Kratie – Home of the Irrawaddy Dolphins

Our final stop in Cambodia was in Kratie, a small city located North-East of Phnom Phen.   We booked our transportation ahead of time with Cambodian Pride Tours and I was glad we did.  It was a 6 hour drive from Angkor National park, and I was happy to not have to do it in a crowded van!   Being in a car also meant that we could appreciate the countryside more, which was really nice.  I feel like we got to see so much of Cambodia while we were there!

Kratie is located right on the Mekong River.
Kratie is located right on the Mekong River.

Kratie is a lot less touristy than Siem Reap, and it was nice to get away from the crowds.  Kratie is both the name of this small city and the province where it’s located, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to see here, based on what the internet has to say anyway.  Other than the Irrawaddy Dolphins (which I’ll get to in a bit), Kratie’s biggest attraction is that is runs along the mighty Mekong River, and there are lots of great sights as a result.

IMG_6059
One of the first things we saw in Kratie! This was right in the city…I don’t think anyone was herding them either…but nobody seemed to care much!
IMG_6047
We met this little heart-breaker at the hotel, hanging out with the Tuk Tuk drivers. He asked me for a kiss within about 2 minutes of meeting me. He settled for a picture and the use of my camera
IMG_6048
Taken by my new beau. With that helmet and that face, who WOULDN’T be asking me for kisses?? hahaha!
IMG_6063
People getting around by tractor

As happy as I was to get away from all the tourism though, I was just as happy to discover that our hotel was clean, comfortable and uber cute.  Also, our hotel had a pool, which we took advantage of in the Cambodian heat.  Have I mentioned it was really hot while we were there???  Because it was!!! I especially loved all the pets we had in our room 🙂

One of several Lizards in our room. It was through no fault of the hotel...these little guys are EVERYWHERE! I found this one to be especially adorable...he was hanging out on our door frame.
One of several Lizards in our room. It was through no fault of the hotel…these little guys are EVERYWHERE! I found this one to be especially adorable…he was hanging out on our door frame.

We only had 1 full day in Kratie, and it began bright and early when our tour guide, Sithy, met us at our hotel.  Before going further, I need to say that Sithy is one of the most passionate and fantastic tour guides I’ve ever met in my life.  I honestly didn’t know a tour could BE that enjoyable.  If you are reading this because you are visiting Kratie, please do yourself a favor and get in touch with this man.  He started this company on his own and does basically everything himself.  His prices are fair, he cares greatly about the quality of his tours and he tries very hard to give back to the community.  You can check out his website here. or go to http://www.cambodianpridetours.com

This is Sithy. He's about as nice of a guy as you'll find. I don't typically work as an advertiser on my blog, but for this guy...I will.
This is Sithy. He’s about as nice of a guy as you’ll find. I don’t typically work as an advertiser on my blog, but for this guy…I will.

One of the cool things about this tour is how laid back it is.  We rented a scooter for the day and rode around the countryside, stopping now and then to see what country life in Kratie province is like.  We were able to see how noodles and whiskey are made in rural Cambodia, and we even had lunch with Sithy’s family (his mother provided us with traditional Cambodian food.  It was fantastic!).  It was a very personal tour for Sithy as he seemed to know everyone in the area.  Everywhere we went, children came running out of their homes to say hello and squealed with excitement when we returned the greeting.  It was a lovely morning and afternoon and surely not one I will soon forget.

IMG_6142
A typical noodle ‘factory’ in Kratie.  These women sort through noodles, separating them into meal-sized portions, before selling them at the market.
IMG_6145
These are rice noodles, not the wheat kind you’re used to back in North America. First, they grind the rice up into a powder here
IMG_6143
Then, after adding lots of water into the ground up rice, they put the mixture in these bags and place rocks on top of them to push air out
IMG_6141
Then they press the resulting goop into this noodle making machine.
IMG_6148
A nice complete view of their little shop. It’s located under their house (the stilted homes provide a nice cool working area during the dry season
IMG_6151
Some chickens hanging out while their owners make rice noodles to sell at the market
IMG_6154
Rice is also used for making alcohol here. This is where the rice is sorted
IMG_6155
Here, the rice is fermenting, slowly turning into alcohol
IMG_6157
Rice Wine!!

We spent hours cruising around the countryside, stopping to see local homes and seeing the sights in every-day Cambodia.  I loved being on the back of that scooter, seeing the rural countryside fly by us and smelling the fresh air.  The breeze was refreshing and it was so wonderful being away from the crowds.  I was smart enough to catch some of it on video 🙂

The guy riding in front of us is Sithy and when he pulled over, it was so that we could see an old tobacco drying barn.  It’s no longer in use, but tobacco used to be one of Cambodia’s biggest exports.  The tobacco industry has since been replaced by factories as a primary source of income for the country, so drying sheds like this now stand empty.

