Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Down the Coast

Dear reades of Fish Amok Blog!

Your dedicated blogger wrapped up the last interviews in Phnom Penh today. I am now heading down South to Sihanoukville where I'll spend my last three days in Cambodia. Last month the third intenational airport in Cambodia opened there. So I thought I could save a bit of time and fly down. Well.... think again, it's Cambodia! Sihanoukville does now have an INTERNATIONAL airport, but no international flights, no flights from the capital Phnom Penh, just one connection from Siem Reap, though that one I was told is already booked out for the next six month...

So, I guess I'll have to hit the road tomorrow by bus - 7 AM sharp. My plan is to look at child prostitution and tourism - as well as ecotourism development off the Cambodian coast. I'm told the islands are as beautiful as Thailand. We'll see - I'll keep you posted of course!!!

Sunday, 25 February 2007

The case of the missing thongs

Who would steal these?

Following the Cambodian practice of leaving one's shoes outside the house, I thought my shoes would be safe on the steps of the Holiday Guesthouse. So you can imagine my surprise this morning as I was about to get into my shared taxi back to Phnom Penh and my thongs were gone. I was not happy, and searched the entire property for my beloved pair of black & silver reef thongs that I bought seven years ago in Cannes. Even though I still had a pair of runners in my bag, I kicked up a fuss telling the owner I would have to leave the establishment and head back to the capital sans footwear. The owner quite embarrassed helped me in my search and finally rang around to find potential mischievous perpetrators. I had already given up any hope, as a young man walked through the gate with a broad smile, took off MY reefs on the steps in front of the house - and disappeared inside without any word. I thanked the owner and made my way to Phnom Penh, never having been so happy to be wearing my thongs.

First time riding an elephant

Riding elephants that's what tourists come to do in Mondulkiri. One, two or three day treks in the jungle. Fortunately we were wise enough to only take a half day option that our guide Mr Tree (because he likes trees) organised.

After ten minutes of a bumpy ride, fearing for our life as the elephant went down a slope of at least 75 degrees we decided this was definitely not our favourite mode of locomotion. The elephant Nang Preah seemed to enjoy the workout - despite its 70 years of age. Our guide Soprah less so, he really only cared about his snooze once we took a break down at the waterfalls.
Don't forget to check out the video!

The Srepok Wilderness Area

It felt strange when the police officer armed with an AK47 jumped onto the back of our pick up to escort us into the Srepok Wilderness Area. We had just stopped at the first outpost of the WWF project and had a chat with rangers and law enforcers there. They showed us wood they confiscated a few weeks ago.

Illegal logging is a huge problem throughout Cambodia and so is poaching. WWF launched a new project four years ago in this remote forest which they say is the Serengeti of Southeast Asia. Five outposts were built in the forest. Rangers and police officers generally spend 20 day stints in the forest, patrolling together and recording the animals they sight on their treks which can last up to five days.

The WWF made a concious effort to recruit former poachers when they chose their rangers for their project. Mr Kha is the head ranger and somewhat of an icon here in the region. A former body guard during the Khmer Rouge he tells me he shot ten tigers during his more than 30 years of hunting.

Poaching is a very lucrative business or at least it used to be when the forest was full of animals. But during the years of war, this area close to the Vietnamese border was heavily bombed and hunting seriously endangered many species throughout the forest. Now the WWF along with the Cambodian government is trying to put an end to poaching. Community extension teams are teaching locals why hunting has such negative effects and how it will ultimately destroy their livelihoods. The process is of course long. 65% of the villagers (most of them ethnic Phnongs) are said to be still hunting in the forests and you can't stop them from going into the forest from one day to the next. After all they have been living off the forest for many generations.

