Thursday, February 26, 2009

I can't believe I have a 19 year old

**************HAPPY 19th BIRTHDAY*************

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

They came, they climbed, they cooked, they ate...

My parents arrived for their first visit to Cambodia on a friday morning for two full weeks with weekends either side. The first week was spent with us in Phnom Penh getting a feel for what life is like in the Penh and seeing the usual tourist sights around town. Although we had seen dad a few times while we lived in Singapore, as he flew in and out on business in the region, M and I hadn't seen mum for more than two years. The visit was overdue.

They had stopped over in Singapore for a few days to catch up with friends so were already in holiday mode and we headed out straight away.

First we visited the National Museum to get a sense of what was to come during their week at the temples at Angkor.....

....spent a morning looking at the golden manicured splender of the Royal Palace and climbed Wat Phnom the only hill in town ....

...toured The Killing Fields and Toul Sleng....

....ate lunch at Friends and then took a cooking class taught by a Friends graduate which was deemed such a success M and I have decided to enrol for a class ourselves next time he has a day off.

Very rarely do they get a chance to holiday together as dad is always working so, in the spirit of vacation adventure, I had prebooked the class and although dad looked a bit dubious and a lot amused, when I let them in on my plans, I wasn't taking no for an answer. The class began at 9 with a tour of the market and then back to the open air rooftop cooking studio and individual woks (I wish I'd seen dads face).

We took longer trips to the wildlife park at Tamao and the old capital Oudong and did what families do best...ate and talked.

Then they flew up to Siem Reap hired a driver and bought a three day temple pass.....

......and climbed and climbed and climbed.

Not all of Angkor involves climbing....thank goodness!

Their final weekend was spent on the coast at Sihanoukville enjoying the great variety of fresh seafood on offer and some brilliant sunsets.

I think they enjoyed themselves, I know we did.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

They promise it'll be educational...

M is here this week........

........for 'Week Without Walls'.

They are hanging out with these guys..... the Orang Utan Rehabilitation centre.

Getting up really early and climbing this......

.......and checking out the steaming vents of smelly sulphur.

Exploring in here.....

......can you tell I'm jealous!

School wasn't like this in my day.......

....some kids have all the luck!

Who knew Sumatra looked so much like New Zealand....except for the monkeys of course!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Killing Fields

'As I heard these horrific stories of torture and suffering, I
could not help but look around me at the lush countryside
and imagine the hell it must have been just thirty years ago.'
-- Annie Gell

About 14 km outside of Phnom Penh is a quiet place with horrific memories. Choeung Ek, or the 'Killing Fields' is a mass graveyard, one of thousands of similar sites in Cambodia. According to Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Program, from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians or 21 percent of the population. Choeung Ek is particularly notorious because of its link to Toul Sleng (S-21) in downtown Phnom Penh. It was here that 12 000 tortured men, women and children were bought, most still alive, to be bludgeoned ( to save bullets ) and buried in graves they were forced to dig themselves. They were driven out blindfolded, in trucks under the cover of the enveloping darkness that an absence of electricity creates. They must have been petrified.

In the decade immediately following the toppling of the Khmer Rouge, many national and local-level memorials were constructed throughout Cambodia. Some are stupas, some just piles of skulls and bones. The 62 meter tall stupa at Choeung Ek, built in 1988, holds nearly 9 thousand skulls, dug out of their graves behind and carefully laid on glass shelves that go all the way to the top. Underneath is a pile of rags, some of the victims clothing.

Choeung Ek probably the most well known of the memorial sites (due to it's proximity to Phnom Penh) and certainly boasts the largest stupa but the brutality it has witnessed is by no means the most extreme. Nayan Chanda, a journalist with the Far Eastern Economic Review, described as ‘an obscene carpet of bones’, the remains of up to 100 thousand bodies, were found beneath mango trees in the Provence of Kampong Cham.