IMG_6099
This old shed used to be used for drying tobacco
IMG_6104
The tobacco leaves used to be hung from the rafters up top
IMG_6106
This used to keep the fire going that would dry the leaves before they were sold
IMG_6132
Sugarcane is another plant grown in Cambodia. They don’t export much of it, but they use it to make tasty beverages at roadside stands. They add a little bit of freshly squeezed orange to bring down the sweetness. Very refreshing!!

After spending the morning and early and afternoon seeing the sights, we boarded the ferry to get to the Irrawaddy Dolphins.  The ferry leaves every 20 minutes or so and is the only way to cross the river (where we’d spent a lot of the day).  Because bridges are so expensive to build, and Cambodia is so poor, ferries are used to get people across the wide Mekong.  Sithy hopes that there will be a bridge built in Kratie before long.  Kratie is becoming more and more of a popular place for tourists to stop, so with the rise in tourism, hopefully a bridge will be built, resulting in an easier life for locals.

The ferry we took to get across the Mekong
The ferry we took to get across the Mekong

After disembarking the ferry, we hopped back on our scooters and drove for several kilometers, to a place where dolphins are known to hunt for fish. When we arrived at the feeding pool, we boarded a small wooden boat with a guide and were given an hour to experience the dolphins.  Sithy had mentioned on the website that seeing the dolphins was a guarantee but I did not expect to see the number of dolphins we did!  There are roughly 25 of these magnificent mammals in this portion of the Mekong, and sadly, that is about 35% of their whole population.  The number of Irrawaddy Dolphins have dropped drastically in the last hundred years.  Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed many of these beautiful creatures to use their fat as weapon cleaner, and many dolphins are killed every year by plastic fishing nets.  And to add to the troubles the adult dolphins face, calf mortality rates are very high, so there is a very good chance that these animals will disappear from the earth forever within our lifetime.

IMG_6168
I stood on the end of this boat to take videos….so I apologize for some of my shakier shots. We were moving most of the time I was filming!!
IMG_6195
Happy as clams to be out on the water
Our tour guide for the hour. He has to have one of the coolest jobs on the planet!
Our tour guide for the hour. He has to have one of the coolest jobs on the planet!

Dave spotted the first dolphin within minutes of being in the boat.  I missed it and was furious; worried that I’d missed my opportunity to see these rare beauties.  But within another few minutes, we saw several more, some far away and some close by.  Often, we’d hear them blowing water out of their blowholes before we actually saw them.  The experience was amazing and altogether one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done in my life.

IMG_6199
They were very difficult to photograph, as they are very shy. Unlike Bottlenose dolphins, who love attention, the Irrawaddy dolphins avoid humans. Luckily, this means awful companies like SeaWorld have no interest in enslaving them.
IMG_6202
One of the only other decent shots I got
IMG_6218
There were many boats out looking for these beautiful animals
IMG_6225
Whether you are Monk, child or Canadian tourist, your reaction is the same when you see the dolphins come up for air:  amazement and excitement!

I will leave you with a video I put together of the footage I managed to get with our small camera.  My biggest regret is that I didn’t have better equipment to capture this incredible experience, but I did what I could with what I had.  I hope you enjoy it!  And if you’re trying to place the music…it’s from “The Island” soundtrack.

I’ll be back soon with some final posts from Guiyang!  We’re coming home in 18 days!!!

Angkor National Park – Cambodia’s Treasure (Part 2)

We had limited time in Cambodia (7 days is hardly enough to experience an entire country, after all!), and had to pick and choose where we would spend our time during our May Holiday.  Although there were several places that we wanted to visit, Angkor National Park was our main reason for visiting Cambodia, so we decided to book a 2 day tour with  Happy Angkor Tours, instead of the 1 day tour that we allocated at all our other stops.

tempguidemap
After all, there are hundreds of temples to see in Angkor National Park. Even 2 days wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything we’d wanted to see.

Dave and I aren’t usually big fans of tours (mainly because we hate other tourists) but this one wasn’t too bad.  Our guide had passable English and knew a lot about the Buddhist history in all the temples.  He tried very hard to keep us happy, even in the heat, and ended both days a little earlier than had been planned because we were both dealing with pretty awful sun stroke.    This meant that we missed the sunset part of the tour we’d booked on the first day.  It’s too bad, as it would have been beautiful to see the sun go down behind Phnom Bakheng, but by the time we had finished at Bayan Temple, all either of us wanted to do was make our way back to our hotel to take it easy.  Looking back now, I’m kicking myself, but of course, in addition to the heat, we had spent the previous night on a bus and neither of us had gotten much rest, so the idea of an air conditioned room with a comfortable bed was more appealing than seeing the sun go down.

