Road mantra

Temple in CambodiaDon’t look, don’t hesitate, do pray !

Siem Reap is quite flat which is a good thing especially when you rent bikes with no brakes and no horns!  But as WE have the right away in all circumstances and in all directions it didn’t seem to matter too much except that everyone else has the right away too. I kept pedalling away along the dusty ochre roads with Noa straddled on the back seat bouncing up and down with each bump as I chanted my road mantra ”Don’t look, don’t hesitate and do pray” over and over again.

Just before 7h00 through the main entrance,  we entered Angkor or ”Holy City”, the capital  of  Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire, a mystical masterpiece dating as far back as 802 AD with God – King (devaraja) Jayavarman II reigning.  A golden hallow of a rising sun filled the sky illuminating the 1.5km lotus sprinkled moat protecting the early 12th century royal temple of Angkor Wat comparable to the Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal and undeniably the Pyramids of Egypt. Under the power of King Suryavarman II, the protector of the sun, Angkor Wat with its perfect symmetry  is adorned with  three-tiered pyramids crowned by five lotus shaped pillars towering 65 meters into the heavens above. Oriented west, the direction symbolising death, this royal monastery was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu and was thought by many to be a funerary temple. Angkor Wat’s exterior walls are densely carved depicting mythological and historical Hindu epics.

From Angkor Wat we headed north beginning our 17 km tour on our rickety bikes with no brakes chanting our road mantra for protection. The  late 9th century Hindu hilltop temple, Phnom Bakhengof,  was our first stop, then cycled past Baksei Chamkrong’s single 12m tall brick tower built by King Harsharvarman I in the 10th century and onward toward Angkor Thom, built in the early 13th century. The paved path leading to the South Gate of Angkor Thom (meaning BIG City) tells a story, a mythic battle between demons and gods coined in the Hindu epic ”Churning of the Ocean of Milk”. Before the actual gate, we were escorted along a widen pathway lined with 54 giant stone gods to the left and 54 giant stone demons to the right (many beheaded during the civil war).  Funneling through the squeezed entrance of  the South Gate where dozens of  overloaded mini-vans, motorcycles, tuk tuks and the crazy ones on bikes with no brakes took turns passing.  The south gate, one of 5,  ascends vertically 20m and is crowned with the 4 faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the ”compassionate spirits” each  facing the cardinal directions under the construction of King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century.

Biking in Cambodia We zigzagged successfully through the bottle neck pedalling on a road that opened onto a long stretch of just more dust and bumps before tumbling upon the most divine and omniscient of the temples, BAYON,  clusters of 4 gigantic headed statues towering 15 meters into the heavens. Smack in the middle of Angkor Thom, we discover 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or as some contemporaries see them, replicas of the egotistical legendary King, Jayavarman VII himself. At almost any vantage point, a dozen or more heads are visible at any one time provoking a feeling of being watched or for those that see the glass half full, a feeling of being protected.. Mysterious, alive, serene, protecting and powerful, this Buddhist stone temple of the late 12th C.E. draws us into its trance. Coincidentally, Bayon, which we discovered later, symbolises ”between heaven and earth” ( the name of our yoga centre, for those that have forgotten).

Continuing on our way to Baphuon, the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas, Preah Palilay, Tep Pranam, the Preah Pithu, the Terrace of the Leper King and the Elephants, the Central Square, the North and South Kleang and the 12 Towers of Prasat and finally exiting through the Victory Gate of the eastern wall. Ta Prohm was our last extended temple stop. Made famous to westerners by Angelina Jolie casting in the film ”Tom Raider” and also the sentimental film ”Les deux Frères”, Ta Phrom is an intricate labyrinth of stone temples intertwined with overgrown silk cotton trees and massive fig. The overbearing roots seem to have taken over this Buddhist mid 12th C.E. temple which was dedicated to the mother (or possibly Mother Nature) of King Jayavarman VII. Ta Phrom is a display of  the power of nature, the desire of humans to conquer it and Mother Nature’s uncontrollable forces.

