Saturday, April 19, 2008

Temples in the Jungle and Flying Candles

For the last few days I’ve been trying to get to Beng Mealea, a huge temple complex about 2 hours from Siem Reap that many believe was the prototype for Angkor Wat. It’s been left pretty much alone, overgrown by jungle with many of its stones piled in great heaps.

It wasn’t much visited in the past since the area was heavily mined. Halo Trust and CMAC cleared most of the mines a couple of years ago and as long as you stay in the temple complex you’re fine. I say most because there is no such thing 100%.

The trip was originally going to be just myself and Sau, my friend and driver. Then more people started saying they wanted to come. Eventually we had Sau, Becky, Aki Ra, Hourt, Amatek, Mine, the baby, a Japanese couple who are volunteering at the Museum, about 6 kids from the Museum and me. We piled into 2 vehicles and headed to Beng Mealea, about 10 yesterday morning.

We got there a little after 11 and there was hardly anyone around. You have to buy a ticket to see the complex, but it’s only about $5, so still pretty cheap for what you get.

After the mines were removed the Apsara Authority , sort of like the Department of the Interiror, installed walkways throughout the temple complex. It was good and bad. Good in that you can actually walk around the complex now and enjoy the amazing sights of huge stone piles covered in jungle growth. Bad in that the locals used to make money by hiring themselves out to help the tourists climb over all the rocks. Two locals per tourist. And you needed it. I went off the walkway a couple of times and had to be very, very careful climbing around and over the stones. Plus it was 92 degrees and 55% humidity so you are sweating like a sponge.

In the center of the complex, up a set of stairs is a beautiful wooden deck that overlooks the entire inner complex of the temple. That’s where we had our picnic. Hourt hung her hammock so the baby had a nice place to nap and the rest of us munched on pineapples and water and just enjoyed the beauty of the moment. Chet and Tul took my camera and climbed down into bottom of the complex and started taking pictures of all of us up above. They asked me to climb down with them. I begged out. Now both of these guys are landmine victims and missing a leg. Didn’t seem to keep them from climbing all over that complex like mountain goats.

Now you and I both know that a westerner would have walked through that temple complex, taken his pictures, rested for a couple of minutes and headed right back for the bus, another box on his to do list checked. The Khmers take the time to enjoy where they are, enjoy the moment and savor the experience. There was no need to run back to the cars. What were we going to do? Where were we going to go?

Interesting you should ask.

About 2:30 we headed back to the cars. I thought we’d be going back to the Museum. But when we got back to the village, neither Aki Ra nor the truck were anywhere to be fund. Amatek, his 5-year old son, had stayed back with daddy and they had decided to go hunting, with a slingshot. They got back about 4 with a small squirrel and bird that they had found in the jungle a few kilometers away.

Our next stop was not the Museum but a village called Sambrow (sp). They were having a huge new year’s celebration next to the pagoda. There was dancing, tug of wars, lots of baby powder being thrown around, a bit of local ‘moonshine’ available on the back of truck, and a whole bunch of little kids who’d never seen a ‘barang’ before.

I found out later that this was Aki Ra’s home village. After that I watched everything with a different perspective. He may not have known everyone there, but everyone certainly knew him. He was in his element, laughing, dancing in the crowd, helping the girls’ team in the tug-of-war and generally having a blast.

Later in the afternoon Hourt took us to the pagoda and showed us around. The monks’ house is next door and we climbed to the roof which is actually a big patio and looked out over the whole village. A bunch of the little kids had followed us. They’d never seen a barang (foreigner) before and were peppering Hourt with questions. “How do berangs eat?” “Where do berangs sleep?” “How do berangs sleep?” I’m not sure how we eat or where we sleep, but apparently the ‘how we sleep’ is standing on our head with our feet in the air, to which I added “with our eyes open”. You could almost hear their little chins hitting the tile floor.

