Thursday, 29 November 2012

Cambodia Day 2: Angkor Wat and a Village Tour

Written by both Jennifer and Jason

Day two started bright and early with a 7:15am breakfast in the hotel restaurant.  Because of the small size of Journeys Within (JW), guests are asked to select their menu items the night before, so the staff can shop appropriately.   Speaking of the staff, at breakfast we were introduced to one of our favorite JW staff members, a young woman named Rath, who waited on guests in the small restaurant and at the adjoining pool.  She was sweet-natured, friendly, and took tremendous pride in providing great service and getting to know us and our kids.  We truly enjoyed our interactions with her during the trip, and I admit I shed a tear saying goodbye. 

The restaurant
After some pancakes (Cooper), omelet (me) and banana and chocolate crepes (Jason and Sophia), we headed to the lobby to meet our guide and driver for our first tour - Angkor Wat.  I committed my first faux pas (I *hope* my only actually) by wearing shorts.  I had researched the customs, but I had read that "short shorts" weren't allowed, so brought shorts that came right to my knees.  Come to find out, women have to cover their knees and shoulders (had that covered...literally!).  I was not a happy camper at first, until I realized I just couldn't go to the top level of the temple.  With the searing heat, I would gladly exchange climbing an additional level for the comfort of shorts (*relative* comfort). 

So we took off for Angkor Wat with yet another of the friendly JW staff - this time, our temple guide, Sovann.  Sovann, we quickly learned, has two children of his own, but also has FOUR adopted orphans and a baby on the way, all aged 12 and under.  He works as hard as he can to pay for special schooling so all of his children learn English and computers.  He talked more than once about how much he wishes he could buy a second-hand computer for his family so they could practice outside of school, but something like that is far out of reach.  The schooling alone is a huge stretch, financially.  While he was talking, I think I felt physical pangs of guilt thinking about all the laptops in our family.

I find it difficult on these vacations (not only witnessing the poverty) but realizing that I might never return.  Not because I don't want to, but I am a realist.  Cambodia is probably a 24 hour flight from the United States, and I doubt I will ever live in Southeast Asia again.  It is a very empty feeling to say goodbye to these people that you meet for such a short time but feel very fond of.

But rather than dwell on my over-emotional side, let's move on to Angkor Wat....

"Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. The temple was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yasodharapura, the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.  In the late 13th century, it changed from Hindu to Buddhist use." (thank you, Wikipedia)

The complex is enormous!  It's completely surrounded by a moat, followed by a sandstone wall with multiple entrances (one for the king and queen, two for the nobility, and two more for the unwashed masses).  Once inside this exterior wall, the temple itself is still a few hundred yards away! 


Sovann led us around, providing just enough information to keep us interested but not overwhelmed, and took us to the best picture-taking spots.  Cooper and Sophia had fun climbing the rocks and narrow steps throughout the complex.  Along the way, we met some (umm...randy) monkeys and passed by many Buddhist monks.  It was amazing to think of how this massive structure was engineered and built so long ago, and just how long it has survived, especially with major damage in the mid 1970s from a war (more on that later).  I think we were all quite awestruck.  Seeing the kids in the pictures really put the size in perspective!

Our next activity was just down the road from Angkor Wat.  We ascended into the sky on a tethered hot-air balloon to see the temples from above.  This was such a great idea as it really gave you a perspective on the land - basically just neverending rice paddies and people working them.   And cows.  Cows everywhere.  While everyone was trying to view Angkor Wat, I stayed on the opposite side of the balloon from everyone else - I was a little creeped out by the slight tipping to one side by everyone's weight!

After the balloon, we were ready for lunch and a break.  Our driver dropped us back at the hotel for a short rest and we ate at the pool and went for a quick swim.  Cooper was soooo happy to have his usual chicken fingers and french fries, and I was delighted with my spring rolls.  I am pretty sure I could live on spring rolls.  (and vegetable ones at that....shocking if you know me!)  The fried yellow noodle with chicken was also excellent.  Check out the pool menu - notably the local favorites section!  I was really bummed that snake was only available in the evening, because I was REALLY craving it at lunch.

