Empires of the East Expedition
A Diary by Angela and Charlotte
Sousedei from Cambodia! The weather here in Siem Reap has been gorgeous since we arrived and we're all acclimatising to both the heat and the Cambodian way of life. There are a lot of differences between here and home. For instance, the delicious Asian food on tap, the insane traffic, and the fact you have to haggle when buying anything! The people are all really lovely however and we've already made friends with locals. That includes the resident hostel wildlife of mosquitoes, lizards and flies, not to mention the huge spider which the girls rescued the boys from the other day.
On Monday, we started our Khmer lessons with monks from the local temple. They're part of the organisation we'll be working with to build houses later on called the Life and Hope Association. They're lovely people with great senses of humour - one of the monks even taught us insults in Khmer!
Yesterday we went back to the temple to help distribute food to some of the poorest people in Siem Reap. It was a really humbling experience. Most of the children had stick-like arms and legs and were wearing clothes that were far too small for them, but they were all really friendly, smiley and beautiful. After this we went to help out in an English class for teenagers but we ended up teaching each other games outside in the sunshine.
On Saturday we'll be leaving Siem Reap for two weeks to go to Phnom Penh and the beach at Sianoukville. When we get back, the hard task of building three houses will begin! We're all missing home but everyone also having the time of their lives already.
Happy Chinese New Year! We arrived in Phnom Penh on Saturday after a long bus journey dodging cows on the road and listening to Chinese karaoke. The next day we visited Tuol Sleng, the notorious former Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh and then the Killing Fields just outside the city. Our guide told us how her family were killed by the Khmer Rouge and that she and her mother had fled to Vietnam to escape the same fate. We were shown all the torture instruments and cells and at the Killing Fields we saw the huge monument filled with skulls that had been excavated from the site in mass graves. Although very sombering and shocking, the experience left us with a better knowledge of the country's past and what it has been through.
On Monday we went to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda which houses a huge emerald Buddha and whose floor is paved with solid silver slabs weighing a kilo each. This was before setting off for Krache further north of Phnom Penh to watch wild Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong. We were lucky to see them because there are only between 80 and 100 in the wild and they are only found in this part of the world.
On Thursday the group set off for another bus journey to Kampot. The next day we got up early to pile onto the back of a couple of pickup trucks and make our way up the rocky mountain track in the jungle to see the remains of the King's palace. We then had a short trek through the jungle looking at lovely orchids and spikey tropical plants - even spotting a snakeskin along the way!
We then had homemade Khmer soup made by our tour guides on top of the mountain cliff looking over miles of jungle, which was truly breathtaking. We then went to the old abandoned hotel to explore and it was still possible to see remnants of sandbags and gunshots from it's Khmer Rouge occupation.
We had another bumpy journey back down the mountains before taking a dip in some rapids and then going for a sunset boat trip down the Mekong. It was stunning and most people agreed that this was one of the best days so far.
Our next destination was Kep, a small seaside town although now a shell of its former self. Kep endured a lot of devastation during the Civil War so there remains many derelict and soulless buildings which were once fashionable hotels. Fortunately there is now evidence of tourism picking up with attractions such as rock climbing, caving and island hopping in this area.
The next days excursions took half the group to Rabbit Island and the other half rock climbing. Predictably most the girls chose the island trip with the promise of a good beach. A long boat collected us from the pier and we then braved the rocky sail across. Before setting down on our beach towels we thought we should at least do some exploring. We followed the coastal path round which took us to local fishing spots and beaches lined with coconut trees. As you would expect the rest of the morning was spent indulging in the warm sea, our rest and relaxation being briefly interrupted by a herd of meandering cows!
Our next destination, Sihanoukville, was on the south coast and our first trip was to Ream National Park, located a short distance outside of town. We hopped onto a long boat and travelled down river to a very scenic and deserted beach at the mouth of the river. Local tour guides cooked us the best lunch yet, which included barbequed barracuda fish. The tour took us through part of the national park including a bit of jungle, offering a rare sighting of mangroves.
Our return journey by boat was eventful as the motor failed a number of times leaving us drifting into the unknown! With a stroke of luck the motor managed to chug it's way back to shore. We celebrated our epic survival that evening at our local haunt, the Yellow Monkey, with some well-earned bevvies!
The next days excursion took us to three islands by boat. The first activity included snorkelling and an unsuccessful attempt to find Nemo! We then jumped to shore at the next island; again very undeveloped with a few beach huts and small bar. I'm sure in years to come these islands will be packed with backpackers all fighting for beach-huts, but for now it is still possible to appreciate them in their natural, undisturbed beauty.
The group also challenged itself to a game of volleyball and group Frisbee, much to the amusement of the locals who also joined in!
So all in all a great week exploring the south coast. We set off back to Siem Reap tomorrow to begin our four week community and development projects. Our aim is to build three houses from scratch, as well as undertaking a number of research projects. It is certainly going to be physically challenging but the rewards, I'm sure, will be much greater.
Next was the first week of the development project. Our first task was to build a house for an underprivileged family - a widow with five children. To start with the locals sacrificed a pig to bring good luck to everyone working on the project. Candles, incense and the pig's head were put on a shrine overlooking the project site.
