Next stop, Kampot on the southern coast of Cambodia, a quiet, riverside town best known for its eponymous Kampot pepper. We had a very peaceful and relaxing few days at the Ganesha eco-resort, a much needed change of pace after so much urban sightseeing. We rode bikes, canoed through the mangroves, napped, played cards, enjoyed the warmth and quirkiness of our lovely French hosts, and stressed over which of the many hammocks, hanging beds and relaxing spots to choose from… so many, so little time. We had our hands-down best lodging of the whole trip… a three story circular stone tower with hammocks and panoramic views of the surrounding rice paddies and distant Bokor mountains on the third floor (this became boy headquarters and yoga central). As long as you don’t mind sharing your bathroom with frogs and your bedroom with large geckos, waking to 5 a.m. Call to Prayer at the neighboring mosques, and spirited Cambodian weddings with loud PA systems that pulse with music all night on weekends, you will love Ganesha. And we did!!!!
We have spent a great deal of time getting around cities in tuk-tuks. It is a great way to see a city and to experience the chaos of the urban landscape. Here are a few photos. I have found it is best to sit on the bench that faces away from the driver and the oncoming traffic. This helps when, for example, you are the only vehicle going in completely the wrong direction around a very busy city rotary.
Interestingly, Phnom Penh was one of the cities the kids were most looking forward to visiting based on the reading they have done. Henry read several age-appropriate historical fiction and non-fiction novels about Cambodia set in the era of the Khmer Rouge. (“First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung and “Never Fall Down” by Patricia McCormick are good for teens and advanced pre-teen readers, and “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner is appropriate for younger readers, Braxton enjoyed this one.) We also watched the movie “The Killing Fields” prior to our trip. Given this preparation and their interest and maturity, we decided to include a tour of the Killing Fields on our itinerary.
The Killing Fields refer to the sites throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot tortured and executed 1.7 million people – 21% of the population – between 1975-79. The best known one is Choeung Ek where 17,000 men, women, children and babies were brutally executed after being tortured first at nearby Tuol Sleung, a former high school turned prison and torture camp. These were very powerful and moving exhibits. Nothing can prepare you for seeing the glass memorial stupa containing 8000 human skulls, the mass graves, the huge vats of clothing, the 8 x 10 photos of every prisoner who passed through, including young children, the seemingly normal school where classrooms were turned into prison cells and torture chambers. While we had our reservations about exposing the kids, in the end I’m very happy they experienced this. I think they are too. How can you understand Cambodia without understanding this genocide, and how can you begin to understand genocide without understanding the horror? As the narrator of our audio-tour pointed out this was not the first or the last genocide, and to prevent future atrocities, anywhere, one needs to understand these past events. “For your sake, remember us and remember our past as you look to your future.”
Add to all this the perspective we enjoyed of our charismatic tuk-tuk driver “Tree” whose mother was a nurse under the Khmer Rouge and whose family is very poor. He explained the intricacies of dealing with the corruption of the system and the “rich ones” every day as he tries to provide for his family and rise out of poverty. You begin to understand yet another layer of the complexity that is Cambodia. While not necessarily condoning the violence, there are a great many poor in Cambodia who continue to support the ideals of the Khmer Rouge and who themselves were KR soldiers or who are descendants of this largely peasant group. It is much more complicated than we would have imagined, and still seems quite tenuous.
While emotionally challenging and certainly draining, this day was actually a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh, allowing for great conversations with the kids and amazing learning opportunities for all.
We took a detour from Phnom Penh and spent several days in the city of Siem Reap, the jumping off point for touring the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, the previous center of the Khmer Kingdom. Angkor Wat is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Below are Braxton’s impressions:
Angkor Wat is a series of beautiful temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia. They were built by the Khmer people as early as the 9th century. The buildings are crumbling and in some places the jungle is breaking up the rock. It was amazing how much art they had in there. A lot of the art was a style known as bas relief. Bas relief is a carving in stone that often tells a story. They had it on almost all of the walls and sometimes it went all the way around the perimeter of the temple. Lots of the temples were bringing Hindu beliefs and Buddhist beliefs together. They often had stories of Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer) in the bas reliefs. All three are Hindu gods. Vishnu is often found holding a mace, a sphere, a conch shell, and a disc (he has four arms). Vishnu is also usually found riding on a Garuda. A Garuda is a mythical part bird, part snake, and part human creature.