We will be talking about Sovann a lot more in the next posts, but please visit his website or email him at if you are interested in his services.  We highly recommend him!


At 2:00pm our driver was back, but with a new guide, Sothy ("So-tee").  His job was to take us to his village to meet some of his family and see how they live.  This was easily the most emotional part of the trip.  After about 15 minutes on a regular road, we turned onto a dirt road that was close to undrivable due to huge holes and bumps left behind when the area inevitably floods every wet season.  At one point we passed a man on a motorbike with dead pigs as cargo.  What was to come was starting to become quite clear.  And I admittedly started to get anxious.  See, I cannot hold in emotion.  Call it a weakness, call it a strength, but I call it annoying.  Thank goodness for sunglasses.

The most profound moment of the entire trip came as we drove down this dirt road.  Sothy, in a matter-of-fact way, told us that when he was younger, not many kids attended school in this village.  Not because they didn't have a school or couldn't find teachers - rather, because all of the previous teachers had been tracked down and murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime.

What he is referring to took place mainly between 1976 and 1979 (the genocide part, the violence and fighting lasted many, many more years), when a communist party called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, drove everyone out of the cities and into country labor camps to work the land basically as slaves.  They executed almost all teachers (95%) and doctors (75%), in fact, anyone with an education, links to law enforcement, the previous government, disabled people, and minorities.  Many times the entire family would be killed.  The only way to survive was to pretend to be a farmer, but no matter who you were your chances were slim.  Children were torn from their parents, trained as soldiers, and took part in torture and execution.  By the end of the reign, approximately 2 million Cambodians died - about half by execution and the rest by starvation and disease.  Did I mention this was in the 70s?  While I was happily playing with my dolls, a quarter of the population of an entire country was being wiped out by monsters.  The world at first mostly denied it was happening, then when it could no longer be denied, largely ignored it. 
After a few more minutes of being tossed around the van by the bumpy road, Sothy motioned for the driver to pull over, and we started walking. Sothy was a 36-year old, very pleasant man who came from a family of nine kids.  He has four of his own (I think). His entire family lived in this village, but he had recently moved to another one with his wife and children so he could be much closer to work. He spoke the best English of anyone I met in Cambodia, and from the moment we entered his village, his pride in it was undeniable.  To make ends meet, he worked as a guide, a rice processor, a mason and sometimes fisherman.  (Kelly S - if you read this, we called him the Kurt of Cambodia since he wore so many hats!)

As we ambled along the road, we got a good look at the most common type of housing in Cambodia - open air wood structures with thatched roofs.  People sleep on wood slats or in hammocks.  There is no electricity, no plumbing, and just well water (rarely filtered).  Rice farming is the primary business - rice is grown, it is processed (Sothy owns the only machine in the village and allows others to use it), made into rice wine (see pic), rice noodles, rice milk - you name it.  The people literally work all day at whatever they can.  Livestock are everywhere and live under the wood structures (i.e. the bottom floor of the home).  They still use oxcarts to farm the land.  It is almost the same way they have been living for hundreds of years, if not a thousand. 

Rice wine in process
A bridge to Sothy's old house

A few stats about the country:
  • 80% have no electricity
  • The child mortality rate is 10%
  • 75% get dysentery EVERY year
  • 40% of children have stunted growth due to malnutrition
With the exception of a few cars and motorbikes in the village, there are few technological advances reminiscent of the modern world.  The one connection we all seem to have these days though is a mobile phone.  Phone cards are very inexpensive there, so almost everyone has one.  TVs are not common, but some people have one hooked up to a battery generator.

During our walk through the village, we met Sothy's mom, grandmother, some sisters and a baby nephew.  As we passed by a very festive wedding reception (lots of beer cans and lots of dancing - we are not that different in some ways!), we also met his grandfather (or uncle, I'm not sure since he has soooo many relatives!) who was wearing a police uniform.  At first, we didn't notice, but were informed by Sothy that this man had both of his legs blown off by landmines.  I say this so bluntly, because that's precisely how Sothy communicated it to us. The Khmer Rouge planted thousands of these mines, without drawing maps, to keep the people from running away.  They are still being uncovered by unfortunate Cambodians. 

