Sunday, November 28, 2010

Water Festival and trip to Battenbong

Sat 20th  November.

Can someone please explain to me why we always seem to have to be picked up at 6.30am every time we go away?  Yes, Ryllis and I are dressed, sitting in the dark ready to go on the bus to Battenbong which is about a three hour bus trip and the bus is supposed to leave a 7.30am.  We are picked up by a pink bus, pink outside, pink inside and one could say that I was in seventh heaven considering my love of pink.  We drove around Siem Reap picking up passengers, stopping for about 10 minutes at a travel agent when we took on even more passengers and luggage, some of these were going to Phnom Penh.  We went out to the out skirts of town and drove around some more, changed into the old clanger that we were going to Battenbong on, drove around some more and ended up at, yes you guessed it back at the travel agents we were at 45 minutes before.  By this time I had eaten all my snacks that I had to eat on the trip and needed to go to the toilet!!

Bonn Om Teuk (the Festival of Boat Racing) is an annual boat rowing contest which has become the largest spectator event in Cambodia as well as a national festival. Held each year at the end of the rainy season Bonn Om Teuk is celebrated when the Mekong river begins to sink back to its normal levels allowing the Tonle Sap River to reverse its flow.

Bonn Om Teuk lasts three days so that boats from near and far provinces can join the contest. During the festival, Cambodians from across the country gather in Phnom Penh, the capital, to attend and celebrate this festival.

The Water Festival has a long history dating from the Angkor era in the 12th century, under the reign of King Preah Bat Jayvarman VII, when the Khmer Empire occupied and ruled most of the Indochinese Peninsula. The King battled with enemies to defend the Empire as well as to expand the territory. With a very powerful naval force, the King had defeated his enemies at each battle.

As a result, the King decided to organise the Water Festival every year at the Bayon Temple and Batteay Chhmar. The purpose of the Water Festival is to select a champion capable of winning a sailing (naval) battle. In addition, the ceremony is also used to train the King's "army" (seafaring fighters) to prepare for battle.  In Cambodia, there are many statues depicting sailing battles under the leadership of King Jayvarman VII, originally carved on the wall of Angkor Thom temple. Because of this Bonn Om Teuk has become a very important traditional festival in Cambodia, and an opportunity to admire the military exercises of the naval forces.

The festival is also used as an opportunity to express thanks to the Buddhist symbols, Gods and all holy things which help the people. There are special thanks for the harvest and all things related to agriculture (rice fields in particular) and opportunities to show gratitude for happiness and sufficient rain for rice cultivation.

There are three other ceremonies associated with Bonn Om Teuk: Loy Pratip is the ceremony of "illuminated floating" – the sailing of illuminated boats along the river; Moon salutation (Sampeas Preah Khe) is the ceremony of lunar worship; and the eating of Ork Ambok (once described to the writer as .. "pestle new special rice with banana or coconut juice") are all traditional.
The Water Festival itself – which takes place on about 1.7km of river (the competition course) with over 400 rowing boats and approximately 20,000 rowers from all the different provinces across the country.

The river in Siem Reap was a sight to see at night during the festival

The bus trip was uneventful, although the bus was very crowded and we only stopped once for the obligatory toilet stop and we after 3 hours found ourselves chucked out of the bus in the middle of a street and we could only guess and hope that we were in Battenbong.  Fortunately, we had arranged to be picked up at the buss stop and yes there was a tuk tuk driver holding up a piece of paper with our names on it.  We hopped in along with another man who was also staying at the Bus Stop which was the name of the guest house we were staying in.  Ryllis and I were sharing a room and we had decided that we would pay a little more so that we would get a balcony with a scenic view and we had been looking forward to getting together with Sandra for a drink and nibblies on our balcony.  

This young man was sitting across the aisle from me

The guest house was certainly not 3 star and the owner was an Australian from Adelaide who was married to a Cambodian lady with 2 small children.  They spent most of the 3 days we spent there, fighting and slamming doors etc.  The balcony, you ask?  Well there certainly was one, it was about 1/2 metre wide and overlooked the smelly noisy street and I think we went out there for a look and never went out there again.  It looked good in the website.

