Archive for February, 2006

Ho Hum – Life is Boring Right Now

27 February 06

Whoa, Things are way too boring around here! I need to find something to blog about…

The past week has been very busy for me at work. I’ve been preparing final exams to give to the students which is a nightmare, seeing as how I don’t think very many of them are going to pass. Teaching English can be very frustrating.

This weekend I vegged out and watched all the movies that are in contention for the Oscars. (And no I didn’t go to a theater to see them. This is China – the land of the pirated DVDs! My apologies to all the film industry workers out there, but there is really no alternative here.) I highly recommend “The Constant Gardner” and “Good Night and Good Luck.” That movie will make you question just what the heck our current media is doing – and not doing.

Ho Hum… I hope your life is more interesting than mine right now! I know a lot of you are thinking, if she is so bored right now, why doesn’t she email? So I want to apologize to all of you out there that I haven’t emailed. I have really meant to. I think about you all (that’s supposed to be plural i.e. ya’ll, you guys) all the time. I had a New Year’s Resolution to email more often, but like all good New Year’s Resolution, you kind of forget about them after a week or so.

I haven’t forgotten that I still need to post some pictures of my trip to Beijing in January, and I hope to get to that this week. In case you don’t know, I have a photo album at Flickr where you can see all the photos that have been displayed on this blog, and others that haven’t. I will be uploading many more photos in the coming weeks/months, and I will let you know here on the blog when I do. (Just click on “Flickr” to go to my page.)

Have a good week!

The Post-Vacation Blahs Continue

19 February 06

The weather has been great for the past few days. Blue skies, cool breezes, sun – actual sun, not a glowing mass of clouds. Maybe spring is not too far away. The airplanes are actually in the sky flying for a change, not parked on the apron covered up to protect them from the cold.

Speaking of cold, we have had close to zero snow. I’m not sure what is normal around here, but some of the instructors who were here last year said that there was a lot of snow and ice on the ground the whole winter. I’m not complaining, it is much easier to ride a bicycle on pavement, but I got used to a very snowy winter living in Toronto. I’ve heard from friends there that Toronto is also having a very mild winter.

On very sunny days, I feel real nostalgia for Toronto. Toronto is a great city on a mild winter day when it is super-sunny. There is no better place to be than on Ideal Cafe’s patio soaking up some vitamin D, sipping the best coffee in Toronto, if not North America, listening to the conversations of all the artistic folk who are regulars.  Ideal Cafe is located about a block from where we lived, on a quiet street of Kensington Market. The owner travelled to Central America to buy coffee beans from the farmers and brought it back to roast himself in the shop. That is the sort of thing I miss a lot. You are not going to find any little shops in Shijiazhuang selling organic artesan bread or gourmet cheese and fresh croissants. You won’t find organic-anything! I certainly don’t need those kinds of foods to survive, but I do get a little bit paranoid when I think of the pollutants and toxins present in the soil and food here.

On a different note, the flight instructor numbers are really growing around here. When we first arrived, there were about 15 of us, now there are more than 50, with a group of at least 10 arriving this past week alone.

Post-Vacation Blahs

15 February 06

Officially, today 10 instructors moved into brand new rooms at the new Mansion Hotel. The DH and I didn’t move. Why? Why would we not give in to the luxury? Well, it turns out the rooms are a lot smaller than what we have now and we’ve also been told that apartments in the city are getting closer and closer to being reality… Maybe even by next month! AND, they might have a pool. But, we’re not getting too worked up about this. We’ve heard that we are going to move to the city for many months now.

How did it get to be mid-February already? Where does time go? Already we have been back from our vacation for 10 days. It has been a little difficult adjusting back to life in Shijiazhuang. At first I thought it was just China. China is very different from Thailand and Cambodia, and in many ways, life is more difficult here. On our way back from Bangkok we stopped in the Southwestern city of Chengdu and we were pleasantly surprised to find that it is a very modern city, and much different from Shijiazhuang. Perhaps all we have been hearing and reading is true – Shijiazhuang is truly not representative of China. What we need to do is to get out of this city on the weekends and see some of the real China.

