Phnom Penh - Jewel of the East

CURRENT LOCATION: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Sam:

We managed another uneventful bus ride from Sihanoukville back to Phnom Penh, and arrived at our hotel. Holy crap, this place was amazing. We were greeted with cool towels to wipe our hands and faces, and a complimentary glass of iced tea. They arranged our Vietnamese visas for us, no hassle at all. We were then shown to our room. It was beautiful, and it had a rain plate shower. Given the state of the showers in Sihanoukville, I nearly wept. While Zev had a shower, I sneakily ordered some room service - I was getting right into this whole hotel thing!! Then I enjoyed one of the best showers of my life. We had an early night, enjoying the comfortable bed, air conditioning, cable TV, and complete and utter lack of Barry White.

 Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

We decided on an early start the next morning, and after a delicious hotel breakfast (included in the price of our stay), we hit he streets to walk to The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Having seen the Royal Palace in Bangkok, this was a bit of a let down, but was still a nice way to fill in a morning.

 Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

During some of our time in Sihanoukville, and our time in Phnom Penh, the World Championships of Beach Ultimate were being held in Dubai, and a number of our friends were attending. That afternoon, we decided to head home to watch the live streams of the finals. We didn't know anyone playing in any of the finals, but it was still fun to watch!

 Cute stray kitty cat, Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

Cute stray kitty cat, Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

That night, we went to the night markets for an awesome and super cheap dinner with the locals.

 Incredibly sweaty selfie, Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

Incredibly sweaty selfie, Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

 Roundabout selfie, Phnom Penh

Roundabout selfie, Phnom Penh

 Teddy bear bench selfie, Phnom Penh

Teddy bear bench selfie, Phnom Penh

The next day was pretty heavy. We had another early start, and went to the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, and Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison. Let me say from the start that I am so impressed with the way these two sites have been managed, and the way in which they've made them into historical sites for both Khmers and Westerners, without turning them into tacky, tasteless tourist traps. 

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We started with the longest tuk tuk ride ever, down the worst road in history. Upon pulling up at the entrance, you are greeted by the site of an enormous stupa, which is the last stop on the self guided tour. We bought our tickets, and collected our audio tours. The set up is brilliant. A large portion of the site remains untouched since they exhumed the mass graves in the late 80s and early 90s. The audio tour guides you around the whole site. Where the original buildings no longer exist, signs replace them, explaining what was there, and why it's not there anymore. The entire back half of the site is exhumed mass graves.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

For those unfamiliar with the story of Cheoung Ek, it was an orchard, and the site of a Chinese graveyard. During the Khmer Rouge period, it became an execution and mass grave site for those who were seen as enemies, many of whom were from the nearby S-21 prison.  It was considered wasteful to use bullets to kill prisoners, so most were bludgeoned to death using farming equipment before being thrown into the graves. Of course not all died from the bludgeoning, so after they were all in the grave, DDT was sprinkled in to kill those still alive, help decomposition of the corpses, and mask the smell. It is estimated that 9000 people were killed at Cheoung Ek between 1975-1979. The largest mass grave exhumed contained 450 bodies. One grave contained exclusively bodies of women and children. This grave was next to a tree, where the babies were killed by swinging them against it. 

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The tour finishes up at the stupa, which now houses the exhumed remains. It is incredibly moving.

The whole site is haunting, and heartbreaking. You can still see bones and clothing coming to the surface as the rains and erosion wash away the soil. That said, it was amazing that the Cambodian government chose to transform this site into a memorial for those that lost their lives, and as a reminder and a warning for future generations.

Next up on our light hearted day was a trip to Tuol Sleng S-21 prison. This former high school was transformed into a secret prison. Over 20,000 political prisoners entered S-21, and only 12 made it out alive. The site has been left largely as it was found in 1979. Some rooms contain a photo of the room as it was found, and contains the original furniture. The photographs are incredibly graphic and harrowing. Some rooms contain hundreds of photographs of the men, women and children who passed through the prison. Some rooms still have blood on the floor, or on the roof.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Parts of the exhibitions at both sites contained information about the Khmer Rouge leaders and the status of their trials. One leader, known as Duch, ran S-21, and headed the branch of the Khmer Rouge in charge of internal security and running prison camps. He was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity in 2010, and is the only leader to admit any guilt in relation to the regime. He admitted to being responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the deaths of thousands of Khmers, and states that he prays daily for the victims of the Khmer Rouge and their families.

Four other officials were brought to trial for their war crimes. Ieng Sary died in March 2013, before his trial was completed, and his wife, Ieng Thirith was determined unfit to stand trial due to Alzheimer's disease, and was released in 2012.

Nuon Chea was considered the right hand man to Pol Pot, but claimed no knowledge of what the government was doing during the genocide. He was sentenced to life in prison in August 2014.

Khieu Samphan was Head of State, and succeeded Pol Pot as head of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. He was also sentenced to life in prison in August 2014.

Pol Pot died in 1998. On the night he died, Voice of America (which Pol Pot listened to religiously) broadcast an announcement that the Khmer Rouge agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal. According to his wife, he died in bed later that night. While it was ruled heart failure, the body was cremated before the government could examine the body, fuelling rumours that he committed suicide. He was aged 72.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This was a bit of a tough day for us. It's so hard to wrap your head around what it would be like to be one of these people, on either side of the conflict. I was going to write something here about the discussions we had in the following days, but actually, I think you guys should do some research, or think about it and have your own conversations. The whole thing is pretty overwhelming. I actually get pretty tired thinking about it. We finished up for the day at about 2pm, and I had to go home and have a nap. 

We had a super lazy day the next day, catching up with home via FaceTime, organising bus tickets to Vietnam and accommodation in Ho Chi Minh, and lazing by the pool.

Our last day in Phnom Penh was amazing. We read about a rescue centre for confiscated animals just outside of Phnom Penh called Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary. We have been very careful about anything involving animals in South East Asia, to the point where we haven't done anything involving animals, just in case they're being exploited. Reviews for the centre itself were mixed, but we found a tour company that works with the park to do behind the scenes tours. Sadly we received an email the day before the tour saying that their most popular and friendly elephant, Lucky, was unwell, and wouldn't be able to take part in her walk around the park, or paint tee shirts for each of the tour guests as she usually would. Of course we were disappointed, but we're pleased to report that Lucky is doing better, and should be out of the woods (so to speak).

