Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Phnom Penh

I like it here. Yeah you get asked 100 times a day (literally) if you need a tuk tuk but there's nothing the ol' iPod cant drown out. They seem to not know the concept of walking, I mean Phnom Penh is fairly big, but nothing compared to Western cities so I spent my time wandering from place to place. I also think it's a much better way to see somewhere - backstreets, markets, shops, people... Stuff a ride in a tuk tuk generally misses. Plus I was in no rush, you could probably do most of Phnom Penh in a day but again, I like my feet to touch the ground.

I dont think PP is like any other city i've been to, sure it has the traffic and hecticness of a city but there are no buildings higher than 3 or 4 storeys, apart from a brand new bank (or something) they're constructing. It's a little strange a first, it's just like a big, crowded village really under the label 'Capital'. Im sure in 10 years it will have changed - it seems like the whole of Cambodia is expanding and for a city, or atleast a city im used to, they just need to expand upwards... Or, maybe they... dont (?)

So I did like a 3 day 'excursion' and did the usual tourist places including -

Wat Phnom: Where the city originated and grew from. Now it's nothing more than a glorified roundabout with a $1 entry fee (ha) so I just loitered around the road taking pictures. Did however have some entertaining monkeys though beating eachother up which is always funny.

National Museum: Was ok, a bit small and also a little redundant after seeing Angkor - lots of relics from there and numerous buddhas - but taking into account how much was stolen and how badly the museum itself was damaged during the Khmer Rouge era, it was a good collection. Was housed in an impressive dark-red sandstone building too (thankyou Rough Guide).

Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda: Overpriced and very erm, 'prohibited'. Only 2 buildings out of 10 were open and even then you were restricted to small sections cornered off with velvet rope. Thumbs up for the Silver Pagoda and jade buddha though.

Central and Russian Markets: Same same, but different. Everything i've seen before just being sold by different people. The Central Market ( Psar Thmei) though was amazingly OTT with stalls almost forming organic corals of fruit, shoes, scarves, flowers, watches and t-shirts amongst others - crazy and good.

Olympic Staduim: Yeah, WTF. Just Googled it but I dont think Cambodia's ever held the Olympics. It had a simple charm and was still in use for football, but wouldn't have been out of place in somewhere like Bethnal Green.

Then came "Sombre Sunday"... Learning of the disturbingly recent past of the Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia's former name under their regime). Now nothing I write here can do it justice so apologies.

The Khmer Rouge era was from 1975 - 1979 and still so much is not understood. They basically arrived in Phnom Penh with the intention to achieve their ideal; to turn Cambodia into a nation of peasants all working in an agricultural society where family, wealth & status were irrelevant. Almost immediately they began a programme of mass execution which resulted in 2 million people being 'destroyed' as they wrote it. Everyone from military commanders through to monks, the educated, those who spoke a foriegn language and even to those who wore glasses were slaughtered. Men, women and children all perished under them and the twisted logic behind it is still unclear.

I visited a place called Toul Sleng (or S.21), a former primary school turned detention, interrogation and torture centre; it was the last place thousands of Cambodians saw before being taken to be killed. Now i've never been to Auschwitz but I imagine you feel the same visiting there as you do here. It was like hell, a mini hell. It felt very wrong to just be walking on the floors, climbing the stairs and touching the walls, all tainted with death. There were hundreds of photos of victims and the many tools of torture displayed and I couldn't help but think this is too close. I felt the same about Choeung Ek (or the Killing Fields) - which comes as part of the day trip - where people from the camps were brought to be killed and buried in mass graves. You could just walk around these big ditches in the ground and it was undoubtedly too much of an attraction. Skulls were on display like in an Indiana Jones movie, trees were labeled with signs saying "tree against which executioners killed children" and even more disturbingly the clothes of victims were still woven into the mud underfoot. Now im all for learning but this was a little too unsettling you know? I think they should learn a lesson from the Royal Palace and get some of those "prohibited" signs, perhaps starting with one at the front gate.

