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Posts tagged ‘cambodia’

New Year’s Eve in the killing fields…

I thought I should make one final post for 2014!  Still lots of travel tales that have not yet made it to the blog so will be some reiminscing in 2015… along with some new adventures and countries…  Happy New Year!

I haven’t done it as an annual rite of passage but in my twenties I developed a kind of tradition of going to see a film on New Year’s Eve.  In those days I mostly drank milkshakes and I’m far too logical so found the celebration of the New Year to be a bit underwhelming.  I have experienced a handful of memorable New Year’s Eves but generally it seems a bit overrated.

But I started my consulting gig in January 2004 so New Year’s Eve 2013 held special meaning.  And, as previously noted, I had been hankering for a visit to Angkor Wat for at least a couple of decades.

What made the experience more surreal and memorable was that my first New Year’s Eve film was “The Killing Fields”.  Hardly most people’s idea of the right activity but I had a wonderfully quirky and intellectual boyfriend at the time and we had both been yearning to see the film.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087553/

It is one of those films that take your breath away and I would highly recommend seeing it if you have not.  It will make Law & Order re-runs more poignant.  That is how I discovered Sam Waterston.  I am sure it is one of the reasons I became a Law & Order fan so quickly.  It is to film as Law & Order is to television…

When I woke up in Cambodia on December 31st I definitely remembered the film – and started my day of celebrating the phenomenal changes that have occurred since the film`s time period – and my first visit to the region in 1991.

shinta mani prepped for NYE

shinta mani prepped for NYE

I would celebrate my own anniversary on Jan 1, 2014.  December 31, 2013 belonged to Cambodia.

Staying at Shinta Mani allowed me to sign up for their New Year`s Eve celebration.  You should do it!  We began with a sumptuous buffet full of fresh, local seafood.  There was entertainment.  And, post-dinner, pre-midnight, we wandered down to the river with our wish boats.

floating your dream boat on the river

floating your dream boat on the river

The tradition is to write your hopes and dreams for the new year on a piece of paper and then place it on a small boat that you will release onto the water at midnight.  A much more romantic and symbolic version of making a wish and blowing out your birthday candles 🙂

We had to cross the main street in Siem Reap to reach the river.  Around midnight it was a cacophony of noise, flags and enthusiasm, which just added to the sense of magic.  Pushing my little boat onto the water with my hopes for 2014 was one of the greatest New Year`s Eves of my life.

siem reap at midnight

siem reap at midnight

What really made the evening so memorable though was the lady who saw I was sitting alone and invited me to join her table.  Tania is a force of nature.  Her `kids` were part of the entertainment for the evening.  And she confirmed for me that the hotel did indeed do good works and support the community, as I had hoped.

Her story is astonishing.  She came from Australia to check out Cambodia because she read about the plight of street kids in a Virgin Airlines magazine.  She ended up marrying her Cambodian driver as she fell in love with the country and he fell in love with this foreign woman who was so committed to doing good in his country.

Go to Cambodia and meet her!  (And him).  Their story is so much more incredible than any soppy thing you will see on the screen.  Tania is one of those people who use their developed world skills in the developing world in a way that blows your mind and inspires you to try a little harder – or at least support those who do 🙂

You should really hear her tell the story.  I can’t do it justice – or even apply an Australian accent, which does seem the right voice for her tale of passion.  To hit some of the highlights, she went to check out the plight of the street kids in Siem Reap.  She never even saw Angkor Wat on her first visit.

Like most issues in the developing world, the situation was complex and heartbreaking with no easy solution.  She went back to Australia.  Almost everyone else would have just stayed there and felt bad about the street kids in Cambodia.

But she couldn’t concentrate on her work.  She felt she had to do something.  So she went back.  She hired a driver.  She met kids.  She talked to people.  She tried to figure out what she could do to help.

Her first thought was to feed them.  She coerced local restaurants and citizens into helping her.  With a full belly, the kids were ready for more.  She thought they needed more education.

So she went looking for a school that would take them.  But the schools told her that her kids were dirty and smelly. So she negotiated… could she have a special class for the dirty, smelly kids?

That definitely helped the kids but it wasn’t enough to propel them forward in society to make them self-sufficient.  So she created a school for them.  She educated their parents on why it was good for these children to be in school instead of begging on the streets.

