Cambodia Unplugged

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Our home stay in Chambok Eco Village

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Our door is beautifully decorated

When I saw that the online itinerary of Cambodia Cycling offered the options of a home stay, I got all excited. I thought staying with a local family would be a wonderful way to learn about real life and to meet people.

Once we were in the country, I started to worry about a home stay. What kind of house would it be? More like a boutique hotel or truly in a local home? The local homes look pretty darn spartan.

 

 

 

 

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The kitchen at our homestay

Our very last night was the planned home stay. South of Phnom Penh we turned into the hills and bumped along smaller and smaller roads until we entered the natural area of Kirirom National Park. Villages were far and few between. Finally we drove into a small village with beautiful, local houses. Well kept, ornately painted. The yards look swept and tidy. We noticed lots of ‘homestay’ signs on the houses. We drove through the village, past the school and temple and into an area where the road ended at some shelters – roofs sheltering large tables. This turned out to be the ‘Women’s Restaurant’ – a communal kitchen were visitors are fed.

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The restaurant with huge meals

From here, we hiked to some lovely waterfalls and back. Then we were taken back into the village and to one home that was to be our stay for the night. Slowly, over the next day, we pieced it all together.

In 2002 a German NGO came to this area to convince the locals not to cut down any more forest. They explained how slow the trees grow and how they could make a much better income by protecting the environment and inviting tourists to come and spend money. I’m not sure how long it took to convince the people but when all was said and done now, some 16 years later, the community thrives, the environment is protected, the people have learned diverse skills and host visitors from all over the world. If they come. They need a lot more publicity to make this place really known.

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Neighbour’s girls playing traditional games. Our guide said ‘better than city kids with an iPad!’

But the foundation is great and, so far, proving to be sustainable.

We are told that about 300 women now work locally rather than having to go to a nearby city for work. They take turns growing food, cooking it, cleaning, and preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner in the communal kitchen where the visitors come.

After our dinner of fried pork and pineapple, rice and fried noodles, we went to our home stay. The traditional house, like the ones we have seen everywhere throughout Cambodia, is built on poles. Underneath is a sitting platform on which a clean mat is spread for visitors. Upstairs is one large room. I’d been dying to see what was in that main part of a house.

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Our sleeping room

Now I know. There is nothing! Absolutely nothing. Except for sleeping mats for the entire family and one tiny shelf holding some incense and a cup of water for the house spirit. No pictures on the wall, no decorations.

No airco! But at least there was a ceiling fan. No wifi. No running water.

A squad toilet only.

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The bathroom

The host, for western guests, put a thin foamie and a pillow on the floor but those are only for the guests -the local sleep on the hard floor on a woven wicker mat. We had the room to ourselves and deducted that the family slept downstairs, somewhere, during this night.

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Waking up in my mosquito net – there’s no glass in the windows.

The families in the village take turns hosting so that they are only displaced a few nights per month but earn money for hosting.

The kitchen of the house is a small wood fire outside on the dirt, with a pot or two simmering. The family’s cow sleeps next to it and is taken back into a field around 5 AM.

I had expected a night in a village to be peaceful and quiet but instead it was a cacophony of sounds all night long. The music stopped around 1:30 AM. The dogs never seized barking. The roosters crowed until midnight and started up full swing again around 3 AM. The crickets and other things happily chimed in. By 6 AM all of the motorbikes were roaring out of the village, taking the men to their jobs.

The women have learned many skills and organize the sales of drinks and food, they make a few crafts to sell and plan meals and overnights for the visitors.

The children all attend school and have the option of English lessons after school, taught by a volunteer.

 

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The view from our room

All in all a very interesting look, not only at life in a rural Cambodian village, but also at how a well run sustainable project like this can both protect nature and provide a more solid income. It was explained to us that the money not only benefits the entire community (they share all income) but also supports very poor families living in the nearby area who were not able to provide enough food for themselves. These people now receive enough rice and staples to help support them.

It might be hot and uncomfortable, but I highly recommend spending time at a home stay. The experience is an eye opener. It gives a glimpse into the real Cambodian life and how people live in a rural village.

https://chambok.org

http://mlup-baitong.org

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Making rice milk to bake a cake.