For a good cause

For a good causeThe River Garden makes wonderful breakfasts like most but served in an enclosed lush courtyard toward the back of the guest-house. The sun was already quite strong when we headed out on foot through the centre of town, across a few open air markets making our way dead east in search of the Green Gecko, a local NGO run by an Australian. We did receive some vague directions via our phone call and trusted that someone would be able to guide us along the way if lost. After an hour of following their directions ”walk  past  the local high school continue down the road, turn onto a dirt road half way down then make a right then a left then a right then a left and somewhere in the middle of rice paddies you will find us but there is no sign.”  We were lost, well kinda because I believe that one can’t get lost if one doesn’t know where one is going in the first place.

A huge storm was preparing, the wind picked up which is a tell all sign and sure enough within minutes, the sky was black pelting rain drops bigger than gummy bears onto the population below. We sought shelter in an open air movie theatre which I had mentioned in a previous mail is probably more interesting for a westerner than the movie (s) itself! Picture a thatched roof shading some 40-50 plastic lounge chairs occupied mostly by  men eating rice and dried fish, smoking strong tobacco and drinking coca cola. With 7-8 different TV screens (no flat plasma screens just a few 30″) blaring 7-8 different voices and 7-8 different images from Discovery Channel to Top Gun, there is choice and choice in this case gives one a major headache!

Storm came, storm went leaving only one obvious sign- water and lots of it! We never made it to the Green Gecko on foot, they had to come get us with a tuk tuk and as we ”turned onto a dirt road made a right and then a left and then a right and arrived in the middle of some rice paddies”. I realised that what seemed so simple to them was just so difficult to us. The Green Gecko Project is doing some amazing work. A Cambodian NGO working with street kids employing only Khmer staff. Sustainability is the key and so is respecting Khmer traditions.

”For a good cause”. There are so many ways to make a difference in Cambodia and certainly most other disadvantaged countries too. Give blood, shop responsibly, donate one’s time, one’s skills, one’s heart or one’s money. One can also dine or sleep in community aware cafés and guest houses. Every little act of goodness counts around the clock, around the heart, around the world.

You snooze, you loose

Women with flowersThe wheels on the bus go round n’ round and so does the same Cambodian film showing on the tiny screen above the driver’s head but that doesn’t seem to deter the passengers (nor us) from watching and re-watching. Outside, the clouds are forming dark overbearing masses as a rainstorm prepares itself to shower the countryside just below. Grey streaks mark the sky where rain presently falls.  I look out behind the pastel blue plastic curtain into the vastness where life seems totally undisturbed by the quarter size droplets of rain and the thunder that roars in the background. It is part of life. C’est tout!

While gazing out my little window watching the scenery jump from one image to another incapable of capturing the beauty of the countryside with my digital camera, I feel frustration. I yearn for time to stop,  just to take in what lays before but the speed of the bus makes the images flash by quicker and quicker and my frustration grows greater and greater. That feeling of yearning is a familiar one, one that keeps me from being totally in the moment much like that old saying goes ”you snooze, you lose”. I notice how grasping mentally to one fleeting image I miss out on the next, it cuts my breath in half, my jaw contracts and my thoughts pick up momentum. I remind myself ”there is no need”. I surrender, letting the fast moving images pass before my eyes absorbing each one individually and then just simply letting them go. Much like one watches the mental screen of the mind during a ”sit”, unattached, totally present and fully absorbed.

The rain did its thing, and by the time we arrived in Siem Reap the sky had fully cleared leaving large puddles of muddy water where dozens of children splashed  happily. Capitol dropped us and its 30 or so other passengers off by the Central Market only to be greeted by hoards of tuk tuk drivers all fighting for the the right to transport us to any given guest-house for 2 USD. A frenzy, like sharks savagely fighting for the same small piece of raw meat. We opted for the uncle of Philippe’s new best friend that he met on the bus which infuriated the other drivers to no means.

We were tired and filthy. Arriving at the River Garden was blissful. Off the road well travelled and away from modern noise we recharged our batteries.  Every little thing was graced with gratitude and planted in the present moment. The simple fact of breathing the freshness of clean air (after PP), open space, being received by a  familiar face, Deb, the co-owner of the guest house whom we had met last December, a tastefully decorated room large enough to house 2 Cambodian families of 10 and the welcoming sound of frogs croaking from a tiny pond placed just in front of our doorway.  The best of all, a shower. It is humbling to know that the simplest things (for some they remain monumental) in life can bring such pleasure and happiness.