When I met her last New Year’s Eve, some of her kids had gotten to the point of considering post-secondary education.  They performed some intricate traditional Cambodian boxing manoeuvres for a huge crowd.  It was a great showcase for them – and for the Green Gecko Project.  She might not technically be their mom but she cares for them as if she was and was a proud and caring parent that night.  She had even lured some friends to spend their vacation helping out (they were also at the dinner).  She is inspirational 🙂

http://www.greengeckoproject.org/

Think about New Year’s Eve in Cambodia.  I would highly recommend it.  Stay at Shinta Mani.  See Angkor Wat. Float your tiny ship of dreams onto the Siem Reap River at midnight.  Seek out Tania and learn about The Green Gecko Project…

http://shintamani.com/resort/

exploring your inner Angelina Jolie ;)

You can’t go to Siem Reap without encountering Angelina Jolie.  Likely not in the flesh but her spirit is alive and well… and I think she does have a lot of affection for Cambodia so I was OK with all the Tomb Raider promotion 😉

You can skip the Tomb Raider cocktail but DO go to Pub Street, as much to eat as to drink.  You may discover the music volume is at its best on the street instead of in the clubs but maybe I just care about my hearing too much 😉  You should definitely have a beer at Angkor What? because it’s how you will imagine Cambodia – cheap beer, imported staff and weird graffiti (you will be able to hear the music from the bar across the street from that distance!)

https://www.facebook.com/angkor.whatbar You should of course drink some Angkor beer because, hey, you are in Cambodia!  And you should check out Pub Street in Siem Reap at least for a night but remember to see some temples too 😉

Of course, you have to go to Angkor Wat…. We will talk about it… but it is most likely your heart will be captured by a more underdog temple… there are a lot of temples! I should have likely planned more but I am working too much to have much time to obsessively research the travel destinations so I am generally improvising.  Improvising is not so bad if you do a few basics pre-trip.  I make sure I have some idea what to do and book a very well-researched hotel if I think I am going to need help getting around.cambodia 2 029

As already noted, I can’t say enough wonderful things about Shinta Mani so it was easy to just put myself in their capable hands… and that’s how I met Tiger.

http://shintamani.com/

cambodia 3 108I would recommend starting early and finishing before lunch to maximize the experience.  And you definitely need to check out Ta Prohm… or, as you will start referring to it, the Tomb Raider temple 🙂

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta_Prohm

When you get there, you will be tempted to start acting like a video game character J  It is wonderfully atmospheric – a bit swampy, with the jungle threatening to overtake the buildings.

The other temple that will blow your mind is Bayon.  Another crazy aristocrat possibly on drugs… but the faces will follow you and pop up in your dreams.cambodia 3 177

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon

I am now in Amsterdam trying to force my way through jet lag so we may drift back to Europe… but there is still more I want to say about Cambodia so I am sure more adventures will find their way into these pages…

For now, all I can say is stay at Shinta Mani, ask them to book a tuk-tuk temple tour with Tiger and embrace your inner Angelina Jolie – but don’t mess up the temples with bullets 😉

bring an extra suitcase ;)

Finally, my big work season is drawing to a close so hoping to catch up on some of my travel stories… today we are going back to Cambodia!

Since I wasn’t sure the state of my health my first full day in Cambodia – and I was really weary from dragging all my bags around while I was sick – I postponed my first Angkor Wat day to Monday and spent Sunday exploring the town.

There are streetlights in Bangkok these days so the chance of getting hit by a bus, tuk-tuk, motorbike, etc have reduced substantially.  But if you want that thrill every time you cross the street, you will love Siem Reap J

The real challenge is that there are various forms of traffic going at different speeds all operating in the same theatre with no street lights… the positive part is that the streets are a lot smaller than the ones I crossed in Bangkok in 1991 in the same scenario.

When you grow up as a spoiled first world child of the universe, crossing six lanes of traffic going at totally different speeds feels like you have been airlifted into an action film or a video game – except that the traffic is real!  And you WILL be at least maimed if you screw up!  But at some point you have to take your toes off the sidewalk or you will never get anywhere… after many minutes of immobilization in Thailand, I finally decided the safest strategy was to wait for the locals to make a move and then tuck in behind them as close as possible…

I DO think traffic lights, stop signs and driver training IS a wonderful thing and really does reduce fatalities, but you can’t change the world order as a tourist so you just need to learn how to survive 😉

What is the most challenging for those of us with red lights and traffic rules is that the best approach is often to be bold.  You walk into the traffic like you mean it and you are not planning to stop.  Traffic in many countries is something between a symphony and a jazz riff… there is a flow and a rhythm and, if you follow it, the traffic will flow around you – but if you panic and break the flow you might just get plowed down so panic and second-guessing are your best chance to end up in hospital… of course, I normally just try to find a gap and gallop across as fast as I can… as long as you don’t trip, it works too 😉

In between my galloping I did also manage to see some stuff that only required me to take off my shoes or open my wallet.