WWF's approach is therefore twofold: firstly working on the conservation and law enforcement, and secondly: closely working with the communities to make sure they will have sustainable alternative sources of income when they completely stop hunting. The WWF's local extension teams are training farmers how to improve their chicken raising and their rice production. They teach them about mushroom plantation and wild honey gathering. In addition the WWF also plans to set up a five star tourist lodge on the banks of the Srepok River. It will not only be an additional source income for the locals, but encourage the Cambodian government to really enforce the laws and protect the wildlife in this area. It sounds obvious, but theory is a richer wildlife will lead to more tourists and hopefully prompt the government to make this area a priority - and ultimately see more benefits flowing back into local communities.

Cocktails & Dreams - Sen Monorom Sunrise

We've been staying four nights in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri's provincial capital. This has provided us ample opportunity to sample local cuisine and local bars... Menus are flexible: order a plain omelette and get an onion one, or even better just fried eggs... 45 minutes after ordering and the waiter having checked twice what we had ordered. If you do however order fried eggs don't be surprised if you get an omelette -- I am NOT kidding!

Unfortunately unconfirmed reports of dog being served in one restaurant on the main road remain... unconfirmed.

A new bar opened up with comfortable lounges a few days ago - we showed them how to make shandies and explained what a Gin & Tonic is. And yes we found it odd that you could open a bar without knowing how to make a G&T. But then when you hear the manager's incredible life story nothing surprises you. From a poor rural family Sayna slept on the streets of Phnom Penh while studying English. His proficiency in English led to jobs at Phnom Penh's best hotel and later an international NGO. His family did not see him for six years and thought he was dead. Despite his own difficult circumstances he supported his friend to learn English too. After all that his new bar deserves a chance to succeed. So, if you hear of a cocktail called "Sen Monorom Sunrise" this will be our legacy in this town.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Lost grandeur at the Bokor Palace

Once a roaring casino during the French colonial era, driving up the torturous mountain track is a gamble today (see video). When offered the choice of a hum wee, a landcruiser or a Toyota Camry Sedan I elected for the cheapest option of the Camry. When tarmac turned to dirt and rocks I thought I had made a grave error. However, in the Camry my driver and I overtook dozens of 4WD and probably set a new record for ascent and descent (4 hours, 35 minutes and 52 seconds). Along the way up colonial homes lie in ruins, the region saw heavy fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. At the top the battered Roman Catholic Church is simply a shell (see video), but the views towards the see - once the mist clears - are spectacular.

Lost grandeur wandering around through the rooms of the Bokor Palace you can imagine it would have been a pretty special place to play roulette up here. On a clear day you can see Thailand to the West and Vietnam to the East. Five star tourism has not quite returned yet, even though there are rumours that Sokha (who owns half of Cambodia) bought up the entire Bokor National Park. For now the residents of the Bokor Hill Top Station are local food stall holders catering to day trippers - both Khmer and foreigners.

This place is also known for the occasional UFO sighting!

Rabbit Island

One of the main attractions off the coast of Kep is Rabbit Island, a twenty minute boat trip with a local fisherman. Along the beach there's a little bit of a Robinson Crusoe feel about this sparesly populated little island. Backbackers love cheap accomodation in basic small huts. If you don't mind roughing it - there's everything here for a fun time - including fresh seafood & cold beer.

But just behind, the rubbish tip shows once more how unplanned the tourism is. One wonders if tourism will bring here a short term economic benefit or a long term environmental headache?


Kep, or Kep-sur-Mer as this little seaside resort on the Cambodian coast was called during the French colonial years, was THE place for Phnom Penh's elite. Also after independence Kep was Cambodia's Riveria for the country's "who's who". The king and his family had (and still have) their property here, and so did other well to do families. They would come down for weekends, dance chachacha & tango here, play roulette at the casino or just come to enjoy sea, sun & fun in good company.

But with the rise of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese intervention in the late 70's, the ensuing looting and many years of war - the little village fell into disrepair.... The stylish 60's villas built by Cambodian students of Le Corbusier decayed - and still bear witness to decades of war and destruction. Kep became very much a ghost town - completely off the tourist map - actually off anyone's map really. The Vietnamese border 20 kilometres to the east has been closed for the past 30 years - very much making this place "au bout du monde".

