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Cambodia...the lost ruins with Dane Hodges
Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - 11:13 PM
Cambodia...the lost ruins with Dane Hodges

Dane Hodges near Angkor Wat moat, Cambodia


Cambodia occupies 181,040 square kilometers of peninsular Southeast Asia. Modern Cambodia is bordered by Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and the Gulf of Thailand, which is a part of the South China Sea. It is all that remains of the once-powerful Khmer empire that flourished in the ninth through the twelfth centuries and dominated much of mainland Southeast Asia.  The population is approxamatly 12 million.




Dane Hodges and mom peak from Kymer ruins, Cambodia
 
The frequency with which the official name of the country has changed is emblematic of the many political and social changes that have characterized modern Cambodia. Cambodia's current official title, the Kingdom of Cambodia, marks a return to name it had in the years immediately following independence, granted by the French in 1953. It has also been known officially as the Khmer Republic (1970–1975), Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979), the People's Republic of Kampuchea (1979–1989), and the State of Cambodia (1989–1993).(R- Dane Hodges of Saipan, CNMi peeks with Mom from the Kymer ruins in Siem Reap, Cambodia)


Cambodia could be compared to a saucepan, or to a bowl. In the center of the country is a lowland plain, which is bordered by the Dangrek Mountains along the Thai border, the Cardamom Mountains to the south, and the Elephant Mountains even further south. There are also mountain ranges in the east. The country's highest peak is Mount Aural, which rises 1,813 meters (5,948 feet) above sea level.

Kids in front of our ice cream store hang out
The most significant geographical feature of Cambodia is the Tonle Sap. Tonle Sap is the name given to a river that is a tributary of the Mekong River, which flows through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Thailand, before running for more than 500 kilometers (more than 300 miles) through Cambodia, into Vietnam, and then to the South China Sea. Tonle Sap is also the name of a lake, into and from which the Tonle Sap River flows.









Dane Hodges, Siem Reap ruins, Cambodia

The Tonle Sap is remarkable because its flow reverses with the seasons. During the dry season (Novemberto April), the Tonle Sap River flows south from the lake into the Mekong River. During this period, the lake remains narrow and long, covering about 5 percent of Cambodia. During the wet season (May to October), the Mekong River rises, and the Tonle Sap River can no longer flow into it. The Tonle Sap river reverses its direction, flowing north into the Tonle Sap lake. The lake swells and overflows, covering almost 15 percent of the country. When the Tonle Sap flows into the Mekong, it leaves behind a layer of soil rich in nutrients. Rice farmers capitalize on this soil to grow their crops, and in the lake, the nutrients are eaten by fish. Together, fish and rice form the staple of the Cambodian diet.



Dane Hodges shares coconut, Cambodia
Politics in Cambodia reflects the country's turbulent modern history. Having passed through a series of revolutionary changes since independence, the most radical and infamous of which was the rule of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, the current system of government is officially a multiparty liberal democracy under a constitutional monarchy. This system was formed after warring factions in Cambodia agreed, in 1991, to conduct national elections under the direct supervision of the United Nations




Dane Hodges climbs through ruins, Cambodia
In 2001, the head of the government was Prime Minister Hun Sen (b. 1952), a former low-ranking officer of the Khmer Rouge who quickly rose through the ranks of the Khmer Rouge's Vietnamese-backed successor regime, the People's Republic of Kampuchea. Hun Sen was appointed prime minister after national elections conducted in 1998 delivered a majority of seats to his Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which governed in coalition with the royalist FUNCINPEC (Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre, Pacifique, et Coopératif; National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia) party, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The prince is a son of Cambodia's King Sihanouk (b. 1922), who remains the country's most enduring political figure.(Above - Dane Hodges, Saipan harvests rice, Cambodia)