Battenbong is the second largest city in Cambodia and is very much the same as any other big city.  Lots of people, lots of rubbish, lots of poverty and lots of markets and small shops.  Ryliss and I went out to look at the town and of course headed straight for the markets and wandered out them.  They were a lot different from the ones in Siem Reap as Siem Reap caters for the tourists and there is very little tourist trade in Battenbong.  The markets were quite reasonable and they were really not all that interested so we were not hastled and this makes a nice change.   I bought a matching top and shorts for $5 and we then tried to find somewhere where we could get a cold beer.  That proved quite a challenge as I mentioned before this was not a tourist town and not a lot of cafe or eating places in the centre of the city.  We eventually wandered into the International Hotel which turned out to be accommodation but we found a fridge and sat in the foyer and drank a beer.

Sandra received an invitation to the wedding of one of the students in her class so decided that she would go to the wedding and come down to Battenbong on the Sunday bus.  We had a text from Sandra on the Saturday morning telling us that she had been hit by a motor bike while she was out on the push bike and was shaken but not all that hurt.  She was down by the river taking pictures of the boat races and the streets were packed and traffic everywhere. Only Siem Reap and Phnom Penh have boat races.

The boat races in  Phnom Penh attract a huge crowd and they close off the roads leading into the city, early Saturday morning allowing only busses in.  Unfortunately, the awful accident after the concert on Monday certainly showed up the huge crowd and how unprepared the Civil Services are in Cambodia.

There were no boat races  in Battenbong that weekend,  as they, like all the other provinces have their races earlier so that they can select their best teams to send to Phnom Penh.  We saw the races on the TV and they are really popular with about 300 boats racing and the boats have teams of 70 or so rowers.  The boats in Siem Reap are only about 20 and it is interesting as they stop the water flow of the river and allow the water to bank up to almost the top of the river.

Sandra and Liz had a great time at the wedding and took some great pictures.  They were the only non Cambodians there and were given special treatment.

Sandra arrived on Sunday and of course we had to catch up with all the gossip about the wedding and looked at the photos.  Sunday afternoon saw Ryllis, Sandra and myself at the local cooking school.  We met up with 3 other tourists and went to the market with the chef to buy some of the ingredients we need for the 4 dishes we were making.  The market was of course the normal jumble of fruit, vegetables, fish, pig's head, red ducks and heap of other unrecognisable items.  We spent about 30 minutes at the market as as it was almost 5 in the afternoon the smell of the market was at its peak and we were glad to get back to the kitchen.  We had a great time making 4 dishes, fish amok, beef Lok Lak, fried spring rolls and steamed rice all this for $8.  The only problem was that by the time we got to eat the food it was cold but still really nice.  I will have to make it for everyone when I get home.

Trip to the market
The Chef's kitchen

Chef Ryllis
Chef Sandra

Fish Amok

We had arranged for a tour of the sights of the Battenbong area for Monday morning and the 3 of us plus a lovely Canadian lady who had made friends with us on Sunday set of in a Tuk Tuk driven by a very nice young man.

Our first stop was to have a ride on the bamboo train (Norrie to the locals) which is an ingenous and practical solution to enable the locals to move between villiages aftr the Khmer Rouge regime when the road were in disrepair.  Although it looks flimsy the construction is very strong, carting tons of produce to markets, fishermen to their fishings spots and can carry up to 30 locals at one time.  It was a lot of fun, racing down the track at 30 km per hour and the noise from the metal wheels rolling along the uneven rails is quite simply earsplitting accompanied by a large jolt of the floor under your bottom.  It really was a lot of fun and as we were the bigger train every one else travelling in the opposite direction had to get off their platform and wait while the driver and a helper takes off the platform, removes the wheels from the track, totally dismantelling the train, we pass and they rebuild the train again.  It seems that an Australian company has a lease to run a new network of trains and it seems that the local network will be disbanded which would be a shame as it certainly is a tourist attraction and a money earner for the Cambodians.  
Dismantling the train

Hang on here we go!!!


Our driver pulled over to the side of the road and we all got out and wandered over a very recently built suspension bridge over the Sangkar river.  From the bridge you can see the crops that are grown immediately after the water recedes and before the next wet season.