Now things are changing: Kep is kicking back into life. A few guesthouses have opened, foreigners and Phnom Penh's expats are buying up the old houses and giving them a serious facelift. Today, walking through Kep, it's a strange feeling... caught between the grandeur of the past, the spooky years of terror and war - and a rebirth that is actually quite contagious. I caught myself thinking: "And what if I bought this run-down house? What would I do with it? And would the investment be worthwhile?" Like with so many places in Cambodia, it's too early to tell - but there's no doubt that I won't recognize Kep next time I'm back.

Sketchy Internet Access

Hello and sus dei faithful readers of Fish Amok Blog!

Your dedicated blogger has been very busy on the road to Kep, Kampot and Bokor National Park (South East of Cambodia) -- then on to the Mondulkiri province. Over the past four days I made Sen Monorom, the provincial capital of Mondulkiri, my base to see the development of ecotourism and high end tourism in this region.

Mondulkiri is the biggest, but also least populated province in Cambodia. It is very remote in the North-East of the country bordering Vietnam. Today it is an ardous seven hour drive from Phnom Penh, but land speculation and tourism development is changing this tiny provincial capital (7.000 hab) day to day. Internet hasn't quite made it here yet, but I have no doubt next time I come here, I'll be able to hook up Wifi in one of the cafés that are opening up on a weekly basis.

But let me first tell you about my impressions down south.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Sey: Cambodia's national sport

I've been telling you about Phnom Penh's nightlife. Very popular - with fans and players - is a game called "sey". Every day from 5 pm till dusk Cambodians gather for what seems to be a national sport - male only. It involves a lot of kicking around and a special ball (to me it looks like a Badmington thingy, but it's not...)

Pasta & co.

I was craving for a good pasta tonight... after three weeks of rice, I thought I was really deserving it!!! (Back in Germany, I have pasta every other day...)

So, for anyone travelling to Phnom Penh PopCafé on Sisowath Quay is THE place to go. Georgio's home made tagliatelle con funghi & gorgonzola are out of this world. It was so good, I had to make sure I was not eating too fast and suffocating.

Now, I'm ready for another three weeks of rice ;-))

Kings of the Road

"Kings of the Road", that's what Robert an aid worker from New Zealand calls the cyclo drivers from Phnom Penh. They're somewhat of an icon, he says, and have been around for a long time - as a matter of fact since 1936. Most of the cyclos you see around town are originals - though rebuilt many times of course. Over the years though, life has become much harder. Competition for public transport is greater and prices lower - especially with the rise of tuktuks. The ever growing traffic makes work on the streets more difficult. Robert, who's written a book about Phnom Penh's cyclo drivers, says people treat them as bottom of the heap - they don't get much respect from anyone.

Around two to three thousand cyclo drivers try to make a living here in Phnom Penh - at least in the dry season. Almost all of them are farmers from the provinces. In the wet season they return to farm their land. But from November to May they're pedaling through the capital trying to earn a bit of money to send back home. And it's hard earned money. Most earn around 5,000 to 6,000 riels a day (the equivalent of $1,5) , sleep on the streets and worry about being mugged every single night as crime is on the rise.

The cyclo centre is a hole in the wall NGO, where the drivers can come to discuss their problems, have a shower, consult a doctor or learn English in the free daily classes. Today, I was invited to teach five or so cyclo drivers. I asked a lot of questions about their lives, and they asked me about mine. How is life in Germany different from Cambodia? Good question, where do I start? It's much colder over there right now... we have no cyclos... and people are a lot less friendly back home...