Dane Hodges gets fish massage, Cambodia
We planned the trip to Siem Reap two days before we arrived.  We flew Air Asia out of KL in preferred seating for 700. RT for the three travellers.  AA has reconditioned Airbus-200 with 180 seats and GE CFM-56 engines, a very nice plane.
A hotel is simply a storage space for suitcase &valuables and a place to crash, but the hotels in Asia afford more luxury than America or Europe.  There is more quality for the price you pay so we stayed at the 4.5 star Tara Angkor for 37.50 per night for three of us, which included a buffet breakfast as good as our Hyatt in Saipan. Our hotel was great, .5 kilometers to the Angkor museum, one mile to town center, and the closest resort to Angkor’s main park the other direction.
Dane Hodges is the rice paddies, Cambodia

In Cambodia the currency is known as Riel. Right now 1 USD is about 4100 Riel (KHR). The “problem” is that no one is interested in Riel – basically only USD is in use. So bring along some US dollars and have a few one dollar bills available as you can expect people to give you back change when you hand them a 100$ bill


Fun in the temples for Dane Hodges, Cambodia
When it comes to vaccines you should check with your authorities’ recommendations. e.g. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Siem Reap is considered a malaria area so you have to also look into this. We chose to not go for malaria pills and saw no mosquitoes at all while we were there.
The airport at Siem Reap it quite small and very charming – it reminded me a bit of the airport at Koh Samui in Thailand. The airport seemed to be fairly new and as we left the plane we were met by a statue of a white elephant. Owning a white elephant is regarded as something very special in this part of the world. A visa was available at the airport and was 20 US dollars each.The weather was hot and sunny as you would expect from South East Asia.

Dane Hodges hikes Cambodia

Getting a taxi when we got out was not a problem – the price was 7 USD for getting to the hotel and we didn’t have a problem with that. I guess I was expecting that the driving would be similar to what we experienced in most SE Asia cities, but Siem Reap is small with charm and the driving experience here was totally different and relaxing.  They drive pretty crazy in the lawless third world, completely nuts in PI, Bali, Jakarta, Saigon, and Bangkok, but the taxis around Siem Reap are as slow as in our beloved Northern Marianas Islands.   
Cambodia is regarded as a third world country with a GDP per capita of about 2000 USD.  Housing we saw along the way to the hotel was quite modest – shacks, plastic chairs, people selling stuff along the road, cows walking on the fields etc.

Dane Hodges in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our taxi driver did ask us if we had gotten a guide for our stay in Siem Reap but we had decided to go for a tour guide through the hotel so we turned down his offer. A Romo is 15 dollars to rent with driver per day, which is how we toured the parks.  We rented cars for some more distant, but worthwhile ruin locations.  It’s quite common to get such requests so don’t be afraid to take him up on the offer. Just ensure you organize a certified guide in addition to the driver. The drive to the hotel was only 20 minutes and on the way we got glimpses of the ruins around Angkor Wat. As I mentioned earlier we stayed at Tara Angkor. The hotel is quite new and was a very relaxing and pleasant experience.


Dane Hodges rides through ruins, Cambodia
 Most people come to Siem Reap to check out the temples of Angkor Wat. But as we had arrived at the hotel at about 1 PM there was not that much time to check out the temples that day. So we spent our first day checking out Siem Reap and organizing the next days. As the hotel is located a bit out of the center of town we grabbed a so called tuk-tuk to get around. A tuk-tuk in Cambodia was basically a moped with a little carriage attached to it (unlike the Thai tuk-tuk which is a three wheeled vehicle). There were a few outside the hotel at all times so it was never a problem getting around. The price seemed to be pretty fixed at  USD to go from the hotel to the old market even if a driver one night tried to bring it up to 2 USD. A third world tip is to agree on a price before starting and don’t ask for full time driving services.


We started out by going to Psar Chaa, the Old market in town. It only took us 5-10 minutes on the tuk-tuk as it is about 3 km (1.8 miles) from the hotel. The drive took us along the Siem Reap river, past a royal palace, restaurants and shops etc. Siem Reap seems to be a quiet little town or maybe we drove around in the middle of “siesta” time. We were also there in connection with the Cambodian New Year and maybe that slowed down things as well. People were preparing for the New Years by buying decorations for their homes. People seemed to be friendly and they would bring out the smiles when we looked at them. We just walked around the Old Market area to familiarize ourselves with the place and we walked through “pub street”, “the alley” etc.




