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siem reap (part 2) and the temples of angkor

Posted in angkor wat, cambodia, siem reap, temples of angkor by moonwire on September 22, 2009

A few days ago, I was wandering around the old market not sure what to do, when a tuk tuk driver hey-lady-tuk-tuk?’d me. With nothing to do and nothing to shoot as the light is way too bright here between 9 am and 4 pm, I decided to entertain him, so I asked ‘where would you take me?’ He answered ‘floating villages, perhaps?’

And just as I thought why not, a head popped up from behind the motorbike and it was Tola, the teacher. He was hanging out with his friend, the tuk tuk driver. He had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so we set off for the floating villages, about 10 kilometres outside of Siem Reap. There’s just one one long road with Tonle Sap lake on both sides, lined with mostly shacks built on stilts in the water, or raft like shacks that are floating.  However, when we got there, I knew for sure I wasn’t going into one of those little disaster boats, so I decided to just walk around the area, instead of drowning in the lake.

This was some of the worst poverty I’ve seen to date. And though this was bad, I’m sure there’s much worse places. At least here there was evidence of foreign money invested in the wells, a school and a library. Yet, this place resembled some sort of Disneyland of Desperation. Kids, often not even wearing pants and a t-shirt, playing soccer with a broken slipper for a ball, tiny one room shacks falling apart, probably housing a family of 10, some seriously sad stuff.

When we were walking along the road, a tiny little baby caught my eye. He was inside getting a bath. I had never seen such a tiny baby. He looked like he had just been born. I walked towards the room with Tola and he asked on my behalf how old the baby was. He was just one month old and weighed two kilos. To put it into perspective, the average weight of a Dutch baby at BIRTH is 3.3 kgs. I took some photos and Tola talked with them for a bit. Then as we were about to leave the older lady of the two turned to Tola and asked him if I wanted to take the baby. I was in total shock. I know it’s possible to buy a baby here for next to nothing, but this was the first time I was offered one.

This girl I found sitting by herself in the room. Not an adult in sight. Her house was connected to the road by small planks acting as a bridge. I know the safety of children isn’t a priority here, but just one mis-step and the child would fall a few meters down into the water.

Here’s a few more from that afternoon:

I know I write a lot about the kids here and most photos include a kid or two. And though I’m not known for my child-loving qualities, they really do something to me (and my wallet). Just this morning I was having breakfast at a really neat little French place called Tigre de Papier on Pub Street. I usually have my brekkie at a local place but I needed to use the internet so I decided to go to Tigre to use their free wifi. I had just finished eating my baguette and eggs, when I noticed a small boy standing next to a table with two foreigners having breakfast. His eyes were so fixated on the food and I observed him for a minute or so. The two foreigners completely ignored him though he was standing at their table, right in their face.

That’s what kills me the most here. I don’t always give these kids something, you just can’t as there’s so many, but ignoring them is degrading them. When I made eye contact with the boy he just looked at me with literally hungry eyes. I smiled at him and he gave me a faint smile in return. I asked him to come over, which he hesitantly did. He barely spoke English, but he understood ‘hungry?’. So I sat him down, ordered some noodles and a Coca Cola. The only thing I got out of him was that he was 10 years old. He told me his name, but I couldn’t decipher it. While waiting for his food he ravaged my pancake and fruit salad and when his food arrived I wondered how much he’d be able to eat.

Well, about half way through his meal, some of his bottle collector friends (he’s a bottle collector himself) walked by. Before I knew it, there were five kids around the table, taking turns having a go at the noodles and the Coca Cola. When it was all done, they left.

Just as I paid the bill, they were walking by again so we all set off to the place where I usually have my brekkie. All the kids ordered noodle soup with chicken. I asked the boy I had just fed if he wanted more. Oh yes. It really is like Tola told me ‘We eat whenever we can’. That boy finished the entire bowl of noodle soup and another Coca Cola. And he was just a scrawny little thing. Most of the kids finished their bowl. The few little scraps that were left, were carefully placed in a bag for ‘on the road’. And off they went, with their rice bags, back to collecting bottles.

On a lighter note, I also visited the Temples of Angkor. Moori, the tuk tuk driver who took me to my guesthouse, also took me to the temples. He is an English student at some Australian college here in town. He proudly showed me his marks from his last term. His English was good and so was his knowledge of the temples. He proposed a certain route to hit the most important temples (the whole site is huge and they even sell week passes for the temple fanatics) and I was all fine with that.