Robert has his doubts about how much longer cyclos will be around in Phnom Penh that's why he's determined to turn the cyclo center into a sustainable business. His plan is to select 100 or so cyclo drivers who will be taught in tourism skills such as map reading and knowing their way around the city (my experience is this skill is ALWAYS lacking - how many times have I said "I want to go to street 152 - do you know where it is?" "Yes, yes" - and ended up at the other end of town).

Robert is currenlty drawing up a business plan, getting in touch with tour operators and looking for donors for the project's pilot phase. And I've definitely changed my mind about cyclos. If you're not pressed for time, it's a wonderful way to get around in the city: it's quiet, it's serene - and while you're doing it, you're giving an income to Phnom Penh's poorest.

What does it feel like to cross a six lane avenue on a cyclo? Check out my video!

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Weekend Quiz

People the world over like going out on weekends... going to the movies, hanging out at pubs or maybe partying until dawn. Here in Cambodia - or I should say Phnom Penh - young people hop onto their motorbikes (if they have one) or their friend's one and drive all evening up and down the quay along the Tonlé River. Cambodians of all ages also love taking out their mats and plonking themselves with familiy and friends in public spaces to catch up, enjoy the milder evening temperatures and watch the action roll by....

Also very popular on these nights out on the town are these litle treats which come in all shapes and sizes... I would like you to tell me what this particular little snack is? The winner will get a bag of those!!

Headquartered at the FCC

The best WIFI in town is at the Foreign Correspondent Club (FCC) of Siem Reap. Located in a beautiful two storey white building, it combines a distinctive colonial feel with modern minimalist design -- and great photo exhibits. The small veranda and the dozens of dark ventilators remind of a bygone era, while the sleek furniture and the stylish long bar are very NOW. A comfy beige sofa chair by the only electric plug has been my WIFI headquarters for the past ten days -- the waiters are getting used to me having shandies or 'Sandy'as they call it.

I love their use of space - seemingless transitioning from inside to outside - all open and airy, and yet with distinctive sections for eating, cooking - or chilling. The lawn in front of the FCC is always set differently, sometimes with small tables for tete-à-tete dinners, sometimes with long tables for big dinner parties, and even a set of sofa chairs to recline and enjoy a few cold Angkor beers after a dusty day at the temples. The only thing missing are the foreign correspondents - though admittedly, it's also nice to get a break... What else? The food's not great -- so stick to the drinks!!

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Cambodian contrasts - or where does the waste go?

I've interviewed quite a few hotel managers here in Siem Reap and wondered: where does their water comes from? There is no proper water supply system here. Where does their waste water go? There is also no sewage system, and what do they do with their garbage? The water issue is a long story (and I'll tell you more about that in another blog). But today was all about garbage. What happens to all the waste made by 1.5 million tourists? "Well, it's picked up every day", I was told. But where does it go? "No idea!" General manager after general manager, from one star to five star hotels, always had the same answer: "We pay around $100 per month to the garbage collecting company MICC to pick it up, but we have not the faintest idea where they take it". Hmmmm... I tried getting an interview with MICC - but like with so many other authorities, it's always the same bureaucratic nightmare: "You need to send a fax with your official letterhead". Yeah right, how am I supposed to do that???

Anyway, one morning, as I was making my way to visit a conservation project in Angkor Wat I saw one of the green MICC trucks. I jumped out of the car and stopped the truck asking the startled workers where they were going. Like so often, they had no idea what I was talking about (even though I was using all the body language I could think of). But I soon surrounded by a crowd of amused Cambodians and someone managed to tell me "behind the new stadium". Thanks!

So today I thought I'd check out this dump. Rachel, a British volunteer with VSO and an environmental consultant whom I had met earlier, was also curious to learn more about it. And so off we went on her motorbike in search of the dump. First, no one knew where the new stadium was... each time we asked we were vaguely pointed in an eastern direction "two kilos, two kilos" (meaning: two kilometers) - Rachel speaking Khmer it was not a language problem this time.... But after backtracking a few times and quite a few "two kilos" we finally managed to find the new stadium (I had actually seen it as we arrived to Siem Reap the first time thinking "interesting, they're building an extravagant mosque")... I'm rambling... so here was the stadium, but still no dump in sight. "Follow the trucks" we were told and so we did, driving many kilos on a dirt track, inhaling tons of dust - and soon both looking like we'd been on the road for seven days... still no dump...