Speaking of the real China, we just came from eating at a Hot Pot restaurant. I’ve told you about the experience, but one thing I forgot to mention is the smell. Because of all the steam coming from the pots, the whole restaurant smells up of cooked meat, garlic and who knows what else. It gets in your hair, your clothes, your nose. It is impossible to get rid of. You wake up in the night smelling it, even though you have showered and brushed your teeth 3 times. Just part of the experience. I’m off to try to scrub myself free of it…

Heavy Reading…Heavy Questions

10 February 06

I’ve been haunted by the images of Cambodia from the books I have been reading. I suppose that I grew up knowing that something happened there. I didn’t know what exactly, and had no idea the extent of the brutality, but I did know that there was a war, just as there was war in Vietnam. I will admit, however, that the first time I saw “The Killing Fields,” I thought that the story was about Vietnam, not Cambodia. In my young mind, all of Southeast Asia was a little mixed up. “The Killing Fields” came out in 1984, and I was 8 years old. I don’t know for sure when I first saw it, but it wasn’t too long after it came out. And I will never forget it. It’s just one of those movies that reaches deep down inside, grabs hold and rips everything out, leaving you completely empty.

I must give a lot of credit for my political and historical awareness to my parents and not just movies. Although my Dad likes to joke that he doesn’t have a lot of education, I know that is far from true. We certainly were taught about world events and geography. Our house was full of books and National Geographic magazines.

The genocide that occurred in Camboda is just too horrific to be understood or believed. I think that it affects me in a way because it is something that happened during my own lifetime, in fact, for practically the whole duration of my life. If I had been born there, I would have been born into the heart of the Khmer Rouge rule. I probably would have been born into complete and utter poverty in a displaced person’s camp. I would have starved everyday waiting for just a few spoonfuls of rice gruel. To be honest, I probably would have died. What chance did newborn babies have when supposedly strong adults wasted away to nothing or were taken away and never seen again? I know that this topic is far from the light-hearted fare I like to blog about. It’s just that I have been incapable of thinking about anything else this week.

We are truly fortunate people to never have suffered as billions of people have suffered around the world, and continue to do so everyday. Or maybe I should say “I am fortunate” as I never know who is reading this. In an effort to become more informed about landmines and genocide, I came across the Human Rights Watch website. (Which, by the way, is only accessible over my internet connection in China via a website that anonymizes or hides the web address you are visiting from the server, allowing blocked websites to be viewed.) I am more than a little overwhelmed. How do we address these problems? Now that I know what I know and have seen what I have seen, what do I do?

Koh Chang Island – True R&R

8 February 06

I’ve always heard that Thailand is a paradise, and I will most definitely agree with that. In fact, running away to live there is a big temptation! Now, let me classify that statement by saying that all I saw of Thailand is the fabulous island of Koh Chang and a bit of Bangkok. Still, what I saw I looooooovvvvveeddd!!

Koh Chang is a small island and is also a national park so there isn’t any major development. There are lots of small hotels, restaurants, shops and bars along the beaches, but nothing in the interior. We stayed at a less-developed place called Paradise Cottage on Lonely Beach and I have to say, if you ever find yourself on Koh Chang, it is the place to stay. For $10 a night (high season) you will get a hut with a double bed, mosquito net and a shower and bathroom under the palm trees, steps away from the water. They also have a fabulous restaurant/lounging area perfect for lazing.

Paradise Cottage:

Lounging in style:

And two fabulous views:

Our time on Koh Chang consisted of lazy hours spent lounging on cushions, hammocks and beaches, swilling fruit juice, admiring the ocean views, interrupted by occasional interludes of frenzied activity – an afternoon spent kayaking around the islands, (Can you imagine? Last year I couldn’t even tread water in the shallow end of a pool and now I am kayaking on a little plastic boat in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand!), scuba diving for the DH and snorkeling for me, (the fish were amazing, the water an incredible turquoise-green.), and exploring the island on a moped, (scary only because there are a lot of mountains!). The sloth within me was never so happy. The only hazard of that kind of life is falling coconuts…

And the crazy part? I even managed to get a tan! (Relatively speaking) Me – practically the whitest chic in the world!