We stayed at Villa Medamrei while in Siem Reap.  The hotel was beautiful and the staff went above and beyond (letting us check in about 6 hours earlier than they had to so we could shower before our tour started).  If you're looking to stay in Siem Reap...I strongly urge you to check this place out.  Great pricing for a beautiful stay!
We stayed at Villa Medamrei while in Siem Reap. The hotel was beautiful and the staff went above and beyond (letting us check in about 6 hours earlier than they had to so we could shower before our tour started). If you’re looking to stay in Siem Reap…I strongly urge you to check this place out. Great pricing for a beautiful stay!

And it was a good thing that we got that additional rest, because Day 2 of our holiday started an hour before the sun came up…

Angkor Wat – Round 2

We woke up at around 4:30am, showered (we couldn’t do enough of that in Cambodia!!!) and met our tour guide outside our hotel.  It was still very dark out and there was nobody in the streets.  A half hour later, we were walking up to Angkor Wat again, though we couldn’t see it against the black sky.  Our guide found us a fantastic spot on the bank of the man-made pond, we bought some iced coffee from a vendor who was selling them to tourists who were there for sunrise, and we waited.

2 angkor
At first, we could only see the beehive shaped outline of Angkor Wat

3 -  angkor

4 - angkor

7- angkor

As it got brighter and brighter we realized not only why it was worth waking up at 4:30am for this, but also that we were not the only ones who’d made this trip.  The gratitude I felt for our tour guide, who had gotten us here before the crowds, also multiplied as I looked around me.

IMG_5774

8- angkor

Eventually, the sun rose completely, giving us this spectacular view to start our day:

9 - angkor

Chong Kneas – A Floating Fishing Village

Cambodia has 2 seasons:  wet and dry.  The wet season runs from May to October and the dry season from November to April.  The Mekong River varies greatly between these two seasons, as Cambodia receives 75% of it’s rainfall in the wet months.  So believe it or not, this is the same river:

Mekong
The Mekong as we saw it
Mekong 2
The Mekong River at the height of the rainy season.

But human beings have survived for all these years because we are so adaptable.  As a species, we survive all over the globe in a variety of environments and conditions, and just like Canadians bundle up into layers of clothes to survive the winter, Cambodia has found ways to survive the rise and fall of the Mekong River.

mirelescambodia-4723-L
A Cambodian home in the dry season
vylet-plovoucivesnice-002
A Cambodian fishing village during the wet season

Entire villages are built on stilts to account of the rise and fall of the Mekong, and we were lucky enough to visit one of these villages.  Here, people don’t walk down the street.  Instead, they hop into a boat and row to their destination.  Even livestock is kept above ground.

10 Chong Kneas
The type of boat we took to the village
16 Chong Kneas
Us, in said boat
11 Chong Kneas
This was a convenience store of sorts
12 Chong Kneas
These fishing villages are quite multicultural. Many of the fishermen here are Vietnamese and this is a Korean School
A fishing trap used by locals
A fish trap used by locals
14 Chong Kneas
We also got to see some of these traps outside the water. I honestly still don’t understand how this one works haha!
IMG_5886
This is Sap Lake. There are several fishing villages on it, including the one we visited. It is fed by The Mekong, which begins all the way up in Southern China and flows all the way into the South China Sea

Banteay Srei – The Lady’s Temple

Next, we set off to see another temple…and though I’d never heard of it, it is quite famous within Cambodia.  Unlike many of Angkor National Park’s temples, this sight was not built by a King of the era…it was built by a Hindu Brahman who happened to be the spiritual teacher of the king at the time.  He had the temple built in honor of the Hindu deity, Shiva, but today it is known as the ‘Lady’s Temple’ because of it’s most unique feature:  the temple is constructed entirely of hard pink sandstone.  It is truly a beautiful location to visit and I got some amazing pictures while we were there.

17 banteay srei

20 banteay srei
The temple is also famous for its intricate carvings
18 banteay srei
All windows had an odd number of pillars. This one has 5, but many have 7. Odd numbers are lucky in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

19 banteay srei

23 banteay srei
So many beautiful structures in this “small” temple

22 banteay srei

24 Banteau Samre
The pink sandstone was so beautiful! It made the whole temple glow 🙂

Banteay Samre – Our Final Stop

Our last stop of the tour was at Banteay Samre, a temple built in around the same time as Angkor Wat.  It was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and once had an impressive mote surrounding it, that would have made it something to see in its day.  The colour of these ruins was gorgeous.  Just like at Bayun Wat, I feel like we were too tired to truly appreciate how elaborate this sight is.  I guess we’ll just have to go back some day 🙂

26 Banteau Samre
There were so many beautiful buildings at Bateay Samre
27 Banteau Samre
Many of the towers are shaped in the same fashion as Angkor Wat
25 Banteau Samre
This sight was restored quite effectively a few decades ago, though it hasn’t had any restoration for a while now.
30 Banteau Samre
The spikes on many of the roofs are what stood out for Dave. I honestly hadn’t noticed them at the time but they definitely added a lot of texture to the buildings
32 Banteau Samre
The back entrance to Bateay Samre

So that wraps up our stay in Siem Reap!  Next, I’ll be writing about Kratie…home of the Irawadi Dolphins!!  Stay tuned!!!

