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Plastic Free July

Tips on how to combat the worst 4 plastics

It’s funny, a few people have said to me that they think it will be easier to try and focus on one plastic of the four, the thing is the four biggest are just the tip of the iceberg that we can see. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about ‘hidden’ plastic. For example, what restaurants use to prepare our meals, the plastic hiding in tea bags, the plastic packaging of so many products we use every day! It’s overwhelming… hence focusing on the Top 4!

Plastic Water Bottles
It is possible to get by in Cambodia without using plastic water bottles, a bit of organisation and know-how and it’s quite easy. Remote areas of Cambodia will have large clay/terracotta pots with drinking water in them, Trailblazer Foundation have done a tremendous job at providing remote communities and NGOs with water filters and a lot of restaurants have filtered or 20L bottled water. In Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville a lot of guesthouses have water filters and will refill your drink bottle for 1-2,000 riel (25-50 cents).


I did an experiment over the last week, if I used single use water bottles, I would have consumed around 28-30 500ml bottles – just me, just one week. It would have cost $3.50-$3.75, instead by using the 20L bottle it cost me around $0.50 for the whole week! So… over a year $26 versus $195. Cost effective and better for the environment don’t you think?

Myth! A lot of discussion occurs around minerals in water that are filtered out for the bottled water we drink. So I asked my doctor if I was missing out on any essential nutrients because of this. She told me the only mineral I need is fluoride, which I get in my toothpaste (foils my plan to go to plastic-free toothpaste, but there you go).

Plastic Shopping Bags
This is absolutely the easiest thing to avoid – easy!! I always take my own bag shopping and I’ve easily been able to avoid plastic shopping bags. Lessons learned when market shopping and I now have a container and some jars so I can buy tofu, coconut milk and fresh cut fruit without the need for a bag. Simple. Something new on the horizon will be kasava starch bags…. soon soon.


Take away cups
My philosophy is that coffee is a treat not a necessity. If I don’t have my own cup, I don’t need to get a coffee. You don’t need a fancy custom designed coffee cup for that purpose, you can use a jar or any other suitable item. If your coffee place is close to your work you can take a mug. For fruit shakes, I have a reusable bottle that I take and they shake-makers are happy to use it. At road side stalls, they usually have the reusable plastic cups for tea/water, so I ask them to use that for my shake – easy 🙂

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Okay… this is the hard one! I take a bamboo straw with me everywhere, I ask in Khmer for no straw, I choose drinks I know won’t come with a straw and… with a week to go, I have accumulated at least a dozen straws in July 😦 Help!!!!! Please send in suggestions, advice, anything to help combat straws… small but nasty!

Plastic Free July

Meet Mr Sopheap

Meet Mr Sopheap, a teacher in a rural school outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. We met Sopheap through the Plastic Free July initiatives in Cambodia and we think he’s so fantastic we want to share his story with you.

Sopheap lives around 25 km from Siem Reap. When he was young he would ride his bicycle into town every day so that he could go to school. This in itself shows the determination he had to learn. Now he’s a teacher and spends his day between two schools inspiring and teaching the children of his village. The first time we met, a mutual friend took me out to his house, we sat outside under a wooden shelter and talked about our passion for the environment, our friend patiently waited as we talked for hours. I was and still am inspired by what Sopheap has achieved. He is very humble about it and humble in his lifestyle that it warms my heart to know how much he gives to his community.

Where Sopheap lives, the road is mostly clay. We’re now entering rainy season and this road is a nightmare in the wet weather. For the weeks leading up to rainy season, he has rallied the community to spend a little bit of time each Saturday morning to put some sand on top of the clay and top it up to help them through the wet weather. Then he gives them lunch in gratitude.

He is working on a composting project and again, involves the community to share this knowledge and the fruit that it bears.

And he is working on waste management, though there are few easy solutions at this time. Siem Reap only gained a waste management company in the last 12 or so months, step out of the town and there’s nothing. Yet, plastic wrapped snacks and drinks have easily made their way into the villages, leaving villagers with a bit of a mess and a big problem with how to dispose the waste. Despite this, Sopheap encourages the people in his village to separate items and keep the rubbish together and any opportunity he’ll send some back to town where it can be disposed of a little better than it can be in the village. For a very long time Cambodians would burn their waste, which was fine when it was lotus and banana leaves… now that plastic has made it’s appearance the disposal methods haven’t changed but no one warned the Cambodian people of the perils of burning plastic… until now.