We were picked up from a petrol station and driven out to the park with our group of 7 (including us). We had two Khmer guides, and one Canadian guide. We stopped to pick up some fruit for the animals, and headed on to the park.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Background: the park is government owned, and is home to animals that have been confiscated during raids from animal traders or at borders, or rescued from traps, poachers, or people's homes. Cambodia is one of the only countries in South East Asia with laws against owning wild animals, which are actually enforced. Where possible, they try to rehabilitate and release, although they aren't always able to do this. If release isn't possible, they try to create breeding pairs among the rescued animals, and release the babies into the wild to regenerate wild populations.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We started with the elephants. The first one we met was an 8 year old boy who had lost his front left foot in a snare trap when he was young. We got to watch the keepers change his prosthetic leg, which was amazing. They use entirely positive reinforcement, with food and clicker based training. If he doesn't want to do it, he doesn't have to.

Next, we met two of his buddies, a male and female. We got to feed them bananas and coconuts, which was pretty awesome. The male had been shot in the leg by farmers because he was stealing their crops, and the female had battery acid thrown on her for stealing sugar cane. They explained at various points throughout the day that they work with school groups and local schools to educate people about animals and how to treat them. In this instance, they pointed out that before the elephants started stealing crops, the locals had been feeding them - of course they didn't know the difference between what was being given to them and what wasn't. All of the elephants they have on site are unable to be released, as they would just return to where they were found, and probably end up being killed by the farmers.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Next up, we got to hang out in the back of the tiger enclosure, and see them up close and personal (separated by bars of course. There is no situation in which you can pat an adult tiger where the tiger isn't being exploited. I don't care if the man with the tiger tells you he is a monk and has a spiritual connection with the tiger. He's not, and he doesn't. For it to be safe enough to bring in tourists, the tigers are usually de-teethed, de-clawed, and/or drugged. Just ask Sigfried and Roy.). These particular guys were unable to be released as they were hybrids of two sub-species of tiger that wouldn't occur in the wild, and as such have a few genetic quirks that would make life difficult (dodgy hips, small and skinny build etc etc).

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

From the tigers, we made our way to the gibbons, to meet a lovely friendly little lady who loved back scratches. She was rescued from someone's back yard, where they had kept her as a pet. She had been chained up and ignored when she became too much effort, and they think she was badly abused. She is terrified of Khmer men, and apparently exhibits stress behaviours which make it impossible for her to be released.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia
 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Then we met the bears, both sun and moon. One was called Ralph, which I think is a great name for a bear. All of the bears were rescued from hotels, or poachers who were selling them either to make bear paw soup (they keep the bear alive until all four paws are used), or to bear bile farms (they insert a catheter into the bear's gall bladder to drain off bile constantly, which is used in traditional "medicine"). 

 Disclaimer: not a real moon bear

Disclaimer: not a real moon bear

After a quick trip to see seven massive pythons, we stopped for a delicious lunch of fried rice and coconuts. Around the lunch spots were huge aviaries, containing various birds of prey, including owls. Owls are amazing. They are huge, and super fluffy, and I love them. They also had heaps of mynah birds, which are popular pets because they are excellent mimics. These guys were so cool - one clearly had an Aussie keeper because he kept saying "g'day mate"!!

 phnom_penh

We detoured to the otters before heading into the back of the leopard enclosure (again, separated by bars). This was amazing. The female leopard hung out with us for quite a while, as one of our guides had been her keeper for a number of years, and she wanted pats. She was just like a big house cat, rubbing her face up against the bars. The guide pointed out that with most other big cats, if a keeper gets attacked they can usually say, "Oh, I should have known, the cat was acting weird", or that they'd done something to trigger the attack, like startle it, but with leopards, they're completely unpredictable.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Next stop on the tour was the nursery, where sick, injured, and baby animals are brought to be cared for. We met a couple of baby monkeys, some confiscated chameleons and iguanas, some jungle goat-antelope things, and the cutest cat thing ever (I can't remember what it was called, but if you cross it with a house cat, you get a Bengal). It hissed at everyone and I loved it. We also met a hairy nosed otter, which is the only one in captivity in the world. Until recently, they were thought to be extinct - there had been no evidence of any in the wild for 15 years. While at a school doing a talk one day, one of the guides must have hit a nerve with one of the kids. At lunchtime, he went home, and returned with a hairy nosed otter! He didn't know you weren't supposed to keep them as pets.

We also got to see bear-cats, or binturong, which are known for smelling like buttered popcorn. We can confirm that this is the case.

The last stop of the day was to play with some baby monkeys. They laid out some ground rules: no eye contact, don't show your teeth, remove anything they can take off you, like sunglasses etc. They explained that there was a 2.5 year old boy who was the 'alpha', but they would manage him. We'd been in there 2 minutes when he ripped off a woman's glasses and scratched her face. Yikes. I love monkeys, but am pretty scared of them (after several monkey 'incidents' for both me and Zev). So I was scared shitless. This guy was pretty big for a 'baby' monkey, and basically spent the entire time leaping between all of our shoulders and heads, terrorising all the other monkeys, and terrifying me. Don't get me wrong, it was awesome, but I wouldn't rush back in there as long as that jerk is in there.

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

And so ended our tour of the wildlife centre. The reviews of the centre (not the tour) on TripAdvisor are pretty average - the enclosures are pretty basic, and lots of the animals look pretty miserable. They pace, scream, and scratch themselves. If it weren't for the tour, it would have been pretty heartbreaking. If you went there expecting San Diego Zoo, you would have been shocked. What I loved was seeing the keepers working with the animals, and seeing how much the animals love them, and oh boy do they. They run up to them when they see them coming, and hang around where they're sitting, waiting for pats, or for the keepers to talk to them. The guides explained that the park runs on next to no money for the government and admission fees - almost all of their revenue comes from the tours. Would they like to build San Diego Zoo? Of course! But they're working with what they've got. Many of the stress behaviours that the animals exhibit result from their mistreatment before coming to the park. These animals are cared for and loved by the staff. One focus of the staff their at the moment is to work on the signage, both as an education tool for locals, and explain to tourists and foreigners why the park is the way it is. They're also working on upgrading the park, which was in a pretty sorry state when they took over. It was heartbreaking, but amazing to see the work both locals and foreigners are doing to protect the wildlife of South East Asia.