Now, not to bum you all out (wasn't a very fun post huh?), this morning I woke up with a small dog in room. And by small dog I mean huge rat. Yeah im not just hearing them in the walls anymore. And my room smells like a swamp (it's above a lake with nothing but floorboards and vinyl seperating us) and its the size of a cupboard. So im staying in a swamp cupboard basically. But somehow the urge to move every morning subsides as im drawn back by the dvd collection. But alas, tomorrow im off to Sihanoukville to get me some beach, Cambodian style.

Lear Haowee/Goodbye. X

Thursday, 23 April 2009


A 9 hour boat trip across the Tonle Sap and I arrived in Battambang (pronounced as i've found out 'Battam-bong') . The journey was pretty impressive, we passed - be it on the outskirts - the Floating Village and made our way on a pretty big boat through what seemed like very narrow, shallow river (called the Sangker) towards Battambang. The scenery was very beautiful, the Floating Village especially. They literally have everything a normal villages has - homes, businesses, a school, farms (!) - except it all just floats. Amazingly abstract and no doubt hard work, definitely something you have to be born into. Moving on we passed through very remote villages on the water, farming communities and lots of families & children in boats and playing in the river. For 6 of the 9 hours (the boat left at 7:30am) I sat on the roof and although the sun was very hot and I went a tad red, the experience was worth it. It's like one of those stereotypical things you expect of travelling, on the roof of a bus, train or boat cruising through lives and landscapes far removed from our own and I must admit, at some points it didn't seem real.

Battambang itself reminded me of Chiang Mai in North Thailand, similar layout with a river running through it and things being divided into East or West of it. It's a comparatively quiet city and aparently not so touristy - it was hard to tell because the height of tourist season in Dec - Feb in Cambodia so most places seem to be quieter. It was a nice place though and I planned to only stay for 2 nights (the highlight was the journey there for me) so did a day on the back of a bike going round the tourist spots. My guide was guy called Tin Tin (pronounced but not spelt) and he was a bit of a petrol head going amusingly fast over roads disturbingly uneven. He was a very good driver though so I just enjoyed the ride through dusty tracks and across lush farmland. We spent the day visiting a temple on a mountain (Phnom Sampeu), visiting the Killing Caves, trekking up to what's known as 'mini Angkor Wat' (Wat Banan), locating a swarm (?) of Fruitbats - dogs was wings - and ending the day with a trip on the Bamboo Railway. It was a pretty good excursion and I think atleast I took some good pictures.

I've now moved onto the capital Phnom Penh (where I write this) and i'll probably end up staying here for maybe 4 days, there's a few things of interest I want to see. It's pretty much the opposite of Battambang and resembles Bangkok more than anything else in terms of hecticness, noise and traffic, but nether the less, it seems good. I haven't explored today because the bus was slow getting here and there was a mega thunderstorm, the water on the corrugated roof was a relentless noise - like natures static - for over half an hour. Tomorrow i'll do some exploring but tonight i'll reside in my guesthouse infront of their abundance of pirate movies.

Oh and before I forget, a lot of Cambodia's recent history revolves around the Khymer Rouge - a violent regime that wiped out 20% of the population of a 3 year reign of terror. It's a pretty disturbing read (especially how recent and widely unreported it was) and I need to brush up on it myself but alot of the stuff i'll be seeing in Phnom Penh (and what I saw in Battambang, eg The Killing Caves) revolves around them. Google: Khymer Rouge.

I will be in touch. X

Monday, 20 April 2009

Happy New Year

Buddhist New Year that is, if I remember right it's now the year 2136.

The official 3 day celebrations are over and over the course of that time (plus an extra day) everybody in Srah Srang set up food stalls - as well as their usual shops - to sell food to Cambodian families who came to the lake for a day out or were on their way to the mountain - popular during holidays - which is about 30km away. Everybody spent the 4 days selling at what seemed like all hours, not closing their shops and sleeping in hammocks awaiting the next morning rush of punters. This festival is one of the busiest and most profitable parts of the year for the village so alot of effort goes into it. Me? I spent it being fed meals of BBQ chicken, pork, fish and lots of fresh fruit whilst helping back at the shops sell t-shirts to the foreign tourists.

