that could only be described as a weird fusion of a chiropractic, physiotherapy, stretches, and pressure points.  First, I changed into an outfit that is similar to a gi, the top tied closed only loosely and the pants were miles to big.  I would understand why toward the end when she was stretching my legs. The woman who offered me this massage was maybe 5’2”…and at best 90 lb.  She was tiny. 

On my front she squatted on the table above me and used her body weight to push and pull at my back, legs and feet.  It was not so much relaxing as releasing. After really finding all the tights spots she moved my legs to work on points on my knees, ankles and toes.  She found all kinds of spots on my hips and thighs that seemed at first to be very angry at being found.  By the end of our time those same spots felt totally open and happy, better ever than any physio or massage I’ve had at home.

Once she had me turn over things got really interesting.  She sat at my feet and used both hand and both legs to simultaneously pull and push and put pressure on my upper legs.   I really wondered at the kind of training that this woman had.  She was able to use her toes to apply pressure to a few spots while pushing the whole muscle while her hand and upper body pulled on my leg. It is so hard to describe I am sorry to not offer photos.  Sitting up on the table she moved to behind me and tried different position where she would use my arms and her kneed to stretch and manipulate my back more than she had already.  When she stood up and pulled my arms up overhead it felt like so much tension just let go…it wasn’t like a yoga release, my body just felt like YES, this is better.

I will definitely be having this kind of work done every couple of weeks, I literally walked out of that place with a grin from ear to ear, it just felt that good.  Now, don’t get me wrong, some people will not enjoy this kind of session.  For me, HOLY! It was amazing. Once home I enjoyed a lovely pepper steak hot plate and fresh lime juice ($3).  Since I didn’t hurt or feel overworked, like I often do after a massage at home, I went to work out and hit the pillow early.

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