While walking through the reception, an older lady approached us, smiled, and gave Sophia a little kiss on the cheek.  This was the second time this had happened since we arrived.  It became apparent that few people in Cambodia had ever seen a blond girl!  I was happy that Sophia took it in stride, because the lady had the biggest smile on her face.

Throughout the village, there were young children playing or working around their homes.  Many of them stopped to watch us walk by or ran up to say hello, wave and practice the little English they knew.  They were such adorable children and were so interested to see what we were doing in their village.  Eventually, I asked to take a picture of a few young sisters who I had seen more than once. They smiled for me and then were excited to see it on the screen (not sure they had ever seen that).  I just love this picture Jason took of me after I showed it to them. 

After a full loop through the village, and a glimpse into just how primitive and difficult life is for so many, we made our way back toward Journeys Within.  Sothy led us along an overgrown, unmarked trail to the manmade lake that bordered the village and we took a small boat to the other side, where our driver was waiting for us.  When we got back to the hotel, I just looked at Jason and said, "I don't even know what to say."

I still don't really know what to say.

If you'd like to comment, please do.  We love to hear from our readers.

If you are looking for a new book to read, please consider "First They Killed My Father" by Loung Ung.  The link is to  It helps to understand the rule of the Khmer Rouge, and it is a book you will read in 1-2 days.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Our Cambodia Adventure - Day 1

I don't even know where to begin with this round of posts.  This trip was the most eye-opening, humbling experience of my life.  It was fun, heartwarming and heartbreaking all rolled into one, which is a strange mix of emotions to feel over the course of only three days.  I felt elated (meeting the wonderful people), exhausted (climbing temples) and at times on the edge of a nervous breakdown (witnessing the living conditions).  I hope I can write in a way that will paint a vivid picture of this interesting and tragic country. 

Travel from Singapore to Siem Reap was completely uneventful.  It is only a 2-hr flight and we quickly got through immigration since we had electronic visas.  I highly recommend applying on their website to avoid standing in a line upon arrival.  A friendly driver (who spoke no English) held the usual sign with our name on it, loaded up our baggage and we were on our way to the hotel.  Along the short route we saw many large hotels and the usual spattering of stores, bodega-type stands and small restaurants catering to the locals.  And of course, lots of motorbikes and tuk tuks - many overflowing with 3 or 4 passengers sharing a single bike seat. Very few (including young children) wearing helmets.

After a 15-minute ride, we pulled into a very non-descript driveway to what would be our home for the weekend.  The lobby building looked like a beautiful British Colonial house.  Our first greeting came from the resident dog, Tuna.  Cooper and Sophia, to no one's surprise, ran right to the pup and fell instantly in love.  Alex, an intern manager and recent college graduate from Chicago, came out (barefoot and with a very casual way about him) and welcomed us to the Journeys Within Boutique Hotel.  The American owners, Brandon and Andrea, were away so he was in charge. We sat down at a table in the small lobby, were served some fresh pineapple juice and got the lay of the land.   Once we were shown to our room, we were able to relax and really survey our surroundings.  The boutique hotel has only ten rooms, and we occupied two of them (adjoining).  The kids' room had two double beds, ours had a king and we both had large bathrooms with awesome showers.  A balcony ran across the length of both and overlooked the pool.  The rooms were spotless and very tastefully decorated - overall, just very comfortable.  Complimentary laptops were in each room, as well as air conditioning, ceiling fans and TVs on the wall.  Bottled water and sodas were available at no charge from the mini-fridge (unlimited).  Wifi was easily accessed anywhere on the grounds.

Since I have SO much to write, even after dividing up the trip into multiple posts, I will let the pictures speak for themselves.  Journeys Within truly was our little piece of paradise that, after hours of sightseeing in the blisteringly hot climate, we were relieved to return to every day.

