31 January 2013

Water of Hope

Last Sunday saw another long tuk-tuk ride into the countryside, this time with Marianne and Narong to see the work being done by their Water of Hope Association. We headed out to an area near the West Baray, close to the Angkor Wat complex, firstly on the new Korean-built Ring Road, then on dirt roads, but nowhere near as bumpy or dancing as the previous day.

At our first stop a new well was being dug, by hand, simply by twisting and turning a thin metal pole into the ground, with water blasting through the hollow metal pole to help with the digging process. More metal poles were added the further down they dug. These poles would eventually be replaced with blue plastic tubes and connected to a hand-operated pump – providing they found a clean water source in their hole. There was no fancy testing equipment for the ground or the water quality – it was partly reliant on the skill of the engineer who guided the digging and partly on luck, though they were digging very close to the family’s previous water source, a well.

It was a very primitive well – more a large round hole in the ground. The earth wasn’t lined with anything, the water quality looked poor, and there was nothing to stop people or wildlife from falling in and contaminating the water. In fact, it had several frogs living in it, so was already contaminated by their presence!

The recipients of this new water pump are a newly married husband and wife living in a simple one-room hut made of wood and palm fronds. The husband was out doing some agricultural labouring work to earn money to feed them. The wife, who looked in her late teens, was cooking over a simple wood fire.

They had a rooster and a couple of chooks, with chicks, so may have had a few eggs to eat, but they exist primarily on rice and vegetables, and things they might find through foraging, like the frogs and various insects. In the season, they would grow rice on their small, perhaps quarter-acre section, but the season is now over so their plot was dry and barren, except for a few plants that looked like squash or marrow.

Water will mean they can grow more during the dry season, but they also need seeds and manure, and some instruction in sustainable agriculture would not go amiss. These are all things the Water of Hope Association plan for the future.

The family also had three dogs, two of them puppies, all in pathetic condition – thin and stumbling and lacking energy. I actually thought the smallest puppy was dead when I first saw it. The woman fed these animals on cooked rice while we were there, not something that will sustain them long term but, as the family themselves probably eat meat only rarely, there seems no hope for improvement in the dogs’ diet.

Neighbouring women and their kids came over to see what was happening and we got some good photos of them, probably the first time they’d ever been photographed!

The second place we visited was a success story. The pump had been installed in December 2012 and the two little huts were surrounded by small plots of the bright green shoots of various vegetables: corn, beans and morning glory. The benefits of the water were plainly visible and the young man who came out to pump the water for our photos grinned widely, obviously pleased and proud of his new tool! 
We had one more stop, just along the road from the second. Their pump had also been installed quite recently and two women were using the water when we arrived, but there was little evidence of its being used for anything agricultural, even though the family had a reasonable sized plot for cultivation. This is where the agricultural advice would be beneficial, as well as seeds to plant. The only food we saw was a metal basin full of small live crabs that probably came from the roadside ditch full of water, and the ubiquitous bag of rice.

Water of Hope needs help. It costs just US$350 to fund a new well and water pump for a family, a pump that can and does change and save lives. You can find more details about the Water of Hope Association on their Facebook page. Even if you can’t afford a well, a small donation will still buy seeds, and help bring the poverty-stricken of Cambodia the assistance they desperately need.

29 January 2013

Mariannie’s Martini Tour: shaken, not stirred

Marianne and I enlisted Mr T as our tuk-tuk driver and headed out of town on the road to Tonle Sap, the biggest fresh-water lake in South East Asia … but that wasn’t our destination. We were headed for Phnom Krom, the small hill near the entrance to the Tonle Sap boat tours and a significant local landmark, being the only hill for miles around.

We stopped at the bottom of a stairway leading up the hill and left Mr T to wait for us there. The steps were steep but my Peruvian-high-altitude lungs are still easing my climbing ability and, in an area with no other hills, it was nice to have views. The handrail was lined with engravings in Khmer and English text, with dollar figures next to them, as if people had donated money to fund the steps.