We walked over to Artisan D’Angkor which is a center where unemployed/uneducated youth from outside of Siem Reap get educated and trained in wood carving, stone carving, making silk products etc. We got a tour around the school from one of the students and we got to see the different products in the making. In the end there is also a store where you can buy some of their products so if you want to give some money back to the community; this is the place to buy.

Dane Hodges with Dad, Cambodia




Dane Hodges plays flute, Cambodia
Finding a place to eat in Siem Reap is not a problem. Pub street and the alley consist of lots of bars and restaurants to choose from. On the first night we decided to go for dinner at the Butterflies Garden as this is a “dining for a cause” place e.g. sell products to help communities that are affected by HIV/Aids. 



Dane Hodges rides romo, Siem Reap, Cambodia
 There are a lot of similarities between Thailand and Cambodia but Cambodian food is not spicy! The main dishes were also quite good and together with a big Angkor beer and a big bottle of water the bill was 20 USD. Dane loved chasing the butterflies.






Dane Hodges peeks from the ruins, Cambodia


The rise of the Khmer kingdom took place when Jayavarman II declared himself a god-king in 802 AD. This was the start of one of the greatest empires in Southeast Asia and the period that would last until about 1432. The main temple of Angkor Wat was built by Suryavarman II in the 12th century but it seems like one of the most important kings was Jayavarman VII who built a lot of the temples in the complex (including Bayon). The Khmer kingdom fell in 1431 when it is invaded by Thais and then many of the temples declined over the years but were rediscovered by the French in the 1860’s and the various temples have been restored and this work is still in progress. You can see an example of the restoration when you walk into Angkor Wat itself…the right hand side of the causeway has been restored; the left hand side is the original.
 
Dane Hodges the tomb raider, Cambodia
When I first heard about Angkor Wat I thought it was just one temple. Well, if you are of the same impression, think again. The Angkor temples are a vast temple complex and Angkor Wat is just one of many temples. Angkor Wat is located just north of Siem Reap and it was only about 3 km from our hotel.




So how can you check out the temples of Angkor? If you have lots and lots of time you can of course walk but I would not recommend this as it is a vast area and it is hot. There are two circuits that are made that you can bike which are 17 km (10,5 miles) and 26 km (16 miles). You can also rent a tuk-tuk to take you around – or an airconditioned car. Whichever mode of transportation you choose you still have to pay the entrance fee to Angkor. There is a gate on the way from Siem Reap and the one day pass is 20 USD and the three day pass is 40 USD. Passes are made on the spot as they take photos with a digital camera. Remember to smile! ;-)

Dane Hodges at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Dane Hodges hikes Cambodia

There are places with internet connection/wi-fi in Siem Reap. In some places you have to buy something and then you get the access code to the wi-fi. Just walk around Pub street and the Alley and you’ll see the signs. I think we had several hang outs in town center, as Dane and his entourage like fresh bread, fresh juice, pineapple pizza, chocalate cake, and iced cold beer in very tall glasses.  The happy hour throughout town lasts hours and is .50 for a cold mug of draft and 1.50 for mixed cocktails.   Most places in town had free wi-fi.  We got too see a shows with traditional dancing all over and it looked quite a lot like the Thai traditional dancing.


 

Dane Hodges hides in temple, Cambodia
 We started out by driving to Ta Prohm. I guess this place got real famous when Angelina Jolie was running around as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider film. We walked through this temple built as a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII in 1186. The fascinating thing about Ta Prohm is all the huge trees that seem to have taken over the entire temple. Some trees have stretched out their roots to take over walls; roots have grown into walls etc. It almost seems like some of the trees were out for a walk and got frozen right on top of some of the buildings. A lot of the structure is also in ruins and there were some restoration work going on. But that didn’t matter…the atmosphere is quite unique with all the huge trees that are taking over the temple. We were also shown an echo room – in this room you would get quite an echo.