Last week he invited me to visit his school and speak with the children. We started the session with a clean up around the schoolyard and neighbouring areas. Then all children were industrious in washing their hands, great to see when personal hygiene is still lacking in many areas of Cambodia. There was so much enthusiasm in this process! We then sorted through the rubbish to see what the worst culprits were and we asked the kids what they thought too. We had a great discussion about plastic vs nature, how to use less plastic bags and water bottles and why it’s bad to burn plastic. The kids were interested and asked questions and will continue to learn from Sopheap in their regular classes.

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With Sopheap determined to teach his village about the issues of plastic, I’m honoured to be able to support and encourage and help in any small way I can. He already knows what needs to be done, but it’s always more fun with a friend.

Plastic Free July

July 1 – let’s get this started

The day began with a visit to ABCs and Rice school to set up an area for the senior class to put their plastic for the month. The teacher who’s been helping out my weekly class here at Mr Thorn from the farm were on hand but really Mr Thorn did it all, we provided encouragement and posed for the photos! He let us help a bit 😉

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Then a bit of admin work before going to meet up with representatives from the main organisations supporting the campaign. We ended up being a small group but we felt like we had some immensely productive discussion. One of the topics being tackled in Siem Reap at the moment is the use of plastic straws. Many organisations have made a change to bamboo, though I still feel like we don’t really need a straw all the time anyway. Sara from Haven Training Restaurant said they never give a straw unless their customer requests one, which is 4-5 per day. She feels this was still really damaging for the environment but wasn’t sure about being able to clean bamboo straws well. So they did some experiments and have found they can effectively clean, then sterilise the straws in boiling water before they get used again – brilliant!


Nesa from JWOC teaches the students science with a strong focus on the environment and wanting to make changes to how we see plastic. She was happy to take a bit of food away in the biodegradable packaging that New Leaf Book Cafe supplied.

saraherhodes-nesa-takeaway saraherhodes-eco-takeaway

From this meeting, Sara and I went over to Haven – today was a special day for the team at Haven – they were receiving their goody bag kits to help them in their Plastic Free July commitments, plus a ‘dilemma’ bag for when things don’t quite go as planned. They’re starting with 1 week of trying to use no plastic…

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Next meeting; with a friend starting to look at introducing biodegradable shopping bags. Early days but he had some samples which were great to see! and touch! They’re strong, they feel nice and the even smell natural! My colleague Sambath then joined us for a quick game plan discussion pre the launch party in the evening. The first ‘dilemma’ for me occurred here. Despite asking for no straw… my drink order came with a straw! Then Sambath embraced the opportunity to talk to the manager and he got them signed on to give up straws for the month of July! Brilliant!!


Then it was time to spruce up and get to the venue! Swing by the restaurant doing the catering – who were a generous supporter of the event, then get ready at Long’s Bar the venue chosen to launch Plastic Free July due to their eco friendly attitude.

As people flooded in it became even more apparent how much people care about this issue and it was wonderful and reassuring that we can make a difference. A brief speech explaining how the campaign works and some excellent questions from the crowd and my was it a crowd!

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At the end of the month we will donate any collected plastic to local NGO/projects that are reusing plastic waste to create great things! Rehash Trash will take plastic bags and make fancy handbags and cute nesting bowls. Eco Soap will be able to distribute more of their soap to NGOs and hygiene projects when we give them more containers for the soap and Husk will use all the little bits and pieces in their plastic bricks project. Just great work by all!


More for you soon, in the meantime, take care of each other and take care of the planet.

Sarah x

Plastic Free July

… before July

Written on the eve of Plastic Free July

Tomorrow is the day, well the official day, that Plastic Free July makes it’s way to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The truth is, it really began in February.

When Climate Reality Project shared a video to its leaders and encouraged us to share them, a small group of environmental enthusiasts and some unsuspecting digital nomads watched a short video on climate change and they began to respond. The grade 2 classes at one of the international schools were the first to get a greater insight into what they can do to waste less – hey, they even gave us a few tips! A local school in the temple area was next; they focussed on recycling and environment one day a week for a month, making skipping ropes from old plastic bags and learning why using less to look after our planet is in their power.

In April, whilst aiming to raise awareness, Shinta Mani Resort ran an inspiring event; inviting local business owners to an afternoon of networking and sharing initiatives on waste reduction. In the lead up to this event I boldly volunteered myself as a speaker, then immediately was intimidated and nervous at the prospect of talking to so many people on a topic so dear to me in a town so new to me! Well, it was a hit and there was an article in the local paper!! (Read the Phnom Penh Post article here!)

Then Plastic Free July was on! Out in the open, unleashed in Siem Reap.

With the official start of the campaign tomorrow I feel as though we’re already making a huge difference. Over the last 3 months, local businesses and education providers have made time to discuss the environment and how we can all make changes to make a huge, positive difference. I feel extremely proud of the trainees and staff at Haven Training Restaurant, the seniors class at ABCs and Rice, the staff taking the lead at JWOC and the inspiring perseverance to make this a core learning area at many of the schools in and near Siem Reap.