Siem Reap holds a special place in our hearts. Its is mystical and beyond words. It is more a feeling and therefore loses all essence through words.

MarketConfidently, we strolled down the semi-paved road lined with wooden huts and lingering fires containing large metal pots brewing traditional Khmer soup ”samlor” in every fashion. The last hut at the top of the road just before the park was occupied by an old Khmer who spoke a bit of  conversational French. We first met him back in December. He was sitting crossed legged in front of his humble home. His face was marked by years of experience, war, loss, poverty, sickness and memory but his eyes remained open and friendly . During our brief visit, he would disappear for long moments to care for his bed ridden wife. She had spent days that turned into months suffering from some unknown illness. With medication hard to come by she suffered in the presence of her husband. He took out of his pocket an empty vial of some kind of pain killer that a backpacker had graciously left him. We offered to make a trip to the local pharmacy in search of something similar. Unfortunately without a prescription we were only able to provide something equivalent to Tylenol. It didn’t matter to him. He was gracious for what we had to offer. Months had passed since that chaleureux visit on one hot humid day in Siem and life in Switzerland had regained its force but our thoughts were often with him, his wife, his little shack and his warm smile. Today, almost  7 months later, we were eager to see him but the door to his hut was closed and only a dim light shown through the lose wooden slats that separated his world from the world outside. We decided not to disturb him nor his family and vowed to return before leaving Siem.

Into the darkness we walked hand in hand with a determined pace along the Siem Reap River until the lights of the city paved the way to Psar Chas, the Old Market, where restaurants and tuk tuk lined the crowded streets. We shared a delicious dinner of banana flower salad, shrimp curry, a Singha beer or two and some of the best home-made ice cream in the world from Pumpkins, ginger sesame, lime citronella sorbet and good old chocolate mint for Noa. With nightmares a thing of the past I finally slept a peacefuly night.

The beaten path

Beaten pathBreakfast at 6h30am and on a tuk tuk by 8h00, we headed north off the beaten path (actually this was the beaten path!!!!!) 30 km north to Sambor Prei Kuk, a cluster of pre-Angkorian ruins/temples that were heavily bombed by B52s during the civil war of the mid 70’s. There is truth in what one says ” it is the journey that counts, the destination is less inviting”. The journey to Sambor was an adventure. Again, being the ONLY tourist in sight  added and subtracted to and from the adventure. Deep into the countryside away from civilization as we know it, we were surrounded by stretches of rice fields speckled with a few wooden huts, groups of Khmer ankle deep planting rice, fishing in swampy muddy waters where random lotus flowers bloomed from beneath. Absent of any noise, trash or chaos life in the country seemed peaceful… where the time stood still.

The burnt orange stained dirt road to Sambor was heavily damaged with potholes larger and deeper than one could imagine. We passed through 2 villages of a dozen wooden shacks before arriving at the entrance in the middle of nothing  but a free standing shed with a rusty sign  ”tourist office” 3USD a person. Again, we were the ONLY tourists (slow season they said) and therefore greeted by a dozen local children each with a bundle of Kramas or scarfs in hand, all had exactly the same print and all selling them for the same price. How does one choose? We preferred their company and conversation in Khmer, French and English (they learn quickly picking up a phrase or two here and there from tourists when they do pass by. They even have the capitals of each country down to a T.)

The thickness of the forest made it difficult to find the ruins without the help of a guide who had worked extensively at the Angkor Conservation Centre (same as the Frenchman François Bizot whose life was spared by Douch during the Pol Pot regime). Although his English was still in the ”learning phase” we got the essential.100’s of small temples scattered through the forest yet only 3 are available for visiting as the remainder was damaged by heavy monsoon rains and bombardment by the Americans leaving crater like marks in the ground and remnants of brick and sand stone.The temples were dedicated to  Shiva, Bhrama and Vishnu, Shiva being the most venerated. HAving studied a bit of Sanskrit, we all enjoyed finding Garuda, Nandi, Naga, Vishnu, Hanuman, Rama, Sita, Teo (simba), Govinda and learned that the lions  (teo) used as gargoyles in front of the temple doors were only found on the east, north and south side- never the west as those that have died are buried with their heads pointing west and therefore absent of the control of the lion or mind/body.