By the time we arrived, some of the local builders and monks had constructed the main support frames of the house. We soon joined in and helped where we could. The girls worked on constructing the walls made out of palm leaves and strips of bamboo and the boys helped by shifting materials to desired locations, sawing pieces of wood and nailing down floorboards.
To say thank you for our work, some of the local community prepared some Khmer food for us which was seriously tasty. Besides constructing and completing a new house, we also helped renovate an old house and took opportunities during breaks to play with the children.
Over the last few weeks, certain members of the group have also got to know a lot more about Cambodia's natural world. We have heard geckos actually saying 'gecko' when calling their mate, been attacked by vicious mosquitos, and in some cases been welcomed into our room by cockroaches, mice and grasshoppers. Outside in the wild, some people have seen snakes, spiders and various insects.
Overall, it's been a fantastic week for the group, knowing that we have helped improve the lives of two families.
Week five was the second week of the project phase and all seemed to be going well. The task this week was to construct an extension to the Life and Hope Association's existing building and refurbish the monks' office. This task was slightly different this week because we would be using bricks and mortar instead of wood and nails but Indochina 1 were ready and willing to take up the task.
It started off well enough with the walls going up in a few days (with a little help from the monks) and the scaffolding being made up in an afternoon. However, the task then took a turn for the worse with the need to scrape the walls ready for repainting. With the paint being that thick and flaky we were advised to use chisels and axes to scrape the walls. Perhaps a little crude but this method came highly recommended from the monks, and when in Rome.
With the walls sufficiently chipped and battered and the team covered in paint dust and sweat, the painting took place and the upstairs was complete! However as with all things in Cambodia, time moves a little slower and as I write this the building is still not finished. As the roof materials have only just turned up, we have overrun our allotted time on this task and therefore must move on to more pressing concerns. Nevertheless, Indochina 1 will graft like we know how and finish the task in our spare time.
After five weeks in Cambodia and much anticipation, the group finally went to see the famous temples here in Siem Reap. Using the VentureCo budget, we bought a three day pass and spent the first two days travelling around in a mini-bus with a tour guide. With the guide we did all the main:it was fast paced, but worth every minute that we spent out there.
Day one started off with a visit to the amazing city of Angkor Tohm, this is not to be confused with the most famous temple Angkor Wat. This is a city built by Jayavarman VII and consists of multiple temples and terraces each more splendid than the last. The first we visited was the temple Bayon, which is famous for having over two hundred faces of the King carved into stone and various bas-reliefs depicting the daily life of the Khmer.
Afterwards we toured around the city, running up and down temples and working up quiet a sweat. Most of the temples have little or no shade and are made of black stone, very uncomfortable! For this reason, we decided to come back to Siem Reap to recharge and spend the hottest hours there. After a refreshing nap, the group headed out to the farthest temple called Banteay Srei to look at the gorgeous carvings there and see the sunset at Pre Rup. A lovely way to end a lovely day.
Day two was an early start. We went to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. A very worthwhile experience, except when your alarm goes off at 4.30am and you spend the next 15 minutes cursing it's existence. Once there however, it is an amazing experience. Angkor Wat appears like a spectre, emerging from the night and as it does, it sounds as if the world is reviving from a deep trance. Maybe an overly poetic way to express it, but it left much of the group speechless.
Afterwards we hurriedly ate breakfast and toured around Angkor Wat. Then it was on to Ta Prohm, which you might know from such films as 'Tomb Raider'. Here the forest is swallowing up the temple and as you explore the rubble and niches in the giant tree roots, you cannot help but feel like Angelina Jolie, well according to some! Once again we went back to Siem Reap for lunch before heading off to see Neak Pean and Prah Khan and another sunset. This one on Phnom Bakheng, though sadly with what seemed to be 7000 other tourists.
Finally there was day three. Those who were templed-out were able to stay back in Siem Reap and relax before another long week of work. Some went into town and received spa treatments and others caught up on emails. Others of us chose to use the day at the temples to its fullest, going out at sunrise once again and heading out to the farthest temples. Some chose to take electric bikes out for the morning and travel around the temples that way and others by tuk tuk.
All in all it was an amazing three days, but many however are not looking forward to going back to work - exploring temples is very hard work!
After a busy, but exhilarating weekend at Angkor, work resumed as normal. In true flexible Cambodian style we arrived at the lovely Wat Damnak expecting to be continuing to refine our builder's bums laying bricks and scraping walls only to be in for a surprise.
Where on Thursday there had been walls which were only half scraped (even though our love, blood and lots of sweat had been put in), there were now glistening white walls. The monks had been busy without us! So with so much progress having been made - the two top rooms painted, the outside walls done and the rickety, but charming wood hand-made scaffolding deconstructed, we moved on to our next house with plans to return later in the week.
Pnom Krom, the site for our third house had a very different feel from the first site on the edge of Siem Reap. Physically stunning, a raised road with adjoining houses traversed through rice paddies with water buffalo and fisherman. Compared to the first site, Pnom Krom was much more remote and the perception of poverty was heightened when set against the richness of the vistas.
