Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A wee break

A last minute decision saw us grappling for our passports at the end of last week. Downloading visa forms and diligently filling them in before our driver dropped them off at the Chinese Embassy, where he was given more forms, which we hurriedly completed and tried to drop off at the prescribed time.
Of course it was shut.
Open again at 8?
J went back at 8 the next morning (I had a meeting at the school) where there was a futile wait under the already hot Cambodian sun for some kind of action. He abandoned ship an hour later dripping under his long sleeved business shirt and suit pants. We still don't know when the office finally did open but Chunthy our driver eventually managed to hand in our documents in exchange for a receipt which said we would have visas on tuesday....thats today.
Sure enough Chunthy went back down to the Embassy after dropping me at the gym and was handed them on the spot.

So on thursday at midnight we get on a plane and end up here...

...somewhere we can fly direct from Phnom Penh...somewhere north about 3 and a half hours from Phnom Penh...have you guessed yet?

Shanghai, the largest city in China, famous for 'The Bund' a mile long wide footpath lined with fabulous old buildings along the bend (English for 'bund') in the Huangpu River- which is currently a huge construction site till 2010- and its ever changing modern skyline. I'm looking forward to being able to walk without breaking into an instant sweat, parks with big trees, Starbucks (even though where chains go I prefer Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf), Ikea, museums and art galleries and a week without housework. Cameras are charged, jeans are packed- well nearly I'm not really that organised- and school is almost out. See you on the other side...

Monday, October 19, 2009

The impermanence of sand

I saw this on the BBC the other day and just about cried....actually I lie ...I did cry. What she does is beautiful and haunting.

Kseniya Simonova was the 2009 winner of Ukraine's got Talent. The 24 year old only began making these sand drawings on the beach a year ago and now uses much less sand, a portable lightbox and a soundtrack to help her tell her story. The stories she tells are of love and war, timeless and relevant the world over, set in the Ukraine during 'The Great patriotic War' (World War II. )In the Ukraine it was a conflict that killed between 8 and 11 Ukrainians, nearly 1 in 4, almost 20% of all the casualties suffered during the war. A truely devastating statistic in a country that was already reeling from Stalin's manufactured famines.

Once Kseniya's story is told it is swept away, merely sand again, back into a box, leaving behind emotion and memories.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fun Rally 2009

For weeks I had been part of the organising committee for the third annual ISPP Fun Rally Phnom Penh writing clues, finding prizes, coercing sponsors, creating posters and fliers, getting T shirts and hats printed, distributing said posters and fliers, selling tickets and managing the caterer.

On a sunday a couple of weekends ago four of us piled into a tuktuk for a four hour dry run of the Adult Route that took us in a meandering 20km loop from the Elementary school gate around the answers to 79 clues and tasks and back again hungry, hot, with spent brains and tummys sore from laughing. The route was slimmed down by five clues or aproximately one hour and the final copies printed.

There were two routes. One for adults- the clues more cryptic and the route longer- and one for children. Teams could be a mixture of both adults and kids but had to chose one of the routes, without seeing the clues and tasks, before they left. Clue booklets were a mixture of straight decipher and answer questions and those that invloved a task. The first clue of the Adult Route, for example, took contestants to the school athletic field where they had to run and then brave a ten gallon drum of goo to retrieve a teeny tiny crystal 'diamond'. The kids had much nicer tasks- decorating and eating cookies, fishing from a swimming pool and making sure their parents/guardians completed a set of push ups. Both teams delivered bags of goodies to orphanages on their routes and books to Open Book and ended back where they started...hopefully!

The day before we dressed the elementary school in Rally posters and red balloons, packed bags for the charity task with rice, donated stationary items and toys, and the book bags for 'Open Book', positioned the registration tables under sponsors umbrellas and we were ready.

Sunday dawned cloudy and with a hint of impending rain- perfect!

J and I manned the table for late registrations and sold tickets right up until the last teams were leaving. Teams, in either tuktuks or cars, were ceremoniously flagged off and times recorded in case of a point tie (which actually did happen for both first and second place in the Adult Route).

