Things I Have Learned In Cambodia

Things I Have Learned In Cambodia

“If you smile at me, i will understand because that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language,” Crosby Stills Nash and Young

The Kingdom of Cambodia is located in the southern portion of the Indochina peninsula in South East Asia. It is bordered by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and the Gulf of Thailand.

Khmer or Cambodian is the language of the Khmer people and the official language of Cambodia.

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In Cambodia, greeting is formally done by joining both the palms together in front of each other and then bowing. This is called Sompeah and is usually initiated by the younger or lower rank of people.

Electricity in Cambodia is in pressing need in the rural areas. It is supplied in the evening only from 6:30 PM to 9:30 PM while the business establishments and hotels rely more on generators. It is not uncommon to receive notes in your hotel about power outtages..

The infamous tyrant leader Pol Pot, who took control of Cambodia in 1975, was considered  the most notorious war criminal of modern times.

Over one and a half million people died during the regime of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot. The exact number is not known . It could be a lot more. One-fifth of Cambodia’s population was killed. They were mostly educated people, priests, and monks. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot wanted all educated Cambodians dead so that nobody would oppose their rule. You don’t see many old people.

Americans do not learn Asian History in school unless it directly affects us. Cambodia is still a traumatized country from the time of the Khmer Rouge and it is good to read about it. I read First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers  written by Loung Ung, a Cambodian author and survivor of the Pol Pot regime – or watch the Killing Fields before you go.

UNESCO has listed Cambodia as the third most landmined country in the world. More than 4 million landmines are still strewn across the country causing a high amount of casualties. It is estimated that it will take a decade before all the land mines are cleared up.

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Cambodia has the highest per-capita percentage of amputees in the world. Each month there are between 300 and 700 amputations due to land-mine injuries.

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Cambodia has the largest inland lake in South East Asia called the Tonle Sap.

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Cambodia has the least Chinese influences among all the other Mainland Southeast Asian nations.

Cows are a part of life in an agrarian economy and you see them all around Cambodia. Often you see children entrusted with the responsibility of walking with them.

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Since motorbikes are cheaper than cars in Cambodia is not unusual to see whole families on one bike.

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Rice is ubiquitous in Cambodian meals. It is served in many forms that include fried, steamed, noodles or dessert. (rice field)

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The relationship between water buffalo and humans in Cambodia is integral to their agricultural way of life. They have no fear of us. I was very close.  He was like “just take the photo already”.

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The official religion of Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism which is practiced by 95% of the Cambodian population.

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Tarantula kebabs are a popular delicacy in Cambodia. Spiders are another delicacy or necessity served in Cambodia,

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Prahok is a national ingredient in Cambodia, and is made of fermented fish.

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Cambodian food is a complex mix of local dishes and various influences such as Thai, French, and Sino-Vietnamese and is really tasty. (amok and morning glory)

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Cambodia’s motto is “Nation, Religion, King.

The Temples of Angor are a great place to take wedding photos.

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The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is an outgrowth of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK), which through the 1980s served as the single party, providing discipline and leadership for the socialist state. It is not clear to what extent the transition to a multiparty democracy has taken place. There is a lot of corruption in the political system.

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Many people in Siem Reap speak English because “the people who know more teach the people who know less.” School is in the morning or the afternoon. Now most of the kids you see working in Siem Reap do it before or after school.

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Hammocks are a lifestyle  in Viet Nam and even more in Cambodia. Maybe it is the heat but they are everywhere.

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Garment export and tourism are two of the main industries that generate revenue for the economy of Cambodia. (I’m hoping garment export doesn’t mean factories with underpaid workers)

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Half of Cambodia’s current population is younger than 15 years old.

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Traditionally, birthdays are not celebrated in Cambodia. Older people might not even know their birthdays.

In Cambodia, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body and shouldn’t be touched even in the nicest way.

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The Cambodian flag is the only national flag that has an image of a building – the Angkor Wat.

