Outdoor exercise in Siem Reap

I was biking through Siem Reap one evening and happened upon this aerobics/dance class taking place on the outdoor plaza of some government building. After barely 2 minutes trying to subtly watch the action, the women in the class motioned for me to join in.

Every morning and evening from 5:0 to 7, the instructor teaches these fitness classes in 25 minute intervals with a 5 minute break in between. For less than 50 cents (it was 12 cents/half hr) I more than fulfilled the CDC’s recommended exercise goal and made some friends!

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Angkor Archaeological Park 1

 

 

After Battambang, I came back to Siem Reap, where I had previously spent 3 days.

It is a small Cambodian city where rice paddies are a quick bicycle ride away. As I had mentioned before, Siem Reap is mainly frequented by tourists for the Temples at Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire (9th to the 15th century).

There are over 1,000 temples at the Angkor Archaeological site! Many are in ruins and only rubble remains, but a good number are visitable, including the most well-known, Angkor Wat, which is said to be the world’s largest single religious monument.

You can see on the map below the large complex of temples on top and Siem Reap on the bottom portion. Each square represents another temple. The distance between the two outermost temples is around 25 miles.

I bought a 3-day pass, which allows you to go up to 3x in one week.

In one day you can see only a handful of temples before they all start to look the same in your tired, hungry and dehydrated head. It requires some planning to visit the temples as they are a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap and certain itineraries that make more sense than others. Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is “not to be missed” so you need to plan for that too.

The first day of my 3-day pass (which I actually did prior to Battambang & meeting my friends Lara and Grant) – I split a tuk-tuk with 2 Dutch travelers in my hostel. This is generally what is done, unless you want to splurge and hire an air-conditioned car or unless you’re part of a large tour group that buses you around.

A tuk-tuk driver who hung out at my hostel, “Rooster Man” – he earned this moniker as he had the unique ability to mimic a crowing sound – promised to pick us up at 5am in time for the 5:30am sunrise at Angkor Wat. There are two small bodies of water in front of Angkor Wat’s entrance and as the sun rises you see the reflection of the facade, which is supposed to be magnificent. After that, Rooster Man would bring us along the “small loop” of the complex to 5-6 other noteworthy temples. We would be back at the hostel for lunch and a nice cold beer. Sounded great!

Everything went as planned, he showed up at 5am and we blasted away on his tu-tuk through the dark-but-getting-lighter night. 15 minutes in, he turned around and just seemed to confirm that we were going to Angkor Wat. We said “yes, Angkor Wat. Water. Reflection.” He nodded and said he would bring us to the area where there were less tourists. Every guidebook warns about the masses of tourists that get up early to see the sunrise and reflection of the temple and then head back to Siem Reap town for breakfast and a nap before tackling the rest. We anticipated it would be a madhouse so any secret nook he knew was golden.

Alas, at 5:30am we did not descend upon Angkor Wat but a large lake with a crumbling tower on the far end that indeed reflected back on the water…but could have been any bell-tower like structure, on any lake, anywhere in the world. We quickly tried to remedy the situation, but instead of driving us quickly to Angkor Wat, he began arguing his case about how we had asked him for this specifically, etc, etc. Finally, he drove us to a dirt road and told us to walk straight. For 15 minutes we walked along a deserted strip in a forested jungle and eventually find ourselves behind Angkor Wat.

At this point the sun had risen (5:50am) and we made our way to the front of Angkor Wat only to see the masses of tourists making their way back to the charter buses or tuk tuks. BIG FAIL.

Sunrise Part I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunrise(n) Part II (at Angkor Wat)

Although my introduction to what some argue is the 8th world wonder was less than spectacular, the upside is that my Dutch friends and I were able to explore Angkor Wat completely unencumbered by other tourists.

The periphery of Angkor Wat (above) – all to myself!