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Koh Dach: An Island of Weavers

IMG_1526One day we boarded a ferry, on foot, to Koh Dach island. It seemed to be similar in size to our own Salt Spring Island. But instead of its variety of artists, everyone on this island is a silk spinner or weaver. For generations, people here have been spinning the silk worm cocoon into thread, dyeing it and weaving traditional Cambodian cloth. IMG_1510

Outside, underneath each house is a large loom. Old and mindblowing how they all still work. Some of the spinning is done with the use of a bicycle wheel to wind the thread onto spools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We walked about 10 KM, right across the island, along the road we shared with thousands of motorbikes and bicycles. And with oxen being led to greener pastures.

We crossed a temple compound. School was out, then school started again for the afternoon session. Little kids waved at us calling ‘Hello!’

IMG_1132We stopped for a break of fried bananas and cold drinks. Then walked on along rows of palm trees loaded with coconuts and huge bunches of bananas. There were mangoes and jack fruit.  IMG_1128

We stopped at one house to admire, and buy, some scarves woven of cotton and silk.

And, finally, we reaches the ferry on the other side of the island which took us back to the mainland, not far from the big city of Phnom Penh.

 

 

 

 

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The woven scarves are great for wiping sweat as you hike in the heat!

Education Means a Better Future

IMG_1108What is poverty? When is a person ‘poor’?

When I walk here, with my western preconceptions, I am appalled by the poverty everywhere. Kids run barefooted through the village. They have nothing – no toys, perhaps a rusty old bike. We travel with cabin luggage only but I swear that we carried more with us in one bag then most of these people own.

But they grow their own food. They have rice and chickens, they pick mangoes and drink coconut juice or sugar cane juice so their bellies are full. Education is free so the kids go to school. And they are so happy. Everyone smiles, everyone is cheerful. So are they poor? Or are they just fine?

These two little girls used two empty bottles as dolls. They talked to them, wrapped them and rocked them like babies.

In a country with 31º average temperature, 95% of the population does not have a refrigerator. There simply is no electricity. People use ice boxes and buy large chunks of ice each day. So someone has the job of icemaker and hauls these blocks on his wagon, wrapped in tarps to deliver to roadside stands and other customers.

It is so interesting to see how people carve a living out of their surroundings. As we drove north from Siem Reap to Kratie, some 400 KM, we stopped along a short stretch of road with nothing but stone carvings for sale. A young man was hammering away at one of the giant blocks, turning them into buddhas. IMG_0999

I lose track of how many temples we have visited but all of them have an abundance of stone statues, mostly grey stone but sometimes painted. Often long staircases are lined with figures carrying an enormously long rope or snake. On one side are evil, or mad looking persons, on the other are smiling, good people. Someone has to produce all of these statues.

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Average home

Many thousands work in the garment industry, Cambodia’s major source of income. A factory worker – often women – earns about $150 per month! That’s for 9 hour days, 5 or 6 days a week (comes to about 80 cents per hour!!). Yet everyone, and I mean éveryone, has a cell phone in their hands. Even in villages with almost no electricity, people have cell phones. A plan is 5.- per month.

As we were driving a very bumpy dirt road, I was just thinking what a poor area this must be, with shacks, uneven planks for walls, rusty tin for roofs. Then our guide said “This is a well-to-do area with larger homes. Tomorrow we will be in a much poorer area…”

Kratie is a bustling city on the Mekong river. From here we crossed that mighty river in a small wooden boat used by locals as the ferry to Koh Trong, an island in the river. With us on the ferry were school teachers and workers bringing supplies. One man brought large ice blocks to sell, others had big bags of produce.

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Haircuts One Dollar

On the other side, we first walked about 400 meters over soft white sand which, in rainy season, is well under water.

Then we walked over to the Primary School of Koh Trong. Within minutes we were in the first grade and I was given a piece of chalk and told to write the English alphabet on the blackboard. The kids all chanted sounds and many knew the “alphabet song”. Education is incredibly important here. It is free for all but the kids need a school uniform (blue or black pants or skirt and white shirt). Teachers used to make a pittance and have to have a second job in order to be able to afford teaching. Now it is getting better, we’re told. Kids learn English in the higher grades. They sang songs for us and we left them lots of pencils, pencil sharpeners and a soccer ball. I really admire my friends Jan and Anne who taught here for many years and really made a difference.

IMG_1123We strolled along one side of the island, up around the tip and back along the other side through rice paddies. We were passed by lots of motorbikes, bicycles and oxen carts. We stopped in one yard to eat a pomelo, got to use the squat toilet at another.

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Pomelo

Many people sat in the shade under their homes. Some swept the yard with a bunch of twigs. One had a chair outside and a mirror hanging in the tree with a sign ‘Haircuts one dollar’.