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Cambodia is home to the emblematic Angkor Wat temple, which is a silent testimony to how resourceful and artistically brilliant its people are.

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Fly safe,

JAZ

 

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Ta Prohm, Cambodia – The Tomb Raider Temple

Ta Prohm, Cambodia – The Tomb Raider Temple

“Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This… this is history.” Raiders of the Lost Ark

I know – wrong movie but it was such a good quote for this. Yes, Ta Prohm is the temple where Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Disturbingly many more Americans probably know where Angelina Jolie is right now and do not know where Cambodia is. Some may know the Tomb Raider temple is in Cambodia. (The Tomb Raider tree)

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Ta Promh has been left the way it was originally found.

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The jungle had completely engulfed the entire complex when it was discovered in the last century.

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It was amazing to see how the massive trees have grown around and atop the structures, their roots seemingly strangling and holding up the temple’s towers and other buildings.

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At Ta Prohm you can start to appreciate what the first explorers saw when they re-discovered these temples.

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It is easy to relive the emotions of the French naturalist Henri Mouhot when he came across it hidden in the jungle in 1860.

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Ta Prohm was dedicated to the family of Jayavarman VII as shown by the inscriptions on the stele ( stone monument) The inscription lists many of Jayavarman’s ancestors, as well as giving details of the construction. Perhaps most compelling though is the information the stele gives about the people whose lives revolved around this site. Nearly 80,000 people were involved in serving the temple, coming from over 3,000 surrounding villages. The stele also mentions that there were 102 functioning hospitals in the Kingdom. Numbers like this give a fantastic insight into the sheer scale of the Khmer empire at that time.

The structure measures 145 by 125 meters and has a maze of courtyards and galleries, many impassable because of the dense overgrowth of creepers and roots.

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I had to put this photo in of a Cambodian butterfly at Ta Prohm Temple. Thanks for taking this Kim. I needed to use at least one of your “National Geographic photos”. Most of the photos atTa Prohm were taken by Wong Kimsian.

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The “jungle temple” is best visited early in the morning when everybody else is at Angkor Wat to get your best photographs of the ongoing battle between nature and architecture.

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Fly Safe,

JAZ

Bayon, Angor Thom, Cambodia

Bayon, Angor Thom, Cambodia

“Bayon can be said to be the most imaginative and singular in the world, because more unearthly in its conception, a temple from a city in some distant planet…imbued with the same elusive beauty that often lives between the lines of a great poem.”  Bruno Dagens

Bayon and Angkor Wat evoke similar aesthetic responses yet are different in purpose, design, architecture and decoration. Bayon was built in late 12th century to early 13th century, by  King Jayavarman VII. The dense jungle surrounding the temple camouflaged its place in relation to other structures at Angkor so it was not known for some time that the Bayon stands in the exact centre of the city of Angkor Thom.

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To get to the temple you cross a bridge lined with amazing statues.

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You continue on to my favorite place – the terrace of the elephants.

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On approaching from a distance, it resembles a rather formless initially disappointing jumble of stone.

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Inside you discover a maze of galleries, towers and passageways on three different levels.

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The structure is rich in decoration, detailing scenes from battles, religious rituals, and everyday life.

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The most famous thing about the Bayon Temple are the over 200 faces carved into the stone temple towers – some indistinct and crumbling and others perfectly preserved.

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It is generally accepted that four faces on the towers are images of the bodhisattva (fully enlightened beings) who delays entry into Nirvana to aid the spiritual development of others.

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The characteristics of the faces – a broad forehead, downcast eyes, wild nostrils, thick lips that curl upwards slightly at the ends-combine to reflect the famous ‘Smile of Angkor’.

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The feeling at Bayon Temple for me was very different from Angor Wat. It is smaller, greyer and in the jungle.

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There are slabs of stone and crumbling ruins all around.

