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Charity Run for Cambodian Landmine Relief Fund

My friend Sherry and I impulsively signed up to participate in the Taipei 101 Run Up on May 7, and we decided we could use the opportunity to raise money for the Cambodian Landmine Relief Fund (LMRF). I’ve mentioned this organization before as I visited their museum in Siem Reap while on a bike ride.

As the race is 2,046 steps and there are two of us, our goal is to raise a minimum of $2 per step for a total of $4,092. Obviously we hope to raise more than that minimum.

Why Cambodian Landmine Relief Fund?

I suggested the organization and Sherry agreed. I like LMRF because they do more than just remove landmines and unexploded bombs from Cambodia; they also help build schools and provide scholarships for local students.

landmine museum

Collection of landmines recovered by the Landmine Relief Fund

I also know that they have low overhead costs, so more of the donations go to help Cambodians rather than to pay people running the organization. After talking with former US Army Lieutenant Bill Morse at the Landmine Museum, I learned a lot more than I thought I could about Cambodia and the work that needs to be done.

For Americans who want to donate, LMRF is a US-registered non-profit and donations are tax deductible.

Where does the money go?

All funds will go directly to Landmine Relief Fund.

According to the LMRF website:

  • It cost $3 per month to support one child in an RSVP school. This includes a Village iPad (chalkboard), notebooks, and writing utensils.
  • The cost of a school for the Rural School Village program is $5,000 per room.  That includes desks and chalkboards. We usually build 4 or 5 room schools.
  • The cost for a toilet block and water well for the students and village is $1,250 each.
  • The monthly cost of running a demining mission is $20,000.
  • The cost to keep our EOD teams in the field is $6,250 per month per team

What is the Taipei 101 Run Up?

It’s a race up the stairs at Taiwan’s tallest skyscaper. We will run up 2,046 stairs, which doesn’t sound like much, but consider that if we climb one step per second it will take 34 minutes to reach the top. The record for the race is 10 minutes 29 seconds. Neither Sherry nor I plan on coming close to that record. We hope to finish in 30 minutes and not be dead last in the race. We will be racing against 2,998 other individuals, so there’s a good chance some people will be less physically fit than we are.taipei 101 xiangshan

We realize that this run is crazy, but we’re willing to do it (and there will be medical staff at the race).

How can I donate to Landmine Relief Fund?

Go to their website or directly to their PayPal donation page. We are not handling any of the money. I had considered using a third-party website, but they charge high fees to raise money for non-profits. This is the most efficient way to raise money.

You can also send their US office a check if you don’t have PayPal or don’t trust it. Information is on their website.

Please add a note when donating to LMRF that it’s for Matthew and Sherry’s ridiculous run up the stairs (you don’t need to use those exact words, but you can just say its for Taipei 101 Run Up).

What do I get for donating?

You get the satisfaction of knowing that you’ll make a difference in the world. And if you make a significant donation, you can email me at matthew.lubin[at]BoozeFoodTravel.com and I will send you a thank you postcard. Or you can go to the contact page.

So come on and help us reach our goal and support a worthy cause! Donate today!

Calm Lake at Banteay Srei, Cambodia

It was a beautiful walk through Banteay Srei, a 10th century temple north of Angkor Wat, on my second day in Siem Reap–I had decided a tour would allow me greater opportunity to meet people, possibly find some people with whom to celebrate the New Year the next day. Instead, I met a Dutch expat living in China who agreed to take a 40-mile bike ride along the dirt roads around Angkor Wat. I also had my picture taken by a monk with a cell phone.Banteay Srei lake

On our way back to the tour bus, we exited the back of the temple and wandered along quieter paths devoid of other tourists. Along the way we paused by the lake for photos and to enjoy the quiet before heading back to the crowds around Angkor Wat and Siem Reap during the high season.Banteay Srei boat

It was a moment of calm in the rising heat of the day. Had I not been on a tour with a set itinerary, I may have sat staring out at the lake for longer before heading to the next destination. This spot offered a great frame for the photo and an opportunity to play with some of my camera settings–not all the settings worked out well and I’ve had to delete a few photos.

Where have you found calm while on a tour of a major destination?

Royal Splendor in Phnom Penh

“In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved toward groves of palm trees.”
Arthur Rimbaud, Royalty

I chose my cheap hotel based on its proximity to what I perceived as a desirable location in Phnom Penh. The night market, royal palace, central market, and riverside were all a short walk. When I arrived, I realized it was a rundown backpacker neighborhood with overpriced (by Cambodian standards) restaurants and an abundance of girl bars for the sex tourists. There were signs of development with higher-end restaurants and bars along the main road next to the riverside, but it would still take time to change the side streets.monks-street

A few blocks south of my hotel is the home of the King of Cambodia. The walk to the Royal Palace felt longer in the heat–there was little shade along the way to shield me from the sun. I also didn’t realize the entrance to the palace was at the far end from my hotel–the wide empty street in front of me was beautiful as I watch monks walking along, paying little attention to the opulence just nearby. The streets in the area were devoid of traffic as ongoing workers protests in the capital had forced some closures.