The next day was a doozy. We booked a direct bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. And it went smoothly!! The bus drivers were great, and managed our border crossing with ease. As soon as we crossed the border, the scenery changed completely. Vietnam was as green as Cambodia was brown. Driving in to Ho Chi Minh was insane. I have never seen so many motorbikes and scooters in my life. We pulled up to the bus stop and grabbed our bags. And then we met the shit bag taxi driver from hell. 

This is where I tell you that, other than the fact that the guy was a total slime ball, most of this was our fault. We had no Vietnamese currency when we arrived, so we thought we'd go to an ATM, then get in a cab after we had some local cash. But this guy offered to drive us to an ATM near our hotel. We both sort of knew that getting in a cab at an international bus stop with a guy who knew we didn't have any cash, and didn't know what the local currency looked like probably wasn't a great idea. But alas, we ignored the alarm bells and hopped in. Zev pointed out later, but I didn't notice, he didn't even have a sign on the roof - just magnets on the door. Yeesh, we are suckers. We used the last of the data in Zev's phone to look up the address of our accommodation, and see how far away it was using google maps. It was about 2 kms away, so we figured it would be a cheap cab ride. Sigh. Soon enough, I had the feeling we were being driven the long way around. We stopped at an ATM. We carried on. We finally made it to the street the hotel was on, while Zev and I had an in depth discussion about how the 2km taxi ride from the bus station to the hotel cost us more than our bus ride from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. At that point, the driver asked to see the address, so we showed him on Zev's phone. He realised he'd passed it, so did a u turn into oncoming traffic, and nearly killed some motorcyclists. Finally we stopped outside our accommodation. Zev gave him the money for the cab, and the driver gave him his change. About a quarter of it. Zev pointed out there should be more. He laughed and said,"Oh you're right, sorry!", and gave him some more. So now we had about half our change. "There should be more." More laughter, more cash. "Please can we have all of our change." More laughter, the rest of our change. Relieved the ordeal was over, we chalked it up to experience and headed in to check in. The hotel owner asked to see the voucher for check in, so Zev went to grab his phone to show him the email. Except the cab driver still had the phone. GAH!!!

So not the best welcome to Vietnam. We were both pretty livid, and bummed for the rest of the day. Neither of us cared about the phone, that wasn't the issue. We were annoyed that we knew we were getting scammed, but still got scammed, we were worried it would sour our impression of Ho Chi Minh City, and dammit, it just wasn't fair. We don't rip people off, we're nice people! But hey, if losing a cellphone is the worst thing that happens on this trip, we've done well. We went out for dinner, and ended up being fought over by two beer promo girls who poured our beer in bowls and kept giving us ice, while the people around us ordered all of the fish we named in the fish tank. We also sat on children's furniture. So the day improved.

Now, I apologise for the state of this post. I loathe typing on my iPad, and the fact that every time I type 'this', it changes it to 'his', it changes 'the' to 'he', 'that' to 'hat'... It has taken me three days to type this. I apologise for typos and grammatical errors!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 20th March 2015)

We made friends! Well, sort of...

CURRENT LOCATION: Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sam:

We finally did it - two back to back successful bus trips. Battambang to Phnom Penh was a hassle free ride, with the bus only departing 15 minutes late - practically early by Cambodian standards, and certainly more promptly than any other bus we've taken. On arrival in Phnom Penh, we were greeted by a literal punch up between two tuk-tuk drivers. Awesome. After finding one who wasn't on his day off from the boxing ring, we got dropped off at our hotel. Yes, you read that right, hotel. We treated ourselves and splashed out $30 for a night in a 4-star hotel. MASSIVE bed, air conditioning, mini bar, bath, cable TV, bath robes, a swimming pool - the works. Not that we've been staying in hovels (far from it - our accommodation has been great), but it was nice to feel a little spoilt for a night, especially after a 7 hour day on the bus, and knowing we had another 5 to go the following day.

An early start had us on the 8am bus to Sihanoukville. Naturally, it left closer to 9. It was a pretty straightforward bus ride though, and we made it to Sihanoukville on time, despite the late start. Then it was one more tuk-tuk ride to our beach front accommodation!

We've been in contact with a friend of ours from the U.S., Lisi, who we met when she was playing ultimate in NZ. She's over in SE Asia for 6 months with her brother, and their friend, who is a hot air balloon pilot. Together, they've been travelling round attending frisbee tournaments and hot air balloon festivals. Now this was no coincidence, because we'd planned to meet up with them, but who was the first person we saw while we were checking in? Lisi!!! Not only were they staying on the same beach as us, they were staying literally next door!

 Our first sunset, Sihanoukville

Our first sunset, Sihanoukville

Our accommodation is pretty amazing, and we'll put some photos up on Flickr. It's a series of huts right in the beach, with sun loungers etc outside, right on the water. So we checked in, put on our togs (swimsuits for our non-NZ audience), and headed out to say hello. We spent the afternoon catching up with Lisi, and meeting her brother, Ben, and their friends Eli and Chris. They are such a nice group of people - really friendly and welcoming, and happy to adopt a couple of stray kiwis for a few days at the beach. Our first beach dinner was a BBQ, literally on the beach, while the sun set in front of us. 

 Sihanoukville, Cambodia
 Our new friend Swensen, Sihanoukville

Our new friend Swensen, Sihanoukville

The next day was a serious beach slug out day - we alternated between swimming, throwing a frisbee in the water, and lying on the sun loungers. We did venture out for lunch, and ended up at a 'restaurant' that sold magic mushroom and/or weed "happy shakes". Their big selling point was that they each came with a free joint! Even though we gave those a miss, our meal still took 45 minutes to come. I can't think why...