Language fun: Every night at dinner we get asked “Would you like rye with that?” Unfortunately, he means ‘rice’ but doesn’t pronounce the ’s’.

The clerk at the hotel does pronounce the ’s’ even if it is supposed to be silent. As in “You are going to Iceland today.” Me: “Iceland?!”

“Yes, Koh Trong is Iceland,”

Me: “Ah! Island! Yes.”

Are there Taxis in the Jungle?

IMG_081633º and we are hiking… It’s all Kees’ fault. He’s the one who loves to hike. When locals here look at us in astonishment and ask “why??” I shrug, point at my husband and say “ask him”. I know, I know. He loves the physical exercise. He loves the solitude of walking through the country side. He loves the challenge of long distance hikes with a big pack, walking day after day.

After trudging along for several long distance hikes in Holland, for a long hot one in Australia, for part of the Camino de Santiago, I decided that – much as I love him – I like walking but not long distance hiking.

And so we look for compromises. Active holidays with lots of walking but the comfort of a good room and no lugging of luggage day after day. Is a 15 day trek in Cambodia a compromise? I think so, although it is different from what we expected.

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Our wonderful guide Po

We found a website and liked what we saw. We received an itinerary and Cambodia Cycling & Trekking was very willing to tweak and answer questions. Each day we would walk – the itinerary told us things like “Day 3: Siem Reap to Kratie. Breakfast at the hotel, visit Kompong Kdei Bridge, transfer to Santuk Mountain, climb to hilltop pagoda, transfer to Kratie.”

What we didn’t realize, is that the ‘transfers’ that day amounted to driving 400 KM. Each day listed the walking distance, ranging from 3 to 17 KM. Three days seemed to be awfully short hikes, and 17 was a bit daunting but oh well.

Once here, we realize that the oppressive heat plays havoc with your body. I found that 4 to 5 KM was fine, after that things became a struggle especially when the ‘hilltop pagoda’ was on top of 800 steep, uneven steps in the blazing sun.

IMG_0907We had also not realized that the same guide and driver, two wonderful young, energetic men, would stay with us the entire time. It was wonderful to have our luggage transported and near us at all times. From the correspondence, we had understood that it would just be the two of us, with a different guide in different regions. It was great to get to know each other and to always have a local to explain things or to ask detailed questions.

The listed distances both in the car and on foot, were not very accurate. We soon discovered we had to be very flexible and keep asking for details. ‘500 metre’ often was one KM. A ‘half hour’ often was double.

IMG_1033On day 3 or so I got a bad case of food poisoning by eating at a remote restaurant. This completely zapped me of any energy. I skipped a day of hiking and enjoyed reading and writing in the air conditioned van. The next day we would walk to an indigenous village. Not wanting to miss this, I decided to walk but told our guide that 4 KM was too much for me. He agreed to drive further along and cut the hike in half. Unfortunately the road was blocked half way so we had no choice but to start walking. A local park ranger joined us, with a machete. Soon we left the road and plunged into the jungle, where he cut a trail for us. We trudged up and down hill, over logs, among brambles and thorns. It was all very gorgeous and interesting, but I should have never attempted this in my condition. I had not eaten in three days, my insides were cramping and – after a while – I thought I’d die. When we came to a small creek, I couldn’t scoop enough cold water on my head. But we had to keep going. I lost all sense of distance and time. But did hike for hours. ‘Can you call a taxi from inside the jungle?’ I kept wondering. I voiced that wish once I got really desperate. “A motorbike!” I said. Everyone here rides motorbikes everywhere and they all have cell phones. “If you know where we are, can’t you ask the driver to send a motorbike?” At first they laughed but soon they realized I was serious. I had started thinking, I’d pay 5 dollars for a ride out. Soon I was thinking 20. Then 100! Anything.

IMG_1225Two motorbikes actually did appear out of nowhere, in that dense jungle, zigzagging and jumping over boulders, coming down a deep dried creekbed. Alas, one was loaded with wood. The next one had no seat and was also fully loaded with cassava. Plus they were going the wrong way. I crawled on, sweat dripping down my face and splashing on the ground. My hands and knees were shaking. It was 34º.

About 10 minutes before we’d reach the road, we found a man with a motorbike who agreed to rescue me for 10,000 riel – about 2 dollars. He was a knight in shining armour on a white steed. Too bad he hadn’t come along earlier. But he took me to our van where I crawled inside and collapsed.