About 6pm we headed back to the car, tired, thirsty, covered in powder with our ears ringing from Khmer Rap. Ai Ra said “one more stop. A village near here is having a party in the field with movies and a play. The play is about during the war. “ Sounded good to us.

We got to the village about 6:30 or so and parked in the field in front of the stage. Aki Ra backed the truck in so the bed faced the stage. Just like the drive-in. We bought some food from a local vendor. All you could eat for 3,000 riel ($0.75). The second course was the bird Aki Ra had shot that afternoon with his slingshot.

Ron, one of the kids who works at the Museum is from that village so we headed over to his house. The women decided to shower (a bucket from the well pored over their heads) so Ron, Sau, Amatek, Mine and I sat outside Ron’s house watching the lightning show in the sky. Mine, Aki Ra and Hourt’s 3-year old, fell fast asleep in Sau’s lap. Amatek doesn’t like thunder so he climbed into my lap, grabbed my hands and put them tightly over his ears.

We headed back to the field just as they started flying what I call burning kites. Like the burning kites at the Kratong festival in Thailand, they are big paper bags that when turned upside down and fitted with a candle float off into the sky like hot air balloons. Eventually they catch fire and fall to earth. They are about 6 feet high and fly for quite a while. They were launching them about every 15 seconds for quite a while. They filled the sky. Amatek and Mine were in the car hanging out the window absolutely fascinated by the burning kites.

The rains came at about 8:00 so we bailed and headed home. Got back to the hotel at 10pm. Slept until 8.

All in all, one of the best days I’ve had since I got here.

Monday Sau and I are going to visit Kbal Spean out near the museum. It is an ancient Khmer site with a waterfall and river. It’s also called the River of 1,000 Lingas. The area was a fetility sight and has 1,000 lingas carved into the riverbed.

All from the jungle

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Dead zone

I feel like I’m living in some Stephen King novel.

Maybe more like Groundhog Day, the movie with Bill Murray. I wake up every day and realize it was just like the last. They all have started blurring together. I turned on the TV this morning and they wre showing the Pope's arrival in the USA. Just like they were showing it yesterday. Super freaky.

It’s New Years over hear, as you know if you’ve been reading my blog. And new year over hear is celebrated with family, not in the streets. So that means everyone goes home to their village or hangs around the house and visits.

That means no one goes to work.

That means everything is closed. And for the first three days, I mean everything. All that was open was the Blue Pumpkin, a little bakery with wifi, sorta the local Starbucks, and a couple of restaurants.

And if you know me, I don’t do ‘nothing’ very well.

I’ve done all the tourist things, seen all the temples, visited all the local wats, ridden through the floating village, been to the alligator form (it’s closed anyway) yada, yada,yada. And the scary thing is, I’m running short on books and the bookstore doesn’t open again until Sunday. I suppose if worse comes to worse I can always head to Raffles Hotel and see what they have in their gift store to read. But it’ll cost me what I pay for a night at the Green Town.

I’ve gotten all the paper work done that I came to file and am just waiting to hear back from the local authorities, and they won’t be back until probably Monday. So I’m going to do a little more paperwork today and then maybe head over to the swimming pool and spend some time there this afternoon. It’ll cost me a bit, but there really isn’t much else to do.

Tomorrow a bunch of us are going to Beng Malea, a recently opened temple ruin that is about 2 hours from here, still covered in jungle and was the prototype for Angkor Wat. Should be quite fun. It’s taken a week to put this little jaunt together. Nothing ever seems to go smoothly.

Well, more tomorrow or Saturday after I get outa town for a few hours.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Happy New Year

Sur sdei chhnam thmei (pronounced: soosdie chnam t’my)

It’s New Years over here. The Khmer new year starts today, 13 April and the celebration lasts for 3 days. Actually it’s going to last all week. All the schools are out, many of the stores and restaurants are closed and the banks closed early yesterday (Saturday) and won’t open again until Thursday. I was warned to hit the ATM yesterday ‘cause they’ll all be out of money by Tuesday. So I stocked up on $50s and settled back to see how this compares to New Years in the West.