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You can see how they brought the stone from quarries thirty miles away and lifted it up.

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My guide in Cambodia was Mr. Wong Kimsien. Kim was very knowledgeable and fun.  He had a good sense of humor and was able to go with the flow  and switched gears whenever necessary. He also took most of these photos and the ones at Ta Prohm as well.  He is a very good photographer.  Thank you Kim for being such a good tour guide and all your kindness.

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Bayon is less crowded than Angor Wat so you can even find a quiet space for a blessing  under the sightless gaze of the ever-present faces.

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Fly safe,

JAZ

 

 

 

Why Don’t We Eat More Cambodian Food?

Why Don’t We Eat More Cambodian Food?

“Now that you are eating the rice, you can enjoy the taste of the food.” Cambodian waiter in Siem Reap to me.

I don’t like rice but I am grateful to rice for keeping people from starving. It is the most widely consumed food in the world especially in Asia. In Asian countries it is weird if you don’t eat rice. So this trip I managed to not eat rice in Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Viet Nam but in Cambodia everyone eats rice. If they see that your plate has no rice, they put rice on it. In many restaurants, rice is free or included. They did not understand the no rice thing. Having had so much starvation for so many years, it is odd for them to see people jogging to lose weight or not eat rice. I needed to eat some rice in Cambodia to understand the food. I felt a little of that first world privilege that I had a choice not to eat it.

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Khmer food takes influences from a variety of countries. Cambodia was a French colony for many years and also has many Chinese immigrants, so both French and Chinese foods are widely found. Thailand is nearby and influences the flavors as well. as well. Common ingredients are rice and sticky rice, fish sauce, palm sugar, lime, garlic, chilies, coconut milk, lemon grass,, kaffir lime and shallots.

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I have never eaten Cambodian food before so I can’t judge anything other than that I thought it was fresh and delicious. The flavors are strong, clean and not too spicy for me. (Cambodian curry)

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Hunger is a legacy that lives on in Cambodian food and everything is edible. This is not my first fried bug country but there are a lot of them here. Platters of fried tarantulas and spiders are common in the market.

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They told me the red ants that were biting my leg on the hammock were delicious when cooked with beef and they were right.

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My new favorite Cambodian dish is  Amok, a popular Khmer dish. Amok is  a national dish, made from fish, coconut milk and curry paste and cooked in banana leaves.   I had it with fish and chicken.(fish amok and morning glory)

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I love trying new restaurants and my new favorite restaurant is in Siem Reap Cambodia.  It is Batchum Khmer Kitchen restaurant (http://batchumkhmerkitchen.com) I ate there twice. The food is fresh  and organic (as most food is in agricultural communities).

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It is located in a quiet part of the Angor Archaological Park overlooking tropical gardens and rice paddies. (watching the quick tropical rainstorm while eating)

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The second day I went for a coffee and did not plan on staying for lunch but it is so beautiful and relaxing there  and the food is so delicious and the staff is so friendly that we ended up staying.

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In the Khmer language the word for rice and food are the same. In Cambodia, they go together.

Fly safe,

JAZ

 

Angor Wat, Cambodia

Angor Wat, Cambodia

“One of these temples – a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo  – might take its place besides our most beautiful buildings – Grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome …it makes the traveler forget all the fatigues of the journey, filling him with admiration and delight, such as should be experienced on finding a verdant oasis in the sandy desert” Henry Mouhot (the French explorer who publicized Angor Wat by writing about his findings)

There’s a moment just before you do what it is you have anticipated doing for your whole life, that is better than actually doing it. That is how it felt as the plane landed in Siem Reap. Everyone was a tourist. Everyone had their Iphones out and were snapping photos out the window and of the Cambodian Airlines plane that we were on.

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Collective excitement is definitely more exciting – especially in many different languages. We were here. The place that we had watched on the Discovery Channel specials, or documentaries and/or had seen photos of, was just a few miles from the airport. The next day, everyone on that plane was about to see one of the most impressive sights in the world.