We started off with the temple that was featured in ‘Tombraider’; Ta Prohm. It was really cool. First a lovely walk through the jungle, surrounded by butterflies. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists. It was very quiet there. I walked through the ruins, marveled at the weird trees with their spooky roots. After that we hit a few more temples such as Ta Keo, the Elephant Terrace and the Palace, Bayon and finally, the masterpiece of it all, Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was a tourist trap. There were hundreds of people armed with cameras taking shots as if this was their last day on earth. There’s nothing to shoot there, unless you’re into shooting groups of weird Japanese tourists (what’s up with them? They tend to travel in packs, all armed with cameras, covered from head to toe, holding umbrellas. Or even better, the women wearing heels, attempting to climb ruins).

I am glad I did go see the temples. It’s absolutely surreal being there (especially Ta Phrom), but it doesn’t translate into photos at all. Here’s some more shots from my day:

The footbridge that leads to Angkor Wat

The kids here are so much smaller than in the Western world. I guessed these three boys were about 8 years old. In fact they were 13. It’s only their teeth that gives it away.

So after 10 days in Phnom Penh and 9 days in Siem Reap, I will be leaving Cambodia tomorrow morning. Though this country has been the hardest on me mentally, it has also been my favourite place, so far. It is very easy to talk to the people here and overall they are very friendly, always welcoming a chat. There haven’t been any of the blatant rip-offs I’ve encountered in Indonesia and Thailand, though the people here seem to be in more desperate need of money. There’s more obvious and worse poverty here, child labour is rampant. I read somewhere that almost half of the kids under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition, which is simply unacceptable, especially since there’s no famine here. There’s plenty of good food. My photographer friend Alan Dejecacion (check out his truly excellent work here) put it so well:

“They, like us, live in a world of plenty, where more food is produced than is consumed. People are dying, not because there is not enough food, but because they are too poor to buy it and have no land where they could grow their own.

It’s all about inequalitites. Always, everywhere, they are the reasons for deep-seated, persistent hunger – simply another name for injustice. This is why charity, however necessary it may be to alleviate distress, is not the relevant virtue for fighting hunger. That virtue is justice, because charity can never be more than a stop-gap – it does not and cannot change unjust structures.”

And before I leave Cambodia for another adventure (flying to KL tomorrow, spend the night in KL, then off to Manila), just one more from the Samrong Village School of Opportunity:

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siem reap

Posted in cambodia, siem reap by moonwire on September 19, 2009

On Monday morning, I took the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It wasn’t a bad ride at all. It took about six hours and everyone had a seat. It was interesting to see rural Cambodia. Because of the rainy season, everything is very green and it was just beautiful watching the rice paddies. About half way through we stopped for a break. I got out and got immediately ambushed by kids selling all kinds of food. And tarantulas. They had them crawling all over themselves. Some of the kids were carrying plates with deep fried tarantulas and things like cockroaches and grasshoppers. Needless to say, I wasn’t very hungry and got back on the bus very quickly. No, I don’t have any photos unfortunately. I seriously felt so sick looking at the spiders and the food…

Siem Reap really is a very small place. In some ways it reminds me of Luang Prabang, with the one street full of nice bars and restaurants. A few alleys around it, too. Everything is within walking distance. Luang Prabang as a town is much prettier though. But when it comes to pretty, Luang Prabang wins over any place I’ve ever been. But it’s just lovely here. One thing that’s hard to block out is the child labour and the many people with missing or deformed limbs selling books and postcards. They were in Phnom Penh as well, but you’ve got about the same amount here and this is a much smaller place.

Typical sight: a child working as a ‘bottle collector’.

One night I was on my way to the outdoor restaurant (almost all food is 1 dollar there, and excellent) at the end of Pub Street when two kids were trying to sell me bracelets. I do not buy this kind of stuff from kids in the street, but I asked them if they wanted to join me for dinner. Of course, you never  have to ask them twice, and all of a sudden there were three more kids. Okay, three more didn’t matter that much and we continued walking through Pub Street. Then we bump into a man in a makeshift wheelchair, holding a small yappy dog. He tried to sell me books, but I didn’t need them, but I asked him as well to come to the restaurant. Must have been quite the scene, me with 5 kids, a guy in a wheelchair and a dog in tow.

