Written for Soul Hair Design, Siem Reap.
“Hi Deb, any chance of a quick chop chop today, please?”
“Sure, darling” echoes from the other end of the line and I am booked in for 4:30.
It’s been a while…. A few months at least with some brave self-hair-mutilation interventions. Will she notice? Of course she will. I casually glance in the mirror and my hair has never looked so long and good. Are you kidding me? “Maybe you should cancel the appointment” the little voice in my head whispers. It’s a mixture of an optical illusion brought up by the dim light in my bathroom and my mind playing tricks on me, I am sure. I am in a severe need of professional help and I know it. The appointment remains firmly in my diary.
I can’t put my finger on why I am so hesitant having my hair cut. There were times when I would put the visit of a hairdresser in the same category as the visit of a dentist. The roots (excuse the pun) must lie deep in my past. Having grown up with only a few straight, wispy strands by the age of 10 I was getting used to the bowl cut but far from loving it. Mousy brownness wouldn’t help my looks in those days either but what can one do at the age of 10? Not much. Back in the “commy” days there was little room for individuality and both my hair and my mum knew it.
Everything changed around the time the Velvet Revolution was making waves and democracy slowly established its presence in the very heart of Europe. My hair, following the rebellious mood hanging heavily in the air and my own puberty hormones, suddenly – I swear it was overnight – embarked on its own unruly journey. The ever so popular “undercut”, the trademark of the late 80’s along with leggings and fluro-fashion found many fans in the rows of my friends and naturally, I followed in (shell) suit. The result was something resembling a full head of cauliflower. These days I am wiser and I know my limits. Back in the 80’s I cried my eyes out and got zero sympathy from my mother who found it quite amusing and thought I got exactly what I asked for. I guess from then on I was scarred for life.
So, no more undercuts, I said to myself. In fact, I am trying to grow my hair long but it’s just not happening or I am too impatient. Who knows? And what is the point anyway? Here in the tropics I mostly end up wearing it up otherwise it feels like having a mop on the top of my head with trickles of sweat forming rivers in the middle of my back. But one should at least try to keep up appearances...
The minute she touches my hair and starts massaging my scalp with sweet smelling shampoo I am in heaven. When I am rich and famous I am going to employ my own hairdresser, that's a promise. Then my locks get covered in another sweet smelling substance and my scalp massaged some more. If I was a cat I would be purring. The rain, which started coming down gently some minutes ago is now hammering on the roof with such force that even a loud conversation is impossible. I drift, relax and let Deb do her magic. She's not taking off much, just the dead ends. Snip snip. It will make my life easier and I won't have to deal with a dead mouse in the bathroom every time I wash my hair. Then out come the GHDs, my frizz gets smoothed out and I am almost ready to go.
Murphy's Law clearly states that the level of effort and time spent at the salon will be destroyed by equally powerful force summoned by all weather Gods out there and the howling wind and drumming rain is confirming just that. I glance for the last time at my smooth curtain of hair and sigh. Before I get completely soaked and covered in mud from head to toe I will have the rare opportunity to prove to Deb that I simply missed my profession by picking up a camera rather than a pair of scissors or better, a brush and a hair dye. The hairdressers' own roots get covered and I hope I passed with flying colours.
Written for Soul Hair Design, Siem Reap
I experienced the abyss of the Siem Reap Post Office.
I am awaiting some important documents which must only travel by post and were so far sent twice, but never received.
For those who are not familiar with the postal “system” in Cambodia here are some essential points to enrich your knowledge:
- Siem Reap and Cambodia in general have no postmen
- Siem Reap has no official street names bar a few main communications, the rest is identified by landmarks
- Phnom Penh street names are in fact numbers which, for a country dweller like me, makes it just as confusing as if streets had no names
- By far the most reliable mail is e-mail, however if materials of 3D substance have to travel to Cambodia, DHL is the way to go
- When (or more likely IF) the posted materials reach their destination it is time to celebrate!
The fairly attractive building of the Siem Reap Post Office is rather spacious with a large counter taking up majority of the width of the main hall. The central part of the desk is occupied by middle aged women who have developed a great skill to insert collectable stamps into small plastic bags and their abilities to hammer the stamp on the postcard to your mum with today’s date are admirable. The hammer in question flies through the air and hits the card with sunrise at Angkor Wat with such ferocity that I am sure it leaves an imprint in the hard-wood desk underneath.
The right hand side of the counter is mainly reserved for younger staff watching YouTube videos and updating their Facebook status.
I know all this because I spent two hours looking for my mail.