I think normal tourists just hire a tuk-tuk to take them from the hotel to the attractions or the entertainment district but I always like to walk.  It gives you a feel for the place and you really get to know your way around so the chance of getting lost in the dark on some evening adventure is greatly reduced.

strolling along the river

strolling along the river

Siem Reap is pretty tiny so I just headed to the main street next to the river and followed the signs to the Old Market.  The first thing that caught my attention was Preah Prohm Rath Monastery, the oldest in Siem Reap I learned (over 500 years old).

Preah Prohm Rath Monastery

Preah Prohm Rath Monastery

Asians are not minimalists so it was decorated in a riot of colours and textures with lots of allegory.  I don’t know what all the panels mean but very interesting to check out.  Will have to learn the symbolism at some point…

I then kept walking – and dodging traffic – until I got to the Old Market.  It’s a mix of traditional market, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants, including the famous Pub Street.

one of the fascinating murals

one of the fascinating murals

I began buying for my new scarf shop 😉  Cambodian silk is wonderful and there are lots of different styles and textures to choose from.  And tons of colour!  So it is very hard to resist, especially when the prices are so low.  Just helping to support the Cambodian economy 🙂  Definitely had to sit on my suitcase to fit in all my purchases.  There are lots of hand-made crafts to tempt the tourists.

Before I went back to the sanctuary of Shinta Mani, I had some lunch on Pub Street.  Fish amok, a Cambodian specialty.  All the food I had was uniformly good.  It’s definitely a great place if you like fish.

It’s also a dream destination if you love local crafts… just remember to bring a really big suitcase 😉

is Cambodia the new Thailand? ;)

Of course, your best plan of action may be to make like me and quickly dispense with Bangkok and get on a flight to Siem Reap!  If nothing else, you will be able to tell people you are going to Cambodia.

A few people will have been – and they will tell you that you will love it (that will prove to be very accurate J).  Most people will still be channelling the Dead Kennedys even if they don’t know the lyrics to “Holiday in Cambodia.”

But, of course, they will just be a couple of decades out of touch… I, on the other hand, have been dreaming of Cambodia for a couple of decades.  I don’t know what took me so long!  Working all the time and going nowhere exotic…

But of course that has all changed in the last five years as I resolved to quit postponing all those “trips of a lifetime”.  Angkor Wat certainly was one of them.

For me, though, getting to Angkor Wat was much more personal.  Over twenty years ago, I had been in the hill tribes near Chiang Mai wondering if I was going to be randomly killed by the Khmer Rouge and hearing about the wonders of Angkor Wat while settling for Sukothai as it was still risky and complicated to cross over the border to Cambodia.

But things were changing and I knew I would get there.  In 2013, I gathered, going to Cambodia was no big deal so I booked a hotel, found out how to get a visa, made sure I had a flashlight, scored some malaria tablets and braced for the weather.

And Cambodia turned out to be Claridges… you just need to know where to stay 😉

shinta mani

restaurant – note swings

There is really only one place to stay when you come to Angkor Wat (unless you are on a tight budget – you can definitely do it cheap too and it will still be wonderful).  But if you can afford a decent night’s hotel room in the developed world, you will live like a princess in Siem Reap.

resort pool

resort pool

My room cost about $300/night (including all the crazy taxes) but it was palatial so you can spend less and still have a great time.  I stayed in the Shinta Mani Club where the rooms are larger.  They now have a sister property across the street, Shinta Mani Resort.  As a guest, you can spend time in the public facilities of both.

http://shintamani.com/

shinta mani

lap pool shinta mani club

For $15, someone will come and collect you from the airport.  Dan started my visit on a high note.  He told me Shinta Mani was the number one hotel in Siem Reap.  I knew he was biased – but after six nights there, I can’t say he was wrong 🙂

The level of service is astonishing – on par with very few other places I’ve stayed (it really is a Cambodian version of Claridges).  There is a lap pool at the Club, a big pool at the resort, bar and restaurant facilities at both, a spa… and gorgeous spaces that make you feel like you’re in the Caribbean.

I still wasn’t healthy when I arrived so my first evening was low key.  I had some lovely food in the hotel restaurant and had an enthusiastic, charming hotel staff member organize an Angkor Wat tour on my behalf.

leaving the hotel

siem reap river

The hotel really is so wonderful it’s tempting to just hole up there and never see a temple… but that would be wrong!  And then I wouldn’t have anything to write about 😉

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