Cambodia – Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap & Beyond – 2018 Part 2
Well, I have landed here in Siem Reap Cambodia and staying at The Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel www.babyelephant.asia for my cousin’s wife Kaz (Karyn) Australian Health Retreat for a week (pls refer to previous blogs) before heading off to Hanoi Vietnam for more backpacking. I enjoyed instant resort living and friendly acceptance from everyone like a family or community bond which I had primarily ‘lost’ for the last 2months of backpacking alone throughout Cambodia so the following is how most of this ‘healthier’ week panned out. As a quick overview, Kaz is one of those extra special people who accepts you wholeheartedly, makes you inclusive to the group, takes the time to explain what is happening/ planned and does everything in a positive manner. She is a lady of confidence but knows when to be the leader and the humour/ banter is overflowing. She is never short of a conversation and actually listens to you in the feedback. You cannot help but reciprocate in following her life principles and that is what makes the added bonus of this Health Retreat. Kaz also knows how to party!! She is sadly missed by the countless many that knew her.
Being the sole male & honorary invitee, I was allowed to sleep in a bit more each day than the ladies group but I couldn’t miss their group breakfast which was a real daily highlight. The staff, with Oun Kim at Reception provided the most welcoming of each morning, followed by the health retreat participants with the ringleader Kaz in fine voice and high motivation. Nothing but positives existed. The food and chatter were superb each morning. The ladies had already completed their early morning yoga class before breakfast and were extra keen for the journey to the local beauty parlour for their respective treatments of massages, facials, foot rubs, etc. I found it rather weird to have a yoga & meditation class on the rear upper balcony overlooking the rear neighbour’s property of a large crocodile farm. I kid you not!! Some 30+ reptiles by my count at the rear of a house but they kept moving so my count is approximate. Lol!!! I hope this neighbourhood doesn’t experience mass flooding as I have grave concerns for the boundary fencing.
On my first day, while the ladies were out at the parlour, I started on my early blog writings out on the front porch overlooking the pool. My blog was a short one “Flying into Siem Reap” https://bhlifestyles.travel.blog/2019/01/28/flying-into-siem-reap-international-airport-cambodia-2018/ where I wrote on my experiences and what to be aware of and how best to take the advantages when entering the terminal from the tarmac. It is an International Airport so there is a bit of wrangling to get around the ‘system’. Within a few hours of writing this a lady on holidays at the Baby Elephant was saying her fiancé is hesitant of flying in to see her and worried about the airport. Reception printed my blog and she loved it and reported back saying she sent it to her fiancé and he is on his way on the next flight. What an instant reward of putting things in writing. You never know who you can inadvertently help by knowing what is happening in your surrounds. Staying in The Present, remember?
During this time of computer writing Ilana (co-owner & manager) was also on her computer in the adjacent outdoor seating hut managing the hotel daily operations and we both could see the storm brewing to another level. The ladies surely would not be coming back though this darkness; mind you, this is around mid-day. Without warning the lightning started with immediate thunder. Bang!!!!!!!! A bolt of lightning hit the roof of the hotel immediately above my head with roof tile pieces crashing near my feet. Ilana & I both jumped to our feet & ‘froze’ momentarily. Ilana stayed with her laptop with my assurance as I ran upstairs and checked things out. Luckily, the lightning hit the section of roof within the Plant Room area so the rainwater entering is not causing problems to habitable rooms, adjacent and below. The smell of smoke and of metal ‘burning’ was clearly evident however no flames present, as there were no timber in this location, but a very large hole in the roof with rain entering. This is now the 4th time I have been within 20m of a lightning strike; certainly not looking for a 5th! I struggle to explain to people on what it is like to be so close to that form of energy. I was able to report back to Ilana that there was no catastrophe enfolding structurally. However, it was soon realised about 6 TVs, WiFi, etc were severely compromised (ruined). Technical repairs were carried out the next day and TVs ordered, along with the roof repairs. Another blow to their budget as insurance doesn’t really apply in Cambodia. When the ladies returned from their pleasure outing, they spoke of the storm but were more shocked to see the roof parts still on the entry path and glad they dodged that bullet.