This is similar to the one in Phnom Penh
Crops are grown on the banks

Our next stop was a the winery called Chan Thai Chhoeung which is the only grape winery in Cambodia.  The vines came from Australia and California and they make a  dry red wine, rose, brandy and non-alcholic grape wine.  It was quite nice and of course I bought a bottle.  I don't think Australian wines have to worry about Cambodia taking over the market but it certainly was a lot fun trying it.  I think it would be great to put into cooking.

Half way looking down
Halway looking up
Wat (Pagoda) Banan was the next destination which dates back to 1050 and has been a Hindu and Buddhist temple.  It has not been restored, so is in a very sad state of disrepair.  I look at some of these temples perched on to of a huge mountain and wonder how on earth did they build them!!  This particular temple will be forever imprinted on my mind because the 300 stones leading to the top was certainly memorable.  We would take 6 steps and stop panting for 10 minutes and then tackle the next 6.  My God, I thought I was going to be buried at the site of the ruins but we got to the top and was the view worth it? Mmmmmmmmmmm sure.  You can judge
 We sat around for about half an hour after coming down the stairs catching our breath and congratulating ourselves that we in fact did it and earnt the T-shirt.

Back into the Tuk Tuk and off to the next Phrom which was about 30 minutes away.  Riding in a Tuk Tuk is a pleasant way to travel but not when you have 4 people in the Tuk Tuk and 3 of them have much larger bottoms than the average Cambodian.  One conciliation is that if we fell over, we would not have fallen out as we were certainly jammed in.  The small motor bike pulling the Tuk Tuk missed a few beats every now and then especially when we were going up the hills.

Phnom Sampeou is a hill steeped in Cambodian tradition tales and history.
We stopped half way up the hill and had some lunch.  Sandra, Ryllis and Merlie (the lady from Canada) decided that they would go up the hill on the back of a motor stopping to see the caves and shafts  on the way up.  I decided that I didn't want to go up the hill and certainly didn't want to see the caves so I stayed down at the food stall and played cards with the people there.

Why didn't I want to see the caves you ask?  Well, during the Khmer Rouge regime victims were thrown down the various shafts, sometimes having their throats cut first.  In the caves, there are bones, skulls and rotting clothing etc stored in cages.


The ladies enjoyed their trip up to the top on the back of the bikes but they certainly had some tales to tell when they came back down.  Sandra came off the bike when it seemed that another rider came down the hill and her driver had to take evasive action, resulting in Sandra sitting on the road on her bottom.  Merlie had an altercation with the large monkeys that live on top of the hill near the monastery, she was quite shaken as they were quite vicious in their attack.  The view from the top of the hill is quite spectacular. 

We then began our trip back to town, ate a great meal at the restraunt next door and got ready for, yes you guessed it our 6.30am rise for our trip back to Siem Reap and back to school.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Four weeks of the term left

I was thinking this morning about how the dynamics have changed in the classroom since we started here almost two months ago.  I will never forget the first day and how exhausted I was and how I thought that I would not be able to do this for 12 months.

The four hours student contact has certainly become a lot easier with the weather cooling down a little (perhaps we have adapted) and the language barrier becoming a lot easier.  I now have no Khmer interpreter in any of my classes included the Beginner 0, the other teachers still have them for that class and although it becomes a little tricky at times especially when you are trying to explain the rules of a new game or trying to explain the meaning of 'naughty' or 'ghost'.  Thank heavens for Khmer/English dictionaries although a lot of the Aussie slang is not in there.

We are slowly finding greats sites on the web where we can download worksheets on so many subjects and therefore we can now used worksheets to reinforce the workbooks that we use.  The students are now a lot more comfortable with the Aussie style of teaching which is very different from the rigid, repetitious Cambodian style.  As I mentioned before we have introduced them to learning by having fun and Mel mentioned the other day that she had received a complaint that we spend too much time having fun in the classroom.  Oh well don't think we will be changing.

Our students are a mixed bunch as would be found in any classroom around the world.  The thing that runs through all the classes is the need to learn English so that they can get a good job and earn some money.  It is such a shame as a large number of the students here have completed a University degree but are still unable to find any work at all.  The wages paid here are beyond belief.  People start work at about 8 in the morning and work through till 11.30 in the evening.  They sometimes sleep for a few hours in the afternoon and they work 6 days a week and all this for about $60US a month and they usually get paid on the last day of the month.  Rent for a room which can be shared by up to 10 people will cost $50US and they have to share the bathroom with many other families.  Siem Reap is a better job rate as it is a tourist town but the last two years have not been good for foreign visitors.