Dane Hodges investigates temple, Cambodia
We continued to Preah Khan and there is no prize for guessing that it was also built by King Jayavarman VII and it is believed that it was his personal residence while Angkor Thom was built. It reminded us a bit of Ta Prohm as there were some huge trees here too taking over some of the walls. But it seemed to be in a better state as it has been restored (and I guess the restoration is still in progress). There are even a ruin here of two story building.

After a lunch stop at Rumduol Angkor restaurant we took a bit of a drive to get to Banteay Srei. We had to pay a bit extra due to the long drive but as the guidebook called it “the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art” we decided to go for it. The about 20 km drive was not boring as there is always something to look at – all of a sudden we saw one guy on a moped carrying a live pig at the back of the bike. I guess he was on his way to a market to sell it. Along the route there were small stalls selling a brownish liquid in all sorts of bottles (ranging from Pepsi bottles to Jack Daniels bottles). It turns out that this was gas for the motorcycles.

Dane Hodges the tomb raider, Cambodia
Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and it contains a lot of stone carvings. I guess the pinkish stone must have been of better quality because if these are the originals, then the details are just mind-blowing when temple is believed to be built in 967 AD! It is a small temple so it does not take that long to visit it but it was quite amazing to see all the details in the carving. When we were walking around we were also followed by a young girl but she was just too shy to talk to us.

On the way back to the hotel we made a stop at Pre Rup – a pyramid shaped temple that we climbed. The view from the top was quite good in the flat landscape. As we were taking photos of the exterior a young girl came biking on a HUGE bicycle. It was so big that she was not able to sit on the seat while biking as she wouldn’t reach the pedals. But when she saw us she made a stop of course and asked if we wanted to buy some postcards. And of course…when you are in a place like this you have to send home some postcards so I did buy from her.

Dane Hodges, Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Final stop was at Prasat Kravan built for Hindu worship in 921 AD. By this time we were getting tired and hot so we just made a short stop. Outside the temple a girl was screaming from something she saw in a corner and I figured that it was a spider or something like that. Well, being curious I walked over and it turned out to be a black scorpion clinging on the temple wall. But the interesting thing was that it just had babies and all the tiny white scorpion babies were crawling all over the mummy scorpions back. Dane wasn't afraid though and wanted to claim him as a pet, especially after explaining that baby scorpions are deadlier than their angry mothers.


More than 75 percent of Cambodia's workforce is employed in agriculture. The primary agricultural crop is rice. Other crops include corn, rubber, sugarcane, and vegetables. Many Cambodians earn a living fishing from the Tonle Sap, while others grow a variety of fruit—among them being bananas, durian, mango, and papaya. Set against the agriculture sector is a steady growth in the industry sector, primarily fueled by the establishment of foreign-owned garment factories, which capitalize on Cambodia's cheap labor. The garment industry employs more than 100,000 people, and accounts for almost $700 million per year in exports.




Dane Hodges, Siem Reap, Cambodia
A major feature of the economic system is its dependence on international assistance. During the 1980s, it was the assistance of Vietnam and the Soviet-led international socialist bloc that prevented the Cambodian economy from collapse. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the international community supported the Cambodian budget, and provided the funds for most capital investment, with China emerging as a major donor to the government. While self-sustainability is a long-term goal of the Cambodian government, this remains elusive.



Unlike many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Cambodia is relatively ethnically homogenous. The dominant ethnic group is the Khmer, whose language (Khmer) is the national language of Cambodia, and whose religion, Theravada Buddhism, is also the national religion. The largest ethnic minority groups in Cambodia are the Chinese and the Vietnamese, many of whom have lived in the country for several generations.
While relations between the Khmer and Chinese normally are quite amicable, and often feature intermarriage, relations between the Khmer and Vietnamese are often characterized by suspicion and animosity that are rooted in history and stem from the Khmer perception that the Vietnamese desire to "swallow up" Cambodian territory.