Over the next few days, the yoga sessions, pool aerobics (Jay Sapphire, an Aussie Ex-pat fitness and health guru was our instructor), cooking classes & the like unfolded, along with “Happy Hour”, a walk to Pub Street to try the cocktails at Kaz’s favourite spot, The Red Piano https://redpianocambodia.com I had a few “Tomb Raiders” not knowing the high alcohol content with Michelle (we still talk about these). Kaz stuck to her one rum drink & I think Michelle finished that off too! When the ladies, now including Louise & her daughter Charise (Ex-pats living in Singapore) took to the streets to obtain their cooking ingredients for their cooking class I snuck away with a Tut-tut to the Angkor Panorama Museum, built in 2007. What an amazing place!! A definite must see, although the entry fee is around $32USD including a guide it will surpass your expectations. The obvious highlight is “The Painting”. First, you are directed to the 80seat theatre for the 10minute Khmer orientation, then you can stroll by yourself to overlook the numerous scaled models of some 12 temples in the Siem Reap region including the massive Angkor Wat. These models are insane and you can take photos once you recover from the excellent detail of these models. It certainly was an impressive display.
After your scaled model stroll, you are provided an assigned guide to take you to the central platform of “The Painting”, a panoramic masterpiece. The guide provides the English commentary and ensures NO photos are taken. You enter a hallway doorway and do a large spiral enclosed rampway to a central platform much like a movie theatre. Luckily, I went later in the day therefore, there were only a couple of people to share with in the viewing platform. The museum is usually jammed packed. Once you reach the central platform your eyes follow the finger pointing of the guide instructing you to the starting point; then you are left speechless with what your eyes are trying to absorb. “The Painting” is a complete circular flowing mural of immense size of some 30m high with a room diameter of some 40m. A massive 360° 3D mural! The starting point is The Cambodia/ Vietnam War around 900AD flowing then into temple constructions with elephants, river barges and the population bringing the large stones from a quarry some 40klms away from the construction zones and then into typical Khmer village life then into a life with everyone living in harmony and well-being (a celebration of life).
From the platform edge you look slightly down to see large rocks, real vegetation and the like providing the real imagery for the painting behind. A dreamlike masterpiece where it took some 43 professional paint artists 16months to complete. The painting had so much detail there are some 45,000 different human faces/ bodies within it, let alone the numerous wildlife. The war section at the start of the painting is very graphic of the fierce battle. To take photos is highly offensive and penalties apply if you dare to disobey or show little respect. A very clear warning. There was so much detail you could look for ages and a feeling of sadness to depart this ‘living’ historical masterpiece. Apologies … NO PHOTOS!!! Arrghh!!!
I had best call it a day seeing my trusted tut-tut driver happily waited for me outside and I was truly feeling guilty of the time used. I made sure he was rewarded and gave him an early mark by dropping me off at Pub Street to stroll the marketplace before walking back to the Baby Elephant. On the way I remembered to pick up my laundry (timely) from the old sweetie working long hours at her laundromat located at the hotel laneway intersection. I always gave her more money than she asked for. She was amazing and so thankful.
Meeting up with the group at the hotel we all agreed to have dinner quickly & hit the Happy Hour hard knowing we will be required to survive another Jay aerobic pool workout (1hr full on) in the morning and after the Ladies’ yoga class. We each had a chat on what each of us did for the day and my museum talk was well received and took a couple of scotches too!
The next day, after the Jay aquarobics workout, the ladies rushed to the beauty parlour once again for the pampering session and then returned to undertake the cooking class at the hotel where there was an introduction and then an excursion via tut-tuts to local markets and merchants to source and procure the required goods for the menu class after lunch. In the meantime, I opted out and took the opportunity of meeting up with Jay again on the other side of town for a coffee & his timely info for my upcoming tour through Vietnam. He was full of Vietnam travel recommendations and I was so thankful for his knowledge and guidance. With hours on hand I took the ‘long’ road back to the hotel, stopping at places to see like Wat Preah Prom Rath near the river with Buddhist Temple, pagodas & very impressive gardens and hard landscaping. A place of calmness and soothing meditation feels.
Again, we chat within the group of today’s activities by the pool in combination with the ladies results of today’s cooking masterpieces facilitated by the Baby Elephant’s Head Chef and trainee chefs. I must say the results were superb and obviously very healthy. A night swim was also on order. I’m surely enjoying this paradise.
