Sunday, January 5, 2014

Christmas in Cambodia

Let's just start with wow, because that is the best word I can think of to describe Cambodia.  We started our tour with a trip to Angkor Thom, a former capital of the Khmer Empire.  The city is surrounded by an 8 meter wall and is known for its 54 towers which represented the 54 provinces of the empire.  We got to see the city from the back of an elephant, which the kids really enjoyed, before we explored the temple itself. The kids enjoyed exploring the ruins and the huge carved faces that grace not only the 54 towers, but can be seen everywhere in the temple.
After having a lunch of some truly amazing local fare we visited Angkor Wat, probably one of the best known ancient temples, and the symbol on Cambodia's flag as it is said to represent the soul of the Khmer people.  The temple was just amazing and I am so glad we got a chance to visit. The bas-reliefs are gorgeous and give a very clear picture of life in 12th century Cambodia.  Images of dancing Apsara, a female spirit in Hindu and Buddhist faiths, are seen throughout the temple. The lake we are standing in front of is a seasonal lake. and by summer it will be dried up only to return next wet season.

Our second day took us to Tonle Sap Lake. Getting there was an adventure itself!  The roads in Cambodia are not the best, most likely because of the heavy rains and the overall lack of money. We traveled a rather sketchy and bumpy road to a boat which ferried us out to a local village that is totally built on stilts and for the most part totally self sufficient.  The kids and I handed out notebooks and pencils to the local children, most of whom were very polite and said "thank you". It was a very sad and rewarding experience.  Poor does not begin to describe these families.  During the wet season boats must be used to get around, and if it's a bad season the water levels can rise higher than the stilts and flood the homes, shops, and school of the village.  Because it's such a necessity children as young as 6 know how to run boats.  The younger children are given a big pot and spoon to paddle around in.

After braving the lumpy, bumpy road a second time we headed to Ta Prohm temple of the Lara Croft movie fame.  The temple is slowly being reclaimed from the jungle, but trees and vines are now a permanent part of the temple.  The kids were super excited to do our very own treasure hunt.  We were given a clue and found a small palm box with a stone turtle in it and a second clue, which lead to another box with a small Buddha head and a clue.  From there we met a religious woman who gave the kids a string bracelet and a blessing, before giving us another clue.  The final clue lead us to a large palm box with a much larger carved stone Buddha head.  The kids had such fun on our treasure hunt and exploring the temple.  After a short break at our hotel so we could rest and refresh we headed out again with our guide on a tuk tuk, the way to travel in most of S.E. Asia.  We headed back to Angkor Thom and took a short boat ride around the man made moat that surrounds the temple.  We were treated to an amazing sunset and the sounds of the monks at prayer.

Our third day we were supposed to start a two night cruise on the Mekong River, but instead of an 11:30 pick up, it was changed to 3:00.  With some extra time on our hands we headed to the Angkor National Museum.  We'd just finished the first floor when our guide found us.  When she'd confirmed our departure a second time she was told that, no 11:30 was the correct time.  So, we high tailed it to the boat and managed to get there in time for lunch.  We spent a relaxing afternoon and evening on the boat and found out that we weren't the only ones with a screw up in the plans.  But, unlike us, they were going to miss our first night on the boat and much of our first days sightseeing.

The next morning we headed out to see Cambodia's largest floating village which is made up mostly of Vietnamese families.  Like the village on stilts, this village is self sufficient and totally mobile. moving around depending on the depths of the lake.  Most in the village work in the fish industry or in support of it in some way.  The locals were all very friendly and seemed to enjoy waving to the funny looking tourists as much a we enjoyed them. Like all small towns, they had shops, gas stations, schools, and religious houses.  The only thing it was missing was a medical facility, but a large and very high tech boat could be seen on the outskirts of the village.  Our captain told us that it is a medical facility owned by a private individual who has the boat make rounds of the villages on the lake so they have access to medical help at least at some of the time.  
After a short trip down the river we stopped at a village known for its pottery and a sugar made from the Thnot tree.  We met with a local farmer who harvests the sugar from the trees and sells it as a spread and a liquor.  The farmer, who is 62 years young, clowned around (easily 60 feet up) for us as he climbed up a bamboo "ladder" to show us how he collects the sugar from the trees.  From there we headed to met another local, a woman who makes a variety of pots in a very old, but tried and true method. She made a pot for us in a matter of minutes, all by hand and amazingly with a consistent thickness throughout giving it strength. We bought a charming tea set from her for just $5.  It makes a great addition to my tea set collection, which now stands at 4, if you count my sake set.  We said our goodbyes and headed to a local market.  Most markets in Asia are all encompassing, meaning it is one stop shopping.  Here you can buy your daily groceries, pick up some shampoo, a new dress, shoes, and matching purse, a shiny new pot to cook dinner in, and even everything you need to set up an alter to worship Buddha.  Asia's version of Walmart!