 Beachside relaxation, Sihanoukville

Beachside relaxation, Sihanoukville

That night, there was a pretty impressive thunderstorm, which woke us up. It was pouring, and the thunder was shaking our little house. Zev got up to go to the bathroom, and got a hell of a fright when he basically walked into a guy with a scarf pulled up over his face and a bag over his shoulder. The guy darted between two of the building and took off. Needless to say we locked the door. To give you some perspective, the doors lock with padlocks, either from the inside or the outside depending on whether you're in them or not. The windows latch shut from the inside, and each room has a valuables drawer with a different padlock for your passports etc. The next day when we informed the owner, she told us that the room next door to ours had been broken into. Apparently the local criminal element hang out in bars looking for particularly drunk people, then follow them back to their beach bungalows. Then they wait a while until they're sure they're sleeping in a good drunken stupor, and try the door - which is usually unlocked since they're such a pain to lock, even when you're not wasted. Then they steal your stuff while you sleep. We're pretty vigilant anyway, but this certainly made us more wary, and more security conscious.

 Shameless plug, Sihanoukville

Shameless plug, Sihanoukville

The following day, we also decided to go on a 3 Island boat tour. Lisi et al had organised it, so Zev and I had no idea what to expect. To be honest, I don't think they did either! It was $10USD, and included breakfast, lunch, drinks, snorkelling, cliff jumping, fishing... You name it, we were getting it! We arrived for breakfast, and were given our options: omelettes, fried eggs, or toast and jam; tea or coffee; and pineapple or orange juice. We were then told to ignore those, because we were having omelettes because they're the fastest to eat. Also we couldn't have coffee because the machine was broken, so we were getting orange juice. Excellent. We piled on the boat. And I mean piled - this thing was packed!! We motored off to our first island stop.

 Locals spotted on our trip to get frozen chocolate bars, Sihanoukville

Locals spotted on our trip to get frozen chocolate bars, Sihanoukville

We pulled up vaguely near an island. And we were told to get out and snorkel! So snorkel we did. We're pretty spoilt coming from NZ, so the snorkelling wasn't mind blowing, but we got to see some coral, zebra fish, and massive sea urchins. We sardined back on the boat. 

Our next island stop actually had us on an island, and it was stunning! "Be back in the boat to leave by 2" - sure thing boat captain! We parked ourselves on the sand, swum and threw a frisbee, before enjoying some lunch. After lunch, one of the boat guides walked up and said "cliff jumping? Follow me!!". Lisi, Ben and Eli went with him, and Zev, Chris and I stayed behind to look after our gear, and maybe have a little snooze. We woke to the sound of an outboard motor fading into the distance. Hmmmmmm.... We looked around - Chris was still there, and Lisi, Ben and Eli's stuff was still there, so they obviously hadn't been back, and weren't on the boat... After some detective work on our part, we figured the boat must have gone to pick them up. So we probably should have been on it.... At about 2.45, the boat reappeared. We re-boarded to a round of sarcastic applause from the other passengers. Luckily, some of the others who had gone cliff jumping had left their stuff on the beach, so they had to come back - otherwise it was a long swim for the three of us! 

 Can't get enough of those sunsets, Sihanoukville

Can't get enough of those sunsets, Sihanoukville

One more snorkelling stop brought us back to shore in time for happy hour - excellent! We enjoyed a final dinner with our old and new friends, who were leaving on an early bus the following day, and bid them a sad farewell.

 Mr Fishman gets artsy, Sihanoukville

Mr Fishman gets artsy, Sihanoukville

We've spent the last three days relaxing on the beach, frantically uploading wedding photos to both Facebook, and for those that don't have Facebook, Flickr (the link to our account is at the top of the page in the blog blurb), playing endless games of chess and pool (so far I've won 1 game of chess and no games of pool. I'm demanding that we buy a deck of cards.), and eating. I'm writing this at 1am, because the owners of the hostel have friends staying, and have decided that this is the best time to show their love for Barry White by playing it so loud that my teeth are bleeding. 

 Livestreaming a little World Ultimate Beach Championships, Sihanoukville

Livestreaming a little World Ultimate Beach Championships, Sihanoukville

Speaking of music, this particular beach is pretty interesting. Every single place is accommodation in a pretty similar style to ours (by which I mean the rooms are really close to the bar, and the rooms are not in any way soundproof). Every bar plays music at a volume that rearranges your internal organs, despite the fact that no one is dancing, and they all have people who are undoubtedly trying to sleep. It also seems like the whole area share the same 3 CDs - one that I would call 'shitty house music' (the bonus with this one is that all the individual songs sound the same), one reggae, and one smooth jazz. Our accommodation has a bonus CD: smooth jazz covers in French. There's Aerosmith, Guns n Roses, the Ramones - you name it. French female vocals, smooth jazz background. If you're lucky enough to sit down on the beach, you can usually get a nice crosswind between the place you are, and the two places on either side, like some sort of musical battle to the death. "But Sam!" you might say, "It's a hostel, surely the noise ends at some point so the guests can sleep!". You're right, it does of course. Sometimes it's at 10pm, sometimes it's at 2am. It's a fun game, not knowing. But don't worry, because once the music stops, the dogs start barking. Once an hour, every hour - they don't want you getting too comfortable, and they've got a lot to talk about.

 Did I mention that the sunsets are pretty nice? Sihanoukville

Did I mention that the sunsets are pretty nice? Sihanoukville

All that aside, we actually have had a great time here. It's completely stunning, and I'm lying in bed listening to the waves (now that Barry has stopped - yippee!). The sunsets are beautiful, and the water is like bath water. I'll miss this when we head back to the city tomorrow.

It was also really nice to hang out with other people. Zev and I get on really well - far better than we probably should, it's kind of ridiculous. But it's nice to see other people, and it was great to catch up with Lisi. She's going to put us in contact with some other frisbee folks around SE Asia too, so that will be nice. 

Tomorrow morning has us on another bus, back to Phnom Penh. We have splashed out a little again for a nice place with a pool to try to beat the heat. The shower facilities here have been a little 'rustic' too (2 bathrooms for 8 huts plus the guests at the restaurant/bar/beach, each containing a toilet and a shower - usually filled with sand, and not terribly clean), so I'm looking forward to a nice, long ensuite shower, and to doing some laundry!!! We also need to sort out Vietnamese visas while in Phnom Penh, as you can't get them at the border. After Phnom Penh, its border crossing number 2, and off to Ho Chi Minh City we go!

Fear not, we'll post another update about Phnom Penh. 