Very, very different.

First of all it lasts for three days. Each has a particular name and activities involved. The holiday revolves around family and friends. On Friday I went out to the Museum and on the way back there must have been a dozen buses headed out of town. All full of Khmers headed for the countryside, back to their home villages.

Moha Songkran is the first day. It celebrates the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new. People dress up and light candles and incense. They pay homage to the Buddha’s teachings and wash with holy water, their face in the morning, their chest in the afternoon and their feet at night before they go to bed.

(They also shoot off a whole bunch of fireworks. I sat on the balcony of the Soup Dragon Restaurant and had my soup and salad and wtched fireworks go off every half hour for two or three hours. Pretty neat.)

Wanabat is the second day of the celebrations. It’s a day of charity. People give to the poor, and the less fortunate. They also attend ceremonies at a monestary honoring their ancestors.

The last day of the celebrations is called Tngai Laeung Saka, when people bathe the Buddha statues and elders with perfumed water. It is looked on as a good deed that brings longevity, good luck and prosperity.

There are parties like in the west. There was a costume ball night, to which I was invited. But I really didn’t want to dress up and hang out with a bunch of foreigners (berangs). And besides, I was really tired. So I hung out downtown until I realized it was darn near empty, grabbed a tuk tuk and headed back to the Green Town.

I had a meeting this morning with a Khmer friend who is in town for the holidays and then I headed for a 5-star hotel, paid my $8 and hung around the pool for the day.

It’s interesting to watch the Khmers celebrate the new year by paying tribute to their heritage, family, and celebrating together the coming year. It certainly is different from the crowds, screaming and foolishness we see at home.

Well, that’s it for now. We’ll see what Wanabat brings.

More from the jungle as it happens.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Snakes in the Jungle

I hate snakes. I mean I really, really really hate snakes.

Remember that movie that came out last year called ‘Snakes on a Plane’? I won’t even watch the trailer.

So why am I talking about snakes when I’m sitting in an internet cafĂ© in Siem Reap, Cambodia? ‘Cause there be snakes over here. Not little bitty garter snakes, or king snakes. I mean great big cobras that flatten out their heads and stand up before they bite you. They’re real easy to see, ‘cause some of them stand about 3 feet high.

Yesterday I was walking from my hotel, the Green Town Guest House ( to downtown Siem Reap. The hotel right next door is ‘Le Residence’, a big fancy, 5 star resort. Three of the workers from Le Residence were poking in the bougainvillea bush by the front door. They’d stick a pole into the bush, shake it around and then run away, wait a minute and then do it again. ‘Bees?” I naively asked. ‘Cobra’ was his reply.

I left.

Aki Ra and I had dinner at a local Korean restaurant last night and we started talking about the things you find when you’re hiking. I told him about mountain lions, how Jill and I had run into a bear, with cubs, one time when we were camping. He thought it was real funny that you shouldn’t try and run from a bear. When I said that you were supposed to lie down and play dead and let the bear play soccer with you, he was sure I was pulling his leg.

I asked him about cobras. ‘Oh, they everywhere’ he said. ‘We have some by the Museum. I see the hole and the skin from when they shed’. I asked him if he sees them in the jungle much and he said ‘why do you think I make you sleep in a hammock when we go to the jungle.’ Silly me, I thought it was because it was more comfortable, and harder for the bugs to get to you. Nope, it’s mostly so the cobras won’t curl on top of you during the night.

Then I asked Aki Ra what he did when he saw a cobra. ‘Run. Run very, very fast.’ He said one time he was walking through the jungle, disturbed a cobra who raised up to his full 3 feet, flattened out his head and struck at him. He said he turned around and ran as fast as he could. Every time he looked back the cobra was still there, striking at where Aki Ra had been. He said he’d look back, scream and then put on a little burst of speed. “Scared me very much.” I friggin’ bet!!!