Two and a half hours later the first teams, doing the Childrens Route, began to dribble in. Followed closely by the eventual winners of the Adult Route. We spent the next couple of hours frantically marking route answers while the contestants were treated to a barbeque lunch and entertained by some clowns from Sovanna Phum and an energetic MC with a hand full of spot prizes.

The eventual winners received a grab bag full of vouchers from various very generous businesses around town and little handmade christmas decorations from Mekong Quilts and Ida Ira and other prizes were given out for 'best dressed' and the 'slowest'.

We arrived back home hot and tired after a glass or two of champagne and a job well done brimming with ideas for next years Rally.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The butterfly

While my sister and her family were here we took a customary trip down the river. Called a sunset cruise it is usually a two hour jaunt down the Tonle Sap round the huge sand dredger and then up the Mekong for a short way zig zagging across the two rivers as we go. The boat we took this time, The Butterfly, was a smaller boat than I had been on before, only one level but with the welcome addition of a lounging bed at one end.

We started our trip at about 4-30 just as the light was beginning to soften.

The shore on the other side of the Tonle Sap was littered with people playing da cau a kicking game with a shuttle cock instead of a hacky sack, badminton, washing clothes for tomorrow, cooking dinner, swimming...

...and just socialising in colourful groups. As the light dimmed fishermen began returning home on their picturesque vessels.

We saw a boat and it's friendly crew go past packed to the roof with massive stalks of green bananas.

The Royal Palace looks like a fantastical castle from the river.

The sand dredger looks as out of place as it is!

We motored and drifted for a very enjoyable couple of hours eating stuffed paninis and double decker sandwiches and drinking wine and beer Lao ending up back where we started ready for a cooling sorbet from Frescos before bed.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Eating spiders

We had dinner at Romdeng the other night. Famous for the eight legged addition to it's menu the eatery is a teaching restaurant, like Jamie Olivers 'Fifteen'. It is a part of the non profit, non government, non denominational organisation Mith Samlanh (meaning 'Friends' in Khmer). It helps provide about 2000 kids an education and vocational training in trades such as hairdressing, mechanics, electronics, welding, the design and creation of products for the Friends shop and training in all aspects of the restaurant trade. The training workshops are designed as income generating businesses. Have a wee look at their website and some of the funky products they make.

The students of the restaurant begin their training, back at 'Friends', in the schools canteen learning basic cooking and serving skills. Then they move on to Romdeng and finally to 'Friends Restaurant' on street 13 not far from the museum.

Romdeng, a lovely airy villa on street 174, has a menu of about 40 odd traditional cambodian dishes.

With kids and a fish eating vegetarian (me) at the table we ordered a variety of dishes to share including the spider starter and prahok, a fermented fish paste that is Cambodia's version of stinky ripe gorgonzola or Samoa's fermented breadfuit. I had tried to order prahok before but we were eating with our driver that night and he was adamant I would not like it. I should have known better. Most Cambodian food I have tasted is rather bland in flavour and I am definately a stinky cheese person. I crave strong flavours. The prahok came in 3 slightly different variations none of which I found particularly pungent but it was still tasty enough to order again. The spiders, too, were edible, rather like eating skinny fries with no expected squelch, pop and goo as I bit into the body.

Eating fried tarantulas as a snack in Cambodia is said to have begun during the reign of the Khmer Rouge during the 70's when a lack of usual food drove people to try alternatives such as field rats, crickets and spiders. The tarantulas, 'a-ping' in Khmer, that are eaten, come from Skuon in Kampong Cham province and are devenomed and fried to a blackened crisp.

For Cambodians these spiders are not just eaten for their taste but also for their reputed medicinal qualities. They are said to cure a cough, back ache, lung problems and have a positive affect on male sexuality.

Up the stairs inside the two storey villa is an exhibition, 'Lizards, Barks & Fragrances', of Cambodian spices, small animals and their presumed remedies, which runs until Dec. 10th.

Lizard on a stick anyone?

