Preah Vihear

The trip to Preah Vihear started when Somrith knocked at my door at 7:20 and I quickly got dressed, grabbed my bag and jumped into the car with Somrith, his father Saret and brother in law all dressed in their camo military get up along with Sasha a Russian friend of Somrith. After a quick breakfast we started on the 4 hour drive up to Preah Vihear passing through some dense jungle and villages that not only lacked electricity but also didn’t have access to clean drinking water for most of the year.

As we approached the temple military vehicles became increasingly common and we were told that the last town we passed through had been evacuated and was now occupied by the solders families. Eventually we came into a small hut where we met the general in charge of Preah Vihear and picked up a local colonel to take us into the temple. We then drove for five minutes to an intersection where we piled into the back of a truck and went to another hut to sign in as foreigners entering the temple. Finally we piled back in the truck and started the steep ascent of the mountain up to Preah Vihear. The roads were some of the worst i’ve encountered which was evidently a concern for the military personal living up there as there was a lot of roadwork going on to improve them. But we slowly managed to weave out way up the steep bends past what looked like shanty towns with a lot of people dressed in camo before we finally made it to the main encampment at the top. In an interesting contrast to the kids selling all sorts of crap at Angkor Wat we were only approached by a coupe of girls selling cigarettes and otherwise left alone as we looked around the surreal encampment. There was no sense of being in a combat zone which makes sense as there had been no fighting here in four months or so but nonetheless this sleepy army encampment is one of the strangest places i’ve been to yet.

After a few minutes we started the walk up to the temple which on our first approach looked like a small pile of ruins but as we made our way down the steps to the main entrance we started to get an idea of the size of it. At 800 metres long I think Preah Vihear is one of the largest Angkor era temple in area and it took around 300 years to build (possibly because it’s such a bastard to get up there). At the temple we were shown a variety of fresh looking chips in the ancient stone and we were told “here Thailand shoots our temple” and we frequently heard the sentiment “Thaiand are destroying our temple” so I don’t think they were too happy with Thailand. Anyway after walking down the massive number of steps we got a great view of the main entrance and the bridge we were not allowed to cross to disputed territory, then we walked back up. Feeling a little exhausted we wandered around the entrance before taking the long pathway to what I think is the the second gotama. There structure here was rather more substantial and seemed to be in better condition than the first gotama at the entrance. From here we wandered up another pathway and up some steps to the third and final gotama. This was undoubtably the most impressive part of the temple as it was perched high up on the mountain with great views of the country side below. It would be a beautiful place even without the temple and although the structure was not as substantial as some of the temples around Angkor Wat the setting made this one of the most impressive temples i’ve seen. Sadly there were a few points here where the Thai army had shelled the temple area and although most of them had missed the temple itself there were numerous chips and broken areas near the holes. There was quite a contrast between the awe at this incredible structure at an amazing location and a kind of sad despair that it could be damaged over a dispute for some nearby gold fields.

Despite some travel warnings against it and it being a pain to get to I recommend the temple to anyone in the area. The area does not appear considerably dangerous as there has been no combat there for some time. Additionally I don’t think I needed the military escort at all and i’m sure it would be possible to hire a driver to take you to the base of the mountain and then pay one of the free army personal to get you up the mountain without much hassle. This temple is absolutely awe inspiring and because of the location it offers a completely different experience to the more frequented temples around Angkor Wat. It’s nice seeing the temple without any tourists too although the temple is full of soldiers but really that all adds to the experience. This is absolutely one of the best trips i’ve made in Cambodia and really encourage anyone interested to have a look.

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Phnom Kulen

On my second trip to Siem Reap we headed over to Phnom Kulen which involved a rather unstable ride up the mountainside. I was on the back of the bike while we bounced over pot holes, skidded over sand and generally hurtled all over the place on the badly abused road. Fortunately we managed to make it through without any personal contact with the dirt and arrived at the valley of 1000 lingas, a section of the river with what are said to be 1000 linga, small domes that are a holy phallic symbol of shiva and male creative energy. We saw a few khmer boys washing their faces in the river and I waded around between the linga. I think my feed received a much needed holy cleansing. We waded around for a while and tried to take a few photos of the linga that instead turned out as photos of the river. We then attempted to find a holy spring but evidently it’s not so holy without enough rain and instead we found a dry pit and a couple of shrines.