The next day Kaz had arranged a full-on day of adventure. We started at the other side of Siem Reap to a nearby village school managed by a young Australian lady (Principal) with volunteer teachers and some very small backing from the Cambodian Govt. The ABC & Rice school https://www.abcrice.org is rather medium in size but very impressive and effective for the village size. There were 4 young French Uni students working as part of their scholarship to help set the curriculum and school reviews and strategies. The Principal confirmed these ladies have done about 12mths work in less than a month & still have a month to go in their residency. Their scholarship is extremely valuable for these schools. Some classes and school buildings are also privately funded by previous travellers and teachers, etc. We noticed 2 classrooms donated by a Norwegian & Swedish lady. The school has a rice bribery system going that if the student (Child) attends all month then the parents get rewarded in rice …. and they are extremely grateful for the rice, such is their hardship. Normally the child/ children are sent off to work or beg at a very early age to keep the family viable. The older students eventually get accepted into the Cambodian Public School system by achieving graduation standards and then their higher education escalates. Without these grass roots schools there would be almost nothing for villages like these for education and change. A very impressive achievement for this struggling village. So proud to be an Australian and seeing what our country people are achieving overseas. Our unsung heroes.
On our way back we called into some disability workshops and their merchandising stores and these were very impressive with pottery, sewing, etc. We also drove past some unusual but recognisable icons out the front of a commercial market which is an added bonus when viewing the street landscapes. Back to the Hotel for a swim, shower & dinner & then a mystery outing Kaz had arranged to see the local circus school, Phare – The Cambodia Circus https://pharecircus.org to show off their skills and acts. It was about a 15min tut-tut drive and the attendance was a full house. They even had their own merchandise store. Even though it is a circus school their mastery was amazing and students have gained places in circus events around the world. Some 150+ graduates to date. I was truly amazed with the whole show and their humility/ endurance & skills. This event was certainly not expected to my understanding of what Siem Reap offers. A very welcomed treat.
Our last major day excursion provided by Kaz was to visit the Kbal Spean waterfalls (NNE of Siem Reap in the Phnom Kulen National Park https://www.siemreap.net/visit/attractions/sightseeing/phnom-kulen ) where it provides the earliest recorded first Budda/ Khmer temple in 11th Century. The creek ‘river’ has stone carvings in rock riverbed called Linga where it forms into holy water lapping over the shallow rockbed. This creek then winds quickly around to a few lagoons then into a 30m waterfall. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a rare religious holiday & we had to share this special place with more than a thousand citizens, so no waterfall swim for us but a well-earned picnic. I don’t know if the lagoons still held holy water .. if you know what I mean? Adjacent to the waterfall area was the first population ‘village’ set amongst enormous rocks, caves & the like. A very sacred ground and on top of one of these rocks was a temple with a laying down Buddha of some 8m in length. Apparently, many thousands lived in & around this landscape with a range of huts, caves, etc during its prime era. It was an amazing experience to wander the same steps of a lost civilisation in the same respect of Angkor Wat & the other temples.
This Kbal Spean location is a bit of a drive however, there is a bit of countryside to view and we also had a few stops to see the crazy varieties of bananas (pronounced Bananan … no ‘r’ sound). We also had a glancing view of where the rocks were quarried from to create Angkor Wat & other temples constructed some 40klms away. Certainly, an amazing task without the machinery of today.
Nearing Siem Reap, but still away to go we called into the confronting Landmine Museum https://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org created by an ex-soldier Aki Ra, who dedicated his post war life to searching, recording & dismantling the abhorrent landmines installed by the vile Khmer Rouge forces. Years later, upon clearing thousands of mines a Japanese journalist called him Aki Ra (a brave Japanese historical name) and it was far better than the numerous adopted names he was given, so he politely took it. He was enforced into the war when the Khmer Rouge gave him his first gun at 10yrs of age and was also made to install landmines (children were expendable). He was told his parents died when he was 5 but no proof was ever provided of that. There are still millions of landmines uncovered throughout Cambodia. He has founded this museum and is world recognised for his work on landmines. He worked for (United Nations – UNTAC) clearing mines & that’s when it all started. The locals have a saying “watch out for the flying buffalo” as they tread on landmines more often than people. The devastation, death & maimed injury is beyond comprehension and landmines are really the most wicked and cowardly method of human conflict and it was really brought to life via Princess Diana as one of her life missions. Aki Ra is certainly a hero in many forms.
It had been a long day but Happy Hour provided a new form of energy and we all extended our hours into the night with great banter and relaxation of harmony; for tomorrow is the checking out day where Kaz & the group return to Australia and Singapore & I fly out alone to Hanoi Vietnam. It is with great sadness this departing moment was the 3rd last time we would see each other but each time was ultra-rewarding and not a moment lost. A full file of memories; so many heartfelt thanks Karyn (Kaz).
Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, specially through this COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.
I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.
Live life to the most as Kaz did often for a quote that I truly love is from Ekhart Tolle ..
“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”