Girl in grassA heavy rainstorm broke out keeping us from carrying onwards so we sought cover inside Shiva’s temple. The rain dropped from the sky falling like heavy beads flooding the grounds within minutes. And then, as fast as the storm had come, it quickly disappeared leaving a freshness in the air and pockets of blue sky. We regained our tuk tuk, had already said ”lia hao-y” to the groupies and the guide and expected to take off. The tuk tuk spit and puffed inching its way forward. With a good hour ahead of bumpy muddy roads and little life, Noa and I gave each other one of those looks. Thanks to Vishnu for preservation,Lakshimi for luck, Bhrama for creation and Philippe for restoration we were on our way careless and happy all the way home.

We arrived in Kompong Thom covered in mud, our hair (Noa’s and mine cause Philippe’s is just a wee bit short) matted and tangled from the rain and the wind,  thorns adorned our baggy pants poking the skin but we didn’t care. We just wanted to make our friendly bus Capitol, the local local bus to Siem Reap and were so grateful when we did!. We were a sight and lucky that they let us board the bus.

Off to wondrous Siem Reap housing Angkor Wat, others worth gold and most of all  our all time favorite BAYON which ironically symbolizes “between heaven and earth, Entre ciel & terre!!!!!”

Lia hao-y and be grateful for everything!!!

The local, local bus

Local bus Capitol, the name of the local local bus, leaves every day at 7h30, 8h30 and 11h30 from the Central Market. Luckily, our fantastic suitcases could be instantly transformed into comfortable backpacks making mobility a bit easier. We hopped on the crowed bus, quite rudimentary but luxurious as it had a TV just above the driver’s head. I silently prayed that he had seen the film a 100 times and was more interested in the road than the beautiful Cambodians dancing about. The seats were covered in a cheap plastic of various shades of blue and red but had the amazing ability to fold back into a semi reclining position which made sleep come easily. BA, Air France, AA and the rest of the airline companies could learn something about the importance of comfort for their passengers! The ride was quite painless. Three hours of occasional bumps, endless open fields of emerald green rice paddies, stilted makeshift huts of bamboo and palm, lots of horn honking and cell phone ringing. We overtook tuk tuks, water bulls pulling wooden carts, hoards of bicycles, Lexus, lots of motor cycles and vespas and even a few stray dogs.

The bus dropped us off on the main strip of Kompong Thom which runs through the town and continues on to Siem Reap. During the mid-70’s, this road was severed by heavy bombing in-order to eradicate all contact and mobility between Siem and PP. Surprisingly, we were the only passengers that descended from the bus, which one might consider as not such a good sign. Kampong Thum, is well, sans intérêt to say the least. Off the main-strip, there are a few unpaved roads cluttered with trash, an outside food market, a school or two, 2 enormous trees housing thousands of gigantic oversized bats, a few restaurants and two hotels. Zero charm and super eery especially as we were the ONLY tourists at that particular moment. All eyes were on us especially Noa and in fact his  popularity sky rocketed making him the most intriguing girl/boy (they couldn’t quite make him out) in town. Even the mosquitos loved him!

Hot and overly spent, we found a hotel for 8USD a night. We were their ONLY guests in this huge concrete block which made the experience even more bizarre. Within 15 minutes we had ”done” the town and searched for a restaurant. On a small side street we found Larry, an American living in PP commuting every weekend to oversee his café serving 12 or so items varying  from traditional amok to pizza which all needs to be pre-ordered hours in advance.  Larry’s wife wrote down the ingredients for our order. We made it simple- 3 steamed rice and Khmer curry with fish. Different then anything that we had ever had. A fusion between Indian and Khmer with the sweet taste of licorice. Supposedly, this recipe had been passed down from her great great great grandmother from some faraway village.