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

The Cambodian King is an elected figurehead, chosen from among members of the royal family over the age of 30. The current king, Norodom Sihamoni, ascended to the throne in 2012 after the death of Norodom Sihanouk, who was turned into a puppet figurehead by the Khmer Rouge and later went into exile during the years of Vietnamese-supported government; he was also the leader of the opposition government beginning in 1978 when Vietnam defeated Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Norodom Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1993, two years after returning from 13 years of exile. In 2004, he went into self-exile in Pyongyang and Beijing and abdicated the throne.phnom-penh-royal-palace

The Royal Palace was built in 1866, when the king moved the capital to Phnom Penh from Oudong; it was designed by architect Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak and constructed by the French Protectorate of Cambodia. 32 years before the palace was constructed, the Thai military razed Phnom Penh during its retreat. The Royal Palace was built on a citadel that was destroyed.phnom-penh-royal-palace1

The palace incorporates a mixture of architectural designs, including traditional Khmer, Thai, and European. The French gave the royal court a gift in 1876 known as the Napoleon iron pavilion, which supposedly stands out among the rest of the palace but I somehow missed seeing it (there are portions of the palace that are off limits to visitors). Over the years the palace was expanded and some buildings were even replaced.

Royal stupas and memorials

Royal stupas and memorials

There are portions of the Royal Palace I’m sure I missed. There isn’t much in the way of guide information as you wander through the grounds, unless you count the “Do Not Enter” signs. There are some identifying markers to tell visitors what each building is, however. Sometimes in the heat, you don’t notice the names or the meanings behind the buildings, such as the Silver Pagoda, that make you wonder why the names were chosen.

Silver Pagoda

Silver Pagoda

The buildings, stupas, and gardens all lend vibrant colors to the palace as tourists wander through the grounds; the colors can be almost blinding with the intense sun, which led me to hide in the shade for most of my time. There are even murals in need of restoration–there was some restoration of buildings, but I didn’t notice any work being done to protect the paintings. phnom-penh-royal-palace-mur

While not as impressive as the Royal Palace in Bangkok, the Cambodian King’s residence has its own charm and beauty. It’s a respite from the noise of the city, but a reminder of how detached life can be from reality–a short walk to the park will provide a glimpse of the slums just across the river.

The Throne Hall

The Throne Hall

As it was the last full day of tour through Cambodia, I relaxed the rest of the day and into evening–I wandered into better neighborhoods to witness the progress of development in the capital. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s brutal history lesson at S-21 and the Killing Fields and I wasn’t departing until late the next day. I attempted to enjoy the nightlife in my area and wound up with an insightful, yet depressing, conversation. The entire trip was my initiation into a world I knew little about–a juxtaposition of beauty, horror, wealth, and poverty.

Rum Tasting in Siem Reap

“And together we’re so drunk
We’re making sense. Little
By little, with rum the color
Of a woman’s arm, we’re seeing things—”
Gary Soto, The Jungle Café

On New Year’s Eve, my final evening in Siem Reap before taking the boat to Phnom Penh, I wandered around Pub Street awaiting the celebration. I was exhausted from my 40-mile bike ride around Angkor Wat and in a bit of pain after the Khmer massage that felt more like a $4 muscle-twisting torture session. The heat hadn’t subsided as I walked through the streets in search of dinner, which added to my exhaustion. I was so tired, I don’t even remember what I had for dinner that night.

As it was still too early for the New Year’s revelers to crowd into Pub Street in preparation for performances, fireworks, and who-knows-what-else, I wandered out across the Siem Reap River. It would be my last opportunity to see what this Cambodia tourist city had to offer.

Pub Street ready for New Year's Eve festivities

Pub Street ready for New Year’s Eve festivities

I headed into the Siem Reap Art Center and browsed the stalls filled with tourist souvenirs and local crafts, most of which I couldn’t purchase because I was constantly moving. As I contemplated the souvenirs and food and drinks nearby, I noticed a stall full of liquor. I was invited in to try samples of Georges Rhum Arrangé, rums infused with local flavors; they had 10 flavors in all. These rums were infused to the point that it was unrecognizable as rum to people used to the likes of Captain Morgan and Bacardi. It was nothing like the Abuelo rum I bought in Panama.georges rhum arrange

The first I had was cinnamon, which was strong. I like cinnamon, so this was a good drink for me–it would be great in a dark & stormy. I didn’t enjoy the mango flavor as much because the fruit overpowered the rum, but I could see its usefulness in cocktails.

georges rhum

Georges’ son gave me more than enough samples

After tasting a few of the flavors, I was convinced to go visit his father at Georges Rhumerie Restaurant, which had only been open for two months. They even paid for my tuk-tuk to the restaurant, which was down some dark streets (definitely not the place to walk, even if it wasn’t that far). When I arrived, I met three people, two of whom were the owner and an employee.