I makes me feel quite humble the work and study load the young people take on.  One girl leaves home at 5am in the morning and rides her pushbike to start the 6am lesson here then after the hours goes to the chemist shop she works in until 7pm and rides her pushbike to the University (about 45 minutes) goes to Uni then rides home, does her study and starts again all over again the next day.  One the the young boys here is a Tuk Tuk driver, he gets to bed about 5am has a couple hours of sleep, goes to school here around 9am then straight on to Japanese lessons, grabs a couple of hours sleep and then goes to work.  He pays $30 month a week rent for the Tuk Tuk, has to give his Mum $3 a day to help support the family as there are 12 of them living in the house he helped build which stopped them from living on the side of the road under a tarp.  He is lucky to get two jobs a day, yesterday he invited Sandra and myself to go and meet his family and we were made so welcome and he was so proud of the house he built with his brothers. 

No one ever seems to complain, they just go about their life and try to do the best for themselves and their families.

I found out the other day that one of my students work in the Intensive Care Unit of the International Hospital, several are Tour Guides who speak at least two languages and a number are students who attend the local schools.

Lesson planning still takes up a large part of our day and of course the marking of test work and homework.  I think that we are all a little surprised how much time we spend and now it seems that I have to teach Grammar and as I keep saying 'I have managed 60 years without knowing Grammar rules why do I need to start now'.  Fortunately Mel seems to know what we should be teaching them and of course there is so much available of the web.

Liz who lives and works out in the Village is having a lot of trouble with a very nasty boil/boil that has erupted on her back, I looked at it on Friday night when she came in for the weekend and was quite shocked as it looked very bad and was certainly painful.  Poor thing.  It still looks awful and has now become very deep and full of 'stuff', we have convinced her to stay here for the next few days and travel back and forth to the school.  She uses water from the local water tank for her washing as she has no shower and this way I can bath her wound for her.  She is going to have a big hole. 

Sandra is getting ready to go home next month and will be home for a couple days and then her and her husband Ernie are going on a cruise around the Pacific.  Ernie will then becoming here to take over from Sandra and Ernie's sister Leonie will also be coming over.

Annette, Sally and Judy are also leaving the school at the end of the term but none of them want to leave Cambodia.  Sally will go home but will be back early next year with her partner, Judy is hoping to find somewhere to volunteer and Annette is also planning to find something else to do here.  Cambodia or at least Siem Reap seems to have that effect on people.

It is funny, the ladies here are all complaining about the 'bloody tourists' who are now coming here and buying things from our market and getting in the way!!

Liz, Sally, Mel Ratha, Annette Front Row
Chris, Ryllis, Dara, Sandra Back row

Monday, November 8, 2010

Melbourne Cup and yet another visit

Melbourne Cup Eve saw us putting in money so that we could run a sweep, we managed to get enough takers to cover all the horses, this meant that we had to talk Mel into buying a horse, the 7 volunteers and that pesky cat Pierre all bought three each.

We had spoken to the owner of Molley Malone's which is a pub down the road to convince him that he had to show the race on his big screen although only Liz managed to get there on time to watch the race.  Sandra and I missed it by 15 minutes, that 4 hour time difference is a killer.  We made a point of not hearing who won until we ran the race via Y-tube and 9.30 that evening.  Who had the winning horse.  Yes you guessed it!!!  Pierre managed to pick the winner.  Here he is with his winnings and his Melbourne Cup hat.

We have a couple of bicycles here for our use and so far the only one who has been game enough to ride it is Sally our youngest member and she takes the bike out almost everyday now and even rides to the temples and back. 

Last Wednesday Sandra decided to make the trip to the nearest supermarket which is on one of the main streets and about a 10 minute walk from here.  I will include some of the comments from her email she sent out to her friends.