Woman with girlAs the sun made its descent, dusk fell quickly upon Kompong Thom creating a soft attractive glow. Groups of elderly women all dressed in boxy button-down pajamas set out on foot for their evening exercise. Marching with synchronized short determined steps their arms swayed exaggeratedly along their sides casting obscure shadows on the cracked pavement below. They innocently giggled as our gaze caught theirs but continued without wavering. Little did we know but these boxy button-down pajamas either in brightly colored prints of well known icons (Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, Tintin) or the poke-a-dotted ones in flowery pastels had become a real fashion statement here in Kompong Thom. From the very young to the respected old, at 10h00, midday or for their evening walk everyone was dressed in these stylish ensembles. It appeared that the only criteria in making them a true fashion statement was that the top and the bottom HAD to match. I hesitated on buying an ensemble but realized that Philippe and Noa would have certainly left me to die in Kompong Thom, not really the place that I wanted to be.

We must say that that night was far from enjoyable. Our 8$ room was worth no more than 2$. Actually, I think that it would have been more appropriate if they would have paid us to stay there! A square with no window and no air, we felt like we had been buried alive. The night was suffocating, uncomfortable, a bit scary with strange noises, calls of geckos and howls of dogs. I wished that I had now agreed for the upgraded room (10 USD) with air-con. We might have slept in bits but no more than 92 minutes total. All we could think of was morning.

Lia hai

Sua s’dei!

Not quite sure what day of the week it is as the hours and even seconds seem to melt into one another creating experiences that are beyond time. Up too early to mention with the ritual gong of metal pots awakening the monks for their morning prayers, my mind spins with thoughts of the girls. We leave today and I feel torn. This short time with them has changed us all and we yearn for it to last. As Noa continues to sleep silently by my side and Phiippe stirring from my restlessness, I slip from under the single sheet, dress quickly, and descend the steep spiral staircase in search of Arun, by all means the nicest and most humble of our hosts- a replica of a Buddhist monk without the orange robe. He greets me with the traditional ”sua sdei”, hands pressed together in prayer in front of the heart.

By bicycleThe rest of the world appears to be in deep slumber until I make my way out onto the large avenue Norodom Blvd via tuk tuk. Pi, the tuk tuk driver who calls me ”my friend” swiftly maneuvers his rusty vehicle through the insane early morning traffic reaching Transitional Cambodia  just before 7-am. Jaya and a handful of the girls greet me at the entrance, eager for a hug and to show me their rooms. Unlike the other shelters that we spent time in, Transitional Cambodia was simple but spotless. Three to a tiny room, each with their own shelf for their personal possessions and the luxury of a toilet!  They have a full schedule of cleaning their space, Khmer and English classes as well as computer and arts and crafts. The girls each have their own yoga mat and a sacred space with pictures of yoga positions pasted on the wall. They learn to develop curiosity, independence and responsibility in hopes that one day they will be able to care for themselves without the risk of returning to drugs and prostitution. N.Y, C.T, D.C, (names are concealed for protection), and Dara are seriously  interested in continuing their yoga studies and hope to teach in their spare hours. For this, we would like to develop a sponsorship program for teaching yoga. I had tears and a torn heart saying good-bye to these angels.

Gril of Cambodia

Sandwiched between Jaya and Dara, we spun through the crowded streets on Dara’s motor cycle (a first in a long time). Thankfully Dara’s long black silky hair waved wildly in my face keeping me from seeing and wanting to control the craziness ahead. Between honks and touts, I listened to Jaya’s  ”story” of her early life and that of some of the girls.. We parted with a few tears and promised to keep in touch ”lia hai, lia hai”.

Philippe and Noa were upstairs on the terrace savouring hot ginger tea, sweet banana pancakes, exotic fruit salad and lemon mint ice shakes. I arrived just in time for the best (well one of the best) meals of the day! Isabelle and Dara met us for the feast while sharing some last minute ideas for future work with us and the girls. We were sad to say good bye but had a bus to catch and an adventurous one at that.

A roller coaster

Yoga classYoga class has been scheduled daily at 16h00. Our days seem to revolve around this magical time and everything that we choose to do before paves the road to Street N°302 where Nataraj is found. Every day we extend the classes a bit more now up to 2.5 hours and even this doesn’t seem to leave us with enough time. There is much to share with them as they are so eager to learn. We have incorporated pranayama, meditation and finally some partner work which is the most challenging due to their past history where touch was associated with negativity. There is progress, an enormous amount, especially in their attitudes and their level of confidence. Feeling more and more at ease, they allow themselves to be guided  into some challenging asanas and  situations which are met with humour. Most of all, we are having fun and taking time getting to know each other a little more. I feel a bit uncomfortable knowing that in a short time we will be on our way and the moment will come when we will have to say good-bye.