Bats are said to help with respiritory ailments too. Tumeric has anti inflamatory qualities as does its ginger like cousin, galangal, which is also taken for nausea, flatulence, dyspepsia, rheumatism, catarrh and enteritis. It also possesses tonic, aphrodisiac and antibacterial qualities. The knobbly skinned Kaffir lime is traditionally used medicinally to clear the head and cleanse the skin. Its scent is believed to lift spirits as well as relax and its juice is highly astringent.

We slowly made our way through the table load of dishes we had ordered including a Muslim Beef curry, Taro and Pork spring rolls, Three colour Pomelo salad with shrimp, Green Mango and Banana flower salad with dried shrimp...yum!

There were also desserts but we have always been so full from main courses that I'm afraid we have yet to savour a Romdeng dessert. Some of the appetising seductions offered are, crispy rice flake dumplings stuffed with banana and palm sugar syrup, red sticky rice porrige with coconut and longans, red bean and banana ice cream, homemade coconut sorbet as well as ever changing weekly specials.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Oudong for the beginning of Bonn Kathen

We had taken mum and dad to Oudong, the old capital and the centre of Buddhism in Cambodia, when they came in February so it was only fair my sister and her family did the 500 step trek to the temple at the top as well. We left fairly early in a, usually futile, bid to beat the heat. The kids were kept entertained counting tuktuks and increasing numbers of people on a single motorbike.
'You nephew?' said Chunthy, our driver, later that week, 'he talk SO much!'

On pulling into the Cambodia Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Center at the base of the hill it became obvious we had stumbled on a special day. There were people everywhere. Instead of the relative silence of the last visit the air was filled with the amplified sound of dueling dhamma lessons, the smell of burning incense and lotus buds. The grounds were filled with women dressed in 'wat clothes', white lacy long sleeved tops and straight long silk skirts in different variations of sundays colour-plum or the standard default- black.

We walked around the huge ceremonial pool, marvelled at the gold lady and her reptilian steed and the strange arrangement of characters under the tree with the silver leaves.

We strolled past the open hall, full of shaved headed nuns all in white and mostly women worshippers, that was leaking the rhythmic chanting. We slipped past the many food vendors who held out bamboo tubes of sticky rice and colourful woven trinkets. We walked towards the stilted house, the kodi, that holds Sam Bunthoern, the mummified monk, and we grew silent. We happened to reach the room at the top of the stairs, where Bunthoerns body lies in a glass case, during a lull and it was empty apart from a couple of orange robed monks who smilingly eyed my sisters young children as curiously as they returned their gaze.
'His eyes are open'

'He's a bit wrinkly'

'Is he real?'

It's not often you get to see a 'real live' mummy.

Back out on the balcony we noticed the doors of the massive building opposite, that were firmly shut on our previous visit, were open so it was back down the stairs of Bunthoern's shrine and up the wider stone stairs of the much more imposing temple building. With shoes off we stepped over the threshold and onto a cool clean tile floor. The inside of the huge hall was quite simply breath taking.

All the walls and the ceiling were intricately painted with scenes of Buddhas life, laid out in squares like a spiritual comic strip, except for the end wall which held a larger than life bodhi tree, the backdrop for a ginormous green jade (?) buddha.

More nuns were sitting to one side of the Buddha. One stood up and walked slowly over to where we were at the edge of the kneeling mat.

She indicated that for a small donation she would bless us and we obliged, after all how often does one get the chance to be blessed at the feet of one of the biggest seated Buddhas I have ever seen, by a tiny bald headed nun in the ancient capital of Cambodia.

We sat for a while, on our knees, afterwards and drank in the increasingly busy scene before us wondering what they were 'celebrating'.

Back outside we asked our driver.

'The last day of the rainy season.' He offered.

A bit early we thought but the season this year, as with much of the Asian world, HAS been a bit extreme. Maybe a bit of wishful thinking WAS in order.

Before climbing the 500 steps to the view we investigated a new reclining Buddha around the back of the Temple Hall.

He serenely lay, with head on hands, facing the direction of the Jade Buddha oblivious to the inspection of tiny hands.