"Today I did something that I am extremely proud of.  I rode a push bike down our bumpy road out on to the main highway to go to the shop to buy some decent food for tea.    Not only was I in the middle of peak hour traffic at 5.30 I was riding on the wrong side of the bloody road.   I did not panic when I saw hundreds of motor bikes coming towards me.  I just got off my bike and ran very fast across the traffic to safety.  A few horns were beeped.  I even made it home in one piece.  Ratha our office administrator was very worried and had people out looking to see if I made it back.  Of course I would I am a Scout and we can do anything.  the fact I am nearly 60 and haven't ridden for 40 years meant nothing".

One trip that has been on our agenda since we first arrived was a trip to Phnom Kulen which is considered by  Khmers to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia and is a popular place of pilgrimage during weekends and festivals.  It played a  significant role in the history of the Khmer empire as it was from here in 802 that Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a god-king, giving birth to modern day Cambodia.  There is a small wat (temple) at the summit of the mountain which houses a large reclining buddha carved into the sandstone boulder upon which it is built.  The views from the 487m peak are tremendous.  Nearby is a large waterfall where we all spent a lot of time playing around in the cool mountain water.   Sandra, Lyn and myself decided that we would take a picnic lunch of wraps, salads and tinned ham (from Sandra's care package) and a cake we bought from the markets the day before, the others decided to buy from the local restraunt at the waterful.  It was great, the owners of the restraunt set up a table for the picnicers and were more than happy for us to sit there and eat our goodies. 

The road up to the mountain top is very narrow and winding and certainly not in a good condition.  In the very typical Cambodian way of solving problems, all traffic can only go up the mountain until noon and then the traffic reverses and the only traffic can go back down the mountain.  So sensible and simple although I did notice when we were entering a very blind corner the bus driver still used his horn (just in case). 


The trip back home was a lot of fun as Liz had brought along a friend who she had met on the Trans-Siberian train trip two months ago who was passing through Siem Reap and he had an ipod with a docking station in his bag (as you do) and he climbed into the front passenger seat, held the bus microphone in front of it and we had a bus DJ who took musical requests for the 3 hour bus trip. 

It was funny how much we missed hearing western music, we have not seen any news now for over 6 weeks as the only English paper available here is the Phnom Phen news which doesn't mention the world outside of Cambodia.   We had a great day, we hired a 20 seater bus and driver for the 8 of us for $60, great price, the only down side was that he could not speak a word of English and so far our Khmer does not go past counting up to 20 and hello and goodbye.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Last week in October

Our normal weekly routine of teaching, eating, sleeping and shopping was interrupted by two things.

Firstly, I managed to loose my phone over the weekend, think it fell out of my pocket while we were coming back from one of the temple visits and fell on to the road never to ring again.  It caused a problem in that the sim card belonged to the school and the ID card to purchase the card was one of the men who works here Mother (westerners are not supposed to buy sim cards).  I had to go to the company head office with a translator and look like a Cambodian lady.  Not really, I don't think they care as long as we buy lots of credit.  The long and the short of it was that, I am now back on air with my old phone number but minus the $20 credit that somehow got used!!

The second event was the two parcels that Sandra received from Australia.  It seems that Mel the lady who runs the school has not received any mail at all during the years they have lived here.  The two parcels were full of food, stickers and some slippers and you should have seen us all crowding around the packages 'oooing' and 'aaring'.  Unfortunately we still have my letter, several others of Sandra missing.  Sandra and I wander down to the Post Office every second day and the ladies in the Post Office have become our best friends although we have about 4 words we can all understand.

Friday was another public holiday.  Would you believe that Cambodia has 19 official holidays and it seems others that are not official.  Friday was the old King's birthday so we had the day off.

Mel had arranged for us to go out into the country to visit one of our students village and the family hired 3 very old and rickety boats to take us through endless flooded rice paddies to a huge dam for a swim and a picnic.

Once again, we were off at sunrise this time squashed into Mel's landrover and the other two ladies who were unable to fit into the car were sitting on the back on one of the Khmer boys motorbike.  We chose the two ladies with the smallest bottoms so you know that narrowed down the choice to two.  And yes you did read it right, they were both on the same bike.