I now know it’s possible to venture into the left hand side of the abyss and ask to have a PO Box opened with as little ID as a business card of my previous employer and a little nudge or persuasion. No luck there so I move on to the Registers. These are resting on the far right side of the counter and there are five of them, all bearing 2014 on the front, different colours signifying different style of delivery – from EMS, signed for to ordinary mail.
I start the mammoth task of flicking through the thousands of pages from today’s date steadily continuing all the way to the 1st of January 2014 and repeating this five times over. My fingers are numb and eyes watering from the overload of names. At times I am unsure what I am looking for and wonder what my name is. I recognize some names, I wonder what the delivery was- it’s starting to be fun! At times I see photocopies of people’s passports randomly appearing between pages, I see names and know that these people will never sign for their mail as they have either moved on or passed away.
Failing to find my name in the registers I try my luck one more time. I move through the abyss again to the left hand side and tackle The Shelf. It is a dusty, sweaty, mosquito ridden affair; I am on my knees digging through the bottom shelf, coming across countless Tripadvisor stamped envelopes, familiar names of friends who still live here and of those long gone, important mails with the flap torn and contents spilling out, magazines specializing in cattle, science, religion and politics, postcards from Italy, New Zealand and Morocco with variable dates, sizable envelopes with promising contents and I giggle at one envelope in particular addressed to Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I hope it wasn't important.
The three tiered shelf has no good news for me either but at least the next desperate post seeker will have a slightly easier job as I have tidied up the contents according to size on all levels. I have an unbeatable urge to wash my hands and am able to do so in the Post Office restroom.
Elsewhere in the world mail gets delivered by a hardy man on a bicycle wearing shorts all year round, drones are also a possibility these days but here in Cambodia I suggest that we catch all those pigeons outside the Royal Palace and put them to good use, it will certainly beat the current system.
Sparkle and glamour arrived in Siem Reap!
Or not. Let me rephrase. Senhoa, literally representing the Vietnamese word for a graceful lotus growing from muddy, murky soil, has been on the scene since 2010, however perhaps somewhat off the radar. Refusing to admit ignorance and certain elements of cave dwelling on my part, Google search and Senoha’s informative and well-structured website soon brought me up to speed with the background of this organization and all the current happenings.
Eric Raisina’s glamour, on the other hand, has long adorned the vitrines of various boutique shops providing me with the perfect stop for window shopping, admiring those gorgeous, bright, feather-like gowns, scarves, bags and other garments.
Marking the “coming of age” or better - a glamorous transformation of Senhoa’s presence on the Siem Reap scene was the launch of their luxe jewellery line “Sparkle” on the 12th July in 1961 Co-Working Space and Art Gallery.
The newly renovated space of the former Art Hotel provided the perfect environment to introduce the array of stunning pieces; combination of the highest quality materials, semi-precious stones, Swarovski crystals and the unquestionable talent of Senhoa’s women who skillfully put all jewellery together.
During the VIP cocktail reception preceding the main show I had the opportunity to mingle with the “who is who” of the event, sip on bubbles and even have a sneaky preview of what was to come later for all to admire – the Sparkling beauty of the new jewellery line and the dream-like gowns of Eric’s creation on one male and four female models.
The grin on the 1961 proprietors’ faces the next day revealed a great success all the way counting roughly 250 attending heads – although no official head count was ever carried out, with free admission there was a steady stream of comings and goings throughout the evening. Wine flowed and when the models left the catwalk, there was even some dancing and my feet hurt the next day.
Here is a record of the event in photographs, so put your sunglasses on as some serious “bling” is about to come your way. What did I love the most? The beautiful sparkle in Senhoa’s girls’ eyes showing the humble pride of their achievement and the warm and genuine recognition that they and the whole organization received that evening.
Senhoa’s website is a source of tons of valuable, factual information and much as has been written about this event in the Phnom Penh Post, so do your homework there if you want to know more what it’s all about.
The layer #1 of my elaborate 4-tier cycling tan acquired over the last few days looks the most ridiculous and is starting to itch. It reaches half way up my calves and the tonal difference is striking from line to line so I am destined to wear long trousers until time and shedding take care of this issue. My facial extremity, which receives many compliments from the local (envious) button-nosed population and is perhaps my most aerodynamic feature, is peeling and so is my forehead. Note to self: factor 10 will not do next time. There is an upside to getting burned on the first day though – you know exactly where to apply your sunscreen the next day before setting off…..
Let me tell you a tale of a two wheeled adventure into the heart of Cambodia, a tale of forgotten villages, red dirt roads, endless blue sky with fluffy clouds and the most vibrant shades of green you could ever lay your eyes upon. And hills, there are hills too.