Angkor Wat is one of the most beautiful places ever. It is also considered to be the eighth wonder of the world. It is most beautiful when you see it at sunrise like we did. I hope you will be fortunate enough to go there some day.
We had a great time in Phnom Penh. It is a vibrant, bustling city demonstrating the extremes of both poverty and excess. You see it all…from a picturesque promenade along the riverfront, the magnificent Royal Palace, exciting street food (including fried bugs, frogs, birds, snakes and tarantulas – and we did watch a British woman eat a tarantula)…. to small child vendors wandering the streets alone at night, seedy tourists plying the sex trade, and widespread begging. We learned a great deal in this city. We were introduced to the glories of the ancient Khmer civilization at the National Museum and Royal Palace, as well as to the horrors perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
From Braxton’s journal entry on the National Museum and Palace:
Vishnu is the Preserver of the Earth. Shiva is the Destroyer. Brahma is the Creator. They are all Hindu deities. Vishnu has four arms that are usually holding a conch shell, a ball, a mace, and a wheel. Shiva is usually holding a trident. Brahma has four faces looking in the cardinal directions. We quizzed our dad on what Vishnu is usually holding. He got three wrong, two right, and we had to tell him the last two.
At the Palace we went into a room that had what the royal people wore. They had a different outfit each day. The other room that we went to had an emerald Buddha. In the emerald Buddha room the floor was made of real silver tiles but they were covered with rugs. There was a life sized gold Buddha encrusted with diamonds (almost 10,000) but I couldn’t see the diamonds.
We love crossing borders, especially the international boundary experts among us. Here we are about to cross the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand. Mostly we have flown across borders (as in the airport photo below) with the exception of the crossing from Nanning, China to Hanoi, Vietnam by night train when we were awakened twice in two hours to exit the train with all of our luggage and deal with customs and immigration on both sides of the border. Needless to say, the daytime crossing of the Mekong by boat was much easier.
OK, OK, since so many people want to know… we did not actually eat the rats. They were not offered to us and were instead eaten by the guides and village women who were cooking. Unfortunately, they are probably used to westerners squealing and then photographing their dinner, one of their only sources of protein. Honestly, it just did not seem that gross in the middle of the jungle. Several claim that they were fully prepared to eat them…
Here are a few more photos of this lovely trek.
It’s Henry and I’m going to do my best and worst list along with cool, strange, and funky things! Hope you enjoy!
BEST AND WORST OF ASIA TRIP
Food: Best food was cooked with Chef Huang in Hanoi, and the worst was noodles for breakfast in Moganshan.
Transportation: The best was probably the 17 hr plane ride to Shanghai from NY and the worst was definitely the 8 hr minivan drive to Luang Namtha from Luang Prabang! 😦
Hottest city: Phnom Penh
Best bathroom: The bathroom in our ecolodge on Catba island in Vietnam is by far the best! Comes fully equipped with urinal, sink, shower, and toilet!
Coolest thing I have found: definitely an AK-47 banana clip I found in the Namtha river is the coolest thing I’ve found
The weirdest things I’ve seen: I have seen alot of weird things so, starting from weirdest and getting less weird, here they are!
1.dogs wearing clothes!
2.Monkey in the middle of Phnom Penh!
3.A coke machine in the middle of the woods!
4.Playboy brand stuff
5. Thai Ronald McDonald
6. GIANT SPIDER!
7. Funny donation box (“Charity Box for Especially Difficult Children”)
That was all the weird stuff I’ve seen, but now it’s time for some weird food!
1.pig and pig feet!
3. Assorted bugs
5. Snake and Scorpion whiskey
6. Green airplane cake that probably wasn’t supposed to be green
(ps we also saw cat and dog but those photos were pretty nasty!)
My favorite mode of transportation is either a tandem bike or an elephant!
There have been lots of fun things like $4 manicure/pedicures, elephants, and badminton, but there’s also the homework, no friends, and the candy here is terrible. Still, I’m having a good time and I hope you guys are too!
