Cambodia revealed

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It has been a busy time since I last wrote, during which we have travelled and seen a lot of Cambodia. After Silk Island (Koh Dach) we drove North East to Kratie to stay on another island in the Mekong. Much of the route was through the enormous flood plain of the Mekong, where there is just one rice crop each year, and little is growing now so the fields are dead with little activity. In an area of rich soil the French had introduced rubber plantations which continue today.

Our 2 nights at Rajaboris Villas on the island of Koh Trong were excellent – see my Trip Advisor review and at www.rajabori-kratie.com    From there we went to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins and eat tasty ‘krolane’ which is sticky rice, soya beans and coconut cooked in bamboo tubes – Yum! Yum!

A bite of krolane

Our onward journey towards Siem Reap continued through flat mundane countryside of resting rice fields, awaiting the rainy season in 3 months time. As well as repetitive countryside, there was a roadside message in every village – your Government is wonderful!

The Prime Minister and his Deputy of the Cambodia Peoples Party

Cambodia is ranked 156th out of 176 Countries for corruption by Transparency International and corruption is rife in Government, the judicial system, the police, public services, land and tax administration, public procurement, natural resources – everywhere! Corruption has succeeded the Khmer Rouge as the modern torturer and killer of ambition for the new generation where 50% of the population is under the age of 25. While Government Officials look after themselves, their family and friends, most of the population is still living in squalid conditions supported only by foreign aid through Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) who help mainly with education and medical support. Despite all of this, the people are friendly, welcoming and peaceful but we fear for their future.

This Country needs a change of Government, which will only happen if elections are run correctly, and that will give the hope the people deserve.

Wonders of silk worms

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We are pleased to be away from the bustle of Phnom Penh and are tonight at a homestay on Silk Island or Koh Dach, an island on the Mekong river. Here every house has a weaving loom to make silk with traditional patterns. We saw how the silk worm lava of the silk moth creates the cocoon which produces 100m of the finest thread for weaving. To extract it, the empty cocoons are softened in hot water and the threads from 3 cocoons and spun together to create the thread, as shown on the brief video below:

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Jocelyne has just had a cooking lesson and we look forward to Khmer vegetable curry tonight.

Jocelyne’s Khmer vegetable curry

Farewell Laos, Hello Cambodia

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We reflect on a wonderful visit to Laos with highlights of the Gibbon Experience, Kamu Lodge and especially Luang Prabang which was magically serene. Our final day out was to Elephant Camp for another meeting with these mistical mammals. Here are some pics to make you smile!

That looks like a tasty Gopro!

We watched our last sunset from Mont Phu Si

Sunset from Mont Phu Si

And 2 flights later we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. WOW! What a difference, a lively vibrant city, seemingly in a rush to catch up on the lost years of the worst genocide of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot dictatorship 1975 – 1979 when 2 million people were killed in a horrendous civil war. We will see and learn more of this tomorrow.

So no cockerels or monk’s drums to wake us, just the continual buzz of a lively city.

Enchanting Luang Prabang

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This is such a serene town, dominated by multiple Buddhist Wats, or temples, and colonial buildings in what was Lao’s former Royal capital and rightly now has UNESCO World Heritage status. All is within easy walking distance from our peaceful Villa Chitdara.

Unlike most other religions, becoming a Buddhist monk can be a brief experience, and a family earns merit once one of their sons takes up the saffron robe and bowl. Traditionally this is for 3 months during which they will undergo political indoctrination as well as monastic training. Some men will devote their lives to the Wat, while there is no similar tradition for women.

Normally I am awoken by the dawn chorus of cockerels but at 04:10 today it was the temple drum calling the monks to alms. Daily before dawn the monks walk barefoot through the streets while pious locals place balls of sticky rice in their begging bowls. It is a very peaceful ceremony in which the monks demonstrate their vows of poverty and humility while the Lao people gain spititual merit from the act of respectful giving.

Today I witnessed the ceremony from a respectful distance and share it with you:

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Tak Bat, the giving and receiving of alms of sticky rice

Sadly the ceremony has become more of a tourist attraction, and Chinese tourists are increasingly dominating with their New Year on 28th January.

We are both more relaxed here than anywhere before and must be imfluenced by the peaceful Laos way of life. Jocelyne meditated with the monks this evening and will return tomorrow.

We enjoyed a visit to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls which tumble into opal pools.

The Tat Kuang Si waterfalls

We have both maintained a vegetarian diet here, and have enjoyed a variety of veg, herbs and spices. A favourite today was pumpkin, coconut and ginger soup but yesterday Jocelyne broke with tradition and was tempted by baked camembert flambéd with calvados!

Jocelyne and her baked camembert

Laos coffee is smooth and strong with no bitterness, and even better when brewed in a percolator like my parents used to do.

Laos coffee percolator

Just 2 more days to enjoy the tranquility of Luang Prabang before we fly to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, which no doubt will be very different!

Free flowing rivers or electricity?

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We left the far North of Lao, only 40 miles from both the border with China and Vietnam, passing through villages of ethnic minority tribes who live a very different life to ours.

Ladies from an ethnic minority hill tribe.

The better weather finally arrived and we have had no rain for 4 days as we travelled down the magnificant Nam Ou river to rejoin the Mekong.