Just as we decided to give up and head back into town, we spotted a green "MICC" truck - stopping along the road and dropping off bags of garbage at various houses along the way. (My only guess is that those families were earning a meager income from recycling whatever was recycable in those bags). By the smell of it, we knew we were getting closer.

The dump was bad, though not as bad as I would have expected. And yet it was shocking to see people living just meters away and kids playing amongst the litter. A young woman with a sick two year old on her arm told us how miserable life is around here. There's no way you can cook clean food here, she said. Her house is infested with insects - flies everywhere. And yet, she adds, she cannot even complain, the land she and her family live on belongs to the MICC - the government sold it to the company (expropriation is not unusual in Cambodia). No wonder, the MICC was not keen for me to see this...

'd be curious to know where the thousands of dollars go that MICC is getting every month... A hotel pays an average of $100/month, a guesthouse $40/month, a normal household $10/month - simple mathematics and you multiply this times 91 hotels and more than 170 guesthouses (even leaving out the individuals) and you get more than $15.000 - a huge sum of money by Cambodian standards...

Back in Siem Reap, covered in dust, all sweaty in my dirty jeans and disgusting looking shoes - I rush to my next appointment: the "amansara" - Siem Reap's poshest and most expensive hotel (a night here costs around 800$).

The contrast couldn't have been bigger...

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Another Sunday at Angkor Wat

Sundays have been my temple days, so today I decided to spend more time in my favourite temple Bayon, discover "new" temples - and talk to more tourists - after all, if it was not for them, I wouldn't be here.

At Bayon, the temple with the many faces, I had a long chat with Chhay and Om, two boys from a nearby village who just graduated from high school. Every Sunday they come to the temples with their textbook to learn more about Angkor and the temples' history. They also listen in to what the guides have to say...

I had overheard them discuss what is the meaning of the four Buddha faces carved into the four sides of the temples many towers... Charity, Compassion, Sympathy... But what was the fourth one? Now, here I could help - because I had paid attention to my guide last week... Equanimity!! Those are also the four qualities you need to strive towards to become a Buddha. Chhay and Om told me they were not aiming that high. Their dream though - like so many other youngsters here in the Siem Reap region - is to become a guide. And so they spend as much time as they can in the temples - and work on improving their English. Guides are well paid by Cambodian standards. And if you happen to speak Korean or Japanese on top of English you're really in demand and cashing in. There's a high chance you'll be booked out weeks in advance. Russian, a guide told me, is also in fashion, as there are only 10 Russian-speaking guides out of a total of 1,983 (Siem Reap's total population is around 100.000 - just to put these numbers in proportion). I also spotted the first woman guide, also a rarity around Angkor.

Less of a rarity are Korean tourists who make up more than 20 % of all tourists visiting Angkor Wat. Like their Japanese neighbours, they never go out without their hats and I personally LOVE their gloves (you could catch something nasty!). The hordes of tourists can be a bit of drag, but as soon as you leave the circuits mapped out in the various temple guides and venture out to smaller, less visited temples, that's when you experience the real attraction of Angkor Wat.

I'd suggest taking the time to sit down in the shade to speak with young monks who converge to the temples on their days off. Or listen to the tropical forest and marvel at century old genius. The details, the size and the settings, are temple after temple (no matter how many times you've been here) both breathtaking and overwhelming.

I went back to Angkor Wat for sunset. I had been asked what I prefer: sunset or sunrise? I'd have to say you must see both, but the light at sunset is pretty special!

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Anyone for Iced Coffee?