The guide books suggest seeing Toul Sleng and then making the trip out to 'The Killing Fields' but we were emotionally worn out after visiting Toul Sleng just after we arrived in Cambodia. We made our trip to Choeung Ek with my parents who had visited Toul Sleng a few days before. The sign at the ticket kiosk asks for quiet and it is so quiet you can almost hear the sun on the grass. We took our shoes off and walked up the cool tile steps of the stupa. Standing at the foot of the memorial is a powerful thing. The skull stacked shelves, arranged in age and gender, seem to reach the sky. So many people ... a lot with huge holes smashed into their skulls. The sign says ‘would you please show your respect to many million people who were killed under the genocidal Pol Pot regime’ but it was hard to feel respect over a profound sense of sadness that threatened to spill down my cheeks.

We walked around the sunken holes left after the bones were exhumed being careful to stick to the worn paths. Bones still lie in the ground and are set to remain untouched after the government sold the site in 2005 to a Japanese company on condition no more exhumations were to be undertaken. It is sad that the Cambodian people have lost control of one of their memorial sites but in direct contrast to the delapidated and seriously underfunded Toul Sleng, Choeung Ek is clean and well maintained. The integrity of the place seems to be intact.

'Mass grave of more than 100 victims, children and women, whose majority were naked', 'Mass grave of 166 victims without heads' and 'Mass grave of 450 victims'. Bits of clothing are visible still half buried in the dirt.
Another sign under a tree reads 'Killing tree against which executioners killed children.'

On January 27 2005 World leaders and Holocaust survivors gathered at Auschwitz to commerorate its liberation. More than a million people, the majority
Jews, died there between 1940 and 1945. During the session Secretary-General
Kofi Annan said, ‘Such an evil must never be allowed to happen again.’
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel told the special session, ‘In those times those who were in the death camps felt not only tortured and murdered by the enemy, but also tortured and murdered by what they considered to be the world’s silence and indifference,’ Later in a debate on the British Broadcasting Corporation website Wiesel said he feared that the lessons have already been lost. ‘If the world had listened we may have prevented Darfur,
Cambodia, Bosnia, and naturally Rwanda' some 30 years later. Today the world sits while thousands are still being killed in the Sudan, Darfur and most recently in Gaza.

Isnt it time we learned to respect each others differences, heeded the lessons of siblings and learned to get along?

Isnt it time it all stopped?

'If justice has not been sought, the piled-up bones should not be
cremated. Proper cremation is not enough for the victims, for
their spirits will not be in a peaceful state unless justice is found.
We should build a stupa and place the bones inside.'
-- Suos Phorn

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Friends with a monkey

The Lonely Planet describes Tamao Wildlife Park as 'Cambodia’s foremost wildlife sanctuary' and while it certainly does house quite a variety of largely rescued wildlife it doesnt immediately scream 'sanctuary'. Things are pretty primative with simple wire fences to keep even the most wild of animals at bay although efforts have been made in the cages to provide shelter and some of the enclosures are huge. The centre is mostly funded by international wildlife NGO's such as Wildlife Alliance and Free the Bears Fund who are trying really hard to change Cambodian's attitude towards animals but old habits die hard and incredibly poor rural Cambodians are easily driven by the lure of a few bucks the trade of wild animals offers and many end up still destined for vivisection clinics in the United States, the medicine bottles of the Chinese, the dinner tables of surrounding countries, the private cages of Asias elite and the appaulling conditions of performing circuses and the like. Most of the animals at the centre have been rescued from poachers, traders, traffickers and private houses in Cambodia. They end up at Tamao because, for one reason or another, they can no longer live in the wild. Its pretty heartbreaking seeing so many.

The park is really too big to walk around so you do a combination walk drive. This huge cage housed some of these guys...

.....although there were plenty outside of the cage too. The park has had some success with breeding too. This is a mother and baby in their nest.

At the first car park a few kids will attach themselves to you offering their expert guiding 'services'. We started off with about five but after the first cage, when the boys realised we werent into buying the coconuts they were teasing the animals with, we were left with this tenacious little girl in red who followed us around on her bike offering advice as to which animals were prone to biting and which we could touch.

Some of the animals seemed happier than others. These otters for example were so busy playing and diving in their little pool they barely noticed their audience.

This guy was alone in his enclosure and soon came over to check us out. He was the most animated I have ever seen a Crocodile especially considering the significant midday heat.

