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Archive for April, 2011

Cambodian Countryside

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Unfortunately, I got stuck an extra day in Phnom Penh. Ugh. I reserved a plane ticket for the morning - but because of the new year holiday, I wasn’t able to pay until the morning. By then my reservation had expired and the plane sold out. Bummer. The next flight was that afternoon so I filled my time with getting caught up on blogging and downloading images.

My advice to anyone traveling to Phnom Penh is to stay there for one day. Tick the sights and then leave. More than one day, regardless of what your travel agent says, simply isn’t necessary to taste the unremarkable flavor of this capital city.

The flight to Siem Riep was short and comfortable. The plane, a puddle jumper, was nearly empty but super clean and brand new. The flight took about 35 minutes - barely enough time to watch that episode of Entourage that I had loaded onto my iPad.

The next morning, I joined Peace of Angkor guide Dave Perkes and driver Kimleng on a two hour drive out of the city to some ruins way off the beaten track. The last hour of driving was over serious off-road trails where we would have easily gotten lost but for the local guide that we picked up along the way.

Now, I should add to all this that I’d picked up a cold in Singapore that I’d managed to fight off - until today. At the same time, I picked up an intestinal bug in Phnom Penh (another reason not to like that city) so I was ready to run to the outhouse at any given moment - not a pleasant prospect in Cambodia where their idea of a developed toilet is often a ceramic ditch into which you pour water from a nearby container to flush it. That and the heat sapped my strength something ferocious. Basically, I was a semi-lifeless wreck trying to make do as we hiked through the jungle to find some interesting but probably-not-worth-the-effort sculptures of elephants and tigers.

In fact, the stuff that we looked at wasn’t nearly as interesting as the people that we met along the way. These kids allowed their curiosity to guide them as they followed us around at our first stop.


So I mentioned that I had this intestinal bug. Well, I should add that Cambodia is notorious for having millions of land mines still in place from its long civil war. Every year, children and farmers are blown up from treading in uncleared areas. Anywhere near the tourist areas is not a problem, but we were many miles off the beaten path.

Thus I wasn’t too surprised to hear that there were land mines in the area of our adventure. Now I don’t know if they were pulling my leg, but I did take the prospect of getting my legs blown off seriously. Where this fact and the fact that I had a serious case of the runs intersects is in that I was now afraid to leave the trail to go to the bathroom (and of course there were no actual bathrooms around).

Dave, my guide, assured me that so long as my poop weighed less than 22 kilos, the minimum weight needed to set off a land mine, I’d be okay. Ha ha. As Fred Flintstone would say, “so droll, so very droll.” The joke was even less funny considering that defecating under the influence of a tropical third-world intestinal bug does not result in anything resembling solid. But I’m telling you more than you care to know.

As I put a smiling face on my discomfort, we visited a cave known for it’s large bats. It also served as the home for a hermetic monk. Here’s his home.

Here’s a portrait of our cave guide in his two-hut village.

Afterward, we stopped by a river popular with the locals. There’s a waterfall that was perfect for a cool soaking. One great thing about Cambodia is that few, other than children who just jump in naked, bother to get out of their street clothes when they go for a dunk. So I went in too. Man it felt so good! The misery I was feeling just washed away - and because my clothes were wet, I stayed cool for a good while after.

There’s no public transportation in Cambodia so people just jump aboard the local third-world pickup. These vehicles are a common sight in the countryside. Consisting of nothing more than a generator with a flywheel hooked up to a long steering bar and four wheels, they noisily transport all manner of goods and people from village to village.

For many farmers, the age old ox cart is still the preferred mode of travel.

Our last stop of the day was a relatively small temple complex not far outside of Siem Riep. Finally, my reward for leaving Phnom Penh! The reason I opted to travel to Cambodia was because I’d heard and seen fantastic photos of Angkor Wat - a grandiose ancient Khmer Temple. But in reality, the area contains dozens of temples, both restored and crumbling. So finally putting my camera and my creative eye to work amidst the elegantly sculpted rock of the temple was a welcome task.




These local kids came out to entertain us with their jumping skills. Of course, they both asked for “one dolla” afterward. I gave them some cash for their performance. A buck for me isn’t much, but it goes a long way for their families.

Then it was back to the hotel for a cold shower and food. I shuffled next door for some tom yum soup then shuffled back to my room. I’m fully cooked and hoping that tomorrow will bring with it new energy and better health.

John

Walkabout in Phnom Penh

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

By day two of Phnom Penh, I’d already had enough. The heat grit and generally ugly demeanor of the city had taken their effects on me. Just little things like the constant harassment of the tuk tuk drivers, people peeing in the open, the dead rat on the sidewalk just made the city a less than desireable place for me.