Well, I guess you thought these villagers are in the middle of nowhere... but you can get almost anything delivered to your floating house... I did pass on this little treat however...

How to reach Nirvana?

I mentioned earlier that Cambodia celebrated "Miak Bochea" today, the time when Buddha reached Nirvana. So for anyone who might be wondering how to reach Nirvana - there are eight ways you need to get "right" - at least that's what my guide Mr Sorn said last Sunday:

1. Right view
2. Right action
3. Right livelyhood
4. Right meditation
5. Right contemplation
6. Right speech
7. Right thought
8. Right effort

Now, having said that - what is "right" is still up for discussion.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

How comfy is a Cambodian mat?

Unfortunately I became really ill as I made my way to the floating village of Prék Toal to meet the local team of Osmose. Butthe women of the village are very sweet. As soon as they noticed that I was not well, out came the old bottled Chinese medicine. I had to rub a violet liquid on my stomach - and a green one on my face... Their attention is very sincere and straight forward, the effect of the potions less so... I spent the rest of the afternoon in a hammock regaining a bit of strength onboard the floating house of Ravi my host.

Later in the afternoon I joined Chheang from Osmose for a little tour of the village. He had to do a few interviews trying to identify the families interested in the new collective savings programme that Osmose is just setting up. He also wanted to see which of the women in the village are interested in participating in the new mushroom plantation project. Now, you would think: how the hell can they grow mushrooms on floating houses? It's quite amazing how resourceful they are here. Some families have wonderful floating gardens - including palm trees, mango trees and banana trees. They grow morning glory (a local Cambodian plant), eggplant, lemon grass, papaya, pineapple - you name it.

It does take a lot of work though, and not all the families Osmose has helped to set up these floating gardens have managed to keep them alive. This is not one of the most beautiful gardens, Chheang tells me, but it is still yielding fruits and vegetables...

Back at Ravi's it's soon time to go to bed...

My first night on a traditional Cambodian mat is better than expected. A bit hard (I must admit), but the rocking of the waves put me rapidly to sleep... and it's only the blarring of the village's "radio" that wakes me up the next morning. Well "radio"... it's more like a big loudspeaker alternatively shouting out music (both pop and traditional), information (propaganda) and prayers. On this day Cambodia celebrates "Miak Bochea" - the time when Buddha reached Nirvana. To me the prayers seem particularly long and loud. Gosh, it's so good to have a radio you can turn off!!

I was the last one to get up. Here Ravi's kids get ready to go to school in their white and blue uniforms.

Only the youngest one stays at home because she doesn't know how to swim. The four year old gets a lice inspection instead (and ever since my head started scratching... you might see me come back with short hair).

In the meantime the women of the family clean the house and the men work on repairing the fishing nets. For me it was time to inspect the 50 crocodiles at the back of the house. (I forgot to ask whether the little altar was for the crocodiles or someone else - maybe snatched up by the reptiles?)

I spent the rest of the morning sitting on the veranda in front of Ravi's house, watching the villagers float by... I wonder what people here expect of life. Ravi tells me she doesn't have any big problems. Only minor ones: for example with her employees who are not working well and are too lazy. Those employees also happen to be her relatives, and that doesn't make things easier. But she shruggs her shoulders and says she dreams of times when more tourists will come to Prék Toal and she will have her own souvenir shop.

Everyone in Prék Toal knows that the rich fish stocks of the Tonlé Sap are in decline, that life will become more difficult in the future and that it's time to think about alternative sources of income. Sambath, the local project officer of Osmose in the village hopes that more and more children will manage to get a university education and ultimately be able to leave the floating village for a better life on firm ground.

Back in my hammock waiting for the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap. There are two boats a day - one in the morning, the other one in the afternoon - between 1.30 and 2.30 PM. Like with many things in Cambodia you just have to wait and be patient. And when the boat comes just simply wave it down - and the journey continues.

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