The build itself was extremely hot work. With such little shade and temperatures of 41 degrees in the sun and 38 degrees in the shade , we had to take shifts in order to keep from passing out. Due to this the house progressed more slowly than the others, but eventually on Wednesday afternoon just as the heavens opened to bring us the relief that we'd been waiting for, we finished. Some of the group had a bit of a rain dance in celebration of both the rain and the fact we'd finished! Then we had the traditional ceremony inside the house in order to bless it. Other than one dodgy moment when the house was being pushed upright because it had slumped, this all went swimmingly.
Thursday morning we had a fascinating question and answer session with the monks on Buddhism and learnt that although the non-monks have only five main rules to follow, monks have over 200. We also discovered that the reason that monks have to shave not only their hair, but also their eyebrows was that so they couldn't make signs with them to attract girls! Also note, that monks are allowed to lie if they're joking! The afternoon was spent resting with a few attending English lessons which quickly deteriorated into charades.
This brings us nicely to today which we are spending back at Wat Damnak to progess work on our second site. We'll let you know how it goes soon. For now we send all our love back home and hope everyone's not too jealous!
The weekend started with a group scavenger hunt! As it was our last weekend in Siem Reap, the group thought it would a good idea to do something together that forced us to explore the town. The activities group organised a special type of hunt where instead of finding things, they would give us a hint and we would have to perform a task on camera. The whole hunt took three hours with 24 questions and tasks to complete. The team with the most points was given $20 to share.
After an exhausting three hours of making fools of ourselves in town, we all gathered at the guest house to compare photos and commenced judging them by a complex point system. The winners were Alida and Alistair, and afterwards the whole group ate together at the 'Funky Buda'.
The final week of the project came much quicker than we all expected. After an exciting weekend full of group activities, the motivation to get up early and build was not quite there. Luckily for us we were given an extra long weekend, and after a short trip into town to organize group t-shirts, the day was mostly spent relaxing in the ever-increasing heat!
Then on Tuesday, we all piled in to the back of a pickup truck to get to the final house. Once again the lack of shade and constant heat made it exhausting work! However we were all grateful that the house, unlike last week, was not meant to be built half-submerged in water. This meant we could get much more involved without having to get worried about leaches.
The next two days ran reasonably smoothly, apart from a bit of conflict when we tried making the walls, as a dispute over the use of nails versus wire broke out. Also we had to endure the pain of getting up earlier to try to beat the heat by working from 7am! Despite the early start we all managed to have fun on site and finished in a record of two and a half days.
We were all very sad to say goodbye to the monks on Friday. Our last day with them was spent with a ceremony blessing Mark, Sathya, Ange and Kat as they became Buddhist monks and nuns for the day. After this we had a farewell party which included a variety of soft drinks, as well as chocolate brownies and banana muffins! Mark, Sath, Kat and Ange then went to have their lunch which is the last meal of the day for them; part of being a monk or nun is fasting for the second half of the day. We all wished them luck and then spent the rest of the day packing to get all that we needed for the upcoming weeks of expedition.
We left Siem Reap for Phnom Penh where we stayed for a night before departing for Vietnam. The bus journey to the dock, which was supposed to take an hour instead took about three. Halfway through the journey, the bus swerved to miss a truck and hit a huge pothole sending the bus off the road. The steering cable was broken and the axle twisted so we waited in the middle of nowhere whilst a few of the locals and the bus driver tried to fix it.
We finally got to the dock two hours late and boarded the barge that would take us very slowly up the Mekong to the Cambodia/Vietnam border. After a lengthy wait at the border, we transferred to a Vietnamese boat to take us to Chau Doc in Vietnam, since Cambodian boats were not permitted to enter. The boat which took us to Chau Doc was tiny, fitting no more than two blue and white striped deckchairs side by side, but was the perfect way to travel the final distance along the Mekong through the villages and fields.
Chau Doc was merely a stop on the way to Saigon. We arrived in Saigon the following day after a six hour local bus journey, and were extremely glad to reach the guesthouse where we would be staying for almost a week. Saigon was amazing with beautiful shops, bars, restaurants, markets and cafes everywhere. The size of the city was quite a shock at first. It took a good hour to cross district one and there are 13 districts. Most of the groups visited the American War Museum (aka American War Crimes Museum); the Notre Dame; and the Cu Chi tunnels. Here we had the opportunity to climb through the pitch black for an hour on hands and knee deep under the forest where the Vietcong hid during the war. Many of us ate most meals in the local markets where they cook in front of you - our stomachs are much stronger now!
Half the group took a two day excursion to Mui Ne on the south coast of Vietnam to see the sand dunes. Trekking across the sand dunes in the midday sun was tough work, but worth the sunburn to go sand boarding on near vertical slopes which stop at a large lake. We stayed to watch one of the best sunsets over the red dunes. The remaining members of the group spent the additional days in Saigon in the water park or touring the Mekong. We regrouped for another day and wandered around the shops and sites.
Next up is our cycle trip, nine days from Saigon to Hue City, through the Central Highlands and along the beach. We'll be in touch again when we get there!
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