We’re proud to be holding a community event at New Leaf Book Café – a wonderful social enterprise in the heart of town for these businesses and education facility staff to get together and share ideas – forging an ongoing group to support one another and continue to make a positive change.

We’re excited to kick off the month with a launch party at Long’s Bar – a new local bar with environment at the core of their business (and mighty fine drinks); where they’ve sought out reusable straws and made their furniture from delivery crates – a first in Siem Reap (the second I know of in Cambodia) – eat your heart out Australia 😉

In the last two weeks the most heart-warming and wonderful thing has happened. I got a volunteer to help me out, we met for coffee to talk about volunteering as I also work for a responsible tourism organisation called ConCERT, the next thing I knew, Sam was putting out her hand to help with Plastic Free July! The following day as I left a meeting in Prasat Chhas village, where more great people are bringing this message to their villages and schools, I met another Australian working in education here in Siem Reap and her head teacher; both keen to join the campaign and 30 metres down the road I was to meet my next volunteer, Sambath, who’s been quietly influencing people in Battambang where he’s from and tourists who he takes on tours around Cambodia, inspiring them to take care of the environment.

Now they’re flooding in, it’s so wonderful that everyone sees the need and the urgency to make a positive difference.

This is just a small part of what I’ve experienced in the lead up to July and I can’t wait to share more stories with you as the month goes on.

Take care of each other and take care of the planet,

adventures in cambodia, travel

Where is Penang?

A question I was asked many times before leaving on my holiday to Penang, Malaysia. On Thursday I left Siem Reap bright and early to catch a plane to Malaysia. Recently when my friend Markus was visiting, I met a new tuk tuk driver and he really impressed us with his communication, honesty and generosity, in fact after he dropped us off at dinner one night, he came back to say he wouldn’t be available later to pick us up. We hadn’t paid him. So we booked him to take Markus to the airport – where he apologised for letting us down and wouldn’t let Markus pay! So I booked him for this trip. On arrival he thanked me profusely for the payment and said he wouldn’t normally charge me but his niece is sick at the moment so he needed the cash! What a generous guy.

Anyway, after a couple of short flights and a short wait in between, I arrived in Penang. Wow! The drive in from the airport was nice, however, as we got closer to the city (George Town) the mish-mash of building types was so interesting and alluring I was excited (if still groggy from travel) to be there. We pulled up to the hotel, Hotel Panaga, it was a heritage style and extremely beautiful hotel. Good work to my friends who booked it! The staff attention to detail and organisation was a bit off but the stay was great and I’d stay there again!

The reason for my trip was to catch up with my best friend and her husband. They live in London so we’re lucky if we see each other once a year, them being in Malaysia was too good an opportunity not to meet up. They’d been there for a week prior to me and in that same hotel, so they organised an extra bed for the first night as we were then booked into a beach side hotel for the rest of the trip. What I hadn’t realised (probably due to a lack of appropriate questions on my behalf) is that Jimmy’s parents would be here during the trip , for some reason I’d thought they were meeting in KL and Penang was a side trip for us, silly assumption. Anyway, it was wonderful, we all met for dinner at a local drinks/food court and it was lovely to see them, and Jimmy’s sister, again. The last time was at Nat and Jimmy’s wedding last April in Perth. We then took a stroll around the bay near the ferries and watched a spectacular lightning storm light up the sky!
The following morning Jimmy’s dad drove us out to Kek Lok Si temple and Penang Hill, which were beautiful and impressive. The giant Kuan Yin statue (Goddess of Mercy) at the top of the mountain was serenely beautiful! The trip to Penang Hill was an exhilarating ride in a vernacular/train and such a stunning treat; we sat facing backwards as the city melted away and we were engulfed in lush green trees as we were pulled up to the top of the mountain. The top of the mountain was a fascinating and weird conglomerate of photo op spots, animals, Hindu temples, playgrounds and an owl museum.
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Back in town we got a very cool whirlwind tour of the George Town street art. Apparently it was Lee’s fourth or fifth tour! A very fun hop out, take a photo, hop back in the car again spin through town and the artworks were fun and creative!
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After this we took off to Batu Ferringhi, up the coast. We took the appropriate steps to enjoy the pool and free drinks! Then went for a wander through the local night markets. It wasn’t very alluring for my taste… so that was short-lived, we had some dinner, Char Keoy Teow, and called it a night.