We decided to take the back route up (the path we had been unable to find the first time) Phnom Oudong past some ancient stupas that allegedly contain the ashes and spirits of former Kings. This time the steps were less steep and the assent easier, broken by some stupa exploration.

When we finally reached the top it was crowded with local Khmer but we managed to squeeze into a spot to marvel at the view which was a lot more water logged than the last time we saw it.

We took the kids underneath to the room with the hundred buddhas before descending the much steeper and more crowded steps at the front of the temple to the sounds Cambodian hiphop, from a portable boom box, into the carpark where Chunthy was waiting.

It wasn't until we got back to Phnom Penh that I was worked out it was the first day of Bonn Kathen (Kathin), which begins 15 days exactly after the final day of P'chum Ben, that we had witnessed. Bonn Kathen is a 29 day period at the end of vassa, the month of confinement of the monks (which includes P'chum Ben). During Bonn Kathen, which means 'offering saffron robes', monks exchange their old robes for new ones donated by members of neighbouring wats. It has the affect of not only earning merit for both parties in the exchange but also for strengthening and nurturing ties within the wider community. The donations can include not only new robes but also money to help in the maintenance of the wat, the grounds and the school. Apparently the merit points gained during this transaction are quite specific.

For the Bhikkhus, a fully ordained male monk, the merits include:
anamantacaro - the Bhikkhu can go anywhere without telling the other Bhikkhus asamadanacaro- the Bhikkhu can go anywhere without taking Tricivara (his robes) with him kanabhojanam- the Bhikkhu who serve the foods can call the name of those foods (in other words he can ask for what he wants to eat)
yavadatthacivaram - the Bhikkhu can keep or use the civara without vikabba and adhitdhana (determination and resolution ie being mindful about it)
yo catatthacivarubbado so ne sam bhavissati - the civaras (robes) happened in that avasa (monk house) will be for those bhikkhus (in other words they dont have to share their new robes with the other monks.

The donor too gets spiritual credit:
susanthanara - to have complete organs (I think that means in the next life!)
surubata - to be good looking or handsome
suvannata- to have good colour (not sure whether this is to do with health or with having the much sort after pale skin tone)
adhibaccambarivaro - to have many servants
and susurata- to have a sweet sound
And in addition the person who makes the 'right clothing' will 'avoid to be born' in the four least desirable places in the next life; the place of ghosts, of evils, hell and the place of wild animals (I think that means as a wild animal)

Plus the organizers of the ceremony are destined to be born into rich families.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A morning at the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh opens early which is just as well as there isn't much shade once you pay your 6USD entry fee and walk through the turnstile. The complex, Preah Barom Reachea Vaeng Chaktomuk in Khmer, was constructed nearly a century and a half ago as the residence of the King and his family and as a venue for the ritual symbolism of Cambodia- functions it still serves today. The Royal complex and grounds, surrounded by thick protective walls, consist of several buildings many of which have been replaced and expanded since its original installation opposite a busy riverfront park.

Not much other than distinctive golden Cambodian rooftop silhouettes and the fading painted ceiling of the Chanchhaya Pavillion hint at what lies behind the wall. Inside the noise, dirt and poverty of Cambodia's capital fades and Royal buildings sit like pretty pieces on an orderly chess board surrounded by wide swept paths and clipped, green hedges.

The Palace compound is divided into three main areas separated by more thick walls. The central space is dominated size wise by the Throne Hall but it is another much smaller building that immediately grabs your attention. Most of the buildings of the Royal Palace have distinctive traditional Khmer architectural features. One, however, stands out. A delicate silver dollhouse in a room full of boys toys. Its plaque says, in French, that it was a gift from Napoleon III in 1876 to the then King Norodom.

Originally created for Empress Eugenie to live in during the construction of the Suez Canal the prefabricated pressed iron building was later presented to Norodom and according to smug French Officials of the time it became the Kings favourite residence. They were equally self congratulatory that the doors and windows, which had already been etched with an 'N' for Napoleon, would not have to be replaced for 'N'-orodom.