Georges Rhumerie Restaurant

Georges Restaurant

Despite being full from dinner, I ordered a light appetizer to go with a little more of the rum–the samoussa (samosa) platter sounded like the best option. It was tasty, filled with tuna and came with a sweet and spicy sauce. The menu is full of a fusion of French and Cambodian cuisine–Georges is from Madagascar and moved to Cambodia by way of Reunion Island, where his son is from.

A delicious snack while drinking more rum

A delicious snack while drinking more rum

While I waited for the samosas, I ordered the coffee rum for $2–I always have to try the coffee-flavored varieties of anything. Before departing in search of New Year’s festivities, I ordered the vanilla rum. It was a more complex flavor than the other rums as it included more than just one flavor. There was orange peel, lemongrass, anise, and cloves, and the flavors all stood out with each sip.

If you’re in Siem Reap, I recommend visiting Georges Rhumerie Restaurant for a bite to eat and a sip of local rhum arrangé.

Short Stay in Phnom Penh

“Behind them were the lights of the market, the lanterns and candles and witch-lights and fairy glitter, like a dream of the night sky brought down to earth.”
Neil Gaiman, Stardust

The New York Times reminded me of what to see and do with their “36 Hours in Phnom Penh” feature. The video online talks about the food and people being the best reason to visit, but they show high-class restaurants with foreign chefs–these are restaurants that Cambodians can’t afford. The article makes Phnom Penh seem like a trendy city full of great food and nightlife while neglecting the other side that most people encounter, unless they ignore poverty and prostitution. I understand NYT’s intention in such articles is to promote luxury travel, but you can’t ignore the rest of Cambodia.phnom-penh-traffic

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh, but it’s not an easy city to experience. There’s still a large seedy side; there are still major problems throughout.

During my few days in Siem Reap, I stayed in a nicer hotel–not quite luxury, but close. I chose the Angkor Riviera hotel because there was a problem with the hostel I had originally booked and I needed something last minute; I decided to give myself a treat for a little less than $50/night. It was great and comfortable, but felt detached from the society just steps from the door–it’s the same reason I felt a little uncomfortable on Pub Street.

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

I went with something less appealing when I got to Phnom Penh.

I was fortunate enough to have a contact in the city to show me around one night. Paul took me out to one of the nicer bars, Metro Hassakan, that could fit into any American or European city (and the prices weren’t too bad, but still unaffordable for most of the local population). I also got to see the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), which shows its age but exudes character and charm. Given more time to enjoy the city, I’d probably head back to the FCC for the views of Phnom Penh–we had to sit at the bar because there weren’t tables available by the windows facing the city or the river.

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

One attraction in the city that was missing from the New York Times piece is the night market. It’s unlike the street night markets in Taipei or Hong Kong–it’s set up in a square across from the Tonle Sap River on Sisowath Quay. It doesn’t have the same draw as the historic Central Market, which has a great food market for lunch and snacks during the day, but it has a more friendly vibe.phnom-penh-night-market

I skipped the stage performance and the stalls selling clothes and souvenirs and headed to the back of the market for food. The food vendors are set up around the dining area, which is just some bamboo mats and carpetson the ground–you have to take off your shoes to eat in the area. There’s a variety of delicacies ranging from grilled who-knows-what on a stick to full plates of chicken or fish with rice. After ordering, some vendors will deliver the food to you on the bamboo mats and carpets.

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

The dining area is more of a social event for locals–they order plenty of food to share as they talk and listen to the musical performances on the other side of the market. Sitting there with my food was the experience I sought; it was boisterous and friendly–I was warned about safety, particularly in crowds in Phnom Penh, but it felt comfortable in the evening warmth. I felt more at ease in that night market than I did in any of the markets in Vietnam.

What do you think? Can local night markets be a part of a luxury tour of a city? What are some of your favorite markets?

Conversation at a Cambodian Girl Bar

“…in that drunken place
you would
like to hand your heart to her
and say
touch it
but then
give it back.”
Charles Bukowski, The People Look Like Flowers at Last

I wasn’t sure how to frame this conversation on my last night in Cambodia. I wasn’t even sure I should write about it at all. But certain conversations stick with you as you travel the world, and parts of those conversations need to be recorded for others.