IMG_1140My favourite walk, perhaps, was a simple stroll along a dirt road through a village. On a Sunday afternoon when most families were lazing around their yards (pretty unusual here for these hardworking people) this walk gave us a chance to see the real rural life. At every house, a throng of little kids came running out of the dusty yard and greenery, calling “Hello! Hello! Hello!”, waving and beaming at us. When we waved and called back, more kids came running. Mothers waved with infants on their hips. Fathers grinned from behind their rice wine or cans of Cambodian beer. Dogs listlessly approached and then plopped down in the dust. Chickens scurried. Cows lifted their heads but continued chewing. We bought sugar cane juice from one of the many machines parked in a driveway. The woman cranked sugar canes through the press, folded them, repeatedly pressing them. The juice dripped into a bowl inside the glass contraption, she scooped it out into a plastic bag, and tied it closed around a straw. It was delicious! Sweet, refreshing, lovely.

IMG_0715The other fabulous hikes were around Angkor Wat where our guide led us through shady forests, along flat paths and on top of the ancient stone walls surrounding the temple areas. The hikes here were easy and pleasant and much more appealing than hanging out with lots of tourists. Plus, walking puts us in touch with the environment, either nature or the people around us, much better than driving by can do. So, that’s why we walk.

http://cambodiacycling.com/Trekking.html

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Butternut Squash and Sex: Cambodian Customs, Culture & Curiosities

IMG_0887We are learning so many fascinating things here. Cambodia’s religion is mostly Buddhist but with its own blend and strong mix with Hinduism. They seem to celebrate everything: Chinese New Year, their own and a few others… Smart. After years of warfare and hardships, this country needs all the celebrating it can get.

IMG_1399It is incredibly important what your birth sign is. For instance if you were born in the year of the rabbit you might not be able to marry a girl who was born under the ‘wrong’ sign for you. Our guide, a wonderful, cheerful young man, had to move heaven and earth and really talk his parents into letting him marry the girl he loved because he is “wood” and she is “fire”.

Couples born in a certain year can also not have a baby in a year that is not ‘good’ for them. So they are told to make sure not to have a baby that year. Children often get a ceramic piggy bank in the shape of their sign: a piggy, a rabbit, etc. Our guide was very excited to find out that I am a ‘dragon’ – apparently the most desirable sign to be born under.

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Families here tend to be larger, with 6 or 7 children. Some birth control is being taught. My favourite story is of people explaining birth control in a small, northern village. They demonstrated the use of a condom by putting it on a butternut squash, just the right shape. However, something got lost in translation… One couple went home, bought a butternut squash, put a condom on it and put it on display in a prominent place in their home. They were most upset to get pregnant despite their precautions….

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We were happy to attend an evening of traditional dance. Cambodia Cycling, the company that organized our tour (http://cambodiacycling.com) arranged this for us. They drove us to a restaurant in Siem Reap where we were served a very good traditional dinner while watching the amazing dancing in traditional costumes. One dance was called the Peacock Dance and both dancers had enormous peacock tails. My favorite was the coconut dance, with coconut shells used like Spanish castagnettes. The girls have long fingers that can bend backwards. Each hand gesture is an integral part of the dance and has many meanings. They stretch their hands for many years to achieve these unusual positions. The dances, like the sculptures and statues in the temples, tell stories of the past and of the beliefs.

The women on the street wear either western clothes or sarongs and t-shirts. The most common Cambodian wear is a pant suit that totally resembles our pajamas. You know those old-fashioned flannel pajamas of pants and a button-down jacket? That’s what most women wear in bright, busy patterns. I hope that they are not flannel – I think it is synthetic.

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Bringing incense to the temple, the red bracelet protects her from evil spirits.

We’re told that robes of monks are bright orange because this is the natural color of leaves on a tree, in the best part of their lives. Not light green when they start growing, not withered away brown but bright orange.

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Spirit House with incense and food offerings

Most people here have a spirit house in front of their home – a small kind of temple on a stand. In it they burn incense and leave offering to please their house spirit – drinks, fruit, etc. Some houses have several. If a business man is successful, he buys more elaborate, larger spirit houses or statues.