So we continued on the roller-coaster of a dirt road towards Preah Ang Thom, the site where it is said that King Javaman II declared himself a god king, marking the beginning of the Angkor Empire. The site is marked with a huge stone reclining buddha carved at the top of the tallest rock with a temple built around it. The artisans must have been awfully dedicated (or coerced) to carve the buddha so high up and it makes for an amazing temple. We saw a few tourist groups but the temple itself was mostly filled with Khmers worshipping at the site so it seemed more like an active temple rather than a tourist attraction. And with that done I washed my face from the water of a linga yoni and we headed to the waterfall for a spot of swimming. That water was filled with those bloody fish they put in tanks for a “fish massage” so you constantly felt little nips at your feet and legs. It was a bit of a laugh at first but could be disconcerting when you started feeling little nips whenever you stopped moving. They were also a lot bigger than the ones I’ve seen in the tanks and a couple of bites actually left red marks. The waterfall itself was fantastic, it had a beautiful setting with a wall of ferns behind it. We swam around the pool and climbed the rocks under the waterfall while water thundered down on top of us. After relaxing for a while we bought ourselves to face the road again and made our way back without any significant incident.

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Trekking in Virachey National Park

The trekking started off with the six of us meeting at the flooded eco tourism offices where we waded around for a bit before eventually piling into a 4WD and heading to the market for provisions. After this we had 2 hours on dirt roads that started in surprisingly good condition considering the recent rain but soon degraded to the expected mess. After a couple of hours of bouncing around we came to the river where we piled onto the two boats and headed into the jungle. The growth around the river got progressively thicker until the echo of the boats engine created a scene that felt like something out of heart of darkness. It was almost as if the forest was chattering around us and watching our approach. Passing we could see the forest was punctuated with occasional villages, one of which we stopped to walk by as the boats passed through some rapids without us. After a couple of hours on the boats we turned a corner and the dense forest was suddenly replaced by a depressing clearing of huge burned logs and stumps that suggested that not long ago this land was jungle but had been recently cleared in a mass of destruction (in a “national park” no less but that doesn’t mean a lot in Cambodia). To our surprise our boat pointed towards a small path here where we were greeted with stares from awfully sinister and unfriendly children. From here we walked into the village where we saw it was surrounded by these clearings of burned logs (we were later told this was to get resin to seal their boats). The village consisted of a handful of new looking huts spread out in no particular order and it seemed as if there were no crops until we eventually saw some rice plants dotted between the logs. The whole village had a sad sense of despair floating over it, as it something horrible had happened recently and the town was slowly dying (I suspect they were until recently a nomadic minority tribe that were relocated to the village we saw and having a hard time adjusting to their new life). Looking around it seemed as if the whole town was populated by children, we probably only saw around three adults and dozens of kids. As Dave commented it was like something out of Apocalypse Now and it certainly felt like a community being driven mad by their life in the jungle. We were told we should stay the night in this village as it was about to rain but since we not only wanted to sleep in the jungle but also were keen to get the hell out of the village we insisted on continuing on. After some hassle our guide managed to get someone from the village to guide us into the jungle and we all piled back into the boats and continued a short way up the river to start our trek into the jungle. Loaded with our packs, hammocks and water we walked for a pleasant but amazingly hot couple of hours. We were fortunate enough to stop by a hill to enjoy the views, catch some rest and let our sweat dry for a while to break up the walking. All in all we only walked a couple of hours through some fantastic forest and at times followed the Ho Chi Minh trail before we came to a river and set up camp. Our guides were fantastic and quickly set up our hammocks and tarps for us which before starting to cook dinner. It was just as well they were so organised as while dinner was cooking the rains came in and hammered down around us while we huddled under our tarps and watched our poor guide repeatedly run out and brave the rain to check on dinner. Sadly poor Gary and Lucy lost out in the rain though. Lucy’s blanket was left out and got soaked and a stream of water managed to make it’s way into Gary’s hammock leaving them both with a cold wet night. The rest of us got to go to bed and listen to the rain hammering down on the tarp’s above us and watching fireflies dance around in the pitch black night. While not the most comfortable this was easily one of the nicest beds i’ve had so far. In the morning we got up early to have breakfast, pack up and continue our trekking. The trek was much more interesting on the second day as we dodged leeches, crossed rivers and passed through a huge variety of forest. We saw a number of different faces of the forest such as sparse trees, dense undergrowth, thick bamboo and a huge variety of trees, ferns and flowers. At times the growth got thick enough that our guide had to pull out his machete in order to clear the plants growing across the path (although I think he was so anxious to use it that he also hacked away at plants that didn’t pose much of an obstacle). Again we spent some time on the Ho Chi Minh trail but I was rarely clear about when we were actually on the trail and when we were not. After a few hours trekking we came across a building where guides seemed to be relaxing and we took a brief break here and sampled the guides jackfruit rice wine. Finally after what only seemed a small amount more trekking we came to a building by the river where our guide cooked us lunch while we chatted and waited for the boats to come and take us back. Here I met a fellow from one of the ethnic minorities who had an elaborate khmer tattoo that was apparently applied with a sewing needle. Eventually the boats came and we loaded back on for the trip back which was rather similar to the trip up except that a few of us got to stay on the boat to pass through the rapids while we tried to keep our bags and cameras away from the splashes of water coming down on us. Otherwise aside from a delay for a broken truck our trip back was rather uneventful.