After having removed the water tank from the roof top of the yoga centre,  the owner of the building connected the water system with that of the city’s causing high levels of pressure in the pipes and extensive damage to the toilets. Feet and hands soaked, Philippe repaired some leaky pipes, dismantled the existing system, installed a new system which hopefully ameliorated the evacuation of water and will be sustainable .

Aimlessly strolling through the crowed and not so crowded back streets of PP, we spend pockets of time in Psar Thmei (the Central or New Market) where everything from live frogs waiting to be skinned to fake name-brand watches are for sell. This market is far from the most economic but hosts a few excellent food stalls for lunch and amazing picture opportunities. We stumble upon Psar Tuol Tom Pong, known as the Russian Market specializing in copied Western clothing  and sold at a tenth of the price but it turns out that  Psar Chaa is where Philippe was able to supply his traveling tool chest with necessary pipes and gadgets. A worthwhile visit to the Angkor National Museum, leisurely lunches (our favorites being spicy banana flower salad, spicy papaya and mango salad with shrimp and rice paper vegetable  spring rolls with crushed peanuts in a transparent spicy liquid) in hidden garden courtyards at Friends, Boddhi Tree, BT Del Gusto, Aram (to mention a few), many run by aid organizations supporting Cambodian social programs where the proceeds of every meal go to former street kids for their schooling and some of these cafés even employ the older ones for a valuable work experience. In fact, we learned that there are more NGOs per sq. capita than anywhere else in the world and it seems rightful as 85% of the Cambodian population lives off of less than 32 cents a day making it one of the poorest countries in the world and the most under developed in Asia.

Noa with the childrenYesterday Noa  gave his first yoga class with the help of Dara to a group of children from the Klein Kleang orphanage which we visited later in the day. Twelve kids, most smaller in size than Noa but all older in age arranged themselves on their mats in a awkward circle ready to begin. Not once was it necessary to display discipline or order. They moved in and out of asanas with soft smiles and concentrated gazes. Noa taught them 1,2,3 Mother Hen (1,2,3 Soleil) which became ”muy, pii, bei pria aatuht”, cobra, tree, eagle and mountain. They had so much fun and I think Noa and Dara did too! These kids seemed considerably more disadvantaged than the girls that I teach every afternoon and we were soon to discover their ”home”. After a long search, no apparent web site exists.

After class we headed across the city, over the bridge above the muddy waters of the Tonlé Sap, down some bumpy dirt roads, passed small children chasing butterflies and finally arriving at Klein Kleang Centre orphanage occupying an abandoned church and its quarters for their clergy. This run down site was depressing, almost shocking, resembling a war zone. The kids of all ages were dirty, dressed in tattered clothes, flimsy thongs on bits of broken bricks and bits of odd trash with strong smells of urine and other unpleasant odours permeating  the air. The grandeur of the orphanage and the feeling of hollowness  was comparable to the site of S21. Six to a bed, 30 to a room, 150 in total, mixed ages and sexes and with no visible supervision . No one to greet us, no one seemed to be in charge, no organization just an uncomfortable feeling of loneliness and despair. Except for the colourful murals of children painted on a few random concrete walls and the narrative tour from beautiful Dara who had lived there for numerous years until just recently before moving to Nataraj Yoga Centre for convenience and comfort, the place was overwhelming to the naked eye. It wasn’t the level of poverty but more the feeling of emptiness that prevailed and uncomfortably touched the heart and soul.  I guess the best thing is that for the past year a handful of these kids make it via tuk tuk once a week for yoga sponsored by our friend and yoga teacher Estelle from Jivamukti and yoga teacher, Mia. There is always something that can be done.

I have decided that visiting Cambodia is like riding a roller coaster. At first there is great apprehension, butterflies in the stomach, not knowing what to expect, even moments of doubt. Then, once decided and installed in your seat with no chance of exiting, you go with the flow and it becomes doable even exciting until reaching the next summit where doubt and apprehension reoccur before plunging into whatever will come next. A mixture of not knowing, excitement, stimulation, apprehension, adventure and joy! That is Cambodia for you on a limb.