Once the Tuesday to Friday rush was over, the weekend was spent relaxing and having fun. It's tradition to get new clothes after the new year so alot of people were dressed up showing them off. On the Saturday we decided to go to Melong Lake, a big lake West of Angkor Wat for an afternoon of chilling out on the "beach" - it's the closest most people here get but there was atleast some sand - and we had lunch and played games. Then the 12 of us (over 4 motorbikes) went East for 20km to a Pagoda (they pronounce it Pag-or-da) where everybody gathered to dance, drink, play massive games of tug-of-war and unusally, throw talcum powder at eachother... Dont know why but it was fun, they only do it once a year so lots of people came to enjoy themselves. Sticking out like a sore thumb is normal for me now, but I did spot one other Westerner there and we exchanged amused bewilderment, was very much off the beaten tourist track.

Then on the Sunday Saly had a big party at her house in the village to bring the New Year festivities to an end, it also doubled as a goodbye party for me. Everybody I'd met came and we spent the night doing karaoke - they LOVE it here, drinking, playing cards and dancing. Drinking alcohol is bit taboo with mixed opinions about it but they always comment on it in a joking way - bad husband etc - but tonight everyone was drinking and having a good time. They taught me Khymer dancing and I taught them bad dancing, it was alot of fun and the first time in over 2 weeks i'd had a drink :)

You can call me Mr. Big. X

P.s. Phil Morris, i've arranged a marriage for you. Next time I come back, i've been instructed to bring you. You're like a god here with your nutmeg complexion.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


Smiling, laughing, joking: This is Srah Srang. And so far this is Cambodia. Nothing touches them, even despite the neverending task and routine of selling to tourists, day in, day out.

Day 13 of rural Cambodian life and I find it hard to write 2 weeks worth of information so i'll have to revert back to the old random bullet points - or snippets - of life.

- Tom in Khymer (Cambodian language) means "big" so am known as "Mr. Big" in the village - endless amusement to my newly adopted brothers and sisters of Srah Srang.

- The shower and toilet were greeted with nervous laughter; the shower being a big pot with buckets and the toilet being a "well covered" hole in the middle of the village. I adapted to the shower routine after a day, it just became normal with the only thing standing out being the colour of my skin - but this soon faded as I became more and more known. The toilet however, upon my delivering of Livia's money, was rebuilt over the 2 weeks with bricks & cement and now stands tall with only the roof and a substansial door missing.

- I spend my days in the row of shops outside the temple by Srah Srang lake hanging out with the many people who own them - the family owns about 5 - and I've attempted selling, learnt the language - writing and speaking, played frisbie with the kids, taught some English, made bracelets and generally helped out where I can.

- Evenings are spent back at the house in the village, with dinner by lamp light and numerous games being played outside and downstairs. They only have electricity for 3 hours each night and they normally gather around the tv in the company of obscure (yet amazing) programmes.

- Food has been good. Every meal is a surprise but there's lots of meat, soups, rice, fresh fish and vegetables in one meal - like a mini buffet. I think the craziest thing i've eaten is ants and ant eggs - the big red kind. They fry them up and serve them in a soup which is a bit sour but I came to like them as a few foods were sour in taste. I only found out after (of course) that the first time people eat the ants - even Cambodians - they can have a "disagreement" with your stomach. Lets just say I spent to next day near a toilet... The first and last time I munch on ants.

- Everyone in the village are up by 5:00am (or before) and I think I can say they are the hardest working people - everyday, 7 days a week and 13 hour days, puts Western life in some sort of perspective. Moan we shall not.

- Common phrases you'll hear after my name: "you eat already?", "you want some water?", "more rice?", "you take shower?". The caring nag of a family, amplifide when it's someone elses.

- It's the Buddist new year over the course of 3 days (14th, 15th & 16th of April) - today being day number 2. It means it's much busier with all Cambodians returning to their home provinces for basically a 3 day bank holiday so Srah Srang has turned from selling to tourists, to selling to Cambodians aswell - a highlight in the year for the village. After the 3 days the family plan to have a party with lots of fun and games planned.