I also wanted to mention the school that Journeys Within runs.  They owners of the hotel truly have given back to the community with the creation of several community programs including two schools, one in Cambodia and one in Laos. No matter how eager students are, poor facilities and resources prevent the children of Cambodia from receiving a quality education.  Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC) gives over 700 children a chance to learn English and have a chance at a higher education.  Those that do not continue still learn valuable vocations that will help them lead more productive lives.  Due to the school's schedule and our crazy itinerary, we did not get a chance to visit the children at JWOC, but we did exchange waves and smiles a couple times a day with many of the students, who were so excited to see our kids! 

Since we arrived late afternoon, we let Sophia and Cooper go swimming while we enjoyed a couple of beers.  As with everywhere we visit, we chose the local beer, Angkor in this instance.  Over the next few days, we would get to know Angkor very well!  After a couple of hours, and now fully refreshed, we cleaned up and headed by tuk tuk (hotel offers free rides nightly) into the town of Siem Reap for dinner.

The main tourist area of Siem Reap is Pub Street.  In a country where 80% of the population has no electricity, Pub Street clearly stands out.  Brightly lit shop signs and flashing neon are abundant, as are unique local shops and restaurants, all pretty well blocked off from traffic.  There are restaurants with all kinds of cuisine, western included, and we chose a two-story restaurtant called the Red Piano.

At the time I did not know this, but the Red Piano is now known as the hangout of Angelina Jolie when she was in Siem Reap filming Tomb Raider.  As has been our experience in all Southeast Asian countries, the service here was excellent.  We wanted to sit overlooking Pub Street, but all tables along the balcony edge were taken so we settled on an inside table. Moments later, as soon as a couple left a table on the railing, the staff motioned for us to move over and enjoy the view.  We also had two servers at all times ready and waiting to help us with our needs.  When the bill came we were shocked.  Two beers, two glasses of wine and four adult-sized entrees totaled $27 USD.  (The US dollar is used as the main currency, there is also the Cambodian Riel)  The same dinner in Singapore would have cost at least $150.

Batman Tuk Tuk!
We had wanted to shop at the night market after dinner, but a sleepy Cooper thwarted our plans!  His falling asleep in public is starting to become quite a theme!  It almost deserves its own blog.  First he fell asleep at the table, then on Jason's shoulder and finally in the tuk tuk back to the hotel. 

Finally, I wanted to comment on our tuk tuk driver.  His name was Moang Moal (Mo for short) and he was very friendly, and easy to spot with his pink helmet!  We got his card and ended up calling him every evening to take us out and bring us home.  If anyone runs across this blog and is heading to Siem Reap, please call/text him at (+855) 97 60 29 493 or email him at!

Next time I'll get to some of the good stuff - the temples!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

It's Time for a Tiger!

Beer – a beverage that transcends cultures, ignores borders, speaks all languages, and….tastes really good on a hot day.  
There are some things I miss from the US and can’t easily find in Singapore, but American beer is not one of them.   Though the price of beer is ridiculously high here, there are numerous regional brands from which to choose – as well as a wide variety from all around the world.  Heck, you can pick up a six pack of Budweiser at the grocery store (for $20) if you’re really homesick.

For me, I’ve tried to enjoy what is not readily available back in the US, and have discovered some new favorites such as Singha (Thailand), Asahi (Japan), San Miguel (Philippines) and Bintang (Indonesia), with the latter being my favorite…albeit not often available in Singapore.  There are also several micro-breweries on the island (two within walking distance from our home) and they offer a decent variety as well.

Asia Pacific Brewery, Singapore
But if you’re in Singapore, and I hope more of you will come visit us (hint), you have to drink Tiger beer.  It’s the national beer of Singapore, and though it’s not my favorite, it’s available everywhere and it’s cold – which is often more important than taste in a country this hot.  It’s been brewed right here in Singapore since the early 1930’s, and as the history enthusiasts (beer drinkers) that Jennifer and I are, we decided to pay a visit to the brewery.