Tomorrow is our last day in PP before taking a local bus to Kampong Thum which is situated half way from here to Siem Reap. Supposedly there are some pre-Angkorian temples there hidden in the lush forests that are worth seeing. We will miss the girls and the kids but are looking forward to a bit of quietness and down time. PP resumed in a nut shell – ”sans intérêt”, big heart, hot and suffocating, chaotic in every sense, polluted, welcoming and just wonderful. The girls and the kids made PP worth every single second!

Same, same but very different

Sunday morning activity on the shores of the muddy Mekong, selling ”freedom” of baby sparrows for a dollar a pair.

A pay phone on the main strip- a young boy sits in a plastic chair besides a metal booth with a cell phone waiting. One gets the shelter, the live contact and the opportunity to call home for  few 1000 riels.

Chickens slaughtered in the local market, boiled possibly alive after collecting their blood into tiny porcelain bowls for… don’t think I wanna know.

Noa with chicken

Re-electing the same political party CPP that has been in office since 1985 and is responsible for most of the country’s corruption and poverty.

Having to pay to go to school and get a descent job but not receiving a pay check at the end of the month.

While visiting S21 (the school turned into a torture camp during the war) where  a sign is posted everywhere reminding visitors not to smile or laugh!

Loading as many people, things and even a motor cycle on any moving vehicle.

The local movie theater- a large open air  restaurant with a thatched roof, 7-8 TVs going at once and good 40 plastic lounge chairs with mostly men. You can smoke, eat whatever you choose and drink but NO alcohol.

When it comes to the road. YOU have the right away whether you are on foot, in a wheel chair, a tuk tuk, a bike, a rickshaw, a motor cycle, a Lexus or a bus; and so does everyone else!!! The motto when stepping of the sidewalk Don’t look, don’t hesitate and do pray!

Caging one’s laundry can be quite beneficial when it comes to  avoiding theft except when it cages you.

The grass is always greener on the other side. Women of all ages are masked, covered from head to toe despite the intense heat, purchasing, for the very few that can, whitening creams.

Their banks are found in garages, pharmacies, hardware stalls. A  case of single paned glass with a mixture of all denominations and currency from the 4 corners of the world.

Same, same but very different!

Want what you have

The chaotic frenzy of every day life which continuously assaults the 5 senses was at a standstill today (election day). An almost eery silence had taken over PP. Even the scorching sun had disappeared behind a thick blanket of grey clouds spitting an an occasional light rain onto life below. The wind had picked up momentum dancing rubbish in all directions. All life seemed to move in slow motion, us included.

We slept in, just making it for breakfast and then took hours of nothingness before leaving our guest house. Not really sure what to do or where to go, we wandered aimlessly through the back-roads where pockets of life could still be observed. The emptiness of the city made it easy to move about. By 13h00 we arrived at the Central Market which  was surprisingly more than half empty. We split up. Philippe and Noa searched for tools, scoring a kit for a total of 20USD. I purchased a bag of sweets made of  local fruit for the kids and met up for grilled squid at one of the open stalls.

Want what you haveBy 15h00 we had made it back to the orphanage and again were religiously greeted by a herd of hugs and warm smiles from 20 something kids. Another young couple was already there  sorting  a large box of medicine mostly outdated and missing instruction. There seems to be a thin line between their carefree way of going about not knowing and a real need for assistance from the outside world. They amazingly manage quite well with virtually nothing and paradoxically, aid from the outside seems to complicate their simplicity as they know it. With choice, with ”things” to desire because they are there at arms reach, with medication that they know nothing about life becomes complicated. ”Want what you have and you have what you want” is most certainly the best motto to live by in this culture; and most certainly in ours too!

Today yoga class began at 16h15, a good 45 minutes earlier than yesterday. The girls arrived eager bringing along Jaya, the director of the home. Class was light and playful with frequent visits from Noa and a few stray cats. We practised for 2.5 hours and towards the end all managed hand stand for a few quick deep breaths. They are incredibly grateful and loveable and most of all courageously fighting the demons of their past. I have finally managed to remember their names (for me more like unfamiliar sounds), which is essential in restoring their identity and for me connecting with a perosn, each one with a story of her own, a heart and a chance to be something, be someone. With more hugs than one would know what to do with, the 12 of them squeezed into a tuk tuk for 4 and headed off into the balmy evening hopefully a little happier, a little lighter.