When I visited Cambodia, I saw a beautiful country that has been through hell–I witnessed extreme poverty like I’ve never seen before or since. I heard stories from longtime expats who worked with NGOs about the struggles in a corrupt nation in which most of the educated people were slaughtered during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Without an educated class, the country has sputtered along with a lack of capable leadership.

Monks walking along the street in front of the palace in Phnom Penh

Monks walking along the street in front of the palace in Phnom Penh

At the Cambodian Landmine Museum, I was told not to give money to child vendors or beggars. The idea is that they earn plenty of money when they’re young and cute, but they miss out on education. As they grow older, tourists are less sympathetic and the children are forced into other lines of work–the boys turn to gangs and drugs, and the girls end up in prostitution or other exploitative work where they make little or no money. According to a report by Emma Poole in 2001, the sex trade in Cambodia was valued at $511 million, involving about 50,000 women many of whom were under 18 years old. I was told that through the work of many education funds in the country, there are fewer child beggars today, thus improving the overall situation for the future of Cambodia.

There are even some NGOs that have helped former sex workers learn skills and find work. There was one local non-profit art shop in Siem Reap that was established by former prostitutes and employed others. Other small businesses supported education or healthcare.

Non-profit bookstore in Siem Reap

Non-profit bookstore in Siem Reap

When I reached Phnom Penh, I discovered that my hotel was not in such a desirable neighborhood–it was between the night market, port, Central Market, and palace. While this area has a lot of restaurants and hotels, it is mostly home to an abundance of girl bars. As the name implies, these bars employ young women whose job it is to keep the customers company and attempt to get the customers to purchase drinks for them at inflated prices (at least $3 for a small glass of soda compared with about $1.50 for a beer for the customer). For a price, patrons can even take these women back to their hotel rooms (or other cheap places as many hotels have signs denying entrance to sex tourists).

As I walked around in search of a bar that didn’t double as a brothel, I watched foreigners casually enter and exit the girl bars. After eating a snack on the street near my hotel, I saw the women at one bar buy some cheap snacks from two young girls who were missing out on their education. The women at the bar offered the girls makeup and let them walk around a bit in their too-large high heeled shoes. Is this the future these poor girls will have to endure? 

I wanted to better understand the lives of these women, and decided to find one of the quieter bars with outdoor seating. I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in anything more than a beer and conversation–I demanded to know prices before ordering anything to avoid getting ripped off. As there was only one other customer at the time, a few girls came to my table (all but one left when it was obvious that I wasn’t going to spend much money).phnom-penh-river

The one that stayed spoke a little English but a lot more Mandarin, which she had only been learning for about a year. I knew China had been investing quite a bit in infrastructure and manufacturing in Cambodia, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the young women at these bars would speak Mandarin to serve the Chinese businessmen. At first I was happy to practice my Mandarin with someone–it was a bit labored and rusty, but I managed to have a pleasant conversation. The boss was sitting nearby, and he wanted to know why I was speaking to his employee in a language he didn’t understand–it was then that I realized the young woman speaking with me was more comfortable talking because her boss didn’t understand.

The inside of the bar was a bit noisy and dimly lit with pale blue lighting. The small space had white bar next to a full-sized pool table at which a large middle-aged European was playing with one girl wrapped around him and a few others acting as bored spectators. I didn’t make a note of it, but there were at least ten young women working in the small bar with only one real customer.

As we spoke more outside, a few of the other young women came to sit outside–they offered me some of the grilled snakes and who-knows-what that they bought from the wandering vendors. None of them spoke much more than a few basic phrases of English, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Most of what they asked me was translated into Mandarin, and my responses were translated back from Mandarin. They were mostly interested in my age, nationality, and family (an obvious gauge of potential customers), but they also asked me about my travels.

As I had realized that the boss didn’t understand Mandarin, I began asking some serious questions the answers to which I sort of already knew. I began with the simple question of how much education the young women had. I was told that none of them had more than two years of formal education–they only knew some basics and learned foreign languages to drum up business.

The last question I asked was, “Do you ever feel afraid at work?” The young woman replied in Mandarin, “Yes, all the time.” She stopped smiling as she said this and turned her eyes to the floor.

I followed that question with lighter conversation unrelated to their work–I no longer wanted to hear answers to those questions. I bought the Mandarin-speaking woman a drink in the hope that she would keep some of that money. I thank her and the others for talking with me and headed back to my hotel to pack for my flight to Hanoi the next afternoon.