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Around Banlung

In the morning at breakfast I met Dave and a couple of guys who had recently gone on the trek. They gave us the rather usefu information on where to book and suggested that as the trek would start the next day we should go and see the nearby waterfalls for the day. So once Sian eventually woke the three of us set off to book in for the trekking. Our timing on getting to the eco tourism office was well timed as while we were still trying to get into the office a couple, Lucy and Gary turned up to book in for trekking as well. So after a little while negotiating over the price the five of us booked in for a two day trek the next day. Since we still had the whole afternoon Sian, Dave and I set off to find some motorbikes to take us to the waterfalls. After running around for a while we eventually settled on a price and got three moto drivers to take us on the grand tour. The waterfalls were beautiful. We first saw Kah Chhang which was filled with local local kids swimming around and climbing up an impossible looking log to jump down part of the waterfall along with a group of old women chatting by the shore. Sadly none of us remembered our togs and therefore couldn’t swim so we just spend a while enjoying the scene before heading back up and going to the second waterfall, Ka Tieng. Once we climbed down the stairs to the pool below we ourselves in what seemed like a walled off pool which made for an amazingly tranquil place that felt isolated from the surrounding forest. We relaxed here for a while and enjoyed the amazingly calm environment before jumping back on the bikes and heading to the third and final waterfall. On the way we stopped by one of the various rubber plantations we were passing through to have a look and our guide explained that the locals hang bags on the tree at the base of a string running from a cut high up in the tree and would come back an hour or two later to collect the rubber in the bags. The trees were saw were apparently government owned and the workers were paid a small price (I think a couple of hundred riel although I can’t recall) for each bag they collected.

We arrived at the Cha Ong, the third “waterfall” to see absolutely no water falling so I don’t think it quite lives up to it’s name during this time of year (at the very start of the rainy season) although we eventually found a small trickle it wasn’t quite the spectacle we expected. This wasn’t a set back though as the environment was absolutely incredible. We sat in a crevice behind what would have been the waterfall and looked out into the forest view below listening to the jungle hum of cicadas and birds. But as our moto drives asked us to hurry we didn’t stay here for long before heading back up and going to the Yeak Loam Lake, an old volcanic crater that has found new life as a beautifully round lake and local swimming hole (although it didn’t compare with the waterfalls). As none of us had bought bathing gear and swimming in our underwear may have been unacceptable for the locals we lounged around, had a drink, browsed the shops and eventually headed back for the evening.

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Off to Ratanakiri

asked how long the bus to Ratanakiri would take when I bought my ticket and was told it should be around 8 hours which I thought seemed awfully short as Ratanakiri is the province at the absolute north east corner of Cambodia, bordering Vietnam and Laos. When I mentioned this to Thida later she suggested that it should take around 12 hours (only a minor difference) so I was expecting the trip to take anywhere between 8 and 12 hours. For the most part we seemed to be making reasonable progress and after around 8 hours we hit a dirt road which I interpreted as meaning we must be almost there. Unfortunately I didn’t account for the quality of the road as we bumped through the beautiful forest, past stilted huts and over dodgy bridges. After around four hours the trees thinned out, the gravel was replaced by bitumen and suddenly we were in Banlung. After looking at jungle huts for hours it is amazing how advanced Banlung appeared.

Sian who i’d met on the bus was heading to the Treetops guesthouse so I tagged along which turned out to be a great decision as even though it’s certainly not the most luxurious guesthouse where you really need the mosquito nets and it has the coldest showers i’ve had in a long time it is probably the nicest guesthouse i’ve stayed in all my travels. The view from my initial room and from the restaurant/social area looks out over the vally and the place itself is bristling with character. Some rooms even come with a complementary gecko or offer insects to guard your door. But as we arrived late we didn’t spend too long enjoying the ambiance and instead just had a few drinks for the night and relaxed, thrilled to finally not be sitting on a bus.