The kids still had school while my company observed Deepavali, so this was an adult only trip, though the kids probably would have enjoyed it as well.  After booking our tour via the brewery’s online booking system on my iPad, Jennifer and I booked a cab via my iPhone and were on our way.  I mention the automated, mobile device laden process of getting to the brewery, because like everything else in Singapore, the brewery is ultra-efficient. 

Upon arriving, we completed registration and exchanged our government ID cards for a Tiger Brewery visitor pass.  My plans to get free beer for life through an undetected, untraceable “Strange Brew - mouse in the bottle maneuver” were thwarted right away!  Still, I looked forward to the tour and the 45-minute tasting session that would follow.  We were joined on the tour by only two other visitors, Brian and Clive from Australia.  Brian had been on this merry-go-round once or twice before, and was eager for the tasting.  Clive seemed more interested in the workings of the brewery.  We liked Brian.

The tour began with the history of the brewery, now part of the Asia Pacific Brewing Company, a joint venture between Heineken and Fraser and Neave.  We heard about the various brands produced by the Singapore brewery since 1932, including Tiger, Tiger Crystal, Anchor, Heineken, Baron’s Strong Brew and Archipelago – all would be available during the tasting.  Brian was happy.

We learned about the various awards the brewery and Tiger beer has received, and our guide shared some interesting stories about brewing during WWII, the changes that were made to the product, and how bottling changed during that time due to limited materials and resources available.  We were guided through several other exhibits displaying the malt, hops, water, and other ingredients used for the various brands, all with emphasis on high quality and purity. 

We had a quick stop to see the fermentation tanks, though it was rather uneventful as the tanks had recently been emptied and were being cleaned before the next batch was started.  Still, it was amazing to see all the automation in the brewery and to hear that less than 300 employees managed the 24/7 operation of brewing, quality control, bottling and packaging.  The emphasis was clearly on investing in quality ingredients and rigorous quality control, and automating the rest of the process.   As expected, the place was spotless and looked practically brand new even after years of production.

Pouring a perfect Tiger
After a brief video that described the bottling operation (starring our favorite video tour guide, Fred) I got a chance to learn how to pour a perfect Tiger beer.  Apparently, very few Singaporeans have ever tapped a keg or poured their own beer from one (probably because a keg has to cost at least $1,000 in this country!).  I received high marks in the eyes of our tour guide during my turn.  Afterwards, ahhh, my first taste of Tiger direct from the brewery.

At this point, we were free to take a look around at some other exhibits displaying the brewery’s history, awards, old school brewing equipment, etc. – and I whooped Jennifer’s butt in a table top game of “spot the faulty beer bottle”….twice.  A few minutes later we were escorted to the “Tiger Tavern” and the opportunity to taste a variety of Asia Pacific Brewery beers, as well as other beers and ciders from around the world.  Brian smiled.

Tiger Tavern
The Tiger Tavern was really pretty cool.  Think Irish pub in the tropics.  Leather seating, a dark wood bar, a pool table and a dart board provided the Irish feel, while multi-lingual signs and photos of several local golf courses with swaying palms made sure you didn’t forget where you were on the globe and just how hot it was outside.  We sampled a little bit of everything including each of the beers brewed onsite, as well as a few others that were brewed elsewhere and that I had never tried before.  We also had a very enjoyable conversation with Brian and Clive, learning about their travels and recommendations both in Australia and the rest of South East Asia.

At the end of the tour and tasting, we stopped by the Tiger Den, a small shop loaded with Tiger Beer paraphanalia.  Don’t be surprised if a few of you find something under your Christmas tree this year from “the den”.

Though I still prefer a bottle of Bintang, Asahi Superdry, or even a can of San Miguel Light over a Tiger, I did thoroughly enjoy our visit to the Tiger Brewery and have somewhat of a new appreciation for it.  For those of you who visit, rest assured there will be a cold one waiting for you in the fridge and this tour will be among several experiences we hope to share with you to get a “taste” of Singapore.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Tale of Two Field Trips

Since I am probably feeling just a tad guilty for being unable to go almost anywhere with my children for two months (if you're new to this blog, read this), I signed up as a chaperone for both of their recent field trips.   (Note:  A gecko just ran across the wall as I'm typing this!) 