Angkor National Park – Cambodia’s Treasure (Part 1)

Around 7 years ago now, I decided to sit down and come up with a bucket list.  I decided that there would be 100 items on that list and I knew, even before I began, that a lot of those items would involve traveling.  In the last year I’ve been fortunate enough to cross 10 items off of that list, and I plan to be crossing off several more before 2015 ends.  One of the things I’ve accomplished this year was our trip to Angkor National Park, which was the main reason we traveled to Cambodia for China’s May Holiday.   Although I planned on finishing what I had to say (and show) about Angkor in 1 post, once I went through my pictures again, I realized that that would be impossible.  There’s just too much to see and too much to tell to do it all in one post.  So this will be part 1 of 2 on our stay in northern Cambodia, where we toured temples, met locals and visited a floating village.

We started our trip in Phnom Penh and then traveled to Siam Reap by overnight bus.
We started our trip in Phnom Penh and then traveled to Siam Reap by overnight bus.
20150429_221737
This is a night bus. It’s not the most comfortable way to travel, but it was better than the one I took in China. Also, it gave us the benefit of traveling while we slept…we only had 7 days to see 3 cities so time was of the essence
index
Angkor Wat is so representative of Cambodia, that it is even on their flag

The Cambodian Empire

Angkor National Park is all that remains of the Kampuchea empire, which reigned for over South-East Asia for over 600 years.  Covering parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and even Burma, the Cambodian Empire was fierce and wealthy, and as such, its kings erected massive temples both in Cambodia and in its conquered lands.  The most impressive group of those temples is near Siem Reap (named after a defeat against Thailand at that location), which is where we visited during our stay in Cambodia.  Interestingly, during Kampuchea’s hay day, there was both Hindu and Buddhist influence in the area, so these temples vary quite a bit from one to the next, making Angkor National Park a fascinating visit.

The Cambodian Empire from the 9th-15th centuries...
The Cambodian Empire from the 9th-15th centuries…
Cambodia now...
Cambodia now…
A Buddha we encountered in Angkor Wat
We saw this Buddha as we entered one of the main buildings of Angkor Wat….
But saw these carvings depicting stories from the Hindu Vedas a few minutes later
But saw these carvings depicting stories from the Hindu Vedas a few minutes later

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Angkor National Park spans an area of over 400kms square and contains over 100 individual temples, ranging from Angkor Wat (an enormous temple with many buildings within its walls) to small ruins that are merely a wall left over from a previous sight that was destroyed.

ph-tempn-t-krolromeas
This is Krol Romeas, one of the smallest ruins left in Angkor National Park
Angkor Wat before sunset, Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Temple before sunset, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Written records weren’t kept at this point in history, and much of what we know about the 9th-15th centuries has come from Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples.  Carvings in the stone, as well as refinements of past culture still remain in these spots and they’ve told archeologists a great deal about South East Asian history.  As someone who studied classical Roman and Greek history in University, I found that aspect of the park to be enthralling.  Because of its cultural relevance, Angkor National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is preserved and has been repaired as a result.  People flock from all over the world to see these sights, which are some of the most famous and awe inspiring temples in the world.

Apsara are relevant to both Buddhism and Hinduism. We got to see a traditional Apsara dance while in Phnom Penh.
Apsara are relevant to both Buddhism and Hinduism. We got to see a traditional Apsara dance while in Phnom Penh.  This carvings tell a story of the culture in ancient Angkor
IMG_5447
The entire interior of Angkor Wat is gorgeous…so many stone carvings
IMG_5441
In this carving, a king is shown being waited on by his servants.  It took 30 years to build Angkor Wat, and over 350,000 workers.  With the amount of detailed carvings there are in the temple, it does not shock me that there were that many people involved in its creation.
Some carvings tell stories about battles that were won (or lost) by the Khmer Empire
Some carvings tell stories about battles that were won (or lost) by the Cambodian Empire

Angkor Wat

Our first stop in Siem Reap was Angkor Wat, the temple after which the national park was named.  It spans 1km square and is the home to several libraries, halls and pools.  It’s fared well against the test of time and has been restored through the years, where needed.  We were lucky enough to visit Angkor Wat twice…I’ll be writing about our sunrise visit in my next post.  Our first stop was a very hot one (the temperatures in Cambodia during the dry season go up to 40 degrees celcius…and stay there…all…day….long…), but well worth the trip.  Our guide was  a decent photographer too, so we even got pictures of the two of us in  Angkor National Park, which was nice 🙂