Cycling and photography is the perfect marriage of two things I love dearly, so when Adam – the boss Grasshopper – asked me to join for a part of their 12 day tour from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville I was over the moon. I would be cycling from Kampong Thom to Kep with a group of five Australians, guide Untac (yes, that’s right), mechanic Vichet and driver called Sokha. I would cover their journey in series of photographs.
The group’s adventure started in Siem Reap with some of the local touring classics and I would join them few days later in the regional town of Kampong Thom which is a city marked as a mere toilet stop for many travelling between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. I have since changed my mind on this destination and decided that it needs further exploration. Beside the pre-Angkorian ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk and away from the main dusty road lies a peaceful and picturesque area surrounding the river and when the stay is as comfortable as in Sambor Village there is no reason to leave in a hurry.
With all my items containing at least some percentage of Lycra packed and my bicycle already on the way to our meeting destination I am headed on national route #6 – the pride of the nation (insert a healthy dollop of sarcasm here) - towards Kampong Thom. While my group is arriving from Beng Mealea by bicycle I am allowed to cheat in a taxi.
Later the same day, arriving with a bang (and thunder and lightning) are my Aussies, covered in half of Cambodia’s dirt mixed nicely with thickly applied sunscreen. Their faces are lined with a few creases of experience and long sunny days of the southern hemisphere. Despite the age difference between us they will give me a good run for my money in the coming days.
The afternoon storm eventually passes, we enjoy our dinner of Khmer “pick and mix” and I have just enough energy to float in the pool, listen to the frog concerto in B moll and catch enough sleep to give me power to get up early and start my part of this adventure.
The morning dawns crisp with wispy clouds and fog hanging just above the surface of the river. I am clad in my newly acquired Grasshopper Adventures jersey, breakfast down and ready to go. The beauty of this trip is having our dedicated support team and our van; our lifeline with all our luggage, cold water, cold towels, food, energy drinks and seats for those who can’t ride for whatever reason. The van comes in very handy when some stretches of the road would be downright unpleasant to cover on two wheels – national route #6 is a prime example. Trucks blaring past, the once-was-tarmac in places resembling the surface of the moon and tons of dust would make travelling by bicycle …. well, dangerous. Leaving Kampong Thom in our van we get to wake up properly, chat a little and prepare mentally for the day’s cycle which is according to Untac, whom I have in my head renamed to Lean Mean Cycling Machine, mere 85km. Fine by me. I have my camera bag ready, cold water and electrolytes full to the brim and it’s time to go. The team offloads the bicycles from the trailer, Vichet checks everybody’s machine to make sure things have not moved out of place during transfer, tires are pumped up and we are off.
Cow jam is what we encounter first, in fact several of them. In the middle of the fields on dirt roads it’s time for the villagers to take their cattle out to pastures and the amusement is mutual. This is the official start of the friendly “hello, hello, hello!!! trail” and also our first (and thankfully last) place of accident. Gary, no doubt mesmerized by the local moo-traffic ends up close and personal with the dirt, surprising not just us behind him but also himself. “How did this happen?” The first aid/mechanic team is at hand in no time, stream of blood from Gary’s grazed knee is washed, wound cleaned up, disinfected and bandaged. The two cycling nurses – Jo and Lou – are impressed and there is no need for them to step in. Gary receives little sympathy from his wife Lou, brushes himself off and disappears in the dust; there will be no amputations today.
We pick up speed and hurl along, passing countless villages where children hang in doorways and around houses by the dozen, screaming hello hello hello million times over, waving and jumping about excitedly. Cambodian children are beautiful and super cute and this comes out of the mouth of somebody who wasn’t handed much maternal instinct when they were giving it away. Even half a decade in the Kingdom doesn’t make me immune to the cheeky giggles of those pretty faces and I can’t help but shout my “hello” right back at them, waving as we cycle past. In certain parts I am sure we are providing a source of entertainment for all generations and for couple of days at least they will have something to talk about. With our bikes, outfits and helmets we must look like aliens to many.
It’s the perfect time of year to be exploring the countryside. The driest, dustiest months have thankfully passed and it’s now time to get serious with rice growing again, the afternoon monsoon rains have softened the soil and young emerald shoots of the nation’s staple are ready to be replanted in abundant tufts. I admire the resistance and stamina of those bent bodies creating dark silhouettes against the sun reflecting in the soaked fields. The colour of young rice shoots is so vibrant that processing photographs of them often requires to de-saturate the image to make it believable. It’s a juicy eye tonic and my favourite colour of all.