There are three kinds of crocodile, we were informed, the jungle croc, the mekong croc and the mountain croc. The Siamese Crocodile (possibly their 'mountain' crocodile as it is found in the swamps and rivers of the Cardamom mountains) was thought to be extinct, hunted largely to be worn, until recently and although numbers are very small still there are efforts on both the Cambodian and the Thai side of their habitat to breed and preserve them. There are hybrid Siamese too a wild result of mating with the much bigger saltwater croc. I couldnt find a third crocodile in any lists of Cambodias 212 mammal species, 536 bird species, 240 reptile species, 435 marine fish species and 850 different species of freshwater fish.

This is the very shy and rare Slow Loris. The Slow Loris is endangered and so absurdly adorable the Japanese pay large sums to have them as pets. The completely dependent babies are the most prized but smugglers have been known to rip out the teeth of older lorises to make them appear younger. Cambodians use the Slow Loris to make medicines. It takes three smoked lorises to make the dose of loris wine used to help relieve the pain of childbirth. The Cambodian government legally banned the trade of lorises in 2007 but as with most laws in Cambodia enforcement is piecemeal at best and even if poachers do get caught bribe money can usually be exchanged for free passage over the boarder.

There is a sizable population of sunbears at the park due to the huge trade of these gorgeous creatures. Cambodia's wild Sunbears and Asiatic, or Moon, bears enjoyed relative safety for much of the last few decades as security concerns meant sizable areas of forest were no go zones. The forests now cleared of militants and mostly cleared of mines have again become collection grounds for the illegal wildlife trade.

At Tamao 'Free the Bears' has built an education centre similar to those seen at zoos around the world. There are posters and a lot of information in both english and Khmer about the bears and the dispicable trade in them. Free the Bears Fund has been working with the Cambodian Forestry Administration since 1997 and has been instrumental in the creation of the sanctuary, teaching and educating Cambodians as well as in the rescue of the bears themselves.

The much bigger Asiatic bear is caught and kept as a live reservoir for bile which is used in many traditional Chinese medicines. It is believed that more than 10,000 bears in China and 4,000 in Vietnam are kept in inhumane conditions at bear farms.

While the conditions for the bears are definately much better than the ones they were destined for when they were rescued it still hurt to see them being teased by the local coconut boys who for a dollar throw a coconut over the fence into the bear cage causing fighting and growling and all in front of signs that read in both english and khmer 'do not feed'.

The centre also provides sanctuary for elephants rescued from a life of street performance. Like the other animals they have a huge enclosure.

Interestingly they perform here too. They dance and sway to the sounds of the makarena and when they have finished put their trunks out for donations.

This baby elephant, Chhouk, probably lost his foot in a poachers snare. He was an orphan when found and in a terrible state both physically and emotionally; boney, sick and refusing to be touched. He was bought to Tamao and nursed back to a healthy happy elephant who seems to enjoy the company of not only his keepers but also of the crowd of visitors.

These monks are watching one of the parks tigers pace the fence. This is the closest I think I have ever been to a wild tiger, only a simple wire fence between me and him. He was awesome.

The tigers at Tamao have been rescued at such a young age that they never got a chance to learn necessary survival skills from their mothers and therefore can not be rereleased into the wild. They are often in terrible condition when they arrive at the park and have to be nursed back to health. Many of the tigers have been adopted by donors who help to fund their care.

For any Aussies reading this, one was adopted by Belinda and Rove McManus. Rove and Tasma still come to Cambodia and even have a couple of sun bear cubs named after them.

Who really stole my heart (and I dare say M's too) was this gibbon. As soon as she 'saw' us, through cataract eyes, she put her mangled hand through the bars. After an introductory hand holding session she was ready to move onto head scratching moving my hand herself to the top of her head.

She is part of a breeding pair who successfully produced offspring in 2007. This is no mean feat since many of the gibbons were orphans and have very little if any experience of being parented themselves.
Her partner wasnt as cuddly as she was. He sat close looking like he wanted to be a part of the action but just couldnt bring himself to get close enough to touch. When he finally put a hand on the wire dad touched him gently. He lept back a few steps but almost immediately returned to the fence and purposefully put his hand back. Gentle stroking was all he'd permit but like a jealous child gave M's hair a quick tug while M was scratching the females head.

While the park is listed in guide books not many tourists make it to Tamao, down the dusty driveway lined with elderly beggars, which is a shame because they are trying so hard to do the right thing and deserve our support.