IMG_5415
Dave and I outside one of the front pools. During the dry season (we caught the end of it), there shouldn’t be any water left in these pools, but apparently tourists were complaining on Trip Advisor that they couldn’t get reflective photos, so the Cambodian Government decided to fill the pools with hoses. Tourists complain too much, I think…
IMG_5398
These are just 2 of the many libraries at Angkor Wat. Although they are fairly empty inside now, I loved being in them. It’s some of the only refuge we got from the blistering hot sun.
IMG_5462
I dislike that our guide chopped off the top of this library. Otherwise it would have been an awesome picture. I still like it though…we both look so purposeful. For me, my purpose was mostly just to get out of the sun 😛
IMG_5456
Restoration was being done in some of the buildings.
IMG_5470
These were both taken at the exact center of Angkor Wat. Our guide decided to pop his foot into the picture too haha
IMG_5471
The ceiling here was beautiful.

 

IMG_5390
More intricately carved buildings.
The view from the top tower, which in its time, was reserved for the Royal Family alone.  Sadly, I was feeling pretty heat stroked at this point so I wasn't able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked.
The view from the top tower, which in its time, was reserved for the Royal Family alone. Sadly, I was feeling pretty heat stroked at this point so I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked.

The heat definitely played a factor in our enjoyment of Angkor Wat (along with our guide’s underestimation of the amount of water we’d need…we ran out early…),  but Dave was brilliant enough to make a video before we got too exhausted:

Ta Prohm

We left Angkor Wat and hopped into a nicely air conditioned van, where we enjoyed the rest of our iced coffees to cool down.  Iced coffee is AMAZING in Cambodia!!!  Instead of sugar, they use sweetened condensed milk, which gave it a nice flavor.  Plus, they get their coffee from Vietnam, which has some of the world’s best :).  My favorite part though…it’s served in a bag…

Yes...that bag is full of a bag of coffee haha!  (They put it in a plastic bag, put that bag into a paper bag and then put that one into another plastic bag....)
Yes…that bag is full of a bag of coffee haha! (They put it in a plastic bag, put that bag into a paper bag and then put that one into another plastic bag….)

Ta Prohm is, without a doubt, one of the coolest looking places I’ve ever seen in my life.   It was built in the late 12th – early 13th centuries and unlike Angkor Wat, which was built under a Hindu King, Ta Prohm was built primarily as a Buddhist school.  What makes Ta Prohm so interesting though isn’t it’s Buddhist ties.   The fact that the temple has been kept as it was found, wild and grown over by trees, makes it the perfect spot for photos.

The way the trees have grown over and through the temple is why Ta Prohm is so famous today
The way the trees have grown over and through the temple is why Ta Prohm is so famous today
IMG_5549
One unfortunate thing about Ta Prohm is that it is incredibly tourist. We had to wait almost 5 minutes just to get this photo because Chinese tourists kept cutting in front of us and hogging the area of selfie after selfie…our tour guide eventually told them off so we could get our 1 picture in haha!!

IMG_5527

Huge trees!
Huge trees!
IMG_5509
The outer walls are something to see. Most of the stone used to create the temples in this time period is either Lava Stone or Sand Stone. This is Lava Stone.

 

 

It's possible you recognize Ta Prohm from Lara Croft Tomb Raider.  This is where it was filmed :)
It’s possible you recognize Ta Prohm from Lara Croft Tomb Raider. This is where it was filmed 🙂

IMG_5559

Ta Nei

Ta Nei is one of my favorite spots we visited.  It was a long way away from all the other temples, (our driver had to go down some roads that looked like they were just walking paths in the middle of the jungle in order to get us there),  but once we arrived, we saw why it was worth the trip.

Not only were there no other tourists there, but the sight is gorgeous!  It’s definitely seen better days, and it hasn’t been restored the way Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm have been, but there is such a rawness to this old temple…I got some of my favorite pictures of the whole trip during this visit.

IMG_5656
A lot of what’s left of Ta Nei is rubble.

IMG_5634

IMG_5651
And, like Ta Prohm, there are beautiful trees here
IMG_5655
Beautiful and enormous

IMG_5637

We loved this sight so much, we even remembered to take a video for it!  I love how beautifully quiet it was there 🙂

Bayun (or Bayan) Temple

Our last stop on day one of our Siem Reap Tour was in Angkor Thom, the last (and longest enduring) city of the Cambodian Empire.  Although there are several sights to see within Angkor Thom, Dave and I were suffering from pretty terrible heat exhaustion, so we only saw some of them from within the air conditioned vehicle.  Our tour guide wanted to save our energy for Angkor Thom’s greatest masterpiece:  Bayon Temple (I’ve also seen it spelled ‘Bayun’ Temple).

Bayon Temple from afar
Bayon Temple from afar

Built in the late 12th century, 100 years after the building of Angkor Wat (our first stop of the day), this is clearly a Buddhist temple.    From afar, it is a beautiful sight to see, but when you see it up-close, you realize how fascinating this temple truly is.