Today it is rusting quietly in the humidity, it's visable ceilings peeling and cracking and is mostly closed although the guide book says it is used as an art gallery and houses a collection of oil paintings and family photos, some of the Royal wardrobe, a chart of the Royal Family tree, The Preah Moha Mokot Reach (The Great Crown of Victory), The Preah Khan Reach (The Sacred Sword), The Preah Lompeng Chey (The Victory Spear), The Kriss (The Dagger), The Preah Soporbatea (The Slippers) and The Veal Vichani (The Fan)!

Beside Napoleon's elaborate present is the Throne Hall, Preah Thineang Dheva Vinnichay in Khmer, which means 'The sacred seat of judgement'.

It is a huge cross shaped building crowned with three spires the tallest of which is topped with the four faced head of Brahma, the Hindu g-d of creation which you can see reflected in the windows of the Napoleon Pavillion in the first photo of this post. It gives the building an even more storybook like appearance that together with its already whimsical traditional Khmer features make you feel as if you've walked into the pages of a fairytale.

Here is a closer view.

The Royal Throne Hall is still used today, as it always was, for royal and religious ceremonies and as a meeting place for distinguished guests. Inside there is, as one would assume from it's title, a throne (actually two thrones) and a series of busts of past Kings of Cambodia.

On the wall, visible from the road outside, is the statuesque open air Chanchhaya Pavilion, also dreamily known as the 'Moonlight Pavilion', which serves as a venue for rare performances by the Royal dancers and as a platform for the King to address the crowds and watch the races on the river during Water Festival. In typical Cambodian style its ornately decorated ceilings are now faded and peeling, left largely to the elements.

The smaller Pho Chan pavillion has suffered a similar fate.

Two smaller buildings sit either side of the Throne Hall. One was open and had air conditioning, the only building on the compound to be artificially cooled, a welcome respite from the direct morning sun. Inside, in dusty glass cases, is an eclectic collection of Royal curios and Royal outfits.

On the the south-west of the Royal compound the Khemarin Palace, where the current King Shihamoni resides, is off limits to general riffraff and so instead it was through the poetically artistic gates to the Silver Pagoda...

...which isn't Silver at all on the outside but gets it's name from the 5 329 silver tiles, that line the pagoda's floor, protected by carpets. It's proper name is Wat Preah Keo Morokat, which means 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha,' after the central Green Crystal Buddha perched on a high gilded pedestal with a 90kg life size solid gold Buddha inlaid with 2086 diamonds, including a 25 carat monstrosity. But you are just going to have to take my word for it as, like the Throne Hall, there are no photos allowed inside.

The Silver Pagoda was built, in 1892, as a place inside palace grounds, where royalty could listen to sermons on Ubosoth- the 8 precepts of Buddha; no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying or slander, eating must be done at the prescribed times, 'worldly gifts' are to be avoided and the use of ointments is prohibted.

Cambodian Buddhism has changed markedly since then!

The pagoda compound, as a whole, contains several buildings surrounded by a mostly potted garden arranged on very hot reflective concrete. The other structures include a library, concrete moulded stupas or chedi, shrines, a bell tower and the galleries of the Reamker.

M and I walked around the muraled wall in the shade with the added protection of our shared umbrella.

The 604 metre fresco painted by a team of forty artists between 1903 and 1904 and is modelled on the Thai Ramakien murals of their Royal Palace and tell the story of the Reamker the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.

One of the shrines was open and further inspection revealed a rather happy, beautifully silk attired Khmer lady was having her fortune told.

She lit some incense, poked it into the mass of spent sticks in a pot outside and knelt in front of a large mostly silver effigy of Shiva's mount Nandi. The fortune teller handed her a sandlewood book which she held above her head and with eyes squeezed shut poked it's attached peg into the thin engraved pages.

The augur read the resulting fortune and she smiled broadly. By the third reading she was giggling and nodding vigorously.

The four stupas on the grounds are memorials to various Kings and Queens two contain Royal ashes.

It was getting hotter by the minute so we called it a day and retired a block or two down at the road at Cafe 33 for a round of Pink Cows and ice laden lime in tall cool glasses.