At the top we came out on a roadway leading to the top of the hill, still some way off. We hadn’t gone far before we came to a group of men, talking and playing cards in the shelter of a small open-sided hut. One, in a blue uniform, approached us, asking to see our temple passes (passes for the Angkor Park complex). We hadn’t been sure if we would need them or not, so pleaded ignorance and showed our volunteer IDs. The man agreed to let us in if we paid him a small bribe of $5. Though we were ethically opposed to this, it was better than paying $20 each for the temple pass and we didn’t want to waste our journey, so we paid.

We carried on up the road and were soon sweating copiously, while the man was probably gambling away our $5. At the top of the phnom (hill) there’s a modern pagoda complex and a remnant from the days of Angkor civilisation. The ancient complex was dedicated to the Hindu religion and constructed in the late 9th – early 10th century by King Yasovarman I in the Bakheng style. The three towers, dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, are now in very poor condition, the stone is much weathered and any sculptural details barely visible. Yet, as we wandered around them, we found ourselves surrounded by butterflies and able to enjoy the stunning views, difficult to capture on camera because of the hazy atmosphere.

The modern pagoda was interesting, too. There were statues of various characters from Buddhist myths, two huge white bulls guarding the entrance on one side, and human-like creatures with claw feet on another. The temple itself was full of the usual multitude of Buddhas large and small, small flags of recycled fabric strung across the ceiling from one side to the other, and brightly painted scenes from Buddha’s life covered the walls and ceiling. Outside there was a larger-than-life character dressed a bit like an ancient Superman, as well as statues of monks kneeling in a square around a shrine.

We were barked at quite loudly by a vicious-sounding dog, then, soon after, hailed by one of the monks and summoned to the building where he was. I now wonder if the dog had been trained to announce visitors! Monks don’t usually speak to women so we should have been suspicious of his motives. After the preliminary greetings and exchange of names, it turned out that the monk was soliciting donations and, in return for a small sum, we would have our names painted on the wall with the donation amount alongside. We succumbed and paid $5 each. One day I’ll need to return to see if our names really are on that wall!

After perhaps an hour, we headed back down to our patient tuk-tuk driver and were soon off to our next stop, Wat Chedei. Our route took us on to a dirt road, past rice fields, through a cattle and then a water buffalo traffic jam, alongside pools of water lilies and lotuses, past small farms and the occasional larger house painted in some garish colour, then on to another dirt road. This one was in very poor condition, with huge potholes, ruts and puddles – they call these dancing roads in Cambodia. It had rained the previous night which had helped to settle the dust but fuelled the puddles. “Mango rain’ one of our guesthouse security guards called it – rain to help fatten the mangos which are now fattening on the trees, ready to be harvested in April. Luckily we didn’t get stuck in the mud.

Eventually, after much dancing and shaking about, we reached Wat Chedei, in the middle of nowhere. Again there was a collection of buildings old and new. One, a former pagoda, was an almost total wreck – no roof, no windows or doors, grass growing on the floor, and a corrugated iron, makeshift roof over the Buddhas that looked incongruous in that setting. Things we saw: Aunty Betty’s red and pink café curtains hanging in the windows of the new temple; a gaggle of geese squawking at and chasing one of the flock; three long dragon-boats in a shed – bizarre when the only nearby water was a large lily-choked baray (reservoir); two lots of two kittens with very large ears and plaintive cries; two painted elephants guarding the main entrance, and red-and-green-painted temple dogs guarding another; a horrific mural that looked like the Buddhist version of hell; and no monks!

I posed on Mr T.’s tuk tuk before we left and, as we jiggled violently about on the road back to town, we decided we could open a tour company with me as driver – hence, Mariannie’s Martini Tours: shaken not stirred! The real martinis came later!