Every tower at Bayon Temple has a beautiful Buddha face carved into it.
Every tower at Bayon Temple has a beautiful Buddha face carved into it.

Each of Bayon’s 54 towers has a large face carved into each of its 4 sides.  That means that this magnificent temple has a total of over 200 faces.  It made for some incredible photos!!

IMG_5670IMG_5734

IMG_5727
A photo taken from within one of the many halls. One of my favorites of the trip

I should add that these faces are enormous…here is Dave and I standing directly in front of what is considered Bayon’s most beautiful Buddha.

IMG_5714I was very happy to have a guide at this point, as he was able to point out some of the best shots.  There were so many faces everywhere that I could have easily missed shots like these ones:

IMG_5671 IMG_5721 He also got some great pictures of the two of us.  By the end of this part of the tour, we were both feeling like we did on our wedding day…tired of smiling!  But it was all worth it in the end!  I would have been devastated had I not gotten some of these pictures!!

IMG_5716
In of the Bayon’s beautiful windows
IMG_5747
Bayon in the background
IMG_5697
This Buddha was far behind us
IMG_5703
I like this one of Dave 🙂
IMG_5752
At the most famous entrance of Angkor Thom

So that was day 1 of our Siem Reap stop.  I’ll be back next week with Day 2, where we experienced Angkor Wat at sunrise, a floating fishing village and Cambodia’s beautiful ‘Lady’s Temple’.

Thanks for reading!!

 

Phnom Penh – Our Introduction to Cambodia

We opted for a change of scenery today, and have settled in at Cafe Void for the evening, a small coffee shop in Zhong Tian Hua Yuan.  The rainy season has begun in Guiyang, and although the temperature is much better now, we are getting several thunder storms a week.  A fairly severe one hit while we were having supper tonight at our favorite hot pot place (it’s never too hot for hot pot!!) when it started thundering.  Starbucks is about 20 minutes away by scooter, so we chose to stay close to home instead.  Void’s got a great atmosphere anyway, and it’s nice to switch it up now and then anyway 🙂

Now, I know I never got around to finishing all of my posts about Thailand, but I think they’re just going to have to wait.  I wrote about most of the major stuff already, and the 2 posts I have left to write (1 on the elephants at ENP and one about nightlife in Thailand) can wait until I’m done with our latest trip:  Cambodia!!

map-of-southeast-asia
Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Siam. It’s most famous for Angkor National Park, which I’ll be getting to in my next post 🙂

Cambodia is amazing for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, it’s incredible exotic…even for people living in China.  Unlike Thailand, which is basically Canada’s ‘Caribbean’, Cambodia hasn’t been open for tourism for very long.  They have a rather ugly modern history, and until the late 1990s, people simply didn’t go there to visit.  But I’ll get to that in a bit…First, I’ll tell you a little bit about our first stop:  Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh

Map-of-Cambodia
Located on the Mekong River, Phnom Penh is very different from the rest of the country

Phnom Penh is a fairly modern city.  It isn’t a rich place, but compared to the rest of the country, it has a booming economy.  There are plenty of sights to see in Cambodia’s capital, including several markets, monuments and temples and Cambodia’s National Museum.  There’s no shortage of places to visit and we had to limit ourselves to a few top choices as we only had 2 days to see the city.

IMG_5298
The national museum was one of our stops. Unlike the grand palace and the temples, there was no dress code here, and with the +40 heat, I was glad to not have to wear long sleeves!
IMG_5299
I like that they used shrubs for this elephant’s body 🙂
IMG_5304
Some very nice architecture at the museum!

IMG_5305 IMG_5325

Still, there is extreme poverty here.  Many children don’t go to school and instead beg on the street or sell bracelets to tourists.  The city is also very dirty, which is common in poor countries.

IMG_5852
We saw this type of thing both in the city and in rural areas. This was a particularly bad area, on a river bank. Nearby is a fishing village built entirely on stilts
IMG_5847
The garbage provides income for families who are too poor to send their children to school. Although education is free (and compulsory) in Cambodia, families keep their children at home to help earn income to keep everyone fed. This young girl was looking for things she could sell in town.
IMG_5898
Similarly, these children are sifting through plastic and garbage, looking for anything valuable that has the potential to earn them some income.

 

IMG_6049
We met this group of boys in Kratie. They were very friendly and very excited to see foreigners. We saw them on the weekend, so I don’t know for sure that they don’t go to school, but we saw many groups of children just like this during the week, who asked us to buy things from them so that they COULD go to school.

And when it comes to helping the poor in Cambodia, there is a catch 22 for tourists.  On one hand, if you don’t buy the things they are selling you feel like a terrible person.  $2 isn’t much to a Canadian, but it’s a small fortune for a family as poor as some that we saw.  But on the other hand, by giving in and purchasing items from these kids, you are telling their parents ‘yes, sending your children out to sell things is a good idea.  I could say no to you, but I can’t say no to them’.  I felt awful every time I gave in, but I couldn’t say no, and Dave and I ended up with a lot of bracelets, postcards, books and magnets.