It was a treat being in such a plush hotel, my last trip (Phnom Penh) wasn’t lavish and the grotty bathroom was a turn off. So, 4 star luxury with fluffy pillows, a killer view and a huge TV was out of this world compared to my now, very humble, lifestyle in Cambodia.
The following day we went to see some local galleries and unexpectedly strolled along the coast until we found the spice garden and some restaurants. We didn’t go into the spice garden but we did visit the café with a view over the water. We ducked back to the hotel for a short rest and then went to see the sleeping Buddha and some very shiny temples before going to an epic seafood buffet dinner, which was Nat and Jimmy’s thank you to their parents, sister and grandma. It was a nice night and a lot of fun! Watching Jimmy bring plates and plates of food over to his grandma and mum, then his sister doing the same – there were mountains of food! I sat opposite his dad who was alternating between his bowl of Cendol (jelly, ice cream, ice and condensed milk) and his savoury dishes – very entertaining and he was as happy as a kid in a candy store!
Sunday was the last day; we had a lazy morning and then went to the spice garden, this time with Jimmy’s dad and sister – which was perfect because Jimmy’s dad is a chef and it was a lot of fun to do it with everyone! Then we went through town and saw some more street art, which was a little more relaxed as it was new for everyone and then we went to Jimmy’s grandma’s place – where we could see the Kuan Yin statue and Penang Hill (!!!), before going for dinner and then out to the airport. After some farewells, there was a little more time before my flight so I sat and wrote.saraherhodes-spice-garden
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Visiting Penang was excellent; I was there too short a time and cannot wait to visit again. Though I felt removed from Siem Reap it was my first time away that I felt a strong desire to get back there. Unfortunately on minimal sleep and straight into a full day work shop but hey, I had to max my holiday time!

adventures in cambodia, travel

Anzac Day 2015

Around 4:45 on Saturday 25 April I entered the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh to attend the 100 years anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli.

As guests to the embassy we were welcomed in warmly and directed to programs and candles… And coffee, Anzac biscuits and rum!

As the courtyard filled up it was wonderful to see so many families; the next generation of Australians will also know the significance of this day.

The significance of us gathering together at dawn, the time that the first of the Australian troops to join World War 1 left their ships to row and land on a treacherous beach to fight against the Turks. My great grandfather, Lance Rhodes, was one of them; he lost one good mate before they even made it ashore and his closest friend during that first day. After 6 months of training in Egypt and a stint on Lemnos Island until they were called into action, the Australians (and New Zealanders) were raring to go, what they got was much more than they anticipated. They took it stoically, bravely and fiercely. This was the beginning of 4 years of fighting, the beginning of what is now known as the Anzac Spirit, and this year was the 99th commemoration of this event.

The chatter and warbling of Miner birds and roosters crowing were an interesting change to the squawks of cockatoos and familiar warble of magpies.

The service was well presented, the New Zealand and Australian national anthems were sung and then it concluded. People milled around for a time, photos were taken of servicemen representing Australia, New Zealand and Cambodia.

After a short chat with a visitor from Sydney I walked over to the Cambodiana Hotel. I was reading a book from a photo journalist, Roland Nuveu, who was in Phnom Penh when it fell in 1975, one of his photos was of the Cambodiana. Here I met a girl from Sydney doing an internship at the war tribunal (where my friend Marion interned a year or two ago). She had recently the great pleasure of meeting the author of that book!

The gunfire breakfast was done well. Full buffet and a special feature – Vegemite! It all wrapped up pretty quickly and this formal part of my day was over by 7:30. Not realising this would be the case and my guesthouse being conveniently located across the road I went back for a rest. I received some photos from my mum of my brother and grandpa at Semaphore’s service. Had a quick call with my friend in the army who was in Canberra. He assured me that Anzac biscuits and rum were standard… Ah, maybe only if you’re an officer!

After a rest I rejoined the world, seeking an Aussie hangout. What I found was an excellent Aussie pub, aptly named Aussie XL, just a little way down 51st street. The footy was on the TV and there was a great atmosphere. After meeting Wally, Loretta and John I let them focus on the footy while I focused on a schnitzel – so great! Such a lovely bunch; Wally paid for my lunch, Loretta and I will meet for coffee and John and I swapped business cards.

To conclude the day, I went to the palace to meet a friend. Whilst waiting for her I was the centre of attention; do I want to buy this or that snack, give a young kid a dollar, share my phone screen with a couple of inquisitive tikes? No.

Sarun arrived and saved the day by sweeping me off to roof top drinks. It was an excellent evening and an Anzac Day to remember.

adventures in cambodia

thngai nis geu thngai brohor

Today is Thursday.