A detailed carving (below)

At Ta Prohm: temple largely left as found. Popular among tourists for its jungle surroundings and spectacular integration of nature and architecture. And maybe because Tomb Raider was filmed here (below)

Example of tree roots and temple in harmony (below)

Getting my inversion-fix (at Ta Prohm, above)

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Landmine Museum

On our way back from Banteay Srei, we stopped at the new Cambodia Landmine Museum, founded by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge conscripted child soldier. The previous museum was in Siem Reap town, which afforded access to many more visitors, but they were forced to move and the trek is now 1 hour out from the center.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum Relief Center cares for almost 30 young children, including many victims of landmine explosions, some orphans, and some children who’s parents are just incapable of raising them. They are fed, housed, and sent to school.

At the age of 10, Aki Ra was conscripted by the Khmer Rouge and later captured by the Vietnamese. For years he laid down these same landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance) he fights to clear today. The museum was well set-up with informational panels in Khmer, English and French on the history behind UXOs in Cambodia in particular, but also in other areas of the world. One room housed photos and stories behind victims of landmine tragedies. Part of the museum was outside and showcased inactive UXOs as they would have been placed in nature.

In 2010, he was named a CNN Hero. To learn more about his story and watch video, click here: aki.ra.html

It was chilling to read the stories and learn more about the ongoing legacies of war. Although Cambodia is likely the most bombed country in history, it’s not just Cambodia, it’s Laos, it’s Rwanda, Iraq…

One source from earlier this year claimed that a landmine accident occurs every 22 minute – claiming over 500 victims a week. It affects field workers, kids playing on fields, deminers; in these countries where most of the population lives in poverty, civilians even seek out mines for the money they can obtain from the scrap metal.

A recent article in the NY Times highlighted COPE, an organization focused on prosthetic limbs and rehab for mine victims in Laos: Between 1964 and 1973, during the Vietnam War days, the US bombed Laos continuously, despite Laos being a neutral country and no openly declared war with Laos. The Ho Chi Minh trail ran through southern Laos, which was the initial target, but the spread of communism, too great for America, lent to over 260 million UXOs dropped by the US in those 9 years, of which 30% remain unexploded.

There are innumerable causes to take up in this day and age, and whether you or I become militant de-mining activists, let’s keep this information in mind and help spread the word.

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Angkor Archaeological Park 2

I spent the second day of my Angkor pass with my friends Lara and Grant. You may remember this infamous couple from my Tokyo posts. Their honeymoon itinerary and my solo trip overlapped again in SE Asia ūüôā

We decided to rent a car and make our way to Banteay Srei, one of the further temples (about 1 hour versus the 30 mins to the main area) built in the 10th century of beautiful red sandstone and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Because hard red sandstone can be carved like wood, Banteay Srei is known for the intricacy of its carvings.

After Banteay Srei, we made our way back to Siem Reap via 4-5 more temples, like Banteay Samre, and a stop at Cambodia’s Landmine Museum (separate post).

Here are some more photos:

Newlyweds (below)

South gate of Angkor Thom (below)

It was Mother’s Day, so we snapped some shots to send back home!

It’s close to 100 degrees and 99% humidity in the morning and only gets worse, so a nice dip in the pool post temple-hopping was much appreciated. Thanks for getting a hotel with a pool, guys!

The last day of my pass, I decided to use one of the bicycles at my hostel to explore more of the temples. I was off timing-wise by just the right amount because tourist groups were leaving each temple just as I arrived. It was a very meditative day. No pictures, except on the ride home. I always stop for monkeys.

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Battambang – last days

The next days,  I attended a Khmer cooking class and went to the Cambodian circus.

I took the class at Nary’s Cooking school, in the kitchen of Nary restaurant, an unassuming little place near the central market. It was taught by Nary’s English speaking husband, Toot and included a trip to the market to pick up fresh ingredients for our meal, and also to initiate us to some unique sights (eels lurking in plastic buckets), smells (fresh lemongrass), and tastes (durian = heavenly).

For $7 (the website says it is now $15) we prepared, cooked, and ate three meals: fried spring rolls, fish amok (Cambodia’s national dish) and beef lok lak. I have a recipe book that I will scan for you all soon!