IMG_6159

We met these children in Kratie. They were so cute and so shy. I kept making faces at them to make them laugh, trying to get them to come over and say hello (they were hiding behind some boxes trying to get a glimpse of us). I eventually got them to come over and I asked them their names and taught them a little English. When I left, they came running out and said ‘Goodbye, Teacher!!!’. I met another group of girls who were selling flutes. We bought one flute from each of them ($1 a piece…) and I asked them what their names were and how old they all were. They all lit right up when I gave them that little bit of attention. I doubt they have many tourists ask them about their lives. More often than not, they are just shooed to the side.

I'm not sure what's worse...sifting through garbage, or being treated like garbage...Either way, these kids don't have the life I wish they did...
I’m not sure what’s worse…sifting through garbage, or being treated like garbage…Either way, these kids don’t have the life I wish they did…

But it wasn’t long ago that children in Cambodia suffered a much worse fate than a lack of education.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, Cambodia has an ugly past.  From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, and the people suffered one of the worst genocides in world history.  Millions of people died through starvation, torture and execution and this ugly man was the brain behind it all.

pol-pot-face
Meet Pol Pot: the world’s 6th most murderous dictator of all time.  In just 4 years, he killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

As North Americans, we grow up hearing about Hitler and his atrocities. The Khmer Rouge, however, was completely foreign to me, which is strange given how recently the Cambodian genocide  happened.  After all, I consider myself to be a worldly minded person…I read the news and keep track of the big things that are happening in the world.  But this one I hadn’t heard of.  And that’s probably because so little was done by western powers to stop this man.  We can’t be proud of bringing down this assailant, like we brought down Hitler, so Cambodia’s story just doesn’t make the cut in our history books.

tumblr_lu4xp6pa5o1r61nsho1_500
One of many famous quotes attributed to Pol Pot.  Another depressing one: “It is better to kill 10 innocent men than to let 1 guilty man escape”.

When the the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, Pot had big plans for its citizens.  He believed in a perfect communism that was based on agriculture.  Pot thought that anyone educated or anyone who lived in the cities was the enemy and he treated them as such.  Many of those people were sent to S-21, one of the many schools that the Khmer Rouge turned into torture compounds.  We toured the old school and saw some of the things  accomplished there in those 4 terrible years.

IMG_5194
This is S -21…the most infamous prison of the Khmer Rouge period. It’s since been turned into a Genocide Museum in an attempt to educate people about the genocide here and give voice to the victims who died in these walls.

There are several buildings in S-21, each with their own brand of horror.  Our first stop was a building where high-status inmates were held.  This is where they kept people who were suspected of working with the CIA or other foreign intelligence agencies.  It’s said that the Khmer Rouge would arrest anyone who wore glasses, because glasses, after all, are a sign of intelligence.  And intelligence was not to be trusted.

IMG_5198
This is the bed an inmate was given (there was never a mattress). But that was the least of it. The people who were kept in these cells were tortured on a daily basis…water boarding and beatings were a regular occurrence. And the female prisoners were raped and forced to eat their own excrement. All because they had an education…

After seeing many rooms like the one above, we moved to another area of the prison where groups of prisoners were kept.  The quarters here were far worse…

IMG_5206
Because this was originally a school, S-21 didn’t have cells right away, so the Khmer Rouge had them built. This is one of many that we saw
IMG_5215
When they weren’t being tortured, prisoners were left alone in these cells. It was forbidden that they speak to other inmates and if they were caught,t hey were beaten further.

 

IMG_5213
Cell 18

The last building we saw told stories of individuals who survived S-21.  In total, it is estimated that 17,000 people were kept here, tortured and beaten.  Of those 17,000, only 12 prisoners survived.  We met two of them while at S-21 and bought their books.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read them.  The things we saw here bothered me a lot.  I couldn’t sleep for several nights without dreaming about the things I read.  The fact that humans could do this other humans is beyond me.

IMG_5229
Some prisoners would have been able to see some of the yard from their windows.
IMG_5202
Stories from the prisoners of S-21concentration camp

640px-Concentration_camp_rules

Like any camp of this sort, the inmates had to abide by a list of rules set by the guards.  Some of them are impossible for me to understand…

You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.”

While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

No matter how much S-21 bothered me though, The Killing Fields were much, much worse.

IMG_5239
The Memorial Stupa in the Phnom Penh Killing Fields

The fields themselves are quite a thing to see.  Upon arrival at the Fields, which are just outside Phnom Penh, you are provided with an audio tour  (the recordings were very well done and available in many different languages).  Everyone has their headphones on and are listening to the stories and history behind the fields.  It is completely quiet as you walk through this massacre sight and it feels eerie.  If you look up at the other visitors, everyone has the same look on their face.  Nobody can quite understand how these things happened.  How humans could do this to other humans.