My day began around 5am, as it usually does. The slightest start to the days’ activities sets ‘our’ dog, Lucky, off. I say ‘our’ because the family who me and my housemate rent from live in the house immediately behind ours, so I’ll claim Lucky as our dog. Wish he was more obedient. So after 2 hours of listening to barking, I dragged myself out of bed. As I walk into the hallway I’m greeted by a wall of heat – it’s going to be hot again today! I drink about half a litre of water to rehydrate, shower, dress and make some coffee. Not sure where the time went, I pack my bag, finish my coffee, tidy up a few things and head for the door. I padlock the front door behind me, put my shoes on and unchain my bicycle. As I open the front gate I see two or three tuk tuks parked across the driveway, I pull the gate closed and latch it. Time to ‘be water’.

The traffic isn’t bad today, in fact things are noticeably quieter in the lead up to Khmer New Year next week. Many Cambodians will be going to their homelands for the celebrations, which officially last 3 days but almost everyone takes a week or more off.

Because today is Thursday, I go to school for my Khmer lesson. The road that the school is on is under construction, so it’s dirt, pretty bumpy and they water down the dirt to keep the dust under control which means lots of mud puddles to avoid (especially on learning that it may or may not be waste water they use). It’s been a couple of months since I began lessons and I’m improving much more this way than through immersion! Though I realise when I arrive that I didn’t do my homework! Oops. I manage to improvise my way through the homework component of the class. Next week there will be no class because of new year.

After this I stop by my office at ConCERT where I’d left my laptop charger yesterday. Then carry on to the computer shop to get a new mouse. Gifting back the mouse I got there a few months ago that has already broken – I don’t think it was really a Dell – maybe a Dill. My usual co-working place is closed for relocation so I ride to a well known cafe that are well set up for working in, Common Grounds. The internet is a little slow today. Then I see my friend, she’s on her lunch break from the NGO she works at, we chat briefly about her pending trip to Borneo over the new year break. Back to work.

Three hours speed by, then I get a message from my friend and owner of the coworking space – lunch? Sure. We talk about a fundraising project we’re both working on and then part ways. I ride home, cannot afford more cafes nor do I want to consume anything except water. In the living area, fan whirling…. it’s hot. I’m locked out of the website for the fundraising project – this is a good interlude. I work on other projects and try to contact my little brother again – it’s his birthday today!

Then it’s time to go and meet a friend for dinner and one of her friends I haven’t met before. We start our evening with a lovely pre dinner drink near the river and some (slightly too loud) jazz. Then find our way to a nice place for dinner. It’s a restaurant where one of our friends is the sales manager and I also have a discount card. We enjoy a lovely dinner and I discover that Socheata’s boyfriend works for AusTraining (now Scope Global) how funny! We think we might meet up in Phnom Penh in a few weeks time when we are all there for various reasons (I’ll be going for Anzac Day). Before I know it, it’s time to go, Thursday is usually soccer but we have this week off for new year. It happens to be ABCs and Rice night for the quiz at Ivy Guesthouse. So off I go.

I arrive just as it’s starting; though I spend the first 10 minutes chatting with Tammy – then she has to go and relieve the babysitter. It’s $1 to play the quiz, tonight I pay $5 – I think of it as a birthday present for my bro. On my right is a lovely lady who works at a local pizza place and her colleague is sitting opposite me. We chat. Not much quizzing going on! Yarin and I realise we’ve met before at our mutual friend’s house! Small world. We concentrate on the quiz for a little while, then finish up and go home. I put my helmet on and my bike lights, then cycle home. It’s quiet now, around 10-10.30pm and there isn’t much traffic. It’s quite peaceful and makes an enjoyable ride home.

Once inside the gate, I lock the gate padlock (job for the last person in each night), lock my bicycle (I’ve learned my lesson), tell Lucky ‘it’s just me’ in hopes he’ll stop barking a little more promptly, unlock the padlock to get inside and then loop it back through. My housemate is away tonight so I’m on my own. Though I thought the family were away too but they were all home a little earlier which I find reassuring.

adventures in cambodia

a line in the sand…

Almost 6 months in Cambodia or should I say in Siem Reap and it was definitely time to take a break from everything.

I knew in my heart that it was time to move on from my part time job but it was my only source of income, so the sensible thing I’m sure was to spend my entire month’s wage on a trip to an island to reflect. Literally using sand as a line to cross and have the space to make sure this was the right decision.

It was.

Even before I left I met wonderful people with potential opportunities to work together (voluntarily of course) and the best news, a chance to work with the NGO I’ve been wanting to work with since I learned about them in 2013, ConCERT Cambodia.