The day was a lot of driving and a lot of sitting down in a very hard boat but a lot of fun.  It was amazing, we travelled a little way up a small river and then turned off into area full of rice about 2 foot high and just endless rows with small channels going off each side.  I have no idea how the guys knew where they were going but they seemed to know.  I kept thinking as we went past the rice that they must have been able to hold their breath for ages when they planted it as their heads would have been under water.  No, it seems that within 2 weeks the whole area will be dry although muddy and they flood the area when need and of course we had just finished the rainy season as well.  It seems that there are two types of rice grown, one takes 110 days from planting to reaping and the other 220 days.  The first is not a good quality grain but a quicker return.  

It was interesting when we sat down for our picnic.  The westerners opened their borrowed esky and took out bread rolls and made salad sandwiches, eat sweet pastries from the bakery and cold water and sat down on the mats provided.  The local took the lid off their large drink container and took out hot rice, they opened the plastic containers that had been in the sun on the boat all morning and took out dried fish and other interesting but smelly items of food, plastic bowls and cutlery and the whole group of about 20 sat and stood around and ate.  The opened up their large esky and gave everyone a beer and enjoyed their meal, think theirs was better than our boring bread rolls.

The younger members of the group immediately went in swimming and of course were joined by us and a great game of throwing weeds and mud over everyone took place for the next hour or so.   It was a great afternoon but quickly followed by 1 hour on the hard boats again to get back to the village.  The rural Cambodians do it hard especially during the wet season as their houses are under water or inaccessible, they have to bring all their animals up to dry land which in most cases is the road outside their houses.  On the whole the people seem quite happy and love to share a joke with you and are more than happy to chat although neither parties have any idea what the other are saying.  The family we stayed with have a DVD play which they all sit around and watch and this is run directly off a car battery.

  We certainly have been lucky to be able to visit with two of the local families and visit places that the tourists are not invited.  This is certainly thanks to Mel and her Khmer friends.

Sandra and I decided that we would meet up with Lyn and have a late start on Saturday and we set off to look at the Cambodian Cultural Village which is on the outskirts of Siem Reap.  It is a huge complex with a number of static displays but the main attractions are the live performances showing during the day and evenings.  Unfortunately we were a bit early for the shows and we had to be back at the school by 4pm.  A return visit is certainly a must, next time we will go later in the afternoon and stay the evening.

A view from the top

Saturday evening saw us all going out in 2 tuk tuks driven by 2 of Sandra's students, they are lovely boys and a lot of fun.  We were going out to the local fun park which was out of town and it is at the end of a dead end road and the food sellers move in about 4pm and set up their stalls, the locals come along about 30 minutes later and start buying their food for their picnic.  The food ranges from whole pigs on a spit to stuffed frogs, eggs with fetus, fish of every shape and size, half chickens and countless other delicacies.  There were a number of rides for the children, a ferris wheel and dodgem cars for the older children and stalls where you throw the darts to hit a balloon to win a prize.

We all bought a dart for 1000 riel (25c) and I burst a balloon and was able to choose from a huge array of cans of beer, packets of lollies and all sorts of kitchen items.  No stuffed toys to be seen.  The boys who were with us joined in and won a few prizes. 

We then decided that we would go on the ferris wheel as it was sitting idle.  We paid the 2000 riel and we all climbed into the cages, Sandra was with Minea and I was with Skye.  The driver who was a 10 year old boy cranked up the engine and instead of the sedate rotation around the circle we were expecting, the thing took off and we were literally flying around the circle and all you could hear was the two boys screaming and the women laughing.  The ride seemed to go for ages and there was quite a crowd standing around laughing at us when we staggered off.  We did notice that when we later looked up at the wheel, it had gone back to its previous slow rotation.  Our next stop was the dodgem cars and this was a little more expensive 5000 riel ($1.25) for 20 minutes.  We once again took over the place with the exception of about 5 unlucky locals who were pushed and shoved around the area by crazy ladies.  We had a great time and it wasn't until we watched the next group after us that we realized that they actually spent their time dodging each other and not trying to ram into each other!!

It was great fun and we had a enjoyable time.  Queezy stomache not withstanding.  We will be back for more later on and we will eat next time, it was too early and we made the mistake of seeing the food in daylight.

Sunday was spent have our lesson planning meeting which seems to take up all Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon just seemed to disappear.  Oh well it Monday again and yes we are going to have a sweep for Melbourne Cup.