Unfortunately we ran out of time and we didn’t get to see too much of Bangkok or the Northern part of Thailand. We had hoped to visit Chiang Mai, but we will have to save that for another trip.

Down the River and Through the Minefields – Our Trek Out of Cambodia

8 February 06

Bear with me, this is long.

After a few days in Siem Reap, we decided to head back to Thailand. We didn’t want to return the same way we had come – the border town of Poipet is not a nice place. So, we opted for a boat ride down the Stung Sangker River. We read that it is a scenic journey and it would get us closer to Southwestern Cambodia, where we could cross back into Thailand.

Well, as I mentioned before, the 4 to 6 hour boat ride lasted almost 11 hours. Although it was torturously long, it was indeed beautiful and intensely interesting to see the changing scenery and the way that the Cambodians live along the river. Let me give you a little description with photos of the journey!

The ride began on the outskirts of Siem Reap, on the shores of the great lake of Cambodia – the Tonle Sap. We were overwhelmed by tiny little thatched-roof huts crowding the road built on a dike. Each hut contained a family and a bunch of fish that were either freshly-caught or placed out to dry. You can imagine the smell. The closer we got to the shores of the lake, the more intense the smell, and the more crowded the road became – with people, huts and trucks. Tonle Sap’s water level fluctuates dramatically with the dry and rainy seasons. The main community of people living on the shore of the lake live in floating house boats. As the water recedes, their homes float further away from the main road and as it rises, they get closer to the city of Siem Reap. The houses we passed built on the dike are stationary. We had to drive further out into the lake bed to arrive at the floating village where our boat waited for us.

To get to the Stung Sangker river, we had to cross over part of the lake and enter into the mouth of the river. The lake was not interesting – just a big expanse of water. The Stung Sangker is what was fascinating. All the way down the river to the city of Battambang, we passed a series of riverscapes, with different kind of homes and lifestyles. The first kind of scenery we encountered was a wide river with flat river banks, bordered with floating fishing villages. Along the banks were green fields and palm trees. All kinds of homes could be found here, from floating shacks to more proper homes with four walls. At first I thought we were on a tourist boat since most of the passengers were like us, however, very quickly we discovered we were on a local boat used to taxi people down the river. Because it was the Chinese New Year, we stopped often in these little villages to pick up people who wanted to move down the river to their relatives’ homes, sometimes just a few miles away and for others, hours more along the river. Because we stopped frequently at the doors of the homes, we experienced quite an intimate view of the way people live. There were many children, playing inside their houses or sitting on little porches with their feet dangling in the water. They all waved at us like crazy! In many of the villages they even had floating schoolhouses, libraries and activity centers that included a chain-link fenced in floating basketball court. Many of the schools and activity centers sported signs saying they had been donated by UNICEF, which seems to have a pretty big presence in Cambodia, not surprisingly. Most interesting? The floating pig and chicken pens!

As we progressed, there were fewer villages and the riverbanks turned more wild. They were bordered by lush jungle and I shuddered to think of the mines that might have been hidden among the trees. Instead of large villages we would pass just a cluster of more modest floating houses or thatched-roof huts. It is quite humbling to see how people can make do with a one room hut with just a few cooking pots, a hammock and a sarong or two. It was also surprising to see some of these humble huts had large TV antennas on top and a TV and stereo inside.

After a while the scenery changed again, this time to a narrower, more shallow river that snaked among dry rice fields. The homes here were definitely  huts, and you could visibly tell that the area was poorer then the fishing villages. There were children everywhere, mostly naked, running around, waving at us. We also saw several farmers tilling their fields.