Ingredients :

Finished products:

The class was just me and a fellow tourist, Richard, from Britain. We received “personalized attention” from Toot. I would argue it was too much – he hovered over me and kept criticizing my skills! Apparently I don’t know proper mortar and pestle technique and am too slow at chopping. Growing up the joke at home was that I was not “bonne a marrier” which in French is “fit to be wed” because I suck in the kitchen. It’s one thing for my mom to say that, but quite another to hear it from a self-important Cambodian cooking instructor! Needless to say, he whipped/chopped/sliced/ground me into shape, and the results were delicious.

The next night, I went with Richard and a Cambodian guy at the B&B to the circus! The circus is sponsored by Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO that gives youths from deprived backgrounds the opportunity to channel their energies into learning circus skills such as juggling, clowning and acrobatics whilst raising awareness of issues such as HIV/AIDS, landmines and child rights.

According to their pamphlet, it started back in 1986 in the refugee camps on the Thai border with simple drawing workshops. The experiment continued after the refugees returned to their homelands in Battambang and Phare Ponleu Selpak now has a worldwide reputation, even attracting trainers from Cirque du Soleil. Not a bad way to spend a Friday night!

The FINALE

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Battambang

After scoping out Siem Reap, which I’ll return to in a few days for the Angkor temples, I spent 3 days in Battambang in¬†northwestern Cambodia, the country’s second largest city. Though, it feels more like a big village.

Battambang¬†had been¬†a Khmer Rouge stronghold and it is here, in my guesthouse, that I have my first conversation with a Cambodian about her experience (mentioned briefly in a previous post). She was only¬†3 years old in 1975, but remembers moving a lot and the feeling of constant insecurity and anxiety within her family because her father was an academic, thus a major target of Pol Pot. It’s not something she likes to talk about and told me that even with her family, those days are rarely mentioned. I have a feeling she lost close friends and family or never saw them again.

My first day I rented a bicycle and went on a tour of the countryside around Battambang with a student at the local university who guides tourist for extra cash. Over the course of 5 sweaty hours, he showed me the local industries, from rice wine and rice paper (for both fried and fresh spring rolls!) to dried bananas and bamboo sticky rice (basically sticky rice with coconut and red bean cooked in a hollowed bamboo, and absolutely delicious).

Video of rice-paper making:

Since Battambang is on the other side of the Tonle¬†Sap river, fishing is also a large industry here. They salt and dry the fish in the sun, but actually, the major product here is fish paste, which they export throughout the country and SE Asia. In large vats they combine fish, egregious amounts of salt and other sauces and spices which they then¬†let sit and become a paste to be added to bread, soups, or even eaten alone (like we might eat peanut butter or nutella, I guess). It’s a huge hit, but something about the heat and smell turns me off ūüôā

We also biked past a Khmer Rouge memorial site and¬†a “killing cave” which is now home to bats. It seems like no area of Cambodia is without a cruel reminder of their past. Final stop was at a brick making plant. Below are some pictures from there:

On the morning of day two,¬†I took a ride on Battambang’s bamboo train. Cambodia is in the process of revamping its railways. Currently, only freight is transported on the rails and¬†locals use them too¬†for short distances to transport goods to nearby villages. To do this they load their stuff on “bamboo trains” which consist of a bamboo platform on top of two wheeled axles powered by a small engine. It is quite the experience! The rails are so terrible and within 10 seconds my whole body is numb/sore/achy and my ears are shot¬†from the loud noise it makes. But the views around us are amazing, nothing but rice paddies¬†and small winding streams. At one point, we encounter¬†people¬†travelling in the opposite direction (pic 2 below)¬†meaning one of the platforms needs to be picked up from the rails, letting the other one go through. It was ours that was taken off because it carried only people and not heavy piles of goods like a motorbike and vats of fish paste.

Here is a video of that rickety ride. Don’t watch it if you get motion sick!