28 January 2013

Sihanoukville: sun and sand, with a touch of sleaze

Our hotel, the Golden Sand, was rather grand looking from the outside but inside was rather ordinary. The bathroom didn’t have a shower per se, but was instead a wet room – i.e. there was a shower head attached to the wall and a drain in one corner. Fine in principle, but not in practice. It simply meant the floor of the bathroom was almost constantly wet, making it difficult to put your clothes on without them also getting damp, and we got wet feet every time we needed to go in there. The breakfast buffet was excellent with a huge variety of taste temptations – full marks there! The wifi was intermittent and occasionally showed a login screen in Russian – just shows who the majority of guests were!

We were a short walk from Ochheuteal Beach which, to me, at first sight, was horrifying. Being a New Zealander, I am used to mile upon mile of sandy shore, with plenty of space between beach-goers, who carry along their own beach umbrellas and chilly bins and rugs and picnics. Not here! The beaches in Cambodia are more reminiscent of European beaches, where restaurants and bars compete for space above the high tide line and each have their own tables, chairs and deckchairs lined up in front, almost down to the water.

So, you can quite easily end up check-by-jowl with some disgustingly huge beer-bellied male, offering a meal of his German sausage to a pretty young Khmer woman waitress – yes, we did actually overhear that conversation! We also saw many an older Western male with extremely young-looking local girls –and I don’t even want to imagine what their relationship was. I was, at different times, ashamed, embarrassed and disgusted with my fellow Westerners who have brought their low morals and obscene habits to a country where extreme poverty forces some people to do things they would never otherwise dream of doing.

However, don’t let these things put you off visiting this beautiful place. Ochheuteal Beach is 5 kilometres long – I know, we walked every inch of it – so, if you just keep walking, you will reach a point where only the local people enjoy themselves frolicking in the warm waters or, even further, to where you almost feel like you have the beach to yourself. And there are several other beaches to vary your days. Serendipity is just the name for one end of Ochheuteal, and is full of restaurants and guesthouses but no golden sandy beach, so a place to eat, drink and sleep but not to swim. Outres is a mini Ochheuteal, not as long, not as crowded, but certainly just as beautiful. Independence Beach is even quieter, though one end is reserved for guests of the resort hotel built there. And Sokha Beach is the same – a blue-uniformed guard blows his whistle at those beach-goers who dare stray on to the sands reserved for those wealthy enough to stay at the Sokha Resort.

You can eat and drink well at any of the beach-side restaurants and bars for a relatively small amount of money. Happy hours that extend for several hours and offer two-for-one cocktails are the norm, so it’s no wonder drunkenness is rife! Most bartenders make a mean margarita; many, but not all, mix a spicy Bloody Mary – all for about US$2.50. A simple chicken and vegetable fried rice would cost about the same, freshly barbecued seafood or chicken perhaps US$4. There is also no shortage of women wandering the beach, with huge trays of cooked seafood or fresh fruit precariously balanced on their heads. Others carry raw food and a lit brazier at each end of a long pole, supported on their strong shoulders, and cook the food at your request.

Many other traders sell their goods along the beachfront as well: sunglass hawkers, souvenir sellers and women who will give various parts of your body a massage, provide manicures and pedicures, and even thread your legs free of any stray body hairs! After a couple of cocktails one evening, Marianne and I both enjoyed foot massages and had our toenails painted bright purple.

Last, but most certainly not least, the sunsets at these beaches are to die for! Whether by accident or design, there are usually half a dozen of the local wooden longboats moored offshore, making for striking silhouettes against the lowering sun. Combine this with a long cool cocktail enjoyed while lounging in a deck chair at the water’s edge … bliss!

Sihanoukville may have its critics, and it certainly does have an element of sleaze, but I would have no hesitation in returning to its sandy shores.

27 January 2013

The ghosts of Bokor Hill

Just as India had its hill stations for the British colonials to escape the heat and humidity of the Indian plains, so did Cambodia, and we visited the now-deserted and rather sad-looking remains of the Bokor Hill Station en route from Kampot to Sihanoukville.

