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.


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.