After several more hours of farmland, we entered an area where the riverbanks became more steep. They were covered in majestic, tall palm trees and weeping willows, and the homes here were more traditional – on stilts but made of cement or wood with walls and real roofs. The river straightened out and widened a bit as well. This was an area that was more populated and, unfortunately, the riverbanks were covered in the trash and garbage that the locals throw out their back windows. This is a problem that I have seen in Central America, the Middle East and China. I can understand that for developing countries, the environment is not the first priority, but it is a shame.  I know that I have seen public education campaigns to stop littering and the contamination of the rivers, but it is a difficult thing to spend money on when your people need medicine, food and shelter.

The trash got worse and worse until we knew for sure that we were within the city limits of Battambang. Battambang is the second-largest city in Cambodia and home to many ethnic Chinese and muslim Cambodians. We saw several large mosques along the river. The city was gearing up for Chinese New Year, which was kind of welcoming, seeing all the Chinese characters and decorations. We stayed the night at a mediocre guesthouse. I suffered for my stupidity of staying in my seat for 11 hours. I was dehydrated and exhausted and my ankles were swollen. Next time I am on a boat for 11 hours, I am getting up and walking around, no matter how crowded and difficult it is to move around.

From Battambang we arranged to take a taxi to the border because there are no public buses down the road we wanted to take. We had heard that the road was very bad and that it travels through the heart of an old Khmer Rouge stronghold, littered with mines. Turns out that the road is very good, although dirt and gravel, and it only took us a few hours to reach the border. We did pass many signs, in English and Cambodian, saying that the field beyond had been cleared of mines, usually by an organization called CMAC, with Cambodia and US flags. I wondered about all the fields we passed that didn’t have a sign. Had they been cleared yet? There were lots of small huts along the sides of the road and many fields appeared to be under cultivation (or awaiting rice-planting, as this is the dry season.) There were also lots of signs in Cambodian only, with pictures, warning children and adults of unexploded mines and other ordinance. I had read that there was a big education campaign in progress because some people who are new to an area don’t know about the mines.  I really wanted to stop and take pictures of the signs, but our driver didn’t speak any English and he was pretty bent on getting to the border as quickly as possible.

I found these photos of landmine billboards on the internet:

Click on the photos above to go to websites with more photos!

For further reading on landmines in Cambodia, and for some interesting photos of minefields, see these websites:
Cambodian Mine Action Center
Landmines in Cambodia
Cambodia Photo Gallery
Another set of Cambodia photos by a tourist (A really great set of photos, including some of the Tuol Sleng torture museum and Choueng Ek Killing Field, with mass graves and landmine removal.)
Cambodia Landmine Museum – In Siem Reap, but we didn’t get a chance to go.
More info on the musuem

We crossed the border at a place called Pruhm, and what a difference to Poipet. It took us only a few minutes and we were 2 of only 3 foreigners that had come through that day. The place was as sleepy a border crossing as I have ever seen! We practically had to wake the guard up to stamp our passports.  (Poipet was packed with Koreans and Thais crossing the border to go gambling in casinos and was full of people trying to get you to come to their hotel, or use their taxi.)

From Pruhm we continued via taxi for 2 hours to catch a ferry to Koh Chang island.  I was in desperate need of a hammock!

More Photos Within the Temple Complex

8 February 06

Yet more photos!
Here I am in a Tuk Tuk with our driver, and a few photos of some Cambodian people, and a modern Buddhist Wat, or temple.

Now come of some of my favorite photos… Several of the temples within the complex have not been reconstructed as thoroughly as Angkor Wat and Bayon. Here are some examples of how the jungle, if left to its own devices, would swallow all the temples up again… You may recognize some of these photos from the movie, “Tomb Raider.”

Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples were left to the jungle during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It was only in the late 80s and early 90s when some of these temples were hacked back out of the trees and grasses. Many of the sculptures, especially those of Buddha, were mutilated during the war and the whole complex fell into general disrepair, which for temples made of sandstone, is pretty bad for carvings, engravings and sculptures.