From Red Wool Blessings to Rubber Plantations

IMG_0924We visited a new temple rather than an ancient one. Bright orange robes of monks and a shiny gold altar sparkled amid the green of the jungle. We gave some money to a monk and in return he tied a thin red wool bracelet to our left wrist, chanting prayers, blowing on the knots he made, we felt blessed with his well wishes. I certainly hoped his prayers would help me as we climbed about one thousands stone steps to the top of Kulen Mountain. Once at the top, we walked beautiful flat trails in the cool jungle. We heard many birds and met one person searching for bees so that he could locate a hive, smoke out the bees and collect the honey which would fetch him $25 per liter. IMG_0951We walked to a small jungle village with scrawny chickens and dusty dogs. Homes are all built on stilts, for the monsoon season, and have a lower platform where people sit or sleep. Upstairs the room has a roof and sleeping space. The “kitchen” is underneath the house or next to it – a simple coal or wood fire with a few pots. Clothes hang on a strong between the posts under the house. As I watch women on their hunches, stirring a pot on a fire, I think back to my kitchen at home. A world away. IMG_0959

We reached the entrance to a National Park and walked along a small river where, 800 years ago, people diverted the water to run from south to north. They paved the river bottom with one thousand ‘linga’s’. A linga is a spiritual symbol: a square carving is a female stone, a round one symbolizes male. IMG_0931

These linga’s, together with a god image and lotus motifs, still decorate the river bottom. Amazing that 800 years of water has not eroded them. The river is thought to be a gift from Buddha and, once you see the river’s source, this is not surprising. It simply comes bubbling out of the earth: a crystal clear spring in a small blue puddle that grows into a powerful river.

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Downstream we saw many people who come out for the Sunday to rent a small wicker platform with a roof. They were all cooking food, having a picnic, playing games and splashing in the river.

Even further down stream we came to 3 enormous, 30 meter high waterfalls. I loved cooling off in the cold water. We are often the only westerners and little children call out “Hello!” waving enthusiastically.

The next day we walked through a rubber plantation. Rubber trees were planted here in long straight row. The trees have about a 4’ section of bark removed with a shallow line which ends in a small bowl catching the rubber, which is collected daily. But the price of rubber has dropped so it isn’t very viable right now.IMG_1057

Cambodian Wildlife

IMG_0905Every market in the major cities here offers baggy pants made from a cotton with elephant prints. They look very comfy but also make each tourist stand out since the locals don’t wear these pants. Elephants are depicted on bags and shirts and skirts and pillows. There are life size stone elephants at the entrances to temples. But no more wild elephants. In fact we have only seen one or two working elephants.

IMG_1384Tigers, too, and even rhinos we’re told, used to roam the jungles but no longer. We see plenty of dusty dogs sleeping along the roads and in the shade of roadside stands. Very skinny cows graze here and there in grassy fields. Apparently they are kept for milk and beef although we don’t see much meat on them. They are also kept for pulling wagons as are water buffalo. If someone owns a moto – a long handled motor that pulls a flat wagon – they can switch the wheel to blades that plow the fields. The wagon can also be pulled by the water buffalo.

IMG_1335We hear and see a fair number of birds, including white egrets.  And lots of monkeys hang around temples and in the jungle. IMG_0838

There seem to be plenty of fish in rivers and lakes to provide food and livelihoods. But it seems to us that a huge threat here to all wildlife is the unimaginable amount of plastic waste. Fields and roadsides are covered in plastic bags, plastic bottles, straws and pieces of styrofoam. The litter is found in the jungle and along all city streets. The river banks, the fields outside the towns, everything is a vast wasteland of plastic, at least near populated areas. As we travel north where there is less development, there is also less garbage. Here and there we see large bales of plastic and pop cans collected. We are told these are hauled to Vietnam for processing because Cambodia does not yet have the equipment to recycle. Unless they educate people about the harmful effects of this plastic waste, both wildlife and tourism might suffer.

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We have visited remote villages where lots of pigs run underfoot – fat mammas followed by a whole slew of piglets.

Today we saw some pretty large spiders in the jungle and several geckos, one of which was molting. I didn’t know geckos molt like snakes. I have a pretty funny story to tell you: we walked out of our room in a courtyard hotel. Very close by there were loud, strange sounds – a cross between a barking dog or a honking duck, with the rhythm of a cat coughing up a hairball. It echoed and sounded alarming so I asked the girl at the desk what in the world that sound was. She waved nonchalantly, saying “Oh, just a spider.”

“Holy #$@%, a spider?! How big is it?”

She shrugged and spread her fingers, “Maybe the size of my hand. It weighs a kilo.”

I contemplated not leaving my room for the remainder of our stay. I knew Australia has killer spiders but now Cambodia too, apparently.

Then the girl scratch her head and added, “Oh, maybe not spider, maybe called gecko in English.”

My breath slowly returned. Geckos I can handle. Even if they bark like a duck/dog.

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