Dane Hodges Cambodia
The Chams, descendants of the former kingdom of Champa, now central Vietnam, are the third most populous ethnic minority. While the majority of the people of Cambodia are Buddhists, most Chams are Muslim.



In addition to the Khmer and these three dominant ethnic minorities, there are other less populous ethnic groups in Cambodia. Referred to as Khmer Leou (highland Khmer), these ethnic groups live in the mountainous regions of Cambodia. They include the Brao, Kuy, Saoch, and Pear ethnic groups, as well as ethnic Thai and Lao minorities. Each of these groups has its own language and customs.




Dane Hodges and mom ride in Siem Reap, Cambodia



Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is faced with a raft of significant social and political challenges. Paramount among these is the alleviation of poverty, especially in rural Cambodia, where more than 80 percent of the population lives. Rates of infant mortality are among the highest in Asia, while the access of the majority of the population to education, health care, and a sanitary water supply remains at critically low levels. In recent years, the popular belief that the majority of rural Cambodians owned the land they lived on has been undermined, and rural landlessness has emerged as a major factor in explaining the incidence of poverty. This problem has been exacerbated by land-grabbing by government officials and high-ranking members of the armed forces, who are able to take advantage of a poorly developed legal system and a culture of impunity among those exercising political power.

Dane Hodges on the road, Cambodia

Apart from poverty, another challenge facing contemporary Cambodia is how the country will reconcile calls for more vibrant democracy and a more active role for civil society with a hierarchical political culture firmly grounded in centuries of tradition. A proliferation of local nongovernmental organizations and the establishment of a fledgling trade union movement provide evidence of an emerging civil society. Drawing on the traditions of a hierarchical political culture that inhibits popular participation and a dialogue over the formulation of policy, the government continues to struggle with how it should integrate these new democratic institutions into the broader political system.

 Steung Mean Chey Dumpsite

In 2009 the dump was closed down as it was becoming too large for its location, only a few kilometres from the main city. The dump was nicknamed Smoky Mountain because of the visibly burning rubbish and emitted carcinogenic fumes(almost identical to Smoky Mountain, Philippines), as well as methane gases created by the massive amounts of buried rubbish. The stench of the rotting garbage could be smelt from far away.  The old landfill site will now be turned into a local park.

1000 tonnes of Phnom Penh’s rubbish was dumped at Steung Mean Chey everyday and over 3000 families worked and lived here, scavenging for recyclables. Men, women and children would risk their lives dodging trucks and bulldozers to find tin cans, plastic, glass bottles and any other scrap that could be sold or recycled.

Dane Hodges Cambodia
The health of the workers on the dump was severely affected as they would breathe in the dangerous toxic fumes and often cut their bare feet on glass or dirty needles and medical waste hidden amongst the rubbish.

Usually, families would work in shifts over 24 hours in order to earn as much money as possible (approximately $2 a day for a working family of six) meaning children were forced to work from very young ages – suffering from exhaustion, malnutrition and hunger, with little access to clean water.
At night the dump was a very dangerous place where gangs, violence, rape and even traffickers were present. The situation for some families became so poor that parents sold their children into the sex industry.

As a source of livelihood, the Steung Mean Chey dumpsite no longer exists, although many of the slums and shacks remain. The harsh reality of life for the people that stayed here continues and they go on to work as garbage pickers on the streets or in other dangerous and demeaning jobs with little hope of a healthy future.
Most children here have not completed primary school and most adults have had little or no access to education or vocational training, so their skillset is poor and they are unable to find better work.


As the reasons for poverty in Cambodia have not been alleviated, the net effect of the dump closing is not necessarily positive. The torn social fabric that exists in Cambodia can be seen as a product of the Khmer Rouge genocide and subsequent civil war which lasted right up to 1998.                                        


The traveller in Cambodia

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