Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Cambodia 2007’ Category

Lake Ton Le Sap, Saturday, October 6th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

On our last day we visited a school, one of the better ones, because it was sponsored by a small organisation called Caring for Cambodia. En route we stopped to buy some books to donate to the school because the people are so desperately poor they can barely afford to feed the children, never mind buy them books or uniforms.
The other teachers in the group were keen to visit the classrooms, but I hated it. There we were, wasting half an hour of precious learning time of children who only get four hours education per day anyway, while the group was billing and cooing over the cuteness of the children as if they were performing puppy dogs. I caught the eye of one little girl, grave with dignity and a complete lack of comprehension as to why we were there, and my eyes filled with tears. I got out of there and composed myself, and then went and pretended to be interested in the library.
 It wasn’t a school library, but rather one for the whole community, and although someone had tried very hard to make the best of it, what a pitiful thing it was! It was mostly filled with cheap paper ‘readers’, some very tatty children’s novels in English much too hard for any child there to read, and a very few adult novels that had seen better days. The man in charge had so much difficulty with English that Bun had to translate my questions for him, and he was the head teacher!
Still, at least the Cambodians have chosen English as their second language so that as their pool of English speakers increases, they can eventually access university exchange programs across the globe, and – of course – the World Wide Web. (This is in marked contrast to the stupidity of the leaders of East Timor choosing Portuguese, a language spoken only in such economically irrelevant places as Andorra, Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese S.A.R. of Macau, Mozambique, Portugal, São Tomé and Príncipe.)
It was hard, however, to see what Cambodia’s future might be when we took the boat trip on Lake Ton Le Sap. The people who live there are so poor it’s appalling. Their bamboo houses have to be moved up and down the river bank as the water level rises and falls with the monsoon. They have a floating ‘library’, basketball court and various other community facilities, some of them sponsored by the west, but some of them were so small and decrepit, it was dreadful.
I didn’t like being taken to geek at these people and their horrible smelly fish farm, not because it upset me (though it did), but because I felt it was an affront to their dignity to be ‘shown off’ so that we would see how poor they are and then donate. What must they think of us: fat, sleek Westerners, flushed with fine food and awash with money, haggling over $1.00 for some useless souvenir? If they feel resentful of us all, I can quite understand why.
 On the way back, Bun told us a little of his own story, one which is emblematic of Cambodia itself. The great age of Angkor was from the 9th to the 15th century and then there was trouble from Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other until the French Colonial period from the 19th century until 1953. In this period some Cambodians were educated, but then came the puppet government of Lon Nol from 1970-1975. After Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were in power…
Pol Pot drew on the worst of three ideologies: Stalinism meant killing dissidents; Maoism meant disastrous agrarian ‘reform’; and French anti-colonialism meant isolation from the rest of the world. So they emptied the cities, killed all the intellectuals (and anyone who wore glasses was considered to be an intellectual), and in secret from the rest of the world sent the city folk to the countryside to work on the farms. There they were resented by the country folk because they were not allowed to carry anything with them and were completely unskilled. Those in the country had to share their scarce land and its harvest and maybe that’s why they too were so cruel, smashing babies’ heads against trees or impaling them on sharp bamboo stakes. Bun himself was a baby at this time, and lost ‘only’ his grandparents to this murderous regime.
After Pol Pot was despatched to the jungles near the Thai border after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, schools re-opened, but Vietnamese was the second language taught and students went to universities in East Germany, Russia, Cuba and Vietnam. Bun, however, was able to learn English from an old man who lived nearby and taught it to supplement his income. He trained as a teacher, but had difficulty controlling classes of up to 62 students (who wouldn’t?!) and so he became a tour guide.
It was all a bit sobering, and not quite how I expected to feel at the end of my holiday. I had seen poverty close-up before, in Indonesia, and in Africa where I grew up but somehow Australia’s more recent affluence seemed more grotesque this time. We boarded our flight back to Saigon with a somewhat heavy heart, and I didn’t shake off my mood of despondency until QANTAS mucked up my boarding pass and lost my luggage and these petty irritations jolted me back into my more usual state of mind.
However, the first thing I did when I got back home was to increase my regular monthly commitment to Oxfam, and I have also made a Christmas donation to Care Australia instead of buying all those meaningless Xmas gifts we feel compelled to buy for friends and colleagues. If you are reading this, then you too are rich enough to have access to a computer and the internet, and I would sincerely recommend that you do the same: donate to a reputable charity like Oxfam which supports long term projects that support independent economic development in poor countries around the world. Don’t just make a one-off feel-good payment; subscribe so that the charity can count on your regular support and really make a difference. After a month or two you won’t notice the difference, but a family somewhere in the world, will. And if you visit these places – spend, spend, and spend again, every bit you can, to encourage foreign investment and a meaningful future for these people who have so little.
 Would I recommend a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia? Unhesitatingly, yes. Some aspects of this trip were a bit confronting and the climate is awful, but the people are wonderful, and you will come back a more mature citizen of the world, with a greater awareness of how fortunate we are. Spending your tourist dollar will make a huge difference to so many lives, and you will see so many fascinating sights that you will never forget it.
Pack your bags, take an open mind and a generous heart, and go!