On my return to Siem Reap (I’ll write another blog about the island), I was given another opportunity to help with a fundraising campaign to support people with disabilities in Siem Reap! Well… it just so happens that my calendar has freed up and what a great project to be involved in! My yoga teacher is riding his bicycle from here to Europe. Yes, Europe. He also teaches yoga to people with disabilities (as well as children, Khmer ladies, etc) and through this met some passionate locals who thought his bike ride could be a good vehicle (pun intended) for fundraising. So now Hans on Wheels is about to take off!

Another passion I’ve been lining up for a while is to initiate a Plastic Free July campaign here in Siem Reap (and maybe beyond if it goes well!). Having spoken with one of the founders in Australia for some support and inspiration, I’m now chatting with locals who have organised clean up days and other environmental awareness activities. I’ve been chatting with Tammy at ABCs and Rice about doing some great projects with the kids. I’ve got so many ideas for this; it’s going to be wonderful!

My diary is now full of projects that I truly care about and know I can give a lot of value to. I might be poor in a couple of months but I’ll be happy ☺*

Outside of this I am still playing soccer and last week my team played 3 games! We even have our own uniform now and are about to get a logo put on the back – Roar Girls!

*donations welcome LOL

adventures in cambodia

Christmas in a Buddhist country

The last couple of weeks have been a blur. I feel disconnected from family and friends during what is usually a time of year spent together. It’s not to say I haven’t had fun, au contraire, it’s been great fun! Just a little different.

There wasn’t really a festive vibe, the closest thing I got to being festive was to go to one of the big hotels in town with my soccer friends for a few cheesy photos. To be honest, any occasion with them involves cheesy photos, gotta love ’em. In fact if anyone made this a Christmas to remember it was definitely my lovely friends from soccer.

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In the week or two before Christmas, the major hotels and some of the smaller ones decked out their frontages in Christmas lights, fake snow, presents and the biggest ones even attracted popcorn and fairy floss vendors! After our last soccer game of the year we went to visit one such hotel to be a little merry. This may have resulted in getting kicked off the Christmas display and I’m sure many other offences but it was a lot of fun. The lights around town made it very pretty and I think there were more lights than I’d seen in Adelaide!

Then it was pretty much life as normal up until Christmas Day. I did sneak in one or two Christmas dinners, but they were really just excuses to catch up with friends.

Christmas Eve was meant to be a quiet affair but ended up with friends at a local bar and this is something I usually do so it was really nice. I was with some close friends and some of their friends and it’s the kind of place where I bumped into more friends and it ended up being quite a late night! One friend wore a Santa hat and the owner of the bar was decked out in a green three-piece suit – very jolly.

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Christmas Day I was up early, hoping to have pancakes and hot chocolate with my housemate. Whilst waiting for her to emerge (she celebrated Christmas Eve), I went to the local market to pick up some food for the evening and to get a gift for the family we rent from. I returned, still no sign of the housemate, and started making eggnog, chatted to my family in a somewhat chaotic series of phone calls and then got ready for lunch with my ‘school friends’. Lunch was at the Raffles Hotel, which is a rather swanky place! The front is pristine on the border of sparse; white gravel driveway, cream colonial style building. Walking inside everything is different, a smartly dressed man opened the door and I entered the foyer to a Christmas tree and carollers! I said hi to everyone but most were already at the buffet. As I walked into the buffet room, yes an entire room, I got two surprises: there was more food than I’d ever seen in one place before and one of my lovely soccer team mates was there with her family! Yay!


After lunch there was some time to go home and relax before I’m not sure how many people would be coming to my place in the evening. It turned out to be most of the soccer team and their families and it was really great! A few kids in tow and I briefly was worried how they would amuse themselves, then realised that they’re Cambodian so cushions and shadow puppetry and little bit of pop music and they were set. My Khmer friends took over the kitchen and I kept the drinks topped up. We had wine and eggnog, dumplings, garlic bread and cold rolls, and more cake and biscuits than you could count. The daughter of our land lord and land lady visited bringing an armful of soft drinks, snacks and a gift for my housemate and I. It was really sweet.

Things dwindled and I thought it was going to be it for the night when the girls let me in on their plan to head to town and paint it red.



Bon om tuk

From the day I arrived in Siem Reap people were talking about the water festival. An annual festival, which has not taken place for the last 3 years! Held at the start of November in alignment with the beginning of rice harvest and the full moon, there are 3 days of holiday and most people observed them (holidays in Cambodia tend to be ‘optional’, possibly because there are a lot of them. For example, apparently there is one this week, unbeknownst to me I have agreed to start a new job on that day!).