We had a good dinner, eating rice and noodles. Some of the kids spoke pretty good English, but the man in the wheelchair, his name is Joeun, did not, but he did understand a little. When I asked him if his dog was a boy or a girl he gave me a big toothless smile and answered ‘lady dog’, which somehow completely cracked me up. Joeun was born with severely deformed lower legs and supports his wife and three young children by selling books, mostly about life under the Khmer Rouge, to tourists. What a life. The sweetest thing though, was when he got his food, he immediately gave some pieces of meat and some rice to his ‘ladydog’ who finished her dinner very unladylike in a matter of seconds.

Another interesting meeting was with Tola. I was walking along the river when I saw this young man sitting on a bench, studying an English book. As always, it was very easy to strike up a conversation and we chatted for a while. He told me he was  24 years old, a student and he also volunteered teaching English to kids at a rural school about 30 kilometres from Siem Reap. He showed me some photos from the school and some teaching materials he uses. I asked him if it was possible for me to visit the school. He was happy to take me there.

Tola at the principal’s house.

So the next day we went to a village in Bakong on the motorbike. The first part of the trip was on a paved road, but the last 11 kilometres was not. Just a dirt road through the country. The scenery was beautiful. Lots of trees, rice paddies and butterflies. I know it’s not a wealthy area by any stretch of the imagination, but I was happy to see that people were living in proper houses (most made from wood, on stilts) and that most people had a skinny cow or two grazing, some chickens running around and a pig here and there.

First we made a stop at the school’s principal’s house. We had something to eat and drink there. Then another teacher, and I really should be taking note of these things, whose name I now can’t remember, took me to another teacher’s house where I was offered even more food and drinks. The whole family was preparing food and snacks for the upcoming holiday. As is very usual, several generations were living under one roof. We stayed there briefly before walking to the school.

When we got to the school I could barely believe that this was a school. Just a wooden shack divided in two. Two classrooms. During the day it is a public school and after hours there are English classes run by four volunteers. It was great seeing the kids arrive at school. Big smiles and excitement everywhere. They were a bit rowdy before the lesson started but as soon as it did, they paid a lot of attention. They were great kids. I had brought them pens and notebooks and they were very happy with something so small. They loved their picture taken. Though I think I took my best shots with the Nikon film camera, it was great shooting digital so I could show them the picture immediately. Here’s a few:

Around 5 pm we headed back to Siem Reap. It was a great afternoon.

Up next: the temples of Angkor.

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phnom penh (part 3)

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 13, 2009

I’ve spent 10 days in Phnom Penh and it’s hard for me to write about what I did. I really didn’t do all that much. Of course, I went to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (I went back another time, without the monks), but other than that, I didn’t do any of the touristy things. I would usually go out in the morning, have brekkie at the Vicious Cycle at 130 and 5th street. It’s a bicycle shop that offers cycling tours throughout the country, has a cafe and a laundromat. The food is really good and the staff is fantastic. Today, one of the employees sat down with me and we talked about life for young people here. He told me he went to university for 1.5 years, but then the money ran out so he had to go back to work. He said working at the Vicious Cycle was a really good job. He gets paid 60 USD a month for working 7 days a week from 6 AM to 9 PM with 2 days a month off. He, as well as some of the other employees sleep inside the building for free and they get 2 meals a day. It’s hard to imagine that that’s considered a ‘good job’ while I’m chowing down my food, which costs more than he makes in a day.

Rainy afternoon in Phnom Penh, taken from a tuk tuk.


I basically spent my time just walking around, observing life, take some photos, chat with the people. Then in the afternoon there’d usually be heavy showers, sometimes entire streets would get completely flooded, so I’d go to my room to read or just chill out. Then later in the afternoon I’d go out and do the same thing, ending up with having some drinks at the Foreign Correspondents Club or at the bar of the Velkommen Inn, the guesthouse I’m staying at.

Kid playing with a live frog on a string.


My guesthouse is located right in the heart of the “Girlie Bar” district (but it’s definitely not a Girlie Bar) and it’s fun to see the ladies (and ladyboys) arrive for work. Strutting their stuff wearing their high heels. There’s always something to see. I could just sit there for hours.