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Angor Wat is the largest temple in the world and the world’s largest religious building constructed of stone.

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It is often described as one of the most extraordinary architectural creations ever built, with its intricate bas-reliefs, strange acoustics and magnificent soaring towers. It was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. The Cambodian word Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Nagara’ meaning ‘holy city’. It was originally built as a Hindu temple.

Angkor Wat is unusually oriented to the west, a direction typically associated with death in Hindu culture. Archaeologists and scholars disagree about why the ancient builders chose to deviate from the ‘norm’ at the time. Bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat read counterclockwise, another sign that the temple is associated with funeral rituals.

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Also unusual for the time of construction, Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu a Hindu deity, rather than the current king.

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Angkor Wat was shifted from Hindu to Buddhist use sometime around the late 13th century. The temple is still used by Buddhists today.

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The temples greatest sculptural treasure is its 2 meter high bas reliefs, around the walls of the outer gallery.

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It is the longest continuous bas reliefs in the world. In some areas, traces of paint and gilt that once covered the carvings can still be seen.

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There are scenes of legends, wars and everyday life, enhanced by carvings of nearly 2,000 apsaras, or celestial dancers.

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Angor Wat was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992.The site suffered from decades of unregulated tourism and looting; many ancient statues have been decapitated and their heads sold to private collectors.

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An international collaborative effort has helped to slowly restore sites and prevent further collapse of unstable structures.

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Sokimex, a private company founded by an ethnic Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman, has rented Angkor Wat from Cambodia since 1990 and manages tourism there – for profit.

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Most of the money to restore Angkor Wat comes from foreign aid.

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Only an estimated 28% of ticket sales goes back into the temples,

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It is architecturally and artistically breathtaking. No photograph can capture the immensity of this monument.

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I expected to have some deep spiritual connection with Angor Wat but I did not. Instead I felt the imprints of history and stood in awe of the skill and artistry that covers ever inch of the buildings from an ancient Khmer universe that surpasses the imagination.

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Fly safe,

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JAZ

 

 

Land Mines In Cambodia

Land Mines In Cambodia

“When elephants fight, ants get killed.” Cambodian Proverb

Everywhere you go in Siem Reap you will see disabled beggars. They are victims of war – victims of landmines.

The landmines in Cambodia were placed by different fighting groups (the Khmer Rouge, the Heng Samrin and Hun Sen regimes) during the Civil War in Cambodia in the 1970s. They were put in the whole territory of the country. One of the problems that Cambodia faces is that the people who placed the mines do not remember where they put them.

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Cambodia is still a very poor traumatized country from the cruel years of the Khmer Rouge. Almost every family has lost at least one family member and faced unbearable situations during that time. Most of the adults remember starvation. There are many terrible stories.

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The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may still be as many as four to six million mines. It will take at least ten more years to clear most of them out. They have 40,000 amputees. It is the largest number in the world which makes it the most disabled country.

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Even now about 250 people a year still step on land mines – most of them children. The hospitals are too far away and many of them die. The ones that don’t usually lose a limb.

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Traditionally in Khmer society the person who stepped on a mine was viewed as unlucky, their own bad karma having sentenced them to a life of misery. It was assumed, furthermore, that those with only one leg or one arm could not be productive members of society. This attitude of discrimination is changing and there are now some organizations to help the disabled.

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Some of the organizations have music groups that you will see around Cambodia especially in Angor Wat and the other temples. They sell their CDs and play traditional Khmer music.

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There are many organizations you can give to in Cambodia and in the US to help as well. Unicef, Cambodian Children’s Charity and Land Mine Survivors Cambodia are a few in the US. The American dollar goes a much longer way in Cambodia and even a small amount will help.

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The country is recovering slowly. They are determined to build and succeed, heal the wounded, forgive the unforgivable and have better lives.

Fly safe,

JAZ