So why the big deal, you ask? Aki Ra and I are probably going to the jungle next week for a day or two. He usually goes out at sometime during the week and checks out some of the schools he’s built and looks for new locations, etc. I said I wanted to come if it was okay with him. He said, ‘just you and me, okay.’

I asked him what we should do if we see a cobra. He said, ‘run very, very fast.’ I just keep thinking about that old joke that says “I don’t need to outrun the bear Bill. I just need to outrun you…..”

Glad I have a completely enclosed mosquito net on my hammock. But don’t worry. If I see a cobra, you’ll hear me screaming all the way back in USA.

Khmer New Year is 13-15 April. Should be quite the time.

More from the jungle as it happens.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Phnom Penh - from a different perspective

We took Aki Ra’s uncle with us to Phnom Penh last week. He hadn’t seen the city since he was fighting there as a Khmer Rouge soldier during the war. He lives right along Highway 6, the main road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. From his village it’s about 90 miles to the capital. It might have been 90 light years.

The last itme he was in Phnom Penh, the city was deserted and the Vietnamese were shelling it.

We had to take a car to get to PP since all the buses were full, we didn’t want to spend the money to fly and Aki Ra wanted to take his uncle and show him the changes since the war.

Now there is a story that Aki Ra tells about he and his uncle that happened during the war:

Aki Ra spent his early years fighting with the Khmer Rouge. Then he was captured by the Vietnamese after they invaded in 1978. He at first thought he’d be able to go home. But the Vietnamese had other ideas. They pretty much offered him a place in their army or a bullet. Aki Ra said he only had to think about that for a nanosecond.

During one battle he was firing his AK47 over a log at the Khmer Rouge on the other side of the field when he recognized one of the KR soldiers shooting back at him…his uncle. Now Aki Ra is a very good shot. I’ve seen him shoot a sparrow out of a tree with one shot at 50 meters. But that day he couldn’t hit a barn door. He shot in the air, he shot in the dirt, and he shot over the enemy’s heads. One of the Vietnamese officers saw what was happening and came over to him to find how come one of their best shots couldn’t hit squat that day. Aki Ra told hem he was sick so they sent him to the rear to see a doctor. His uncle had no idea he’d been fighting Aki Ra until the war was over and they met up near Siem Reap. They both think its hysterical.

Aki Ra and I got talking one day about the war. I asked him how difficult it was to have fought for the Khmer Rouge and then to have to fight against them. He must have had a lot of friends in the KR? He said ‘oh, that was no problem. We saw each other all the time.’ When I asked him to explain that he said that the Vietnamese used to send the Khmer soldiers into the jungle to hunt. The troops on both sides lived off the land. They sent the Khmers for a variety of reasons. Of course, many of them knew the countryside well. But if anyone was going to get caught in an ambush, a booby-trap or a minefield, it might as well be the Khmers, and not the Vietnamese.

Anyway, he explained, as though it were as common as going to Starbucks, that when they went out to hunt food, the Khmers hunted together. I mean ALL the Khmers, the ones who fought for the KR and the ones who fought for the Vietnamese. Aki Ra said, ‘we all knew each other. We’d grown up together. We were friends. So we’d help each other hunt. Then we split the food and go back to our camps. Then next day we try and kill each other.”

How do you put your arms around something like that?

Well, we took Aki Ra’s uncle to Phnom Penh. We ditched the car and got a tuk tuk and headed for a hotel that Aki Ra likes, right on the waterfront. Boy was it nice. A/C, hot water, a balcony overlooking the river, color TV. And it was only $28 a night. Pretty neat. We ate dinner at the Peking Restaurant near the new market, a place Aki Ra likes a lot. Excellent food and no berangs (foreigners). Just the kind of place I like to frequent. I bagged it early and Aki Ra and his uncle went out to see the big city.

The next morning we had a 6:30 meeting after which I go a chance to talk to his uncle about his impressions of Phnom Penh during the war and now. They were very to the point. ‘It’s noisy and it smells.’ Yep, that’s right. It does.