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Friday, October 5th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

 We set off early to see the fabled Angkor Wat and Bun wisely led us through the eastern entrance so that we could enjoy it without the tourist hordes. It really is astonishing. Built by Suryavarman II between 1113 and 1150, it is a huge pyramid temple complex, surrounded by a massive moat. It’s the largest religious building in the world, and the reliefs are often in very good condition even though there has been a lot of looting and even the occasional bullet hole during the 1975-1979 Wars. It’s a Hindu temple, so Bun explained some of the Ramayana stories depicted on the reliefs, including the story of the tug of war between the demons and the good guys above the churning sea of milk. It really is amazing to see these ancient stories brought to life by master craftsmen from so long ago, especially since I never expected to see them in my lifetime. I had first learned about Angkor Wat when I was doing a degree in Southeast Asian Studies at Murdoch University and the Khmer Rouge were still in power at that time so it was not safe to visit.
All of it was magnificent but I was most enchanted by the library. Since Angkor Wat was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992, the temple has had some funding for restoration, but the library was restored by the Japanese. Even when the books are long lost, there is something about the idea of ancient civilisations preserving their thoughts and ideas for posterity that grips the imagination. What is most astonishing of all is that the whole complex was overgrown with massive vines and even trees growing in amongst the masonry, and somehow they have managed to tame the jungle which threatened to overwhelm it completely.
We went back to L’Escale for lunch and tried the set menu: prawns and a pomelo salad for me, and a soup for Tim, and then an assortment of fish dishes and what we thought was a won ton roll made with sweet potato. A brief torrent of rain cooled things down a bit, but we were still too hot and tired to venture out for another temple so we loafed until late in the afternoon and then took a tuk-tuk down to the market. It was not as frenetic as the one in Saigon, and few of its wares were pitched at tourists. We did, however, manage to find a Buddha head as a gift for friends of ours – but Customs found borer in it when we got back home so it never made it out of the airport. Indeed, we had no luck at all with our purchases from this market – a stone statuette that Tim bought lost her head, and the mobile bought for my niece Cressida’s baby fell apart.
We went back to L’Escale for a third and final meal and tried their ‘Innovative Tapas’, which included tidbits such as mango ravioli; onions baked for three hours; and Tom Sum soup. For main course I had duck with bok choy & taro in an orange sauce, while Tim had tuna with passionfruit and cauliflower grilled on a stick of lemon grass. We washed this down with a French Merlot, and we finished up with an assiete of desserts which included tiny little souffles. After that it was an early night before our last day in Cambodia.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia, Thursday October 4th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

 We flew out of Saigon for Siem Reap in Cambodia at about eleven, Tim upgraded to business class and me gnashing my teeth back in cattle class with the plebs, because once again the system hadn’t recognised us as a husband and wife since we have different surnames. Still, it was only a short flight and (unlike the return flight home) not worth any major indignation. And I was rather charmed by the ‘well-wishers’ gallery’ in the departure lounge…
Cambodia is very different, with a stunning new airport building in the shape of pagodas and symbols of the Buddha and elephants here and there. We were met by our new guide, Bun, a more reserved personality than the ebullient Long, but very nice and helpful all the same. The bus ride to our hotel was quite comfortable along the highway, but we discovered later that the other roads are not so good, with potholes everywhere. Ok if you have a careful driver like the one we had, and if it’s dry, but probably terrible in the rain.
 The Day Inn Angkor Resort was splendid. To service the Angkor Wat tourist market there are huge new hotels springing up everywhere, massive because they emulate the palaces and pagodas but attractive because there’s a height limit. Ours was painted crisp white with red tiles, surrounded by lush gardens. All the rooms face inward to the Olympic sized swimming pool with covered verandas for lounging about with a G & T after a swim. Here there were silk hangings on the walls instead of garish paintings, white tiles instead of dingy carpets and the aircon was excellent. The poor old Grand Hotel looked very mediocre by comparison!
 Tim and I whizzed into the hotel restaurant for a hasty spring roll and won ton, just in time to depart for our tour of Angkor Thom. It is a fantastic temple, built by Jayavarman VII – rather like Borobodur except that Borobodur ascends in levels which show the Buddha’s enlightenment and detachment from everyday life whereas this one is full of little scenes of daily life, including blacksmiths and carpenters, cooks and charioteers and so on. But oh dear – it was so hot and humid! Not only that, there were some perilous stairs that completely defeated my wonky ankle so I had to walk around from the west gate to the east by myself while the others clambered up to see the sights.
After that we saw the Elephant Terrace of the Leper King. It was used as a platform for the king to view his armies but most of it is a ruin now, though you can still see the elephant carvings at one end. However, by this time we’d had enough of the heat and Bun wisely took us back to the hotel to recover…
After a rest, we took ourselves off to the restaurant next door. It’s called L’Escale and it’s run by a French chef who uses local ingredients and recipes in fusion with French techniques.
 We had the set menu, which started with a delicious light soup, followed by eight tiny appetisers: one little serve of crumbed frog’s legs; a scrumptious snail; three small slices of pate; a cold rice paper roll; a fried spring roll; soup-in-the-middle; fish amok (fish with coconut in a banana leaf); some more morsels of fish with dipping sauces & some herb juice and rice wine. Then we had ‘beef cooked seven different ways’: mild curry; dried and mixed with a kind of coleslaw; flattened, barbecued & impaled on a piece of lemon grass; some tiny little morsels sauteed in a kind of soup; more in a sweet tomato sauce and two more which neither of us could remember when I came to write in my journal about it the next day! We remembered dessert, however: creme brulee with banana & passionfruit sorbet.
We washed all this down with a familiar Australian D’Arenburg sauvignon blanc, with a Sidecar for Tim beforehand and something called a Mai Tai constructed out of all sorts of weird things for me. We were very impressed by this restaurant, and were not at all surprised to discover when we got home that it is Siem Reap’s premier restaurant.

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