So bright and early last Monday morning, I headed to the school to join Sophia and her 4th grade class on a trip to the Marina Barrage.  STOP...back up...Monday morning?  I don't even schedule a hair appointment on a Monday morning.  Even if we we have to eat cereal with water for dinner, I'm not going to the grocery store on a Monday.  Yes, yes, yes, I know Jason has to go to work, but let's face it - I'm useless on Mondays.  Putting on make-up and having to converse with 9 and 10 year-olds who are not mine is not on my to-do list.  However, watching the Vampire Diaries is.

Anyway, I got to the school and found a cozy spot in the outdoor "Parent Cafe" to sit and *wake the heck up* with a latte.  I've given up daily coffee here because I refuse to pay for it, so this plan actually worked! Forty-five minutes and some friendly conversation with another chaperone later and we we headed up to the classroom.  Sophia's teacher, Mr. Wood, then spent some time explaining the field trip.  The children were to bring their iPads, take pictures and notes and then later use the information to answer some questions.  Techonology in action!

So a short bus ride later we arrived at the Marina Barrage.  The Marina Barrage is a dam built at the confluence of five rivers and is Singapore's 15th reservoir. It provides water storage, flood control and recreation attractions.  It is also a popular place to fly kites!  The students had been studying how the distribution of resources affects communities, so this fit in nicely with the unit.  The facility really is impressive.  It includes huge outdoor spaces (with great city views), fountains for the kids, an art trail and a high-tech "Sustainable Gallery", which showcases the country's efforts to become environmentally sustainable.  Our tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly and he took the classes (two came, the other two were going another day) on a one-hour tour.

The tour guide discussing sustainability.
Sophia's friend, Saga, thanking the tour guide for the class.
The kids were very well-behaved and seemed to be interested in the tour.  Shockingly, not one iPad ended up in the reservoir.  Or was used as a weapon.  I did, however, catch one sneaky kid playing a game on his while the guide was talking.  Nice try though.  And I had to tell another one about 15 times to lower his voice.  The Jennifer you know (and hopefully love) is still alive and well. 

Today was Cooper's field trip (Thursday!!).  The day started out the same (Parent Cafe...latte to wake up), but the destination was different.  This time the buses (all five second grade classes attended this) headed to Changi Beach for clean-up duty.  Each grade has a volunteer project and the second grade will be doing three beach clean-ups throughout the year.  Armed with gloves and trash bags, the little ones set about to pick up "anything they could identify that wasn't broken glass".  I was hoping they wouldn't happen upon some used syringes, but we're not at the Jersey Shore circa 1988 so I felt pretty confident. On the other hand, it is the largest container port in the world, so just about anything else *does* wash up.  This particular beach was not one where you'd want to swim.  I was a little mortified that this didn't stop a few locals. 

Large container ship floating by!
Mrs. Roth's second grade class

It was hot.  Crazy hot.  Hotter than it's been in weeks.  But we did our duties, had a snack, spent a few minutes on the playground and headed home.  Again, the children were very well-behaved.  Judging from the bags, some kids were definitely more into the task than others.  One cute little girl had spotted some garbage in the water that she was patiently waiting to wash up to retrieve.  Right before we left she was delighted to find it had made its way to the shoreline.  The *weirdest* things we saw were these sea creatures that looked like centipedes (see picture - and they were everywhere!).  If anyone knows what they are, please tell me!

Overall, I loved my time with the kids.   I hadn't spent any time in either classroom this year, so it was important to me to get to know their friends and teachers.  I was very impressed with how both teachers kept the classes organized and under control.  The biggest difference between the trips was the bus ride. Cooper couldn't wait to sit with me and gave me multiple kisses on the way. Sophia sat as far away as possible. Oh the heartache! Guess my little girl is getting too cool for mom.

Okay, Cooper just walked in the door from school with a big smile on his face and said, "I think you're the best mommy a boy could ever have.  I love when you go on field trips with me."  Okay, sign me up for the next one.  Even if it's on a Monday morning.