Thursday, January 29, 2015

Finding Hope in the Streets of Cambodia

Growing up, I never thought I'd visit Cambodia which was called "Kampuchea" back in the days when I still had to take Geography quizzes. Reports of horrible genocide dotted the news, and the award winning movie, The Killing Fields, loomed large in my formative years. Even after the Khmer Rouge's rule ended, they left the legacy of a decimated population and a maze of landmines throughout the country. It was the furthest place from a vacation spot that I could imagine.

438 anti-personnel mines and 809 unexploded ornances (UXOs) cleared from around Beng Mealea temple
The work is still ongoing.
Dogs are trained to detect them... and stop before triggering an explosion. 

Gradually though, the country has begun to heal itself. Instead of death and destruction, people come expecting to experience the wonders of the ancient Angkor temples. The Kingdom of Cambodia, as it's now officially called, has seen tourism grow by roughly 20% each year. I definitely feel that if I go back, visiting the temples will be a different, more crowded, experience. Comparing my trip to photos I saw in other blogs' posts, the temples are in the process of being superficially altered to handle bigger crowds — like adding boardwalk paths to keep visitors out of the mud and also control where they wander. It's getting harder to feel like Indiana Jones.

Sokha Angkor hotel pool area and surrounding rooms

Cambodia surprised me by how nice its facilities are. The toilets at the Angkor temples are up to Western standards of cleanliness, and the Siem Reap airport is modern and well kept. I expected rustic accommodations since it's a developing country and was pleased to discover that there were a number of luxury hotels available catering to the tourist trade. The Pub Street area is a great place to hang out with everything from a Mexican restaurant to The Blue Pumpkin bakery and cafe which has fantastic ice cream.

However, there is a divide between the tourists and the locals in this country where poverty seems rampant, and the middle class is only beginning to emerge. All this niceness? It seems to exist just for the tourists. Surprisingly, the Angkor temples are not run by the government but by a private company which keeps about 15% of the ticket revenue. From what I gathered from our guide, this arrangement does not sit well with most Cambodians.

Typical houses on stilts along the road. Many had "Cambodia People's Party" signs.

Our guide told us that the area we were passing through had only recently been connected to electricity via power lines. Cambodia buys most of its electricity from neighboring Thailand, and the demand exceeds the supply. Blackouts occur often, and we experienced one while we were there. While the hotel had generators which quickly restored electricity to the property, the rest of Siem Reap's city center remained shrouded in darkness. Riding through the streets at night, we passed one dark restaurant after another with the diners lit up solely by candlelight. Sure it seemed romantic, but the candles were used out of necessity, not purely for ambience.

When I told our guide about Earth Hour, a worldwide event that encourages people to turn off their lights for an hour to demonstrate their commitment to the planet, I think he thought we were all a tad mad. We have so much electricity that we make a big deal of voluntarily giving it up for one hour a year. Cambodians experience that weekly.

Remorks (two-wheeled carriages pulled by motorcycles) are a primary mode of transportation for tourists.

Remorks buzz back and forth around Siem Reap and Angkor carrying tourists on their sightseeing excursions. I made the mistake of calling it a Tuk-Tuk, but our guide corrected me. "A tuk-tuk is Thailand. This is Cambodia. It is a remork." The remork drivers don't seem to much care if they are going with the car traffic or against it along the side of the road. As we approached a busy intersection, the driver stuck out his hand and waved to indicate his turn. No one slowed down, but we all seemed to flow around each other without colliding.

Fancy schmancy Petrol Station

Refueling at the petrol station was definitely different than what I've seen anywhere else. The station above is one of the nicer ones I saw. Most others were simply roadside stands with racks holding bottles of petrol. Our guide jokingly called it "Cambodian whiskey." This one had a modern fuel pump as well as a hand-cranked pump tapped into a barrel of petrol.

Hand-cranked fuel pump tapped into a petrol barrel.

As the man spun the crank around and around, bubbles rapidly floated up through the green fuel in the clear canister. Then, he put the hose in a liter bottle and opened the valve. Motorcycles pulled up, loaded the bottles into baskets on back and then drove off, presumably to restock the racks at smaller roadside stands. Later, we saw a large tour bus on the side of the road with the driver emptying the contents of a liter bottle into the tank. "That's going to take a while," my husband commented.

Schoolchildren outside the schoolyard

This is going to sound a little ridiculous, but I was surprised to see so many schools and schoolchildren in Siem Reap. It gave me hope that education is a priority now, unlike during the Khmer Rouge's rule.

As my own daughter and her Girl Scout friends get ready to start standing outside stores and going door-to-door to sell cookies for their fundraiser, I keep having flashbacks to Cambodia and other places where child beggars are sent out into the streets. They're kept out of school and tasked with selling postcards and trinkets to tourists. There's even a baby formula scam. Many times, these kids don't get to keep the money. As I train my Girl Scouts on good selling techniques at the booth, I can't help thinking of those Cambodian kids who are looking to earn enough for one meal a day. My girls, on the other hand, are aiming to fund a GaGa ball pit at their primary school.

Before we traveled to Cambodia, I decided that, no matter what sorry condition those child beggars may be in, I was not going to contribute to the cycle of poverty by giving them money. It was a hard discussion to have with my own kids — to explain to them that we were being helpful, not mean. Instead, we would make a nice donation to Love Cambodia which was founded by a former Penang expat, Emma, with whom I share many friends. This organization focuses on helping poverty stricken children receive food and an education while, if possible, keeping families together.

My heart ached when I saw this tiny child gripping his mama on the back of a bicycle.