These and other rivers have been the lifeblood of Lao for fishing, agriculture in their rich flood plains and the transport of goods. All that has or is about to change as the rivers will become another valuable resorce – electricity! Foreign countries, mainly China, have bought the rights to construct over 30 hydro-electric dams to generate electricity for their own country. These are being built with little thought for the environmental and social damage they will bring. Up stream of the dams, whole communities are being relocated and their farm lands will be flooded. Downstream of the dams, some communities are loosing homes which could be at risk of flooding if the dam was to breach. Their rivers will be much reduced and fish stocks will be lost as well as the migratory movements of fish which have been followed for generations. Much transport by river will be halted as there are generally no locks planned and water levels will change the size of vessels that can navigate the rivers.

A new Power China dam on the Nam Ou river

On the plus side, many communities will get electricity for light, refridgeration and cooking. But how will these isolated communities cope with all of the downsides that electricity will bring? Television, mobile phones, internet… there will be no gradual transition from their life in the middle ages to that we are now accustomed to. Quite scary for them!

When we rejoined the Mekong we enjoyed our best overnight so far, staying in a tented resort with no electricity or wifi, linked to a remote village, called The Kamu Lodge see at www.kamulodge.com All of the staff come from the village, and much of the food is grown by the villagers. I helped plough their rice fields using ‘Bouboul’ the water buffalo donated to the village by the resort.

Stuart driving the plough to help prepare the rice fields.
They could grow 3 crops of rice a year, but usually only grow one.

After 10 days of travelling we have now arrived in Luang Prabang, the Royal capital of Laos before communism, and are here until Sunday when we go South to Cambodia. There are multiple Buddhist temples, supported by the community with alms giving every morning before sunrise. It has a wonderfully laid back atmosphere and was a favourite of Ariane and Tom when they had their gap year travels.

Solid rain for 3 days

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This is supposed to be the dry season, but we have had solid rain for 3 days and have hardly see the sun since arriving in Laos a week ago. However, we are fortunate as we are now staying in a good hotel, but the poor Laotian people are often living in shacks with no windows and just earth for the floor. There is incredible poverty here with 75% of the population surviving on less that £1.50 a day, mainly living hand to mouth off the land as subsistence farmers. Their Buddhist religion teaches karma rather than devotion, prayer or hard work and education is not highly valued, and can be dropped at age 13. They are often married by 15 and have at least 2 children before age 20, which is an insurance for their old age.

Their main vice is alcohol, either Beer-Lao or low-low which is a rice whisky that we sampled today in a village. Today’s pics are of a lady preparing fish to barbecue, and of grilled rats for sale in a local market, which we didn’t sample!

With better weather expected tomorrow we travel to Nong Khiau on the Nam Ou river, previously enjoyed by my sister Pip and Martin.

The Elephant Camp

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Just back from the Elephant sanctuary where rescued elephants and their mahouts live in harmony with nature amongst plenty of bamboo. They eat 200kg each day to fuel their 3 tonne bodies. Laos is known as the land of a million elephants but there are fewer now and they are increasingly protected.

Attached are a few pics of our experience.

We had requested the honeymoon suite but had an expectation that our guide would stay with us nearby, but after delivering our evening dinner, he waved goodbye until breakfast! Just before going he advised us to place any food in a large coolbox to avoid it being eaten by rats! Welcome to the jungle!! And what if we had an emergency? No mobile phone to ring for help, just 3 ziplines and a 30 minute walk through the jungle at night to get to the kitchen! Snakes can climb trees too, and all that would be between us and then was a mosquito net around the bed! OMG!

We were in bed early at 18:30 both secretly terrified! My escape was good earplugs so I would be oblivious to activity around me, but at 21:15 Jocelyne woke me to say we had visitors! Ratty was on the hunt, but was scared by my bright torchlight – at least for a while. In the morning I found he had chewed the tongue of my walking shoes to chew the foam! But we didn’t see shakes or spiders which can aparently be as big as your fist!

Our guide Yia arrived at 08:00 with breakfast and soon after the mist cleared and a family of gibbons started their morning call. The atteched video recorded the sound but they were too far away to see. Their is some background noise but hopefully you will get an jnsight into this magical call of the gibbons.

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Attached also is a clip of me arriving at our treehouse on the zipline!

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Just back from sleeping with the gibbons

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We have had an amazing 3 days on the Gibbon Experience where we travelled through the jungle on zip lines to our own honeymoon treehouse 30 metres above the ground. From there we had a rare sighting of a family of gibbons swinging through the trees with great agility. Our guides brought 3 meals a day to our treehouse and we explored the jungle both on foot and on zip wires across ravines. The longest zip was 450 metres long and we travelled at speed, too far off the ground to look!

The family of black crested gibbons we saw are an endangered species of which there are less than 2000 in the World. They are not monkeys but apes, with 90% of the same DNA as humans. They have the longest arm length relative to body size of any primate with arms twice the length of their bodies and one and a half times the length of their legs.

Their family early morning call was magical and I will try to upload it to this blog later.

You may like to look at www.gibbonexperience.org to share the adventure we have just had. Good to be back in a hotel for a hot shower and laundry service!

Tomorrow we leave Houay Xai for a day cruising down the Mekong river to Pakbeng, which by comparison with the last 3 days will be tame!