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Floating village and houses on stilts in Siem Reap, Cambodia

*Note: this was written in May, when I was in Cambodia. I am currently in Bangkok, and on my way to Uzbekistan in 2 days. Very behind on my blog, I still have Laos and all of Thailand to write about, so stay tuned!!!

I arrived in Siem Reap yesterday, after a 6 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh and spent the afternoon biking around the town and along the Siem Reap river. Most people come to Siem Reap for only a few days and mainly to see the temples at Angkor.

I’m here for a few days before leaving for Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, and then will return to Siem Reap to visit the temples with 2 friends (Lara and Grant)¬†who are coming in from Thailand.

What is there to do besides Angkor? Lots! Today, I visited some floating villages and houses on stilts in Kampong Khleang, a village about 1.5 hours south of Siem Reap, on the Tonle Sap lake. The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia. During the dry season, the lake drains into the Mekong river at Phnom Penh, but during the wet season, it fills up. Early May (now) marks the transition from dry to wet and during our visit, the Buddhist monestary in Kampong Khleang was setting up a celebration of traditional dances for this purpose.

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The water is very low right now which is evidenced by the stilted houses, but apparently the past few wet seasons were just as detrimental and flooded the village. According to our guide, 80% of the houses experienced flooding. You can see the level that the water reached on the sides of the houses.

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Once on the river, you can tell the water level is low because the motor of our boat was splashing around and we had to get up and push through some areas! We took the boat about 30 minute to the floating villages, which are primarily Vietnamese families who settled in Cambodia. Originally, they came in to help fight the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) and established themselves here. The villages engage in fishing activities, as you may imagine, and while we boated around them, we noticed what appeared to be mobile grocery stores, people from the surrounding mainland selling items to the floating villagers.

Photo

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S-21 and Choeung Ek Killing Fields (PP #2)

Cambodia is still recovering from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge, followers of the ruling party, the Communist Party of Kampuchea. They ruled the country between 1975 and 1979 and in those four years, annihilated over 3 million people, in a country of less than 8 million. That is close to one half of the population.

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to create an agrarian-based Communist society. It forced everyone out of the cities and into the fields. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, all the major cities were turned into ghost towns. The Khmer Rouge¬†wanted to eliminate anyone suspected of “capitalist” ideas or activities.¬†This included professionals and almost everyone with an education, many urban dwellers, and people with connections to foreign governments.

Although the genocide refers to those years between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were in power, Pol Pot and his followers were active long after their deposal ¬†in ’79. They even retained their seat at the U.N. until 1993.

Mass graves dating from the Khmer Rouge era are found throughout Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, which is the old Tuol Svay Prey High School that was taken over in 1975 by Pol Pot’s security forces, and turned into a prison, known as Security Prison 21 (S-21).

According to my guide book, detainees who died during torture were buried in mass graves inside the prison grounds. During the first part of 1977, S-21 averaged 100 victims per day.

A  cell from S-21:

The gallows, in the S-21 courtyard:

Rules to live by at S-21:

Almost all of the people held at S-21 were later taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek, southwest of Phnom Penh, and were executed. They comprised only a portion of the 20,000 people who lost their lives at these Killing Fields.

I went here one afternoon with a group of British guys from my hostel. The audio guide was fantastic and took us through the grounds (it was chilling how many “areas” of the killing fields were dedicated for specific tasks – see pic below) and really explained the history of the Khmer Rouge. The audio guide took about one hour, during which the clouds above turned black and it thundered several times. Quite a combo.

Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits (mass graves) and more than 8,000 skulls are stacked  and visible through the glass panels of the Memorial Stupa (made in 1988) at the center of the grounds.

Killing tree against which executioners beat children:

Children playing outside the fields:

Although the Cambodians I met were a friendly people, the horror of the Khmer Rouge years has definitely left the country in shock. Everyone was affected to some extent, either losing parents, seeing their siblings killed. Very few people talk about Pol Pot and his regime, though one guesthouse manager did speak to me about it. She was 3 when he came to power, and recalls fleeing to the border with Thailand, and the emotions she and her parents felt for years after losing brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins…It will take generations to heal. Unfortunately, similar things still happen today in places like Darfur and Pakistan. It may be naive, but the idealist in me hopes that more people visit Cambodia and learn about its past so we can stop and prevent these horrors.