There’s also monkeys here that come look for food, as I’ve noticed. One afternoon I was having a sandwich and fries on the outside patio, when all of a sudden, a little one jumped down onto my table, grabbed my sandwich and ran back upstairs. Apparently, I was not the first one this happened to.

My days went by very quickly here. I totally enjoyed this city. Yes, it’s dirty and grimy and smoggy, disgusting and poverty is all around, but it’s so full of life and the people are so positive and welcoming. Phnom Penh is hard to resist.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to upload photos, so I don’t have too many new ones to show. I’ve also shot 6 rolls of film here, which I’ll have to develop when I get back. However, here’s some more photos from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This place has made the biggest impression on me.

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the monks and the killing fields

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 10, 2009

A couple of nights ago, I wandered around Phnom Penh with my camera ready for action when I heard a ‘hello’ coming from an open door. I looked back and a monk came out. We chatted a bit and he invited me into his quarters. He offered me tea and sweets and we talked a little bit. Shortly after, another monk joined us and he asked me if I wanted to help him with his pronunciation of English. I thought why not and promised to be back the next day. So, the next day I went over again and I let them read from their textbooks while I corrected them, or explained the meaning of certain words. Cats were running around, other monks came and went. It was really neat. And we repeated this the next day.

After the second lesson, they asked me if I could come back again and I told them that I would, but that I was planning on going to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum the next day. Then one of them said he’d never been there and if he could come, too. I was actually pretty shocked he asked that question. It never crossed my mind a monk could ask a solo female traveler to go out to somewhere. But yes, absolutely, I thought it would be great to have them come with me and I said I’d pick them up the next day at noon.

So, the next day, I show up at noon. Monk Mony was already waiting outside, holding a book about the Killing Fields. The other monk, and I sadly forgot his name (if I see him again, I’ll ask) wasn’t able to make it so I had a bit of a dilemma because I couldn’t take just the one. So Monk Mony asked another monk if he wanted to come and he said yes. He had not been to the Killing Fields either. So we get in the tuk tuk and made our way to Choeung Ek (the Khmer name for the Killing Fields). They were slightly giggly on the way there, especially when the rain came down in biblical proportions, but as soon as we got there, it all changed.

The monks were cheap dates.  When I asked for three tickets, the lady said: “the men don’t pay, only YOU pay”.

There really isn’t all that much to see but it’s very haunting to be there. There’s a big stupa filled with about 5,000 skulls. Some of them have obvious trauma, such as cracks and parts smashed in. Then there’s the mass graves. Because it had been raining so much, they were full of water. And mud. So we walked around the fields for a bit.

The monks looking at one of the many mass grave sites.

The  Magic Tree; the sign reads: “the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” To make sure that the killing of  people was kept a secret, the killers played revolutionary music through two loudspeakers hung from the tree, so the cries and screams would not be heard by the unknowing soldiers who were growing rice next to the site.

When we got back to the tuk tuk, I told them that I was going to Tuol Sleng, the notorious security prison 21 (formerly a high school), where between 1975 and 1979 some 17,000 to 20,000 people were taken to under the Khmer Rouge regime. Though all kinds of different people entered these chambers of hell — men, women, children, teachers, intellectuals, monks, and everybody else branded as ‘class enemies’ — their sentences were uniform and determined as soon as they got arrested: death.

Only 7 people detained here over those 4 years made it out alive after the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh in january 1979.

The museum is pretty much left as how it was found by the Vietnamese.  You can still see where blood stained the tiles.  On the ground floor each room has a bed with a few pieces on it, such as shackles. On the wall there’s a  photo of that same bed with a tortured to death prisoner on it.There’s nothing else in those rooms.

In another building you see displays of thousands of photos of prisoners. Some of them have blank stares, others have agonizing fear in their eyes.  Then there’s the photos of prisoners after they’re killed. Seemingly endless rows.

The top floors show the cells. They are tiny, maybe 80 cms wide and 150 cms long. Prisoners were bolted to the floor there. Some of them have barred windows, others are completely dark.

Somewhere on a wall somebody wrote:

“When this was a prison, nobody learned.
When this was a school, nobody died.”