We spent our second night on the boat, the captain offered a simple pasta dinner served early for the kids as the 7:00 dinner time was a bit late for them. After dinner we got them into Christmas jammies and set them up with the Grinch on the iPad, before heading up to a quiet kid free dinner. Christmas morning the kids found their stockings filled with goodies and two presents each to open (we'd opened gifts before leaving home). After breakfast we caught a village taxi, aka, an ox cart. As we went along in our cart the local children ran after us and practiced their English by asking us questions and pointing out the local flora and fauna.  The little boy chatting me up brought a lotus flower for Lily and I and although he was 12 years old he was Lily's size.  The little girl we talked with was 8 years and Charlie's height and probably half his weight.  They were all so sweet though and happy.  The little boy proudly pointed out his mom, house and baby brother as we went by.  It was for me one of the best parts of the trip. The cart brought us to a local temple where we were given a blessing by a monk and a red bracelet to wear for luck.

After lunch we headed back to the village, this time by van, to see the local artists.  We met a woman who makes her living by making plates of copper with the image of Angkor Wat on them. She does it all by hand with no drawing for reference.  She just uses different nails and strength to get the desired effect she wants. She is amazingly talented, Lucas bought a plate from her for his office, while I bought us a smaller silver plate for our home.  Silver and copper smithing is the specialty of the villagers.  Children walked around with baskets balanced on their heads with bracelets, necklaces, and earrings for sale.  We also went to a shop where we learned how they give copper a silver finish.
Our final stop for the day before heading to Phnom Penh was Cambodia's old capital, Oudong, where the royal Stupas (burial chambers) can be seen from some distance.  We climbed 509 steps, no I did not count, I took the captain's word, and was rewarded with an amazing view.  The funny things was, while we are all huffing and puffing, local children were running up and down the stairs like it was nothing!  At the top we also saw the ruins of the Anthareu Temple which were impressive.  On the way down I carried Charlie on my back, if we'd let him go at his own speed, we'd still be there!  Lucas some how got talked into carrying Lily down.  Needless to say, my calves were a bit sore the next day.  I hate steps, give me a bike any day!  That night we said goodbye to the captain and our new friends before heading to our hotel in Phnom Penh.  Amazingly, I'd had the forethought to make dinner reservations. The kids were each given a small gift and we all enjoyed a fabulous meal of Khmer cuisine.  It was a unique Christmas that will always have a special place in my heart.

We had only one day to spend in Cambodia's capital but we made the most of it.  We started our day with a tour of the Royal Palace which has many buildings open to the public, but because the king does reside there, many areas are closed off.  We did get to see where the king was coronated in 2004 and the gold chair that was used to carry him to the ceremony.  We also got to see the silver pagoda, so named for its silver floor.  The floor is mostly covered up to protect it, but some is left uncovered for you to see. Unfortunately photos were not allowed, you'll just have to take my word that it was amazingly beautiful.  We headed next to the National Museum where we got to see some amazing statues, but the kids were quickly bored so we didn't stay long.  We went to our final temple, Wat Phnom, which is the name sake of the city, and of course at the top of a hill.  Yay, more stairs (said in a sarcastic voice).  Charlie was mostly interested in the birds you could buy for release.  I don't really understand it, someone catches these birds, and then you pay money to have one released as an offering to Buddha.  Does it not offend Buddha to catch them in the first place?  Should have asked the tour guide, but my calves were crying so it slipped my mind... The last stop of the day was the Russian Market, so named because it used to be owned Westerners.  It is a souvenir and tchotchkes mecca.  We picked up a few "must haves" before calling it a day and heading back to our hotel to crash.

The next day we got an early flight to Siem Reap and then flew to Bangkok where our friend Pat picked us up.  We did a quick dinner out at a local place that had both Thai and Western food since the kids seemed to be over rice and noodles.  Our last full day of vacation we went to a local park and let the kids run around and have some fun. The park was beautiful, flowers were in season, and the kids were having so much fun being kids. It was a perfect way to end a busy but fun vacation.  It was a truly amazing trip and so far one of my favorites.

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