Late in the afternoon I strolled through a market just a couple of blocks from my hotel. The smell, the flies, the blood, the vegetables turning all did not give me confidence in the food I’d be eating that night.

Cities take on a different personality at night and Phnom Penh is no different. The relative cool of the evening draws out the crowds. Young lovers, families and curious tourists all come out to the river banks and open space in front of the palace. They gather to play, buy food from the many street vendors and stroll along the brightly lit streets.

Just off the beaten track, the scene quickly lost its romance.

I returned to the outdoor market that I had photographed earlier. Much of it was shut down though a few vendors hung on while others went through the motions of cleaning up. The smell wasn’t easy for me to take. Worse though, as I strolled through the crowded alleys, I noticed the ground moving in places. Looking closer, I realized that a bevy of oversized rats were doing some shopping of their own.

I don’t have any great fear of rats, though these were about two feet long from nose to tail and mostly fearless. They didn’t budge as I slowly strolled through their rotting smorgasbord. As I set my camera up, I can’t deny that I had visions of being attacked on the back of my ankles by bloodthirsty vermin. What I would have given for a pellet gun and handful of bb’s!

The next morning, I decided to get out of the city center for a walk to S21, the prison-now-museum where communist dictator Pol Pot tortured and killed many thousands of his fellow Cambodians during his brutal 1975 to 1979 rule. Most people choose to tuk tuk their way the couple of miles that it takes to get there, but I liked the idea of experiencing the city first hand to see what I could.

The Cambodians may be poor and their government not able to do much, but they do have cool crosswalk signals here. Check out this little video. The best part is at the end.

The day coincided with the Cambodian New Year so the noisy temples were filled with worshippers. Here’s a video with some of the sights and sounds of the new year celebration:

This man handed out a few Reals (Cambodian currency) to the beggars who sat outside the temple gates


After a couple miles of walking in the midday heat, I finally made it to the prison. The banality of the present day scene belies the horrific cruelty that took place here. In this room, the high value prisoners were held and tortured. Photos of the victims show them bloodied and beaten to the point that their life left them long after their will to live.

The barbed wire on the outside of the building wasn’t so much to stop prisoners from escaping as it was to stop them from killing themselves by throwing themselves off the higher floors. For many victims of the relentless waterboarding and other vicious tortures, death was no doubt a welcome relief.

Before becoming a prison, the complex was a school. It’s easy to imagine children walking to class here. Hard to visualize the macabre scene of beaten men being herded aboard trucks to their death.

My next stop was to one of the many killing fields in Cambodia. There’s one that’s set up as a memorial/tourist destination but in reality there are hundreds of these murderous sites scattered throughout the country. At the killing fields, prisoners were bludgeoned to death by the hundreds and buried in shallow mass graves. According to the nearby sign, this tree was used by the Khmer Rouge to kill babies and small children by swinging them by their feet and bashing their heads.

This three story memorial contains thousands of human skulls stacked in shelves that fill the middle of the tower. They’re all on display.

To get to the killing fields, a tuk tuk was required because the distance was way to far to walk. On the way back, I snapped photos of some of the many scooters zooming by. Here a mom breast feeds her baby on the back of one. Seeing families of four on a scooter is not uncommon - traveling by scooter is just part of everyday life here.

My last day in Phnom Penh. Whew! Tomorrow I leave for the more scenic city of Siem Riep, an 45 minute plane ride to the north. I’ll be happy to leave this town.

John

Day One in Phnom Penh

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

I got into Phnom Penh just after darkness had fallen. Going into a new city at night always feels like walking into a mystery since so much is left unrevealed. My eyes were wide as I took in the new sights of all the motor scooters, old cars, and odd lettering on the concrete buildings. As my taxi neared my hotel, a small dog scurried in front of us. Seeing that the speedy little animal was actually a monkey reminded me of just how far away from home I had traveled.

My first impression of Phnom Penh was that it reminded me of Tijuana Mexico, a city which neighbors my hometown of San Diego. Both share in common dusty streets, boxy concrete buildings, smog belching cars and a general run down feel to them. My large suite of a hotel room though was a welcome sight. Its French doors opened to a view of the Tonle Sap River and its meeting with the mighty Mekong River. To the right was a large Buddhist Temple, where cars, dead rats and the homeless all made their home outside its walls

The next morning, I made my way to the nearby National Museum. Built during the French era of colonization, its design mixed a colonial style with traditional Cambodian pagoda details. I love the little pointy things coming off the roof. I think they’re snakes. Whatever they are, I want some on the roof of my house.

Consisting mostly of sculptures taken from the various ancient temples in Cambodia, the museum took about an hour to get through. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed. (Gotta sell those postcards.)