IMG_5253
What could be a lovely park, is actually several mass graves where nearly 9000 bodies were found. This is only one of Pol Pot’s many killing fields. In total, it’s estimated that he killed 1.2 million people in fields like this. The other 500,000 people who died under his regime died of starvation and exhaustion in the rice fields.

Since the fields were discovered, the individual pits have been carefully excavated, in an attempt to understand what went on in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  Many of the larger bones (skulls and femurs) were removed from the earth, cleaned and examined.  Some DNA testing was done to help give families closure, though many families have never found their lost relatives.  Once DNA analysis was complete, the skulls were moved into the Memorial Stupa that was built at The Killing Fields to honor the dead.

IMG_5285
9000 skulls can be found in this memorial stupa. They all have different coloured stickers on them, which indicate the way each individual was executed. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to pay for bullets, so most victims were hacked to death with farming tools or with weapons made of bamboo or sugar cane branches. That’s one of the things that haunts me the most about this genocide. These were not quick deaths…

The smaller bones were left in the ground and when it rains heavily, they move up through the soil.  As a result, you are often reminded by signage to watch where you are stepping.  You can often see bones on the ground as well as the clothing of victims.

IMG_5273
The employees at the Fields routinely look for bones and clothes that have come up from the ground and stack them respectfully like this to remind people to watch where they are stepping.
IMG_5271
They also collect some of the bigger pieces of bones and the clothing and put them in display cases for people to see. Notice on the left hand side, in the front, there is a pair of children’s shorts…they’re hard to miss…

 

We saw a lot of clothing in the pits.
We saw a lot of clothing in the pits.

Some of the bigger pits, or pits that were reserved for ‘special’ groups of victims have been sectioned off.  On the bamboo posts used to section the pits off, people have left bracelets to commemorate the dead.  Many of these bracelets are recognizable from street kids who sell them in down town Phnom Penh.

IMG_5265
This was the first grave we came upon. Over 200 victims were found in it. The bracelets have been left by visitors.
IMG_5274
Women and Children were found in this grave. They were killed the same as the men…with bound hands.  They often had to watch their children die first.  They weren’t important enough to keep alive, but they were somehow special enough to have their own burial space.  So much insanity on the part of their captors…
IMG_5264
Many of the victims in this grave were found wearing guards clothing, so it’s assumed that they were people who had been found guilty of somehow opposing the revolution. Perhaps they tried to help a prisoner escape, or showed kindness to a woman or child.  Even the people running these camps and killing fields weren’t safe from Pol Pot’s grand scheme.
IMG_5276
This is the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life. This tree is located right outside the pit where women and children were found. This tree was used to murder babies.

It was difficult walking around these fields.  I feel sad and depressed about it even now, as I write this post.  Nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed during the 4 years that Pol Pot was in power.  And because this all happened in the last 40 years, everyone you meet in present-day Cambodia has a story they can tell you.  They all have either an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a parent or a friend who was killed.  The trials against the Khmer Rouge’s top officers are ongoing even today, and Pol Pot was never even brought to justice.  He died of old age…he spent his final years with his children and grand children: a right he took away from so many innocent people.

IMG_5282
The rest of the world wasn’t listening…and to keep the locals from hearing what was happening every night in this field, the Khmer Rough blasted loud ‘Revolution Music’ from speakers hanging in this tree. The end of our audio tour played that type of music, along with the sound of a generator running in the background, so that we could hear the last thing all those people heard. Talk about making an impact…

It’s taken me a long time to write this post because of how much it bothers me that these things happened.  Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields would be similar to visiting Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.  What happened in Europe in the 1940s is as horrific as what happened in Cambodia in the 70s, but on some levels, Cambodia bothers me more.  Not because of the atrocities themselves…but because of my government’s reaction (or lack of reaction) to the Khmer Rouge.  Refugees who got out of the country during that awful time were called liars or were accused of exaggerating.  Nobody did anything to help the Cambodians…the world didn’t care because Cambodia is so small and far away.

The number of bracelets left behind by tourists is an indicator that I'm not the only person who was affected by this visit.
The number of bracelets left behind by tourists is an indicator that I’m not the only person who was affected by this visit.

And that’s why, no matter how much I don’t want to think about this stuff…I have to write about it.  Through ‘knowing’, we can prevent these types of things from happening in the future.  Sure, reading the news can be a bummer, but if you know that your government isn’t taking steps to help people in cases such as this, you can write to your government representative and encourage action.  There are petitions to sign and protests to attend.  There ARE things you can do to help.  Margaret Mead’s words are something to live by:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

My next post will be on a lighter topic:  Angkor National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and boy were there some sights to see!!