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 11th March 2015)

Battambang: bikes, bats, no boats, & beef

CURRENT LOCATION: Battambang, Cambodia

Zev:

 Battambang walking tour

Battambang walking tour

Leaving Siem Reap was kind of sad, but we were ready to move on. Our next stop was the provincial city, Battambang, pronounced Bat-tom-bong. The bus journey to get here was an interesting one. 5 hours on a packed bus with a flat screen at the front of the bus playing Khmer slapstick action comedy movies and karaoke videos as loud as it could go. It was definitely a cultural experience, but as far as our track records with bus trips go, a treat.

 Battambang walking tour

Battambang walking tour

We arrived in Battambang in the afternoon, at what definitely did not appear to be the bus station, but a hoard of tuk tuk drivers waited like the warriors of Sparta to verbally and physically accost each passenger as we were bottlenecked through the small bus door. Again, a cultural experience? We eventually found the least aggressive tuk tuk driver and asked him to take us to our $10 a night hotel. Our tuk tuk driver was called Bernie, and he will feature a little bit later on in this post. We ate dinner at a family run restaurant - well I can only assume they were a family as they constantly bickered and yelled at one another while providing service with a blank, unimpressed face. Sam was brave and ordered the "double deep fried instant noodles with vegetables and chicken". She was, needless to say, satisfied. To continue as we started we decided to grab dessert at Swensen's ice cream parlour. It was amazing! Sam ate a sundae that was only slightly smaller than her head. Good job Sam!

On day 2 we downloaded a map and guide for a DIY "Battambang heritage and architectural tour" and hit the streets. This was really interesting and a great way to familiarise ourselves with the city. It has a unique blend of architecture, including traditional Khmer-style shacks and lofts, French villas, Art Deco facades, Chinese influences and modern day buildings. We learnt a bit about the history of the city and the buildings in it. In the afternoon we caught up with Bernie (the tuk tuk driver) and had him take us to a temple 40 minutes South of the city called Wat Sampeou (which translates to the Ship Temple, as it is situated on Mt Sampeou - which allegedly resembles a ship in profile. Though we only learnt this after the fact, so cannot confirm its shipiness). To view the temple we had a 30 minute hike up a bazillion stairs to find a giant golden Buddha, a handful or angry monkeys, and breathtaking views of the Battambang province and city. We got a bit lost and didn't make it to the killing cave - one of many infamous spots where the Khmer Rouge executed a large number of Cambodian people during the notorious dictatorship of Pol Pot. We returned to the bottom and met up with Bernie.

The other reason for coming all this way was to watch approximately 12 million bats continuously exit the mouth of the cave at dusk to collect food during the night. But our premature arrival left us with about 80 minutes before they were due to start flying out. This proved to be a blessing in disguise.

For the next hour and a half we sat in hammocks and chatted with Bernie about his country, its brutal history, and the transitions that Cambodia has gone through on its way to becoming a democracy. He spoke incredible English and was obviously well-educated. He spoke of the rift between the new generation of Cambodians and the older generations (those who survived the Khmer Rouge). He talked about how in Cambodia there has been a consistent level of fear, corruption, and distrust of the government, even after the UN stepped in and facilitated the first democratic vote in 1993. He explained that the current Prime Minister of Cambodia is an ex-Khmer Rouge leader.  Need I remind you all that the Khmer Rouge was the communist group that overthrew the government by force in the late 1970s and, under the dictatorship of Pol Pot, were directly responsible for the deaths of approximately 2 million innocent Cambodian people and the virtual enslavement of millions more? And a leader of this faction is now the Prime minister, "elected" by the people of Cambodia. Bernie told us that the last election was completely rigged. He told us stories of the government-hired polling booth operators who would not go to lunch and instead sit in the booths just ticking ballots for the current prime minister while everyone else was out. Or when the initial numbers were revealed nearly 80% of the votes were not for the current PM, there was an electrical failure which disrupted television coverage of the election. Lo and behold, when the failure was fixed, the counting was finished and suddenly he was ahead...Funny that... This did not sit right with either of us. Sam said, "How is that democratic?", to which Bernie replied, "Cambodia is not a democracy, no way, not yet anyways!",  and chuckled. He elaborated on the insanity of current PM, talking about how just last week he publicly addressed the nation in a speech where he actually threatened his own people with M21 assault rifles and said that "soldiers are the best kind of citizen as you can hold them in your hand". This is apparently a response to the increasing popularity of the opposition party, who were robbed of their victory in the last election (2013). This statement indicated to Bernie that if the opposition party does win the next election (which the United Nations is set to oversee) that the current PM will attempt to instigate a military coup and take back control of the nation - not unlike the Khmer Rouge.

Bernie told us how his generation (we think he was about 35) and even younger generations in Cambodia are generally lacking education. This, coupled with the older generations (Khmer Rouge survivors) not wanting to speak out against the government or even talk about their experiences and teach their children and grandchildren about the history of their country has been the primary reason there continues to be such corruption in government, and it is more or less tolerated. But "things are changing" he says. The people are getting smarter. Knowledge and access to information has never been easier with the Internet and Facebook etc. People are talking and criticising and demanding that the government (particularly individuals) be held responsible for their corruption and actions. He mentioned that within the next year, there is meant to be a UN inquiry into the actions and alleged war crimes of the current prime minister. If this goes through he will have to stand down and be brought to trial. Anyways, it was extremely interesting talking with Bernie and I can only share a small snippet of the stories and insight that he shared with us with you now. Please, please, please, if you can, go read a few articles from BBC or watch some news clips about the current governmental state of this country and tell people about it. Go read about the history. It's terrible, yet fascinating reading about how people survived. As a Jew, I feel like perhaps it has hit me a bit harder, as the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge are not too dissimilar to the happenings of the Holocaust. Yet I would bet these atrocities are not as widely known about. I turn to the first world now. New Zealand, USA, we have a big job as true democracies to model what a non-corrupt government looks like, what a non-corrupt government can achieve. Are we doing that? In many ways, yes. In some ways, hell no! One last thing from Bernie before I move on. He said and it really hit home with me: "Can you imagine your prime minister [John Key] or even the President of the USA openly threatening their own people? In a public address? Would that even happen?"

Right. So that last section was a bit intense. I felt like I needed to write about it though. It has kept me up the last couple nights, and even if only a few of you read this, I would love to know you think? What have you learnt? LET'S TALK ABOUT CAMBODIA!