As I walked over to the royal palace (Cambodia being some sort of constitutional monarchy), the relative cool of the morning gave way to the ruthless heat of midday. April is the hot season. Though temperatures rarely make it above the mid 90’s, the high humidity makes mere walking around an exercise in staying alive.

Not that the Cambodians seem to notice. I never failed to marvel each time I’d see a local wearing dark pants and long sleeves, sometimes even a winter parka, strutting around the overheated streets without so much as breaking a minor sweat. Meanwhile, I’ve sought refuge in the shade of a street-side bar, wearing shorts and a fancy thermo-wicking Nike white t-shirt with a fan pointed at me and a cold beer pressed against my forehead. Fortunately, the beers here are cheap; 75 cents will get you an almost cold glass of Tiger beer.

Walking along the bustling tourist corridor in Phnom Penh mean avoiding tuk tuk drivers and their constant pestering for a ride. (A tuk tuk is a small carriage pulled by a motor scooter.) There’s few flies in Cambodia; I think the tuk tuk drivers were too annoying for even them.


I entered the royal palace not long before it closed for lunch. Before long, all the other tourists had left, the outside doors were closed and I had the place to myself. No one kicked me out, so I kept snapping away with my camera. After the din of Singapore and the bustle of the outside streets, I welcomed the solitude and beauty of the palace grounds.








Afterward, I ambled along the friendly bank of the Mekong River until I came across some midday Buddhist temple worshippers. It was the start of the Khmer new year so things were especially festive everywhere I went. Since music doesn’t translate well in a photo, I decided to shoot some video. (The audio is a little rough at the start of this clip though it quickly gets better.)

John

Singapore Sling

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Greetings everyone from the other side of the world. It’s 20 hours in an airplane to get here. Seems like a long time to sit until I think of the visitors of old whose journeys took months in a creaky ship. Traveling in coach doesn’t seem so bad after all.

I’m here shooting a job for a client. Ah… the joys of being a world traveling photographer. Singapore isn’t much of a tourist destination so I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s sort of like south east asia’s version of Orange County. Very clean and conservative. People obey the laws here - although as one sign reminded me: low crime is not the same as no crime.

Singapore seems to love these big brother-esque sorts of signs. Construction sites specialize in signs about safety and such - which sounds great until you see herds of Bangladeshi being carted around like cattle. But no one seems to really care as long as the money keeps flowing in. And making money is what Singapore is really all about.

One local told me about Singapore that it’s best not to scratch beneath the surface since you’re not likely to find anything there. Although it’s a couple of hundred years old, it has the feeling of being born yesterday. No one has a past. Everything is new. Make money today and spend it lavishly.

All that said, the waterfront is stunning. I took a tour during the day then returned at night for photos. Well worth the return visit. There is something to be said for spending money in the right places. The amazing, boat like Marina Bay Sands casino is nothing short of stunning. As is the helix bridge - a stainless steal masterpiece that mimics the double helix of the DNA molecule. Can we have one in San Diego, please?

Singapore is all about getting shit done. “Let’s build a bunch of really cool stuff and the tourists will start beating a path to our doors” is the attitude. The Chinese are showing up, don’t know if the rest of the world will.

Taxes in Singapore are high. Very high. I went shopping along Orchard Lane - which isn’t anything as quaint as the name would hint. It’s a mighty boulevard it thousands of pricey stores and brand names like Prada, Gucci, Zegna, Apple and for all you fans of Jared, there’s even a Subway. The prices seemed high - for example that $250 Hugo Boss hat seemed steep even for Hugo Boss. But I locked away my wallet once I saw a shirt that I paid $100 for in the US selling for over $200. Still, that $5,000 Gucci jacket looked dazzling on me.

Not everything in Singapore is sky high. I got a custom suit coat made for $250. I picked out an Italian fabric much like that Zegna coat that I’ve been salivating over. Saved $2,000 there. I wanted to buy a three dollar watch, but the ones I saw were just a little too girlie. For all of you getting souvenirs from me, I can assure you, I did not get them for ten bucks for three.

By the way, that lotus-like structure that collects rain water into a fountain (not that such ecologically high minded planning means much in a rain forest), it’s a science museum. Don’t your wish your local museum looked like that? (The base is in the photo below.)

Once I got past the waterfront, there wasn’t a heck of lot else to look at. Yes, there was Little India. Sort of like what India would look like in a Disney theme park: All of the color and dressed up characters, but none of the filth and grime. There was also Chinatown - three blocks of crammed in little shops that end in a square occupied by old Chinese men playing some form of checkers on steroids.

I can’t say that I’m a big fan of cruises, though I’ve never been on one. But Singapore is one such country (it’s the last of the great city-states) that hitting as part of cruise is probably just about right. Tick off the points of interest and you’ve still got plenty of time for dinner with the captain.

Next stop Cambodia!

John