Also during my first couple of weeks in Siem Reap I was staying at a guest house (Babel) on one side of the river and going to an office (Angkor Hub) on the other, I would walk to the office and part of my morning walk would be along the Siem Reap River. I could see workmen constructing a wooden platform but I wasn’t really sure what it was for. A lot of people were at the river in the morning; fishing or bathing or gathering up water plants. I later learned that it was a viewing platform for the water festival.

I was still a little unclear on what this festival would entail, I was actually visualizing one epic water fight! Ha! Then I discovered that it is actually a series of boat races. What was also unclear was any semblance of a schedule. Even with a local at the office, he found it hard to get any information from the Ministry of Tourism, so information evolved slowly through a series of informational posts on Facebook.

As it drew closer to the start of the festival, roadsides were paved, lights were strung up, marquees were erected and a buzz around town was evident. As mentioned, this was to be the first festival after several years without, so everyone was very excited. I even had a couple of friends visit from Phnom Penh because the festival there was even larger with a LOT more people and much chaos.

The night before the festival started, the river was lined with teams preparing for the big race; tents, boats and trailers everywhere. The food cavalry had rolled in too and there were food carts for at least a kilometre each side of the river. A friend and I took a stroll, not many other people were around so we had a chance to chat and have a laugh with some of the stall holders. Everyone was very excited about the days ahead.

Knowing roughly when the races would start, a few of us met at a nearby cafe for some lunch and then by sheer chance ended up with a prime position sitting on the river bank where we could see the finish line of the race. Each race consisted of two teams and they raced throughout the day in order to determine rankings for the following day. As each race passed, the crowd on the river bank got closer and closer together and people in the front row were in a very perilous position! No one seemed to mind. Nor were they at all embarrassed to openly observe (read: stare) at the foreigners amongst them 🙂

Later we took a walk and bumped into a friend from ABCs who I’d yet to connect with since returning to Siem Reap, he took us over to the food area of the festival. The Royal Gardens were transformed into a huge festival area with cultural demonstrations, alcohol tastings and open air beer ‘tents’, as well as a small market (in the event you were looking for a kettle, toaster or hair straighteners, it was all there!!). No stall, no drama; people walked around with massive platters of food and sold to people that were sitting on the grass or milling around in the festival area. We found a ‘table’ – some cardboard boxes on the ground, and promptly had our orders taken. Spring rolls were on offer to buy from the roaming food purveyors and in between the ear piercingly loud commentary from the ‘beer tent’ host, there was some great music. We separated from the group for some to freshen up and then were to reconvene in town for the farewell drinks of our friend and volunteer, Vicky. Vicky and I stayed around the festival a little longer and got to see some bokator demonstrations before making our way into town to meet up with the rest of our crew.

On the second day of the festival we returned to the river and the format for the day seemed to be knock out style. It was said that the winner of the Siem Reap boat races would go onto Phnom Penh to race the final day with the winners from races in the capital.

We changed vantage points a few times through the day and also had a good look at the viewing platform, which had transformed from a bamboo structure to have an elaborate tent with lots of satin and tulle, to accommodate all of the dignitaries. Our mission for the day was to eat from all of the stalls; corn on the cob, pancakes, sticky rice served in bamboo, ice creams made from local fruit, mystery meat on sticks and in the end some delicious barbecue chicken – it was a superb feast! In our wanderings we bumped into some bar staff we’d befriended (through regular patronage) and they had been given a couple of hours off work to enjoy the festival. One girl managed to drag me onto the ferris wheel and I think we managed to go for two rounds before I asked her nicely if I could get off!! The other two of my party, stayed firmly away and thought I was very brave (read: totally insane) for going on the ferris wheel.

My friends from Phnom Penh missed all of the fun but took advantage of visiting the temples while everyone else was preoccupied with the water festival. We all spent the remaining day of the holiday at a pool totally relaxing! It was a completely wonderful festival and it was extremely well run. Having studied event management and planned many events myself, I could not fault the management of this one, it was seriously impressive. I can also now understand why everyone was so excited, such a great vibe in the town and I look forward to next year’s festival!

A little history about the water festival, courtesy water festival event management:

The history of the Regatta Festival has been chronicled by the Cambodian people and also foreigners for a very long time. In fact, the festival is depicted in stones of the Angkorian period. There are three different histories to the festival, each quite distinctive.

1. According to the chronicle of King Jayavarman V11 in the ancient Academic Buddhist Institute, it is claimed, int he 12th century of the Angkorian Era, Cambodia had achieved peace and prosperity following Preah Bath Jayavarman V11’s success in a naval war with the neighbouring chams. The war victory (1177-1181AD) liberated Cambodia and is inscribed on the bas relief of the Bayon Temple and the Banteay Chhmar Temple. On the bas relief there are images of the navy with Preah Bath Jayavarman V11 bravely wielding a fighting stick and bow on the royal barge.

