Categories
Cambodia

Reflections on the Mekong

I am excited to share a guest post from my sister, Alexis, who turned 30 while traveling with us. See her story below and enjoy!

A quick snapshot of my latest stats:
6 days of travel
5 street food samples
4 guest houses
3 traveling friends
2 public group exercise sessions
1 spectacular birthday

I found myself entranced with the whizzing and choking of the engine, the light spray of water, and the constant wake as our river boat broke through the seemingly calm surface of the Mekong.  It was as ideal a setting to reflect on thirty years and cast thoughts on what lies ahead as one could imagine. In this serene atmosphere, I was ready to recap the events of the day before, which was the Eve of Christmas Eve, also known to some as my birthday.

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We awoke to yet more glorious sunshine in Phnom Penh, sauntered up to our third floor deck and started flipping through The Word, the local events newspaper we picked up the day before.  We decided to start off with a little adventure to build up our appetite, and off we went in search of a hidden lunch spot in the arts district.

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Lee was at the helm with his map and compass, Dominique was armed with the camera, and I had the day bag and an eye open for ancillary adventures. Mind you, the maps from Lonely Planet are not true maps, as Lee taught me, as north does not always point towards the top of the page and not all the streets are named or even included.  Despite this, we found a winding alley that looked like it might lead us to our designated lunch spot. We turned down, past some open living rooms (indeed so open that it seemed as though the front exterior wall of the house had been left out of the building process), snaked by moto-bike parking and landed at our quaint oasis in the alleyway.  It looked like a Grecian cottage with turquoise shutters and white washed walls, not the typical Cambodian style we had grown to recognize.  Inside, the husband-wife duo had created an art gallery, clothing boutique and café with delicious juices and fresh sandwiches.

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We had our fill and started our hunt for live music.  We consulted The Word again, and picked out a few spots to stop by throughout the day. To our surprise, a wedding reception had gathered in the twisting alley, complete with banquet tables, centerpieces and Cambodian cuisine. We were greeted with big smiles as we delicately dodged the tables and families gathering; it was decided it was a good omen. soil and thread

Out on the main street, we didn’t make it too far until we found a chocolatier (the Donoghoes do love chocolate).  We stopped in for some birthday treats, and I was given a chocolate birthday lotus on the house, all of which was devoured immediately.

At this point, it was about time for a birthday toast, so we headed to the first spot for live music. Not only did the bar not have the band listed on the music bill, they didn’t even host live bands! We liked the spot regardless and made ourselves at home in the outdoor seating with a cold round of beers complete with a koozie!

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Dominique then presented me with the sweetest hand-made card, filled with thirty memories, one for each year. There were even illustrations for each one! We laughed and cried while going down memory lane, and toasted to another thirty.

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For dinner we went to a jazz club on the Mekong river front.  We continued the toasting revelry at dinner and moved inside right before the jazz band came on.  I had a chance to talk with the lead singer / saxophonist before they started and let him know that it was not only my birthday, but that I was born in 20 minutes (luckily my parents had sent me a reminder earlier that day). At 8:50pm, the band dedicated the next song to me, which was an off-the-cuff birthday melody. Mind you this wasn’t just another rendition of the birthday song, it was a ten minute jazzy serenade and made the birthday girl oh-so-happy! We continued dancing and enjoying the music for the next couple of hours, then made our way out to negotiate the tuktuk fare back to our room.

It was certainly a birthday for the books, and I owe it all to Dominique and Lee for so graciously taking me in and sharing their adventures.

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Categories
Cambodia

Living Ruins

After a late night bus breakdown, Lee and I arrived to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and took a short night’s rest before awaking to greet my sister at the international airport. The festivities of having Alexis with us for the next three weeks while we traveled through Asia started from the moment we saw her. She arrived to much fanfare, a handmade welcome card, and the sounds of Wilson Phillips (a childhood classic), blasting from our speakers.

Walking the metropolitan streets, Alexis dove right into the street food culture with sundried grilled bananas and chicken liver.

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In the city’s central park we were whisked into a free public exercise group, but finding it not quite our speed, we opted for a small yoga session instead. Limbered up and ready to soak in more cultural experiences, we headed to Meta House where there was a small gallery supporting local artists, documentaries played nightly, and a good music scene. The film viewing that night was a documentary on the ex-Cambodian Head of State, Khieu Samphan, and his involvement with the Khmer Rouge. The devastating history of the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 when the nation was forced into backbreaking agrarian work, starved, tortured, and over 1.7 million people murdered is chilling. The Cambodian people are now marching towards a much brighter future while still honoring the victims with museums and monuments throughout the nation.

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An open country once again, people flood the region to see Angkor, the largest religious complex in the world. Just 20 minutes from Siem Reap in central Cambodia, the ruins are far stretching and include hundreds of temples and shrines. Seeing Angkor Wat was time warping. Five main towers rise triumphantly from their dark aged stone base and give even more weight to the sprawling complex. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman, Angkor Wat, meaning City of Temples, was built with sandstone in classical Khmer architectural style. Intricate carvings give dimension to the complex and even the windows support bulbous stone carved pillars. Religious imagery from Hindu epics is everywhere, as are depictions of sacred plants and animals. Before leaving we bought palm juice fresh from a palm tree growing on the temple grounds and sipped the sweet liquid from a straw in its plastic bag.

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Another five minutes down the road held Angkor Thom and the ancient ruins of Bayon. Bayon was built under the rule of another king in the late 12th century, King Jayavarman VII, and outfitted with over 200 faces depicting his likeness. Each enormous stone face seems heavenly serene and happily peaceful, making it one of my favorite temples.

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Perhaps most impressive of all was Ta Prohm, where tree roots draped the ancient structures, moss seeped from every crevice, and lichen breathed new life into crumbling walls. The jungle had clearly spoken and claimed its grounds; we were merely obliging visitors.

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Back in Siem Reap, we lunched in the lap of luxury on beds at an all-white restaurant that delivered scrumptious bites on angular white-washed trays. The cool airy space stood in sharp contrast to the enveloping heat of the jungle and we were happy for the repose. After lunch I spotted a pedicure parlor that specialized in fish pedicures and decided to surprise Lee with a visit to “Dr.Fish”. Telling him we had a surprise for him, we made him close his eyes while we guided him down the street. In front of the big tank of four-inch long fish he opened his eyes and was immediately excited to sit along the bench above the tank and have his feet eaten by hundreds of fish. Alexis and I were less sure as we sat down, hovered our feet over the tank, and the starving fish swarmed our direction. Thankfully, the $3 fish pedicure price included a complimentary beer to calm the nerves! The fish nibbles were much more forceful than I expected and it was nearly impossible to keep my feet in the water for longer than a few seconds as the fish slipped in between toes and the big ones tried to eat my whole toe. Since Lee easily stayed stone still, the fish loved him and ate his dead skin voraciously. Alexis and I went through laughing fits and tried to see who could keep their feet in longer. It was a surprisingly intense 30 minutes, after which we had the softest, cleanest feet of our adult lives.

Worn out from a full day of adventuring, we headed back to our hotel room, glanced out of the window, and discovered that there was a crocodile farm next door. Two pools surrounded by strips of concrete teemed with hundreds of adult crocodiles piled on top of each other lazing in the sun in the middle of the city.

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Cambodia held more surprises for us than we expected and we embraced each one with due serendipity.