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Strip mall gyms

In Asia, outdoor gyms are all the rage. (According to the NY Times they’re on their way to the States too)

In Seoul and Beijing, I’ve seen people exercising after work, on a lunch break, whenever, at these gyms located in park areas, by the riverside, or even on a random sidew. In Seoul, I tried it out along the Nam river (a metal elliptical-type thing) and felt good about getting in a few minutes of exercise on my trip ūüôā

Here is an example of a small one, in Seoul.

In Phnom Penh, I’ve noticed people doing outdoor aerobics classes, which is more my style. Here they are dancing along the Mekong riverfront.

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Phnom Penh or PNH or PP (Post #1)

I thought Seoul might ease my transition into southeast Asia, with its warmer climate, but I was wrong. I landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, at around 11pm and it was still blazing hot and humid.

The next morning, I was awoken around 6am by the bustle of activities occurring outside my window. Things start early here, and rightfully so…it was 8am by the time I rolled out of bed, showered and made my way to the guesthouse caf¬āe out front and barely seated for more than a minute, I was drenched, and pleading for an ice bath along with my iced coffee ūüôā

Peter, the staff at the guesthouse confirmed that it’s best to get things done between 4-8m, because it gets progressively hotter after that. I guess this schedule shift is good training for med school?

But enough about the heat. Phnom Penh is a beautiful, bustling, historic and dizzying city that lies on the banks of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, and Tonle Sap lake ( “great lake” in Khmer). The Mekong, although not the longest river in Asia (it comes in 7th place) seems to pop up everywhere: I saw it in Vietnam ten years ago, now it’s in Cambodia and already I have plans to see it again in the next month along the Thai-Laos border!

The Tonle Sap lake however belongs 100% to Cambodia.  At Phnom Penh, the Mekong and Tonle Sap join. They work together: when the Mekong river is low, the Tonle Sap water flows from the lake into the Mekong. During the rainy season when the Mekong floods, the flow reverses; the floodwaters of the Mekong flow up the Tonle Sap. Apparently the lake increases in size 8x during the wet season! Right now, in May, we are at the end of the dry season, so the lake is pretty small.

After coffee, I ventured out to explore Phnom Penh, the largest city in Cambodia, and the capital since the French colonial times. Their influence is evident in the layout and architecture of the city, with its grand boulevards, colonial villas and city squares. I can see how Phnom Penh may have been un petit Paris back in the day.

My first day anywhere is always overwhelming and disorienting no matter how many times I’ve read through the guidebooks. So I prefer to use my map and go by foot.

People in my hostel were hiring tuk-tuk’s (moto drawn carriages, see below left) for the day to show them around the major sights, which might have made sense 1) because of the heat, but really because 2) you cannot walk more than 5 feet without getting a “tuk tuk, lady! tuk-tuk, lady” or “ok, lady, my tuk tuk now”. The drivers are usually just hanging out, sometimes napping, in their tuk tuks. It doesn’t matter if there are 5 tuk tuks in a row waiting on the corner and you’ve already said no to the first two, each and every one of them will ask you to get in his tuk tuk. This comes in handy when you do need one (to clarify, tuk tuks are like “taxis” and charge you based on the distance, or time used, and it’s essential to establish the price before – I’m a few days ahead of this post so I can already tell you that one driver tried to charge me and a few others $15/pp for a half day, so $75 total, when it is written in all the guidebooks that $15 should be the overall price! )

I’ve concluded that it is best to acknowledge and say no to every driver (or shake my head and hands “no”) than to completely ignore them. The latter has elicited grumpy sounds or comments that I could not understand but seemed to convey offense. Let’s hope it becomes second nature!

A few photos from my day…

National Museum with Khmer art and sculpture:

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Nearby the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship monument

 

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