2. According to documentation written by Mr Trach Pen, the lay teacher of the Academic Buddhist College in Kampuchea Kraom Kleang Khet, it is mentioned that in the Longvek Era (2017BE – 1528 AD), Preah Bath Ang Chann 1 appointed Ponhea Tat to the position of King Tranh (District King) of Kampuchea Kraom Bassak District.

Racing at the junction allowed easier access for many provinces. The event because an annual tradition providing the navy with the opportunity to show its military prowess.

3. It is said that the water festival is one of the most spectacular traditional events. It is described as being similar to some festivals held in the north of Europe today. Some traditionalists claim the history of the festival lies in close connection with the history of Buddha, however, others translate that the festival represents a thanksgiving to the Gods of Water and Earth for providing the livelihood and welfare for the Cambodian people. One final translation relates to the festival following the tradition of Bahmanism and reflecting the daily lit elf the farming community.

The District King assigned a royal administration to defend his district. He divided his navy into three different types of boats with his troops trained in specific fighting styles.

Group 1 – The Vanguard: A boat that is similar in shape to today’s racing boat.
Group 2 – The Reserve Army: The rowing boats travelled two abreast.
Group 3 – Bassak Army: A large boat with a roof structure, fixed oars and a sail. This boat is similar in shape to the traditional used on the Bassak. The boat was used primarily to store the army’s supplies.

The navy was headed by the Kind on Earth and King Tranh who directed four ministers (Four Columns). During the period of the full moon in November that fe four ministers mobilised their troops for a campaign for one day and one night. The navy was ordered to a boat race on the river Peam Kanthao in Khet Kleang at a junction of he river.

The water festival is held on the full moon in November coinciding with the rainy season. During this time the lakes flood creating great seas and in turn it is time to harvest the rice. When the Mekong River swells during the period August to November, the waters flow into the Tonle Sap Lake from the south to the north Then in the low water season following November, the lake waters ebb and the flow reverses back from the Tonle Sap in to the Mekong River from the north to the south. This annual flooding of the Mekong River, with its sources in Tibet, provides the livelihood for many Cambodian farmers.

The silt that is carried by the flood waters is extremely fertile, providing rich resource for Cambodia. The crops produced in the low water season are essential to the welfare of the Cambodian People.

For this reason, the Khmer people choose the full moon of the Khe Kadek as the time to conduct the water festival, the procession of illuminated floats, the salutation to the moon and the Auk Ambok as a means to express their profound thanks to the Mekong River and Tonle Sap River.

The festival is usually held for three days i.e. the 14th and 15th of the waxing moon and the 1st of the waning moon. Festivities take place in front of the Royal Palace.

This festival consecrates Preah Changkaun Keo (the main parts of Buddha) in the Naga World and the Buddha’s footprints in the five directions detailed below. The Khmer people conduct this festival during the full moon of November, it is believed that great merit and prosperity will be provided to the country.

In Pali Teathavong scripture it is said that the four Preah Changkaum Keo are dedicated in four directions: Traitrowend Paradise, Naga World, Srok Kanthea and Toan Borakaling Roat in Pali Pheana Veara it si that that the footprints of Buddhalocated in five directions: SovannMealika Barapoat, Sovann Barapoat, Sovann Koda Barapoat, Yoonka Borei and Stoeng Neamatea. In th prose of Pali praise of Preah Bath ‘Yortha Bate’ it is also said that Buddha’s footprints are located in five directions as in Pheana Veara.

The Festival of the Sampeah Preah Khe and Auk Ambok:

Sampeah Preah Khe means the salutation to the moon. Auk Ambok means the offering of bananas and Ambok. This tradition is based on ancient Khmer legends in the first phase of Pali scripture of Baramathatibani Atha Katha Chariya Bedak, it is said that the Great Buddha was born on the full moon as Sasa Bandit of ‘Wise man born in the form of the Rabbit’.

Indra decided to test the faces by disguising himself as an old Brahman and begged for Sasa Bandit’s flesh as food. Sasa Bandit told the old Brahman to light a fire and once the fire was burring strongly he shook himself three times to let the insects perched on him to escape and then leapt into the flames. Fortunately the flames did not touch Sasa Bandit and the old Brahman hurried to carry him to the moon in his arms.He drew an image of the rabbit on the moon in Maneang Sela ‘plaster’ and wished the figure of the rabbit long life. Under the power of the Buddha and the resolution of Indra, the shape of the rabbit has appeared in the moon ever since. To reflect this belief the Khmer people celebrate it annually during the full moon of the Khe Kadek. They prepare special cakes, Ambok and bananas to salute the moon.