Photos for World Food Day

“What you are eating is always the end of a very long story–and often an ingenious but delicious answer to some very complicated problems.”
Anthony Bourdain

Yesterday was World Food Day. No, really, this is an official day because people obviously need a reminder to eat food instead of plastic. It actually commemorates the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945. It reminds me that on a family vacation we stopped in Morro Bay, California, and the only non-fast food chain near the hotel had a huge sign that said, “Real Food.” What does that say about the other establishments in town?

Amok with rice and Cambodian beer

Amok with rice and Cambodian beer

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few photos of food from Cambodia that I hadn’t posted before. Unlike it’s neighbors, Cambodia doesn’t use a lot of chili in its food–most dishes have lighter flavors. There’s a lot of grilled food and light curries around the country. They prefer to use a lot of lemongrass and basil to any overpowering flavors you might find in other parts of Asia. There aren’t any dishes that I would consider heavy or oily because they’d probably kill people with the heat and humidity.grilled-squid

One of the first meals I had in a real restaurant was amok, a lemongrass curry served in a banana leaf bowl, that I found in downtown Siem Reap. It’s generally served with fish, but there’s also chicken and beef for all the tourists who pass through. In Phnom Penh, the best food I found was at the Central Market–the crowded market that sells everything from clothes to tourist junk also has a great selection of local foods. I was tempted to eat everything in sight, but my stomach isn’t big enough for that.

Protests and Police

“And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go”
-Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

On this Monday morning I’m still catching up on the chaos in Hong Kong. The Occupy Central and pro-democracy movements came together on September 28, marching through the business districts in Central. The peaceful protest even attempted to leave at least one lane of traffic open but couldn’t contain so many people who joined the march. Police took action later in the day, demanding that the protesters disperse or risk being fired upon. Then the tear gas was fired, and the police response was harsh. Foreign Policy has a more in depth explanation of what’s going on in Hong Kong.

As I browsed Twitter last night to read the accounts of the police response and view some of the photos, I remembered how many protests I witnessed during my time in Asia. While I was in Cambodia there were worker strikes and political protests in Phnom Penh, but all I saw of it was police in riot gear guarding main streets while I rode in my tuk-tuk on the way to the airport. That particular day was filled with violence in the streets of the capital. The majority of the protests in Cambodia were for an increase in the minimum wage for factory workers–many make less than $100 per month, and fashion retailers recently agreed to raise the minimum pay to about $100 per month.

Guess I won't have that relaxing walk through the park today

Police barricades in Peace Park, Taipei, Taiwan

When I reached Taiwan, the student movement had occupied and effectively shut down the government. I visited the protest site at the Executive Yuan only a couple days before the police “evicted” the students with water canons and batons. A couple weeks later I stumbled on a peaceful march near Peace Park, which was surrounded by temporary barbed-wire barricades. I again found myself in the middle of a protest while walking around at night not far from my apartment–a smaller march converged at a major intersection just a short walk from the government buildings and blocked traffic for about 20 minutes.

Protesters and TV news at the Executive Yuan in Taipei

The protests were quite organized and not too difficult to navigate through the crowds

I arrived in Korea a short time after the Suwol ferry accident, and encountered many small anti-government protests in relation to the accident. The government was blamed for a lack of oversight and enforcement of safety regulations. The ferry accident led to the prime minister’s resignation.

The protest in Seoul was small and surrounded by police

The protest in Seoul was small and surrounded by police

The protests were small and confined to parks, but there was always a large police presence. I lost count of the number of police buses parked along the roads–there were easily a hundred. These protests had a few dozen people, but there were hundreds of police to ensure that the protests didn’t get out of hand.

This seems necessary for a small protest

This seems necessary for a small protest

I have witnessed the protests and even some of the police responses to those protests, but I have no participated in the actions. As I am not a citizen or even long-term resident of any of these places, it was not my place to stand in solidarity with the protesters even though, for the most part, I supported their causes.

Have you ever encountered protests or political unrest while traveling? How did you handle the situation?

Silent Temples

“Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with familiar eyes.”
Charles Baudelaire, from Correspondences

Among the cities I’ve visited, watching the fashionable crowds scurry past beneath the shadows of skyscrapers that block the sun, memories of quieter destinations flood through. The clamor of busy life pushes me back to places I’ve longed to see–quieter places, spiritual places. Seeking a sanctuary of sorts in a sprawling city of more than 20 million is not easily achieved unless one is a Houdini-like escape artist.

Stillness on the moat crossing into Angkor Thom

Stillness on the moat crossing into Angkor Thom

I think about one of the most beautiful, peaceful days of tourism I’ve experienced. That first exhausting day as dawn broke at Angkor Wat and I escaped the crowd that gathered to watch the sunrise that was hidden behind clouds and haze above that inspiring temple.