Photos from Bayon Temple

8 February 06

The following photos are from Bayon temple, which is within the Angkor Thom complex, just down the road from Angkor Wat.



These are photos revealing the dramatically inclined steps up to the central towers that are found on most all of the temples with the complex. What a climb!

The elephant above is used to carry tourists around Angkor Thom.

Angkor Wat Photos

7 February 06

I wanted to showcase some of the fabulous temples that we saw while at Angkor Wat.




The above photos are all from Angkor Wat. Tomorrow I will post some photos of the other temples within the complex.

Some General Thoughts Post Cambodia

6 February 06

For me, our trip to Cambodia was extremely enlightening and invaluable at reevaluating what is important to you. It is a country in a state of renewal. The year 1975 was declared “year zero” by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, and he pretty much decimated the culture, economy and people during his reign of terror. Since the mid-90’s the country has again started over, this time from the ashes of a brutal dictatorship and a cruel civil war. Much of the country still deals with the remnants of that terrible time in the form of landmines and other unexploded ordinance.

After living in an Asian culture for a few months, I became accustomed to seeing many elderly people, walking or sitting in parks. But not in Cambodia. You will be surprised to know that over 40% of the population is under 16, and I imagine close to the other 60% are under 60. You just don’t see older people there. You do see lots of children! Babies are everywhere!

What happened to the people? Over 2 million people were killed in Cambodia during Khmer Rouge times and many more fled the country. Intellectuals, doctors, educated people and Buddhist monks were targeted as were many of the adult population. If you have seen the movie “The Killing Fields,” then you know many of the atrocities of the war were carried about by children and young adults, in some cases against their own families. Similar to the Cultural Revolution in China, Pol Pot believed that to start a new, non-corrupted society he must begin with the non-corrupted – the children and the peasants who had never been exposed to the cities and to Western ideas.

I couldn’t help but wonder during my stay, how can a country possibly heal after something so terrible? Cambodians seem to be doing it by repopulating their country. By being positive. Really, I never expected to see so many smiles, especially from people not so far out of a period of extreme suffering. I also wonder, what has become of the child soldiers and former Khmer Rouge fighters? How do they reconcile their violent past with Cambodia’s peaceful future?

Cambodia will make you feel many things. First you will feel incredibly wealthy, even if you are far from it on your own standards. Then you will feel ashamed of your own materialism, your quest for goods. (And with the amount of interesting things to buy, it is difficult to resist.) You will feel guilty while haggling over the price of $2 t-shirt with a child who has no shoes. Maybe, if you come from China, like us, you may also temper this guilt with the shock that she is also trying to sell you a bracelet for a whole $1. A dollar? Does she know what she can buy for a dollar in China? (On the other hand, a dollar will feed her whole family for a day or two…) It was not as inexpensive as we expected although, most North Americans and Europeans will find it extremely cheap.

In Cambodia there are three currencies working side by side. Everyone is a math wizard, constantly changing between Riels, the official local currency, practically worthless at 4,000 to 1 USD, the Thai Baht, used a lot in the Western part of the country and a step up from Riels at 38 to 1 USD, and the preferred currency, the unofficial yet most widely sought – the US dollar. (I was pretty surprised by the colorful new bills. When I last lived in the US, they were all just plain green!) Everywhere you go the price is given in dollars first – restaurants, hotels, taxis, even on the cash registers at stores! I’m not really sure what all that means, economics not being my strong point, but wow, those Cambodian kids are sure good with exchange rates!

I encourage you to visit Cambodia. And if you want to feel a mixture of emotions, a view of a rapidly changing country and see history happening before your eyes, get there soon. If you can’t visit, but would like to know more, I recommend a couple of books on the subject. I’ve read “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, which will make you cry, and “The Lost Executioner” by Nic Dunlop, which will make you angry. There are many more good books on Cambodia, just search on amazon, barnes and noble or powells.

I hope that I can return to explore even more of the country. It is a place that I will never forget.