More from the jungle as news breaks.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

International Mine Awareness Day

Friday April 4 was International Mine Awareness Day. I figured that would be a good time to give you some statistics about landmines.

The most heavily mined countries in the world right now are Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia. I won’t list the numbers in each country as its frankly irrelevant.

There are roughly 80 countries thought be effected by explosive remnants of war (ERW). Mines don’t merely destroy life and limb; they destroy the economy of an entire village or region. Oftentimes the villagers have no other recourse than to farm a suspected plot of land. It’s either that or starve. Or move to the city and beg on the street. And if they pick the wrong plot of land – boom.

There were over 450,000 reported landmine incidents around the world last year. Don’t you like that word, “incident”? What is an “incident”? An incident is a person who ‘interacted’ with an ERW. Some poor soul who found a mine or UXO and if he was lucky, merely lost a few fingers. In the worst case, there’s not enough left to bury.

Now those were 450,000 reported incidents. Everyone agrees the number is vastly higher, but the countries affected hardly have adequate reporting systems. Sometimes they barely have an operating government.

There are some wonderful groups working around the world to clear these weapons of terror. They are called humanitarian deminers. The largest group is undoubtedly The Halo Trust ( Many of you know them as Princess Diana’s charity to clear landmines. I’ve been remiss is not talking about them and the wonderful work that they are accomplishing here in Cambodia. They have removed thousands of landmines throughout the country. They currently have over 1,200 demining staff working in 5 different provinces of the country.

Another group very active in the country is Mine Action Group ( MAG was the co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize awarded for its work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. They have about 500 employees in Cambodia working to clear ERW, and 34% are women.

The 3rd large group doing demining here is the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, ( CMAC employs over 3,000 people in its organization and operates across the country as the ‘national’ demining organization. As well as demining it does mine awareness classes, mine verification, and UXO clearance and training. That’s a bit of a simplification, but it gives you the flavor of what they do.

So the obvious question is what can CSHD offer, and how can it enhance the work of the existing organizations in the country. And that is a very fair question and is being asked right now in Cambodia.

First of all, CSHD is a Khmer (Cambodian) NGO. It will not be funded by the government, as is CMAC. It will be an all Khmer demining company, run by Khmers for the benefit of Khmers. It won’t be working in other countries, only in Cambodia.

CSHD has no intention or desire to grow to the size of Halo, CMAC or even MAG. It wants to be a small, fast response demining operation that can meet immediate threats and needs as villagers around the country identify them. To give you an example: I know of one village in which a landmine was found, and CMAC contacted immediately. 7 days later no one had yet arrived to clear the mine. In a case like this the villagers could contact CSHD, who would immediately respond, clear the identified threat, search the area for any additional ERW and report their findings to the national authority. We’ll be driving a Volkswagen, not trying to redirect the Queen Mary.

CSHS hopes to field a 5-man team of deminers this year. We hope to field 2 – 3 teams in the following 12 months. Our total staff will be under 24, allowing CSHD to concentrate on areas that aren’t currently being cleared, but have suspected ERWs in their area.

Numerous villages have contacted Aki Ra across the country asking him to help them make the area safe. That’s all he wants to do.

We were in Phnom Penh this week for some meetings and Aki Ra and I started talking about Halo and MAG and CMAC. I asked him what he thought of them and he said ‘anyone who clears mines is making my country safer and doing good work. I like them.’ I have NEVER heard Aki Ra say a bad word about another demining organization.

Riding around in our tuk tuk from place to place, I asked Aki Ra which he liked best, Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. He looked back at me and said, “I like the jungle. I want to go back and clear mines.” With your help we’ll make his wish come true.

The last thing I'd like you to do is go to the following link and watch the video. It's self explanatory

(Click on "See the video" Then choose whether you have a hi or low speed connection. Most of you have hi speed.)