There are success stories and thankfully many. We met Shrey Neth at the yoga centre, a spikey girl half my weight and 3/4 my height with a face of an angel. She greets me daily with ‘’hey, sweety!’’and a big squeeze,  just enough sugar to melt your heart. Shrey Neth was sold into prostitution by her mother at the young age of 14 for a mere 300USD. For months, young Neth was forced into sex acts on a daily basis, physically beaten and emotionally abuse, eventually contracting HIV. Neth was left without any hope for the future. Hope made its way to Sry Neth when a human rights undercover effort recued her and placed her on a path of healing and opportunity. thanks to the guidance, counseling, training and support offered to her by Transitions Cambodia and the Transitional Living Centre she has reagianed her destiny. Neths’ dream was to become a teacher, and she is now working as a employee and international spokesperson. Each day Neth’s voice ressonates with the girls that shehlpes consel and console and the people she can make aware of this world-wide atrocity.

So until soon, may you be well, want what you have and drop us a line when you have a moment.

Home sweet home

Political elections in CambodiaExcitement is in the air with the upcoming election this Sunday. Many of the streets are blocked off with rallies and political speeches causing an over abundance of traffic and chaos. Phnom Penh is far from a quiet haven for R and R. In fact, I have slept little.

Yesterday was spent at the yoga centre. Noa and Philippe investigated the broken down plumbing system in search of a simple way to ameliorate and me, upstairs with 12 teenage girls in the open air space assisting Dara who translated and Isabelle who taught. The girls are amazingly grateful and surprisingly devoted. All are victims of sexual exploitation and live securely in the local shelter of Transitions Cambodia. This heroic non-profit organization founded and directed by American James Pond, focuses on transitional living, assisting young women that have been sexually trafficked, exploited and abused in the process of healing and rebuilding their lives. Their web site alone will get you hooked but wait until you meet the girls!

Isabelle’s class with help from Dara was wonderful and I was surprised by their demonstration of concentration and devotion. Though we were unable to verbally communicate the current passed through warm smiles of respect and understanding. As of tomorrow, I will be on my own teaching the girls daily. I am looking forward to it!

We visited the Killing Fields late morning, which has only contributed, to my sleepless nights and uneasiness. It is unfathomable that such atrocities could occur in our time or any time for that matter!!

Jessica with the children of Cambodia

With a cloth bag thrown over our shoulders tightly filled with clothes and toys, we set out on foot in search of a small local orphanage called NACA. Devastated by political instability and the horrific Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970’s which murdered over 2 million Cambodians resulting in hundreds of thousands of children without parents or those too handicapped or poor to care for them Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. We learned the startling fact that over half of this countries population is under 18 and many crippled by Aids, poverty and illiteracy so where is their future? NACA in its simplicity offers kids with a splintered life a chance, a chance at life, a safe place to sleep, meals, love and happiness. They, like most organizations rely on donations, as the Cambodian government shows little if no support. Make sure you pick up one of their business cards before leaving. On the flip side there is an undescriptive map with a picture of a few faces from NACA under “orphanage” but sandwiched between them and the famous French Embassy there is in tiny print “another orphanage”. Why complicate things? Do as they do. There is enough to go around.

Hours later, covered in dirt and sweat we fell upon a thatched roof makeshift home housing 29 young kids with the most gorgeous smiles and warmest hearts ever to be seen. They welcomed us in herds with hugs and laughter. We spent hours in their presence, visiting their ”home” and their tiny cots sleeping 3 to 4. We handed over the treasures to the head master but what interested the kids even more was receiving our attention, our presence, our ears and our hugs. They surprised us with traditional Khmer music and dance. It was most touching. We will certainly return being that besides the centre and the orphanage, PP lacks interest.

Phil and Noa found the necessary pipes and tools for their project. It was like finding a needle in a haystack!!! Sure wouldn’t want to have to remodel a home here!