Khmer New Year is April 14-16, but everybody is in holiday mood beginning April 1. At Kurata, some student's parents prepared lunch for the school staff as a thank you. My first clue that this was happening was when two grade 6 girls pulled up on a moto and delivered a case of beer. Fish, chicken, salad, rice and soda soon followed. It was a really nice gesture and much appreciated by the teachers and administrators and also by me as it meant a day with something other than PB & J for lunch.
We have 193 student volunteers coming from Singapore for a few days in May and we need lots of activities, so I asked Ratha, the Kurata English teacher to have the kids show me a few traditional games we could do during their visit. The first game he explained to me sounded like duck duck goose, but instead of tapping the "goose" on the head, the kid going around the outside of the circle sang a song and whoever they were behind when they stopped singing was 'it'. It sounded like the perfect game! We all squatted in a circle with our hands behind our back, the singing started, then I saw that the kid on the outside had a big korma scarf braided into what looked suspiciously like a thick whip. Hmmmmm, I didn't remember that being mentioned when the game was described…. Surely they are not going to…..and there we go, smack! The singing stops and the unlucky "goose" gets whacked with the scarf/whip. Hard! Needless to say I put the kibosh on that game ASAP. No hitting the volunteers!
Since I had 2 weeks off school, I decided to see some more of Cambodia. I was so happy Jim decided to join me, he’s become a great friend. The trip started with an 11 hour bus ride to Sihahoukville via Phnom Penh. The bus was decent, but the road was not. They are widening it, but instead of starting with a couple of miles, completing the construction, then moving on to the next 2 miles, they ripped up almost the entire thing (about 50 miles). Consequently, there are giant ditches on each side. Scary enough in the day, but the night buses are supposed to be downright suicidal. Phnom Penh, where we changed into a smaller van, was bigger than I remembered but just as dirty. The van ride was horrifying. The driver went at least 80, passed on blind curves, and barely missed the usual assortment of cows, kids, bicycles, dogs and motos on the road, all while blabbing on not one, but 2 cell phones. Scariest ride I ever experienced bar Viet Nam.
Our first stop was Sihanoukville, a beach town on the Gulf of Thailand. I’d heard that the both the beach and the town were quite seedy, but I was pleasantly surprised. We had seafood barbeque dinner on the beach for $5 and the tables were right in the sand. Kids were selling lumineries that floated off into the night sky, quite pretty. Got some beach time in the next morning and then caught a boat for Koh Rong Island. It was a beautiful 2+ hour boat ride, although the diesel fumes were a bit much. About a half hour from shore, the captain pulled up to a fishing boat and traded him a liter of orange Fanta for some fresh shrimp- how they found each other was a mystery to me.
We stayed in wooden bungalows just steps from the sea and spent the first night drinking with the slightly disgruntled staff at the resort (an Estonian named Beast, a guy from Amsterdam and lady marine conservationist from England). The Dutch guy kept complaining about the bad reviews they got on TripAdvisor and to be honest, I’m sure a few of them had some merit. The first night I could hardly sleep, my bed smelled absolutely HORRIBLE, and they shut off the electricity at 11 so there was no fan and it was really hot. The next morning when I complained, I found out that geckos had been shitting on my mosquito net and that was the cause of the stench. On the bright side, I was awake at 5AM to see the beautiful sunrise and I got a clean net for the second night.
The next day we hopped in some kayaks and set out across the Gulf of Thailand to find a floating village and visit the main village just beyond it. It was a beautiful sunny day and the water was warm and crystal clear. The floating village was easy to find, but we paddled for what seemed like hours looking for the main village. We kept thinking it would be around the next bend, then the next, the next…. Luckily we had a pack of Oreos for sustenance, but we were getting low on water. Finally we decided to give up the search and headed back. While we were passing the floating village, we saw the real village on the land just behind the stilt houses. We had misinterpreted "beyond" as past, not “beside”. Duh! Well at least we got some good exercise! Our next stop was Otres Beach back on mainland. One of the highlights here was the squid lady. She walked up and down the beach with small fresh squid and little barbecues grilling the tasty creatures on the spot. One of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. My only complaint was that she didn’t come by often enough- at 5 for $1.50 I could have munched on squid all day long.
After a couple of days at Otres, we were off to Kep. I loved this little town. There is an amazing crab market where the people wade out to the crab traps and bring in the catch to the market and restaurants on the shore. I had delicious crab amok and crab in green pepper sauce. Kep was a vacation spot for the French colonialists from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. (Cambodia was a French protectorate for 100 years due to threats from Thailand and Viet Nam). During their stay, they built beautiful Moderne villas that have now fallen into ruins as the French fled the country during the war. We were taking pictures at one beautiful old building near the hotel when we looked at each other and said “we need costumes!” The next day, after appropriating curtains and bed runners from our rooms, we dressed up and did an editorial photo shoot. (I knew watching 7 seasons of Project Runway would come in handy some day!) I even put in makeup for the first time in 6 months. It was nice to feel like a girl for a change, I’m usually a bedraggled sweaty mess. Fun!
Next stop was Kampot, a bit inland on a river. The hotel was nice but my room was in the rustic boathouse which was good (great river views, over- water balcony) and bad (scurrying squeaky creatures overhead, big ones. Aida, you would have hated it!!). We took a moto to Bokor Mountain National Park, home to endangered bears, tigers, monkeys and supposedly a herd of elephants. It rained a bit on the way up, followed by really thick fog which rolled in and out all day, so it was an interesting ride. Luckily the road is the best in Cambodia - there are even guard rails! Halfway up the mountain there is a building with a big model of a planned development. In Cambodia, if the Prime Minister owns a development company and wants to build 500 houses in the middle of a national park, no problem. Pretty horrifying. There actually is a precedent for development up there, however. During the French Colonial times, there was casino at the top, a church and some hotels, all now in ruins. The church was especially photogenic shrouded in the fog. Because it was Khmer New Year, lots of local families were on the mountain as well, having picnics and wandering the ruins, so that was nice.
It was a great little vacation and I was happy I got to see more of Cambodia. I found the beaches nicer than many in Bali and the towns were just developed enough, but not touristy at all.
One of the other highlights this month was attending Ratha’s (one of our English teachers) engagement party. At 7AM all the guests gathered outside the bride to be’s house and walked in carrying bowls of fruit, cakes and beer. All these goodies were placed on the floor before Ratha, and both families. After the “MC” pitched Ratha’s good qualities to the girl’s parents, Theiry came out looking like an exotic princess. There was a lot if bowing, rings were exchanged, and they toasted with beer. Then the guests had a really delicious lunch while the couple took photos complete with costume changes. Event photos are a big business here and quite elaborate. The whole thng was very interesting and it was an honor to attend.