We reach a milestone the first day when the view of the mighty Mekong, the colour of cappuccino and swollen with seasonal rains, opens before us. By then I am already known as the filthiest rider with half of Cambodia’s dirt caked on my shins and the master of flat tires as in the space of about 10 minutes I manage to destroy two inner tubes. The unexpected stops are welcome by everyone and we get to rest in shade while Vichet performs his art of changing my inner tube in the matter of three minutes tops. The talents of our mechanic and the rest of the team go beyond their job titles. Together they form an efficient catering team able to set up a feast in the middle of nowhere and replenish our wavering energy levels. We feast on crispy bread rolls, tuna spreads, boiled eggs, freshly cut vegetables and buckets of fruits, all purchased locally. Long before our alarms go off each day the boys set out to the markets and buy the daily supplies, check our bicycles and only when all is ready to go they have breakfast themselves. We could not be in better hands.
Our destination is Kompong Cham where we will spend the night. The name of this province suggests that we are in a part of Cambodia where many people are of the Cham descent and indeed the difference is striking when we suddenly ride into villages where men wear their traditional Muslim taquiah, women cover their heads with colourful scarves and herds of goats cross our path, bells ringing. The city of Kompong Cham is undergoing a riverfront face lift but there is a breezy friendly feel with promise of a brighter future. The Japanese funded Kizuna bridge is the most prominent landmark of the city and at length of 1500m it was the longest bridge built in Cambodia until Koh Kong Province constructed their own monster exceeding the length of Kizuno by 400m in 2002.
The next day is the hardest day of the trip, at least that’s what my sore bum and feet are telling me. We ride on more sealed roads with more traffic, the day is hot and a vision of padded cycling shorts is appearing in front of my eyes. I have been tough up till now. I don’t find much energy any more to wave at the children but their hellos are coming in abundance ceaselessly still. We come across some interesting stops and the refreshment is always welcome by everyone. We see mountains of chilies drying alongside the road, watch locals betting on Thai kick boxing match, taste freshly pressed sugar cane juice, John resists the temptation of having a haircut locally and proceeds to learn how to shave ice the traditional way instead to great amusement of all onlookers who always gather wherever we stop. Kaylene takes advantage of the support van as her anti-malaria pills do not agree with her but gives us her support all the way.
Our arrival in Phnom Penh requires a ferry crossing. We are approaching the city with Armageddon sky looming above and the wind is picking up. We have about eight minutes to find shelter before heavens open. As if by magic Untac pulls off the road straight under a Khmer house on stilts where we are accepted with smiles by a friendly family. We watch the children play in puddles, our bikes are getting a well needed wash and the day’s cycle is over. We are only a few kilometers short of the day’s target, all loaded up, cross the river and welcome the sight of our accommodation with a sigh of relief.
Sunday marks the day of rest for my group but there is not rest for the wicked so I get to join a day tour with Grasshopper Adventures’ Phnom Penh branch and explore the Silk Island on the Mekong. It’s a gentle outing and I keep my joints moving in anticipation of the next day’s trip when I will come to my adventure’s end in Kep and will say goodbye to my sturdy Aussies.
The last day is my favourite by far. The topography changes as we head south, hills start to appear, we ride through rice fields and fields of swaying corn, on fast smooth(ish) red dirt roads, it’s relatively cool and I only hit the bumps and dips in the road when my eyes wonder off into the distance feasting on the stunning views all around me. We climb several hills and are rewarded with great expanding vistas and long effortless downhill rides which turn me into a happy cyclist once again, not only because my bum is now padded but also because it is great to be alive! The countryside is busy with farmers planting rice, oxen turning soil with equipment we consider should belong to museums and it doesn't get more off the beaten track than this. Only occasionally we come across the loud affair of village wedding set ups and I am glad to know that my cycling companions share the same view on this matter of excessive decibels. If we could we would ride through with our fingers blocking our ears.
Then we are in Kep. The coastal town once so prominent with holidaying cream of Khmer society is brushing the dust off its facades and the smooth three-lane highway we are now riding on reveals great expectations for this small seaside town. Kep is nestled among forested hills and the town beachfront now has a fresh layer of imported golden sand. It’s windy and the seas are rough so I resist dipping in, instead I pedal on in the strong head wind glad that we are home for the night.
My hotel room is adorned by a pile of what resembles radioactive waste and I already pity my laundry lady, in fact, there is no way I can give this load to her, it is going to be a bucket attack and elbow grease when I get home. But now it’s time for a drink on the pier in the Sailing Club off the Knai Bang Chatt Resort where my fellow cyclists are staying before we hit the Crab Market for some tasty fresh seafood dinner. Then sleep.
I get hugs goodbye, we go our separate ways. They continue on to Sihanoukville and I head back to Phnom Penh to fly home that is Siem Reap.
Same time next week, Adam?
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.