The guardians of Angkor Thom are allowing me to pass

The guardians of Angkor Thom are allowing me to pass

I walked along the bridge to the empty south gate of Angkor Thom. Looking out at the still moat and the thin veil of fog that hung above it that humid morning in late December, I saw nothing but stillness. No people or animals stirred. The monkey that surprised me on the trunk of my taxi as it drove through the gate to leave me in peace had wandered off into the trees. The three people who arrived ahead of me were out of sight and earshot. I was alone with the stone guardians of the bridge to Angkor Thom.

Looking past the stone guarding

Looking past the stone guarding

I took my time to inspect the stone beings that watched me pass through the southern gate on my way to Ta Prohm, the wild temple that nature nearly devoured beneath its tree roots. I didn’t want to depart that quiet spot as I may never again find such a place.

Beyond the Scaffolding of Travel

It’s just my luck. Good grief, if Charlie Brown traveled the world, this would probably happen to him at every turn. Maybe I’m caught in an extended Seinfeld episode set outside New York (I did recently drink a beer called Costanza).

Sometimes I feel like I’m touring construction sites rather than beautiful historic sites.

Just about every time I visit a major tourist destination that I’ve wanted to see for years, it’s undergoing renovations of some sort. I understand the need for restoring artwork and preventing ancient buildings from becoming ruins, but I always seem to time my visits to coincide with such restoration work.

Quite a spectacle to see at the Forbidden City

Quite a spectacle to see at the Forbidden City

When I visited the Forbidden City in Beijing, most of it was shrouded in scaffolding in preparations for the 2008 Olympics. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was even replaced by a picture; it was a rather disappointing sight. Rather than photograph the buildings or artifacts, I focused on the crowds and the scaffolding.

Isn't the Forbidden City amazing?

Isn’t the Forbidden City amazing?

I had hoped that that would be the end of my adventures in renovations, but it wasn’t even close. In Bangkok, I witness the restoration of paintings at the Grand Palace. Watching people work at restoring historical paintings was more interesting than it sounds.

 

Touching up the murals at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok

Touching up the murals at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok

At Angkor Wat, many of the temples were being restored–or, in some cases, saved from encroaching nature. Much of the restoration at Angkor Wat is recent and made possible by international foundations–I was surprised to learn that much of the work was supervised by organizations from China and India.

 

Welcome to Angkor Wat. Please, use the side door

Welcome to Angkor Wat. Please, use the side door

The restoration efforts are most noticeable at Ta Prohm–many walls have had to be reinforced and braced as the trees that have grown into said walls are forcing the ancient bricks to separate and crumble. While it may ruin a few photo opportunities at the temples, the efforts to preserve what remains is commendable. It would be interesting to see the temples as they were first constructed, but it wouldn’t be such an amazing experience as it is now–it would be like witnessing the newly reconstructed Great Wall of China at Badaling versus the ruined preserved section at Simatai.

 

This is not how I imagined Ta Prohm

This is not how I imagined Ta Prohm

The trend continued as I arrived in Rome. A fellow traveler at my hotel told me to not bother visiting the Trevi Fountain because it was closed for renovation. My parents and I wandered past it anyway without intending to. It’s beautiful behind plexiglass, but it loses its allure without the water.

 

The Trevi Fountain in all its glory

The Trevi Fountain in all its glory

And then there’s the the Baptistery in Florence, one of the city’s oldest buildings and supposedly one of the most beautiful (after the Duomo). It was completely shrouded in scaffolding, but that didn’t stop people from paying to go inside. I decided I had had enough of seeing renovated history after paying to see scaffolding inside the Medici Chapel.

 

Check out all that beautiful scaffolding in the Medici Chapel

Check out all that beautiful scaffolding in the Medici Chapel

I should just give in to fate and expect that my travels will forever be obscured. Someday I’ll be pleasantly surprised to encounter an untouched relic.

Is there a recurring theme to your travels that’s beyond your control that leads to disappointment? Or does it at least lead to an amusing anecdote?

Touring Banteay Srei

I’ve been contemplating Cambodia lately–I’ve been in contact with a non-profit there and will start to help out online, but I’m considering moving there to help out more in my spare time after work. There still isn’t much of a plan as I’m still looking into my options for the next few months or so. Nonetheless, there are great memories from my all-to-brief trip through Cambodia.

baneay Srei

Once the people get out of the way, every angle of Banteay Srei is beautiful for a picture

On my second day in Siem Reap, I took a group tour to Banteay Srei and a few other temples. I was fortunate to meet a Dutch expat living in China on the tour who agreed to take a rather long bike ride through the countryside around Angkor Wat the following day. banteay srei

Banteay Srei, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva that was constructed in the 10th century, is much further from the main temples of the Angkor Wat complex–it was a long way past the Landmine Museum, which was about 20 miles from Siem Reap. This was the temple at which a monk used a cell phone to take a picture of me–and I still think is one of the funniest moments I’ve had while traveling.banteay srei

More importantly, this temple is remarkably well preserved–the sandstone artwork is better defined than at other temples in the area. Of course, much of it has also been reconstructed.