 Bats flying out of a cave at Mt Sampeou, Battambang

Bats flying out of a cave at Mt Sampeou, Battambang

Moving on. After chatting with Bernie we watched the seemingly endless stream of bats emerge from a 10m wide hole in the side of Mt Sampeou. It was fascinating to watch millions of these flighted mammals on their exodus to find nourishment. The noise was like nothing I have heard, continuos screeches and clicks of the echo-locating bats. It was also mesmerising to watch them, as a unit, all shift to one side or the other in time with a local man sweeping in the street. The "swish" from the broom must have elicited a similar response to evading a predator and with each brush they would simultaneously weave off of their current path. I tried to capture this on video, and will try to load on Facebook soon. After a 40 minute return journey, we went out for dinner and had a delicious meal. I had an honest-to-God Philly cheesesteak! Yummmmm!

 Bat cave, Mt Sampeou

Bat cave, Mt Sampeou

On day three we decided to do a full day bike tour around the provincial Battambang region. A bit of background before I tell about the tour. As a wedding gift, Mark and Nardia Hamilton gave us a boat tour to the floating villages and flooded forest of Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Unfortunately we have come here smack dab in the middle of dry season. When we have approached a few locals about the best way to do this they have basically laughed us out the door. So we quickly started looking for an alternative and we found Soksa Bike Tours in Battambang. So Mark and Nardia, if you are reading, we did a swapsie... Hope that's ok?! This tour was absolutely amazing. The tour company is about sustainable tourism (eg the bikes) and about introducing tourists to the "real Cambodian way of life". The tour took us to a number of family run businesses (important: these were all based out of the people's homes, which in NZ we would struggle to even call a bach... closer to a shack) where the older generation are all survivors of the Khmer Rouge. We got to watch them at their trade, hear about their stories, meet them and greet them (in Khmer) and sometimes even have a go at doing what they do, by stepping into their shoes.

 Rice paper, Battambang

Rice paper, Battambang

Our first stop was a family who made rice paper to be used in cooking, like the wrappers for spring rolls. The family had owned their rice farm for generations, but were relocated to another farming area during the Pol Pot regime. The used to sell the rice, and made rice paper as a part time job for some extra cash. When they returned to the farm after the war, they had to sell the rice fields to pay for medical treatment for a sick family member, so making rice paper became a full time job for the family. They can make around 2500 riel a day during the dry season, which they package into bundles of 100 which they sell wholesale for $1.25USD. This is back breaking work, literally squatting next to a fire all day from 6am, with a short break for lunch, finishing at 4pm.

 Rice paper, Battambang

Rice paper, Battambang

 Making rice paper, Battambang

Making rice paper, Battambang

Next was a family who make dried bananas. Their story is similar to the first family - they owned a farm and were moved to a different part of the country, and when they returned someone else was living on their land. They decided they would share the plot, but they lost their rice farm. Now, they slice bananas incredibly thinly and leave them to dry on bamboo boards. Then they turn them into banana chips, or strips of a sort of fruit leather, which they sell wholesale.

 Battambang, Cambodia
 Dried fish at the fish paste factory, Battambang

Dried fish at the fish paste factory, Battambang

The we hit up a rice wine distillery. After the taste test, Sam had flashbacks of Zev's 25th birthday karaoke, and had to go have a moment alone. They use rice wine as medicine here, mixing it with dried and pounded toad to treat fevers. Although I can think of anything more likely to bring on a fever than drinking rice wine...

 Dried fish at the fish paste factory, Battambang

Dried fish at the fish paste factory, Battambang

And then the revolting stop. The fish paste factory. The rice wine/fish paste combo was a real delight, let me tell you... Luckily we had a quick stop nearby to refuel with a cane sugar and orange juice drink, while admiring some rats on the BBQ. Mmmmm....

 Post-lunch nap, Battambang

Post-lunch nap, Battambang

We got to eat a home-made Khmer lunch (no rats, or at least we THINK no rats), and then have a Cambodian style siesta in a hammock, before heading out to ride the bamboo train. This thing is pretty amazing. It's just wheels with a platform on top, and it GOES! If another cart is coming the other way, you get off and they dismantle it and take it off the rails, then put it all back together when the other cart has gone.

 The Bamboo Train, Battambang

The Bamboo Train, Battambang

The tenacity and work ethic of these people is phenomenal. They work to live, earning in a day enough to pay any bills and feed their family. And they work EVERYDAY. No weekends. No sick leave. No annual leave. They work to survive. It's incredible. And they are smiling, and seem, to us anyways, to be happy. They are truly inspirational people. Our tour guide taught us some Khmer greetings and phrases so we could show our gratitude and respect to all these people who let have a glimpse of their day to day life as a Cambodian. This tour was so rewarding and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Battambang. After the tour, we went to the most amazing restaurant for dinner, where we had a divine slow cooked beef rib dish. It just melted in your mouth and was sooo tasty (Mark and Nardia, we decide dinner was on you too, as the there was a price discrepancy between the tour you got us and Soksa bikes... So thanks!).

We're off to the beach tomorrow, taking our time to get there by breaking up the journey with a pit stop in Phnom Penh overnight, then on to Sihanoukville. We are meeting up with Lisi (Auckland frisbee people will remember her) and her brother and friend there too!

Ok, I think it's time to wrap it up. I just want to finish with a brief chat Sam and I had. I asked Sam last night at dinner if she feels the same way as me -  guilty that we are not more in the know about places like Cambodia and the injustices that have been and are occurring here? She brought up that she felt guilty that we didn't come here with more money to spend, in fact the opposite. We came here because it was cheap. Both of these are true, and we have been profoundly affected by being here and seeing the poverty, meeting the people and educating ourselves about this country's awful history. Also, though we cannot forget the unbelievable positivity and warmth of the people and all the amazing experiences we have had so far, it's fair to say, in spite of it being cliche, Cambodia has changed us.

Lots of love,
Z & S
xxx

(Original post date: 4th March 2015)

The Temples of Angkor

CURRENT LOCATION: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Zev:

We have spent the last week and a bit in Siem Reap (see Sam's previous blog post), the access point for the temples of Angkor. The ancient temples were commissioned by a number of successive Kings of the Khmer people from the 9th - 16th century. They were built to demonstrate the wealth and power of the Angkor while serving as religious places of worship. As a result, they are truly spectacular. To clarify, as I was confused about this, Angkor Wat is the largest of the temples and can be seen on the present day Cambodian national flag.

 Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

 Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

 Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

It is believed that at one point there were over a thousand temples of Angkor, and there are an impressive 147 temple ruin sites remaining in the region near Siem Reap. Of these we were aiming to visit between 15-20 temples in 3 days. To enter these temple ruins you need a number of things:

1) a Temples of Angkor pass ($40USD for 3 days)
2) a mode of transport to get to and around the temples
3) sunscreen, sunglasses and a good hat
4) a steely resolve

 The view from the tuk-tuk, Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

The view from the tuk-tuk, Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

1) To get the Temples of Angkor pass, you turn up just outside the main road into the temple complex (of which Angkor Wat is the first temple) and you pay them in US dollars, then they take your photo to have printed on your pass! This was very cool, kinda like a temple passport! You need to have this handy as it would be checked and rechecked multiple times each day...often embarrassingly - we'll come back to this.

 Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

2) Our chosen form of transport was tuk tuk and accompanying driver, Mr Smey. He was so great, always on time or early to pick us up, spoke excellent English, and provided us with information, a lasting smile, and a never-ending supply of cold water! He recently had purchased his own tuk tuk and was starting up a legit business as a tour guide and professional driver. Awesome to have such a genuine, nice guys in a part of the world where you're never 100% sure if someone is actually nice or if they're just seeing you as a big $$ sign and taking advantage of you.

 Bayon temple, Siem Reap

Bayon temple, Siem Reap

3) Oh man, it's hot here. On average it has been 32°C and just baking. There is rarely a wind to cool you down and often no clouds to speak of. It's great, but it's hot. Sam and I both got stupidly sunburnt in Thailand before coming here, falling into the trap of, "We'll be fine, we're used to NZ sun." Nope. This is not a thing. Sunburnt and now peeling. So we have been diligently slip, slop, slapping for the last week, especially whilst visiting temples, or as we like to call it, "templing".

 Mr Smey's tuk tuk, Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

Mr Smey's tuk tuk, Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

4) You need to stay strong while visiting temples. There are number of reasons for this. As I mentioned just before, it's bum-crack-saturatingly hot, everyone is trying to sell you something - the calls come in thick and fast from the stalls and merchants. "SIR! LADY! You want to buy ......(insert anything from "cold drink" to "guide book" to "postcard" here)", to which you must calmly, confidently and continuously say a polite "No, thank you". If you show any sign of weakness or linger for but a second the 10 year old Cambodian girl will follow you for the next 200m repeating " you buy, 3 for $1!" ... "You buy. Good price!" ... "Mr, you buy?!". This gets old, but I found that we got better and better at this and it almost becomes a game to see how quickly you can get past the vendors and into the next temple site.

 Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

 Bayon Temple selfie, Siem Reap

Bayon Temple selfie, Siem Reap

Ah, this is when is can become a bit embarrassing... Remember I said earlier? So often at the end of a long line of shops and stalls there is a man or woman who is there to check you Temples of Angkor pass. However, this person does not have a uniform, does not look typically official in anyway, and often resembles those purveyors of wares that you encounter not but a moment ago. So many times we would stroll straight past him/her, "No thank you, no thank you" until you realised they weren't trying to sell you "the kids", but their strong Cambodian accent was camouflaging "tickets". It was at this point we started to apologise profusely and hand over our passes for inspection. It was fun watching other foreigners fall into this same trap and it became part of the game to get past the merchants AND successfully recognise the ticket inspector!

 Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

 Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

With all that other stuff put aside, the temples are absolutely incredible! The scale and attention to detail is completely unlike any other place in the world. Every single wall, pillar, archway, door, window or roof was decorated with ornate stone carvings that were meticulously constructed to show a deity or depict a scene from a religious parable. Seriously, everything was carved. Even the piles of destroyed blocks at the unrestored sites contain these intricate details. It's awe-inspiring. The amount of time, skill and resources that went into creating just one of these temples, such as Angkor Wat surely would far exceed any modern day engineering venture. And to think, they accomplished this all with ancient technologies and tools.

 Ta Prohm, Siem Reap

Ta Prohm, Siem Reap

 Banteay Srei, Siem Reap

Banteay Srei, Siem Reap

 Banteay Srei, Siem Reap

Banteay Srei, Siem Reap

On the first day of templing, we visited Angkor Wat and about 5 temples in Angkor Thom. We foolishly started our day at 10am so found ourselves doing the majority of our exploring in the heat of the day. On day two we broke up our templing by visiting the Landmine Museum and Butterfly Sanctuary (see Sam's previous post), as well as visiting a temple about 40 minutes further away from Siem Reap called Banteay Srei. Then watched the sunset atop a small but extremely crowded West-facing temple. Any romance was destroyed by the 150 other tourists continuously taking photos and talking at obnoxiously loud volumes. However, the fading light of sunset was a true spectacle as it created a warm glow and accompanying shadows amongst the temple and surrounding ruins. I would recommend that if you are here, you stay at least once for a sunset.

 Kids playing near Banteay Srei, Siem Reap

Kids playing near Banteay Srei, Siem Reap

 Little girl, Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
 Sunset, Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

Sunset, Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

On day three we returned to Angkor Wat for sunrise, starting our day 4.45am (ouch). Apparently, all of Siem Reap decided to do the same. We had the sense to position ourselves on the opposite side to watch the sunrise to the mobs of your groups, but many others followed our lead and we ended being with about 75 other people. However, we were much more spread out, so this was more romantic than our sunset experience. The sunrise, to me, was not as spectacular as the sunset. Nevertheless, I digress. By day 3 we started to get foggy temple vision, and they all started to merge into one big grey bundle of enormous, partially destroyed buildings. We stayed strong, pushed through for 5 more smaller, much less busy temples and it paid off. Some of these sleepy, less touristy temples had a more intimate feel and it was totally worth it. A big thanks to Mr. Smey for planning our itinerary, he really gave us an authentic and rewarding experience!

 Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

I want to finish off by saying that I, in my very average writing style, cannot truly convey how awesome this wonder of the world is. I strongly suggest that you add the Temples of Angkor to your bucket list. This is a testament to the ancient history of this region and the awesome capability that we, as the human race possess.

 Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Lots of love,
Z & S
xxx

(Original post date: 27th February 2015)

Siem Reap WE LOVE YOU!

CURRENT LOCATION: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sam:

I cannot say enough great things about this wonderful city. We've been here for a week now, and we're not leaving for another two days. It's been really fun hanging out and getting to know the city. It's so vibrant and fun, and the people are really friendly and helpful. We've consistently eaten incredible food, and the fruit drinks are out of this world. A big part of our time here was spent exploring the Temples of Angkor, but I'm going to leave Zev to write a separate post about that.

As an example of what we love about Siem Reap, I'll tell you about our first proper night here. We'd had a bit of a lazy day, getting our phones sorted, going to the museum, sorting out our tuk tuk driver for the temples, and eating. We noticed a sign for a giant puppet parade, and decided to head out for dinner to a place on the parade route so we could eat and watch. We went to Pub Street (guess what's there), and went to a highly recommended Cambodian/Western restaurant. As we dined on incredible Cambodian spring rolls and curries, a huge lighted puppet parade made its way past the restaurant. Children from local schools had made huge paper animal puppets, and the parade was full of music, cheering, and happy kids. It was awesome.

 Siem Reap, Cambodia

Some other highlights have been a trip to the Butterfly Centre, where an incredibly knowledgable guide showed us around and talked all about the life cycle of butterflies and their natural habitats, and showed us caterpillars and chrysalises. We went to a silk farm and learned all about how silk is made, from an egg to a scarf! One of my favourite things was the circus - a kind of Cambodian Cirque du Soleil! It was a totally captivating show. The stars of the show go to a circus school in Battambang, where we're off to next. They are trained, and given schooling, and somewhere to live if they need it, all on a scholarship basis.

 Siem Reap, Cambodia

We also spent a fairly grim couple of hours at the Cambodian Landmine Museum. It was started by a young Khmer man named Aki Ra (or at least that's what he's known as now). The Khmer Rouge killed his family, and he became a conscripted child soldier, during which part of his job was laying land mines. He later defected to the Kampuchean (Cambodian) army, and began fighting against the Khmer Rogue. In 1991, he began removing land mines around the country, using a stick, a leatherman, a knife, and a hoe. He opened the Landmine Museum, before receiving formal training in the disarming of land mines. He started an NGO, training others to disarm land mines, and helping children orphaned or maimed by land mines in Cambodia.

A little history lesson, for those who aren't familiar with Cambodia (DISCLAIMER: I am not a historian. Most of this is picked up from reading, our time in Cambodia, and Wikipedia. If anything is incorrect, feel free to let me know! But this is my limited understanding.).

Cambodia was a protectorate of France from 1863-1953. After gaining independence, it became a constitutional monarchy. In 1970, the king was ousted in a military coup by the Prime Minister Non Lol. He ordered the Vietnamese communists out of Cambodia, a move that was supported by the US as it choked the Viet Kong supply lines in Vietnam (and this was during the Vietnam War).  This lead to attacks on the military government by the Vietnamese communists. The king was also encouraging the people to attempt to overthrow the government. The Vietnamese communists began using this to gain support, and eventually and off shoot became known as he Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communist party. Between 1969-1973, the US and Vietnam bombed Cambodia extensively, in an attempt to disrupt both the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge. 

The communist insurgency continued to grow, and Pol Pot took over as leader of the Khmer Rouge. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled over 60% of the country, and 25% of the population. The government in Phnom Penh surrendered to the Khmer Rouge on April 17th, 1973.

They changed the name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea, and modelled itself on Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward, immediately evacuated the cities, and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country's agriculture on the model of the 11th century, discarded Western medicine and destroyed temples, libraries, and anything considered Western.

Estimates as to how many people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime range from approximately one to three million; the most commonly cited figure is two million (about a quarter of the population).

In November 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in response to border raids by the Khmer Rouge. The People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), a pro-Soviet state led by the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party, a party created by the Vietnamese in 1951, and led by a group of Khmer Rouge who had fled Cambodia to avoid being purged by Pol Pot and Ta Mok, was established. It was fully beholden to the occupying Vietnamese army and under direction of the Vietnamese ambassador to Phnom Penh. In opposition to the newly created state, a government-in-exile referred to as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) was formed in 1981 from three factions. This consisted of the Khmer Rouge, a royalist faction led by Sihanouk, and the Khmer People's National Liberation Front.

Peace efforts began in Paris in 1989 under the State of Cambodia, culminating two years later in October 1991 in a Paris Comprehensive Peace Settlement. The UN was given a mandate to enforce a ceasefire and deal with refugees and disarmament known as the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).

In 1993, Norodom Sihanouk was restored as King of Cambodia, but all power was in the hands of the government established after the UNTAC sponsored elections. In recent years, reconstruction efforts have progressed and led to some political stability through a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy. 

If you'll indulge me a little more grimness... Land mines.

Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates that there are as many as 4 - 6 million unexplored mines and other ordinances in Cambodia. There are no maps identifying where they were laid, and as a result, it is incredibly difficult to find and disarm them. Cambodia has one of the highest Landmine casualty rates in the world. Most of the victims of land mines are young boys, playing in fields. They are the worst kind of senseless weapons, often designed to main rather than kill. 

What an horrific recent history. It is so hard to reconcile this past with the country we see before us today. The people are so friendly, open, generous and kind. It's so difficult to remember that a majority of the people we deal with on a daily basis lived through this incredible bloody civil war and genocide. And it's a massive cliche, but we've really realised how lucky we are, and that we can't possibly imagine what a life like that could possibly be like. 

With all that to think about, it has been an interesting week. As I've said, we really do love it here, and we'll be sad to leave our little guest house. In other, less interesting, news - Zev was the first to fall prey to illness. He spent the night in the bathroom... You'll be pleased to know he's perked up now, still feeling very tired, but much better. We're not sure what it was, as we both ate and drank the same things last night (delicious burgers from a place owned by a kiwi guy, then a couple of cocktails at a sweet jazz bar around the corner), and I escaped unscathed. It did mean we had to cancel our cooking course today though, which was a bummer, but we didn't lose any money, so we're hoping we can find one in Phnom Penh instead.

 Snorkel cones!

Snorkel cones!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 26th February 2015)