From Luang Prabang we traveled eight windy, bumpy (and for some team members, barfy) hours by minibus to the town of Luang Namtha — one of the jumping off points for exploring the Nam Ha National Protected Area — for a three-day guided jungle trek. The highlights of this adventure on the eastern edge of the Golden Triangle were not found in the hiking itself or in the flora and fauna, but in the people.
On the hiking: it was steep up and down, at times treacherously slick, jungle trekking with few views through the dense foliage (despite relatively high ridge and summit trails) in what an Ashevillian (not to mention a Vermonter) would consider extreme heat and humidity. (Nonetheless, our guide, Tom, referred to this time of year as the “cool dry season”.) On the fauna: we saw little of it but heard some pretty “jungley” noises probably produced by birds and frogs (interspersed with some mysterious nighttime shrieks and crashes). On the flora: we saw a lot of it, but, with no expert botanist with good English language skills on the team, we did not learn much about it.
The people made the trip. Our guide Tom was a gentle, knowledgeable young man who, along with his sidekick Zhuan, could fashion almost everything you would need out of the raw materials around them (mostly bamboo). These items included strong, light weight rattan walking sticks; bamboo picnic tables, shot glasses, chopsticks, spring loaded pea shooters; and banana leaf food wrappers. Our fellow trekkers Pawel and Goshe provided good stories of previous treks in Ethiopia and important insight into their recent trekking experiences in Nepal (where we hope to trek next month). Pawel’s camera size (large) and shooting frequency (often) indicate that he will produce some great images (which we hope to receive by email someday). Our other fellow trekker, Ian, was a mechanical engineer with the Mars Curiosity mission, responsible, among other things, for the percussive part of the rock drill the rover has recently started using to take samples of Mars’ rock layers. The drilling had just started when Ian left on the trek, so he was anxious during the trek to find out whether the drill (specifically the percussive element) actually worked. (It did.) Ian’s knowledge of things galactic came in handy when answering the boys’ many questions about life on Mars and etc. We’re calling those Q & A sessions homeschool science class for the week.
Night one was spent in a rustic jungle camp. Among the practical issues faced by residents of a jungle camp is protecting food (here sticky rice grains) from rodents. Snakes take care of part of this problem, but the complete solution involves trapping, roasting and eating the critters, specifically jungle rats. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and served with a variety of meat, vegetables and spicy sauces was the order of the day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Day one: “I love sticky rice!” Day three: “Oh no! No more sticky rice!”
Night two was spent in a Lanten village. The Lanten (variably known as the Lantien, Landian, and Yao Mun) may have originated in the Yangtse River Valley of China but migrated south into southern China and the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia during the last centuries. They are closely related to the better-known Hmong (better known in the US for their role as our allies during the Vietnam War). Walking into this village, accessible only by footpath, was a highlight of the three days. Chickens, pigs, dogs, and cows roamed unfettered through this community of 113 souls (down from 115 a month earlier). The effects of poverty (and possibly the shallow depth of the Lanten gene pool in this region (the tribes apparently do not intermarry very frequently)) were apparent on their faces. The first three grades of schooling are offered in the village, after which ambitious young scholars who choose to continue their formal education must hike 3 to 4 difficult hours to a school on the main road where they spend the school week before returning home for the weekend. Having hiked that route out of the village on Day 3, I can attest that those students do hike uphill to school, both ways.
In addition to the events Amy described, our visit to Luang Prabang also included an elephant ride. The corny and uncomfortable first half hour sitting on a platform seat strapped to an Asiatic elephant riding through degraded forest was followed by a much more exciting barebacked ride into the Mekong River for an afternoon bath. Coco’s mahout (elephant wrangler) got a big kick out of getting her elephant to fully submerge itself starting with its head in an attempt to throw Coco off the front into the muddy Mekong. The scene reminded me of a mechanical bull riding contest in the middle of a very large river. Her core strength and sense of balance along with a firm determination to keep her hair dry allowed Coco to stay seated throughout. Amy’s elephant refused to engage in such antics, instead preferring to spray her through its trunk. Unfortunately, the spraying behavior started before they reached the river resulting in a dust and elephant saliva bath, later to be rinsed with sprays of Mekong murk. The boys’ elephant was well behaved on all fronts much to their disappointment. Dad was happy to record the events from the bank.