It May Be Healthy, But I’m Not Eating It

Travelers love talking about “comfort zones” and “getting out of” that zone–it’s not something I tend to say. Yes, I attempt to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise try if I wasn’t traveling, but usually there’s a good reason for trying it. I now know that I do not enjoy Khmer massages despite it only costing $5 (seriously, my body felt better before the massage, which was after that 40-mile bike ride). I also now know that fugu sashimi is not worth the money.scorpions beijing

I’ve previously mentioned that there are foods that I won’t try–I have my limits; I’m not Andrew Zimmern and I don’t get paid to try all this stuff. In Cambodia, I saw plenty of tarantulas and little snakes on sticks that I didn’t want to touch (or pay $1 to photograph). Once again, I’ve met my limit here in Seoul. I already knew that Korea still ate dog meat–mostly in the winter because it supposedly keeps you warm–but I didn’t expect to see so much of it in Seoul.

Oh, the restaurant across the street is serving fish

Oh, the restaurant across the street is serving fish

Fortunately, this was not as awful a sight as I saw in Hanoi. I lost my appetite while wandering around for lunch one day as I came across a line of restaurants with piles of roasted dogs–heads and all. And while in Saigon, I avoided ordering the “grilled unicorn leatherjacket,” not because it sounded weird, but because I didn’t want to pay $20 to find out if it tasted like a leathery rainbow.

roasted dog hanoi

That’s OK, I’ll skip lunch today

Back when I lived in China, I was taken out for dinner one night to a restaurant that had a large sign advertising hot pot of cat and dog. I was assured that we would eat the goat hot pot (I still hope that’s what was in the pot).

Because Fido is the best drinking buddy

Because Fido is the best drinking buddy

Korea doesn’t seem quite as crazy about their pet dogs as Japan (that’s probably a good thing as I some of those dog costumes were disturbing). There’s not acupuncture for dogs like I saw in my Tokyo neighborhood; however, they do sell beer for dogs in Seoul.

Where do you draw the line on trying different foods in a foreign country?

Mental Exhaustion at Cambodia’s Killing Fields

More than a few people asked why I would subject myself to a visit to S-21 and the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It’s difficult to describe the reasons; I felt it was important to see these places to better understand Cambodia and the people.

cheong ek

Memorial stupa at Cheong Ek

One of the first things tourists notice in Cambodia is that this is a mostly undeveloped country and poverty is everywhere. Most visitors already know about the country’s dark history and what led to the present conditions, which are improving with an influx of foreign business investment. Despite reading some history of French colonialism, American bombing raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the Khmer Rouge, it’s difficult to imagine the horrors that Cambodia has endured. And this is what leads many tourists to visit such depressing historic sites.

As I found a tuk-tuk from the port to my hotel following my boat ride from Siem Reap, the driver asked what my plans were for my time in Phnom Penh. He gave me a reasonable price for a day (closer to half-day) at S-21 and the Killing Fields. I was non-committal, but he said he’d wait at my hotel around 9 am if I decided to go. After finding the average cost of hiring a driver for the day, I decided to take his offer the following morning.

I don’t know if it was a common route, but my tuk-tuk took me through a lot of dirt roads and side streets, which allowed me more time to witness the living conditions of most Cambodians. With the dirt roads, I was glad to have my pollution mask from Hanoi, even if it only kept the dirt off my face.

killing fields

An disturbingly peaceful view at Cheong Ek

The first stop was the Killing Fields at Cheong Ek. At Cheong Ek, visitors are given an audio tour of the grounds–the audio includes first-hand accounts of the horrors of living under the Khmer Rouge. These stories are more horrifying than any Hollywood film or Stephen King novel. The stories are made even more graphic when visitors sometimes come across bits of cloth poking through the ground–remnants of the mass graves that haven’t been uncovered. There are also desecrated Chinese graves in the area, as it was a burial site for Chinese in Cambodia for a long time before the Khmer Rouge came to power.