This is a rushed post and I know i've missed out so much. Just know that i've been in the company of an amazingly generous and happy family who have made the last 2 weeks fly by. Im staying here till the 19th and then im off to the Tonle Sap and onto Battambang, before heading South to the capital Phnom Penh (nom-pen). When the time comes, I will greatly miss Lan, Mang, Saly, Mao, Sarein, Lon, Lay, Bin and EVERYONE else who has made my stay so good. I feel they're a family I will have a lot of contact with when I return home and definitely follow their progress. X

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Srah Srang: 01/04/09

This is home for the next 2 weeks.
P.s. It took 20 minutes to upload this 1 photo.

Srah Srang Village

For those of you who dont know: 7 years ago Livia Smiesna (from university) spent 6 months in Cambodia teaching English in a village called Srah Srang. When I told Livia that I was going to Cambodia she immediately told me this story and said I have to visit this village because apart from the occasional email, she hadn't seen or spoken to the them since. So of course I said I would, being how close it was to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Livia then gave me a package containing a letter, photos, money and clothes to deliever when (or if) I found them. This present have been in my bag, wrapped for the whole 11 weeks prior, every opening of my bag reminding me of my task.

Well yesterday, on the last day of my Angkor ticket, at the last place I visited - Srah Srang Lake... I found them.

I took out the photos outside Banteay Kdei temple to ask if anyone recognised the Cambodians in the pictures and within minutes I was surrounded by about 20 people all shouting Livia's name and telling me how they were taught by her. Then as the afternoon when on I was shown to the village and met the people in the photos, who had all aged or grown up and they invited me to stay for dinner. So as the evening progressed the family - of more than 30 people it seemed, everyone being someone elses cousin or aunt - said a friend of Livia was a friend of theirs and asked me to stay until the Buddist New Year (2 weeks away - April 14th). So alas, as of tomorrow Thomas Havell from England is moving into a Cambodian village to live as they do. They live right next to the lake where amazing sunsets seem to happen every night and i'll be sleeping in the same spot as Livia did 7 years ago. They are an amazingly happy, helpful & generous family and I honestly dont think i've met nicer people than them - and this is after 1 day.

Because of all these happenings, I obviously wont be in contact for the 2 weeks im there - unless I come back to Siem Reap for a few days which is a possibility, but im kinda looking forward to being emersed in Cambodian living and culture. But we shall see. This then, is a goodbye for now but know that I am in very good hands. Expect to see me outside Ankor Wat selling water alongside the Cambodian children, "you wanna buy some war-der?" X

Happy Birthday Amy Nockles.

Again, I want to apologise that I cant upload a birthday photo but im working on a PC from 1995 with an internet speed not much faster than a 56K modem. Anyway, enjoy your day and knowing the Nockles family, there'll be a party the size of a small town in your garden. Have a good one (get lots of good presents) and I hope there's atleast a bit of sunshine back home - I feel I must share the sun-wealth. X

P.s. How you enjoying LittleBigPlanet?


Roluos: Located 12km East of Siem Reap and all out on their own, this group of ruins known as Roluos encompasses 3 main temples with others scattered around. These ruins were pretty similar to the ones i'd seen in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, pretty small with some of the towers intact and others not. I wanted to start here because it's some of the earliest from the Angkor period and I thought best to start small and build up to the best. I think of the ones I saw, Bakong was the most impressive built within a moat with the remains of 8 or so towers and a pyramid structure at the centre.

Ankor Wat: We arrived here at about 6:45am so the sun was very low but it wasn't quite a sunrise. The light wasn't the best (quite overcast) but it didn't detract from how awesome - literal meaning - it was. Definitely as epic as I expected and it is in very good condition, with a sculptured mural that runs round the entire outside wall and its towers pretty much intact. My first 7th wonder.

Angkor Thom: A more fantastical temple than Angkor Wat, if lacking in the scale, Bayon - the central ruin - has much more character with the many stone faces looking out from the towers, all in various stages of ruin. There was also lots of winding passageways which made exploring them more fun, felt alot like a movie set i'd seen in 20 different movies.

Ta Prohm: The best temple in Angkor - yet the lesser known by name. If Bayon felt like a movie set then this is something else, it almost seems fake - like the queue to a ride in Disneyland. Alien trees sprout like nerves as big as buildings from the walls and the ruin is a mixture of stone and jade-coloured moss. Totally awestruck. It was also the temple featured in Tomb Raider so it kinda reinforces the Hollywood movieset theme - so amazing it must be fake.