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phnom penh

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 6, 2009

I took a tuk tuk on Friday Morning to Wattay International airport. A tuk tuk is a motorbike with a carriage attached to it. I love these things, despite perpetually getting overcharged for them (they are as much as a regular taxi). You don’t go too fast and because it’s open, except for a roof, you get to see all kinds of things. The sun was still low enough to give that nice warm light and with a few choppers flying low, and the morning ‘rush hour’ in full swing, I felt as if I was in a Vietnam war movie.

I flew with Vietnam Airlines to Phnom Penh. It was a pretty big jet plane originating in Hanoi, making stops in Vientiane, Phnom Penh and continuing onwards to Saigon. There were only few people on it. Makes me wonder if I’d been taken for a ride by being told all the flights to Phnom Penh were full until Friday. Doesn’t matter. Had I left Vientiane earlier, I would not have experienced the beauty of that city like I ended up experiencing. Just for this reason, and my own sanity, I have decided that spending a week in every place, unless I really hate it, is a good thing.

I arrived in Phnom Penh just before noon. My flight actually took off early, how un-Asian. I checked into the Tonle Sap Guesthouse on street 104. The tuk tuk driver told me not to go there as it’s the ‘red light district’. I had checked before, and yes, most bars and guesthouses here are of the ‘girlie’ variety, but my guesthouse wasn’t one of them. So I checked in. The room was ho hum. Clean, but dark without character. I had good free wifi there, which was a bonus. And a kick ass bathroom with a tub.

In the afternoon I ventured out a little in the neighbourhood. So busy. So full of life and so full of ‘crumble’ and poverty as well. But the people… I couldn’t take two steps without getting a hello or a smile. One man stopped me and pointed in the sky, I looked, there were monkeys crossing the road on the wires. I saw a man on a motorbike with a kid on the back. He was holding the kid’s IV. People holding infants and entire dining room sets while riding a scooter. Mayhem.

At night I wanted to go for a beer. The bar at my guesthouse was a bit too dingy and ‘girlie’ for me, so I went across the street to a neat little Norwegian owned place called ‘Velkommen Inn’. I sat down outside with an Angkor beer. A woman who worked there came out to sit with me and we chatted. Her name was ‘Noj’ (not sure how to spell it). We talked. She said they were also running a non-girlie 5 room guesthouse upstairs. She showed me a room that would become available the next day. I told her I’d like to move in there for the week.

The following day, I walked around some more in the neighbourhood and in the afternoon I bought my ‘krama’ (typical Cambodian checkered scarf) and took a tuk tuk around town. I took some shots, nothing really good, but it was interesting to see the city like that. After that, I went to the Foreign Correspondents Club (the FCC or ‘the F’ as they call it here) for some happy hour pastis. This place was pretty busy. All foreigners, of course. I had already been wondering where they were hiding because as I was walking through the streets I encountered very very few. I think because there’s not a lot of touristy things here, most people just pass through to see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum (S21), then onto Angkor Wat.

Dilapidated apartment blocks; they’re everywhere.

I watched the sunset from their balcony. Absolutely amazing. But I also saw some disturbing stuff. I saw a man with one leg crawling through heavy traffic trying to cross the street. I was holding my breath watching this go down. The contrasts here are amazing. In the afternoon we went through a busy shopping street with modern malls and shops selling high end DSLR gear (and some film cameras, I noticed, I will go back to check that out) and well dressed Khmer getting out of a Lexus SUV, then a few streets over there’s children dressed in rags, amputees sitting in the dirt in front of make-shift shacks.

Another weird thing I didn’t realize is that this is a USD economy. The ATMs dispense USD and for most of the stuff you pay in USD but you might get change in Riel. And you can pay with a combination of USD and Riel here. At first this threw me off, but now I look at it as USD being the bills and the Riel are the coins and it’s actually very convenient.

So far, I love this place. It’s not as cheap as I imagined, though. Yes, buying a bowl of noodles at a stall is dirt cheap, but anything more like a ‘real’ cafe or restaurant is much more expensive than Thailand, or even Laos. Or maybe I’ve become jaded after Indonesia and Thailand where it’s very easy to find a $2 lunch at a restaurant. But the people here are so friendly and chatty. Yes, getting asked if I want a motorbike or tuk tuk every two seconds is kind of annoying, but just looking at their smiles makes me smile too.

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