Thanks to an academic article I located (Kitagawa Takako, ‘Kampot of the Belle Époque: From the Outlet of Cambodia to a Colonial Resort’, Southeast Asian Studies, vol.42, no.4, March 2005), I can report that construction of the Station d’altitude de Bokor began towards the end of 1920. The road up from Kampot, approximately 42 kilometres away, was completed in 1921, and the Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino, a stunning building very much in keeping with the then current Art Deco style of architecture, was officially opened in 1925.

As well as the hotel, there were also shops, a church, a post office, and the King’s Royal Apartments. Most of these buildings have since been demolished but the church and the hotel are still clearly identifiable and easily visited – but, be quick, if you intend checking out this amazing place.

Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino

First, the French abandoned Bokor Hill during the First Indochina War (from 1946 to 1954), when the hotel was used as a hospital. They left for good when the Khmer Rouge took over the area in the 1970s and the Palace Hotel was burned by bands of the guerrilla group Dragon Noir. But by far the worst damage to the evocative atmosphere of this place has been done in more recent years.

The new casino is a blot on the skyline

In 2007 the Cambodia government sold a 99-year lease on the mountain to the Chinese Sokimex Group (owner of Sokha Resorts and Sokimex oil, amongst other companies) for US$100million and the mountain has already been irredeemably changed for the worse. The new 32-kilometre road that winds its way up the steep escarpment is probably the best road I’ve seen anywhere in Cambodia - but there is a charge to use it – and the first stages of the new development have now been completed, with a sprawling and exceedingly ugly casino already open for business. Sokimex have huge plans for their hill – as well as the casino, they plan on constructing more hotels, golf courses, and water parks, as well as a major port complex on the nearby coast, from where they intend helicoptering guests from visiting cruise ships to the plateau resort. It all sounds as hideous as their new casino.

The grand salon at the Bokor Palace

The remains of the floor tiles hint at the former Art Deco grandeur of the hotel
When you google Bokor Hill, you can read stories of the eerie atmosphere of the ghost town and see images of buildings covered in the black mould and orange lichen that come from years of decay. But, already the ghostly remains of the Bokor Palace have been forever altered. The building appears to have been water-blasted, whether in preparation for refurbishment by Sokimex is not clear. It has certainly altered the spooky character that earlier travellers have written of, even if the dramatic cliff-top position and impressive architecture remain unchanged.

And, as for the ghosts – the story goes that Frenchmen, ever dramatic, would throw themselves off the cliff behind the casino after loosing their fortunes from a night’s gambling, then return to haunt the rooms of the hotel. I can only hope that they are now wandering the corridors of Sokimex’s new casino and will scare away those visitors!

The old water reservoir tower opposite the hotel

24 January 2013

Kampot market

Kampot is a small town, an hour’s bumpy and breezy tuk-tuk ride north of Kep. It doesn’t have a lot going for it: a riverside setting; an economy based on pepper production and on the salt gathered from large drying fields just outside of town; fruit, which it celebrates with a statue of a giant durian in the middle of the town’s central roundabout; and a rickety old bridge, which is a hodge-podge of 4 different architectural styles and looks likely to collapse at any moment.

I did like the remnants of French colonial architecture, though sadly most of those old buildings are going to rack and ruin. So, for me, Kampot’s best feature was its large, smelly, noisy, chaotic market. Rather than try and describe what we saw there, I thought I’d let my photos do the talking.

"Buy my pig!" "No, buy my pig" This seemed to be how the conversation was going.
The fish sellers ... and eaters!
A good selection of seafood here ... and mostly alive, so fresh

More fish ... and cockles. It was very smelly, but really fascinating
Squid, octopus, prawns ... you name it, they sold it
The cushion-cover seller had some colourful wares and a lovely smile
When my flash went off taking this picture, the girl almost stitched her own finger! Oops
There was a huge variety of fresh fruit and vegs available as well
The sellers were mostly happy to be photographed, then giggled hysterically with their mates when shown the pictures
Name the fruit!