There is a memorial stupa that was built in 1988 near the entrance to the grounds at Cheong Ek that contains bones of those murdered at the site. The remains have been studied and documented to discover the torture endured and the final cause of death. The stupa contains 9,000 skulls from the approximately 17,000 people who were executed at Cheong Ek.

killing field

Many visitors leave trinkets for the victims of the Khmer Rouge

After walking around in the early morning heat, I headed to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, better known as S-21 prison, closer to the center of Phnom Penh. This former high school was where Pol Pot had at least 14,000 people sent, tortured, and interrogated before execution starting in 1976. Only seven people ever survived to tell of the horrors within that prison. There was even fencing put up around the buildings to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

S21 prison

Outside one of the buildings at S21

The museum left most of the rooms the way they were found after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. There are rooms with history of how the Khmer Rouge came to power and the horrors they inflicted on the population, including methods of torture and interrogation. Mostly, the rooms are filled with photographs of the prisoners–depressing photos of all the people who passed through the doors, including the elderly, women, children, and even babies. There were translated “confessions” that were signed after agonizing torture.

S21 room

One of the torture rooms

After their “confessions,” most of these prisoners and many others were taken to places like the Cheong Ek Killing Fields for execution.

S21 cells

The cells in converted classrooms at S-21

Total numbers vary on how many people were killed under Pol Pot’s rule. In 1976, the total population of Cambodia was about 8 million, and some estimates claim that 3 million people died in the three years of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.

After my visit to S-21, I sat down for a brief chat with my tuk-tuk driver. I could tell he was older than I was, which meant he was alive during the Khmer Rouge’s rule. I asked if he remembered anything from that time. He said he was a little too young to remember much, but he does recall hearing a lot of noise around his home, including guns, and his mother would take him and hide for days. He didn’t understand what any of it was until much later.

S21 photos

Photos of the victims who passed through S-21

On my visit to the Land Mine Museum in Siem Reap, Bill Morse, the tour guide and partner for the Landmine Relief Fund, gave an explanation of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. He asked a Cambodian friend how Pol Pot could empty an entire city in 48 hours. His friend said that the Khmer Rouge used loudspeakers to tell residents that American bombers were on their way. The population was still traumatized from years of bombings during the Vietnam War.

If it wasn’t for Pol Pot’s desire to reclaim land from Vietnam, the Vietnamese would’ve never invaded Cambodia, thus providing the opportunity for Cambodians to reclaim their country. Of course, Vietnam paid for its war against the Khmer Rouge when China invaded northern Vietnam because Chairman Mao was a great supporter of Pol Pot and China wanted to defend its ally. China generally omits its invasion of Vietnam from history books.

After this day, I was mentally exhausted. I asked my driver to drop me off at Wat Phnom. The walk around the temple and the walk back to my hotel helped clear my head a bit.


Staring into the Distance at Baphuon

Before heading back to Angkor Wat on my first day in Cambodia, my driver dropped me off at Prasat Bayon. This area consisted of Prasat Bayon, Baphuon, the Elephant Terrace, and the Leper King Terrace. There were a lot of steps at Prasat Bayon and Baphuon, which led to beautiful views.Baphuon-view

At the top of Baphuon, I took in the view out over the crowd. Much like the views from the Giant Buddha in Leshan, these photos don’t quite capture the size and awe of seeing it with your own eyes.

Finding Food at Angkor Wat

 

Food is not easy to come by when visiting Angkor Wat. Or, more accurately, it’s not easy to find decent food at a reasonable price within the temple complex. There are numerous vendors and small restaurants to serve the tourist masses, but they all charge rather high tourist prices–these are not places for the budget-conscious tourist.Angkor Wat

Obviously, the smartest route would be to buy some food in Siem Reap before heading to Angkor Wat for the day. This wasn’t really possible considering how late I arrived the previous day and how early I had to leave in the morning. By the time I reached Angkor Wat for the second time of the day, after the sunrise visit, I was starving. Add the heat to the equation, and I wasn’t the happiest of tourists–I really just wanted something to sustain me until I found some air conditioning.

coconut

Refreshing while deciding what to do for lunch in the heat

Along the left side of Angkor Wat were stalls full of vendors and a few outdoor restaurants. The prices weren’t outrageous, but were certainly more than I wanted to spend–and I would guess that the food isn’t the best either. All I stopped for was a cold coconut for a dollar that I hoped would give me enough energy to find some food.

cambodian bbq

Tasty Cambodian barbecue

Back out in the parking lot, I came across some food stalls further from the tourist crowds–it looked like tuk-tuk drivers were in the area. When I asked at one of the stalls, I was told almost everything was about $2 and included rice. I ordered a large piece of barbecued chicken and relaxed in the shade. It tasted better knowing that I could’ve ordered something similar inside Angkor Wat for 4-5 times the price. I also liked that the vendor tried to talk with me despite only being able to speak a few words of English–he was very happy when I said I enjoyed my lunch.

Have you ever found better food slightly away from the crowds of a major tourist destination?