There are other ways to help the children in Cambodia. As we drove back into town from Angkor Wat, I noticed a gathering of mothers and kids. They were waiting outside the hospital founded by Swiss pediatrician, Dr. Beat Richner, that provides Cambodian children and expectant mothers with high quality, free healthcare.

A few months before this trip, my own doctor said I may have contracted Haemorrhagic Dengue Fever. It turned out to have been Chikugunya, but I remember how scared I was hearing the word "haemorrhagic." I really felt for these mothers.

Dr. Richner, a.k.a. Beatocello, performs free cello concerts at the hospital on Thursday and Saturday nights during the tourist high season. It gets good reviews on TripAdvisor, partly because of the music, but mostly because of the education the audience receives about the state of healthcare in Cambodia. Some feel the call to donate money, some donate blood, and some donate both.

Riding through the streets of Siem Reap, it's clear that Cambodia is on the road to recovery. It's future is bright and no longer as bleak. The Killing Fields are relegated to museums so we won't forget instead of being a part of everyday life that can't be escaped. When I read the news about the horrors in Syria and Nigeria, I react with despair. Then, I think of Cambodia, and it gives me hope.

This post is part of the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cambodian Snack Food: Bamboo Sticky Rice

It's Girl Scout Cookie time where I live in Texas. When we moved back this summer from Malaysia, I was so grateful that an existing Girl Scout troop was able to squeeze in my daughter that I uttered the words, "I will do anything to help." That, in short, is how I ended up being the Cookie Mom, the person who coordinates this fundraiser for our troop. If you're not familiar with Girl Scout cookies, they are only available in an area for 4-6 weeks, and they are HUGELY popular, especially Thin Mints. Girls sell them at booths outside stores on the weekends, and some parents sell them at work. American expats in Malaysia will hopefully ask that friends send a few boxes over. Even hardcore foodies who have sworn off all processed foods make an exception for Girl Scout Cookies.

To get my mind off of American cookies, I am turning my thoughts to Cambodian snacks.

You've heard of street food. What about highway food? The highway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is lined with stands selling Krolan (Bamboo Sticky Rice).  It's very similar to a dish I've seen in Thailand and Malaysia. The smoke rising up from the charcoal brazier is what first caught my eye, and then I noticed what initially looked like scrolls of parchment paper in baskets on tables. No one seemed to have a very big operation, but the stands were plentiful.

Friday, January 16, 2015

I Couldn't Believe They Carried That on a Motorcycle

One thing that always amazed me about Asia was what people carried on the back of a motorcycle.

Some things don't give me much pause. A passenger on back? People in Texas do that all the time. Although, a Buddhist monk as the passenger is something I've never seen in the USA.

A Buddhist monk (Cambodia)

I sometimes see whole families including kids and even babies all sharing one bike. Coming from Texas where kids are required by law to sit in a car booster seat until they are 8-years-old, this type of sight was hard for me to get accustomed to. I get it, though. Cars are expensive, and for a lot of families in Asia, one motorcycle is the only way to get the whole family around town.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Have you tried Fresh Nutmeg?

I used to think of nutmeg as just an aromatic, brown, powdered spice that I added to my Christmas cookies and desserts. The smell of it brings to mind the image of festive holiday decorations, presents under the tree, and sipping eggnog by a roaring fire. Tasting it is like jumping headfirst into a Currier and Ives print.

Then, I moved to Malaysia and discovered fresh nutmeg. It tastes fruity and light — nothing like the spice. I love nutmeg juice which is a refreshing antidote to heat and humidity. It's a treat you should make sure you try if you visit Penang island. While it's not native to Malaysia, nutmeg trees were cultivated in Penang in the late 18th century by the British East India company as a way to expand their lucrative spice trade.

Nutmeg fruit

Today's guest post is written by 13-year-old Sean K. and photographed by 11-year-old Isaac K., two of the wonderful Malaysian kids I met while living in Penang. Their family and some friends toured the small, family-run Ghee Hup Nutmeg Farm and factory, and I asked them to share their visit with you.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Look Back Around the Globe in 2014

This Christmas finds me at my parents' house. In all my years of traveling, being married, having my own family, and living overseas, I almost always seem to find myself in my childhood home during the holidays. In fact, I've only been away from my mama on Christmas once in my entire life. No matter how far away I go, I also come full circle and end up where I began.

What a year it's been. Here's a look back at our 2014.

Orlando, Florida — Walt Disney World and Universal Studios

Cinderella's Castle, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World

Visiting Disney World during the off season is a dream come true for hubby. We honeymooned here decades ago in June when it was hot, humid and crowded. You may find it hard to believe, but the kids have never missed a single hour of school due to traveling. With that family policy in place, hitting Florida theme parks when the crowds are low is difficult. This year was finally our big chance because school didn't resume until mid-January. Score!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Live from New York

The Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan 

I've walked through the streets of New York City a thousand times. I've traveled on its subways and hailed taxis from the curb. I've caught a summer breeze on the fire escape of my Brooklyn walk up and sat on the steps of my Brownstone watching kids skip rope. I've spent weeks strolling down  the avenue gazing in store windows at a divine pair of Jimmy Choo shoes and meeting my gal friends for brunch. I've lined up for meals and desserts at all kinds of restaurants from the posh to dives.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Flashback to Before the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Hubby has been traveling internationally since he was a youngster. In the summer of 1976, his family took a trip to Berlin, both East and West sides. The city was still more than a decade away from being reunified. Today Google Doodle marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall reminded me of those old family photos.
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