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Sunwrae in Ho Chi Minh

Clicking through my email a month or two ago I saw that Sunwrae were playing in Ho Chi Minh as part of their current tour. As the show said to contact the band for details I replied to the email to find out a bit more about it. I got a response back from Rae telling me that the show is a private show at the Ho Chi Minh Opera House put on by the Australian Consulate but she is extending an invitation to me. So after arranging to pick up a ticket from Heng at the Consulate I emailed Rae and arranged to meet in the Foyer after the show. Since the show is supposed to be a VIP event I thought I probably shouldn’t go dressed like a tourist and as Saigon is famous for it’s tailors I managed to find one who could tailor me a suit in a day (although shoes were rather more difficult as it turns out that the Vietnamese shoe shops don’t seem to cater much to western sizes and it took me some time to find something that actually fit). But just on time I managed to get dressed up and made my way to the opera house. It was only when arriving that I actually read my invitation and found out that the event was for the Australian Governor General, Quentin Bryce’s visit to Vietnam which explained that rather elaborate security (metal detectors and all that fun). But fortunately the guards were easily convinced that I wasn’t carrying any weapons and I got in with little trouble. The Opera house is an absolutely gorgeous French colonial building and I was later told by some Vietnamese RMIT students that the venue is normally reserved for government events (although i’m sure there must be some public events) and this was their first visit which is a shame because the interior of the building is such a sight to behold. The performance was absolutely fantastic. We were first treated to some traditional Vietnamese music on the bamboo flute, Trung and the Trong Cam before a Rae played Piano along with Dinh Linh on Bamboo Flute. We then got a few pieces from Sunwrae (for this show Rae was on Piano accompanied by a string quartet) before an incredible version of Desert Walk by Sunwrae along with Dinh Linh and Tuyet Mai on bamboo flute and the trung. The crowd absolutely loved the combination of traditional Vietnamese music with the western contemporary style and despite rather a significant language gap the people I was sitting next to made it clear they loved it through smiles, applause and some thumbs up gestures. After the show I waited in the Foyer and chatted to a few students until Rae arrived and after posing for a few photos we headed backstage to meet the band before heading out to dinner and a few drinks. It was a nice casual way to finish off a great evening and this has certainly been one of the highlights of my trip so far.

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A visit to some garment factories

At dinner on Friday I chatted to Gerald and Rowath, founders of Who Will Village for a while and mentioned I wanted to see inside one of the garment factories that are so common around Phnom Penh. Rowarth told me that she knew a woman who runs a small garment factory and we could have a look. So at 1pm the next day I turned up at their house and we set off south of Phnom Penh to see the factory. It was considerably further than I anticipated in rather busy land that has apparently only been recently developed suggesting amazingly rapid growth in the area. Eventually we got to the factory where we were guided into a beautifully appointed apartment (adorned with huge pictures of the owners daughter’s marriage to one of Hung Sen’s Nephews) where Rowath and the owner chatted for a while and Gerald and I occasionally threw out questions about the factory. After a while we were driven across the road to the factory and led in. It turns out that the factory was no so small and had around 2000 employees sewing children’s clothes for a US company called Place. Sadly we were not able to take pictures but while the work looked mundane the conditions were not anywhere near as bad as I had expected. The factory was clean, the workers had plenty of space and it was not especially hot or otherwise uncomfortable.

We were told that the workers earn about $50 a month for working 8 hour days 7 days a week. The owner originally told us that she provides food and accommodation for the workers but we eventually found out that she provides for around 40 workers and the remaining 1960 need to look after themselves. Apparently they generally get accommodation for $5 a month and share it which if it is anything like the really cheap apartments i’ve seen probably consists of a single small room and a bathroom. In this way the girls working at the factory can live off a pittance and send $10-$20 home a month to provide for their families. In a way it is good for the girls (or at least their families) but while the conditions are sanitary it seems as if they live and work amazingly hard, to provide a few dollars to their families while a handful of people in Cambodia and the US make an absolute fortune off them.

We then went to the back of the factory where a new building was getting built that can house another 5000 workers. This had apparently been put on hold for a while as the single client was not buying as much but business had improved of late and construction had resumed. This made me wonder about the risk of expanding to accommodate the demand of a single company in a beleaguered economy. There are so many risks that could cause the company to drop demand permanently causing great damage to this boom area of the Cambodian economy. Especially as the USD loses demand and consequently value.

After this factory we went back into Phnom Penh and saw a small factory making tiny baby jeans for the same company. There were only a few people here and the owner complained that she had a hard time finding employees and many didn’t want to work hard and returned to their provinces (I couldn’t really blame them, especially as this factory was nowhere near as nice as the first). It was set in a cramped old building where on the first flood where around 20 people were packing the jeans for transport. There were a number of fans keeping it reasonably cool where most of the workers were but on the second floor where about six people were sewing it was swelteringly hot (we were told this was because there were only a few people up there).

It is impossible to imagine this working lifestyle and what forces hold people in it. In the west we complain about rather minor problems in the workplace but continue to effectively support workplaces that most westerners would flat out refuse to work in. I think about how so many Australians would rather sit on the dole then do shitty jobs but so many Khmer women do work that makes our shitty jobs look good. Later in the evening over a dinner of slow cooked dog I chatted about it to Ben, a fellow i’d met earlier in the day and he posed the question “Why is Australia so rich and Cambodia so poor?” and suggested that it has to do with currency exchange rates making Cambodian labour much cheaper than it is in Australia so it gets exploited like this. I’m not sure I entirely agree as I think employment rates are a major factor but the day raised some interesting questions about why western countries can exploit the labour in places like Cambodia to such an extent.

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