In today's world where everything moves fast (aside from 5PM traffic) and results are expected instantly, it's a relief to know that some of us are finding the way back to slow food.
Mamma Shop, Simone's newly refurbished eatery in sunshine colours suggests that he sets his clock back according to the olden days of Nonnas and Mammas. With cheeky demeanour and sparkle in his eyes he rolls his sleeves up and gets stuck in – flour and egg is the basic recipe of the magic called home made pasta. His hearty pizzas with generous toppings are also fabulous but more and more he puts emphasis on the traditional way of making pasta – this, after all, sets him aside from others in town also serving Italian food.
I remember that my own grandmother – or babička if you like – used to be in the same league and this sets me right back. Flour dusted wooden board, rolling pin, balls of dough and a lot of fun.
Today I am hanging out with young Patrick from Kunming in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan full of beautiful, mystical sugarloaf mountains. Patrick is spending just under a month in Cambodia learning the ropes of photography under the wing of locally based shutterbugs with different backgrounds and styles of work. What a great experience! By the end of his trip he will have learned a lot about natural and artificial lighting, the ins and outs of studio shooting and portraiture, nature and macro photography and with me he will go through the process of commercial shoots for a restaurant and/or business.
Through discussion of the expected photo shoot result the general knowledge of Italians and their love affair with food is confirmed. Our shots are to convey the value of slow cooked, home made dishes and that patience in Mamma shop is rewarded with delicious traditional meals that any Mamma or Nonna would be proud to present to their families in the heart of Italy.
Simone's legacy of skilful pasta making has been passed on to his Cambodian staff who are champion pasta makers and a great team altogether.
Our challenge is low light, fast moving subjects (those girls are like machines!) and hot environment. Patrick is learning that photography is hardly ever as glamorous as most believe. We try to find the best angles to capture the “behind the scenes of home made pasta” and admire the skill and precision of the Mamma team. Simone occasionally steps in and shows that pasta making business is by no means only women's business; his hands lovingly create many wonderful shapes and the passion for slow food shows.
“It is a family affair” he says in his sing-song voice. In Italy, we learn, pasta making is a group activity where folks get together and create. Many deals are sealed around tables laden with slow home cooked meals and often, the longer it takes to consume the feast the better the outcome of the business deal. No wonder siesta (or riposo) is such an integral part of Italian day structure – this food business is a hard work on all fronts! As a reward for our work we get to eat our subjects and this is definitely the highlight of our day – perfect timing for lunch!
If you are looking for the authentic taste of Italy and have not been to Mamma Shop yet – do yourself a favour and treat your tastebuds to something special. My personal favourite are the gnocchi with tomato and mozzarella sauce.... May I add that the gnocchi are also filled with cheese. Yum!
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?
I look around me and the place is dark. I am trying to locate my camera but it’s nowhere to be found. I see other cameras but they don’t belong to me. After what seems like an hour of aimless and endless wandering I finally find my gear. It’s all stuffed in my small day bag and I find it hard to see what is what. Now I see that my carefully assembled selection of cameras and lenses was replaced by a small SLR with a 50mm lens, one semi fancy compact and a thing that looks remotely like a very obscure Camera Obscura put together by a five year old in an art class. It’s all very impractical and frustrating.
I see the wedding guests arriving, scattered across the outdoor grassy area. It’s getting dark.
I can’t focus. I can’t frame.
My lens seems to have a condensation inside the optics.
So far I only have a couple of pictures of cats (?) and one half decent panorama, apart from that – nothing. How will I ever prove that I am good? How will I justify the money they paid me? My reputation is at stake here!
And then my battery runs out.
I toss and turn and covered in sweat I wake up realizing it was just a dream.
Then sleep takes me again, right back in the middle of it all. I know it’s a dream but I can’t control it, it’s like an evil slow rolling machine and I know what’s coming.
Fumbling with my gear, failing to focus, my neck strangled by the weight of two cameras, highly uncooperative subjects, plenty of “uncle Bobs” around with the state of the art gear taking lots of great shots and they were not even hired…… and my memory card empty.
Now, luckily the reality doesn't reflect this brain convulsion of mine but I can immediately dissect and analyze each issue, relate it back to my own insecurities or recent daily encounters. Let’s call it spring clean of the photographer's brain. In any case, this makes a somewhat refreshing change to not being able to pack my suitcase in time to catch the plane/train/insert your favourite means of transport here or getting lost in a foreign city at night.
What was it they said about cheese and nightmares? Or maybe I should not have had that last glass of rose, thinking to myself with my temples throbbing ever so slightly.
Happy shooting everyone and sweet dreams, always!
As we jump off the boat and my feet feel the silky sand for the first time in ages, Chris welcomes his newly arriving load of guests – today counting 7 souls – with a genuine smile. I have already forgiven him the “where are you from?” question – after all I don’t walk around with a sign on my forehead “I’m an expat, get me out of here”. Having spent good 2 years on the other side of the bar I swore at the end of my stint that I would be a happy woman to die never hearing the question in question again. The runner up is “how long have you been here?” and “so, do you like it?”….
Lazy Beach has been on the “to do” list for some time and finally the circumstances were right that I could go. Not having any time constraints as such I decided to brave the journey to Koh Rong Samleon by road and boat. As crow flies it’s couple of wings’ flaps but thanks to Cambodia’s limited road infrastructure everybody knows that all roads lead to Phnom Penh. Siem Reap and the country’s capital are mere 315 km apart but the Pride of the Nation – National Road #6, closely resembling the surface of the moon with all appropriate craters, potholes and truckloads of dust – turns this journey to ride from hell. The Giant Ibis may well leave on time and have Wi-Fi and plug sockets on board but nothing changes the fact that the journey still takes 7 hours – IF conditions are good.
Fast forward and erase those nightmarish memories.
It’s 2:30 PM and the sand is hot, tide low. As our bags are taken care of we proceed to the beach bar / restaurant / lounge/ communal area – all in one. It’s a traditional wooden structure with thatched roof, tables and chairs some of which are of the swinging kind (mine!) and comfortable bar seats (ehrm, also mine). Check-in procedures are swift and the refreshing welcome drink goes down a treat. What was once 5 bungalows is now a mini-village of 19 scattered across the whole length of the private beach. There is a sense of tranquility, however, and I meet more wildlife than neighbours on my many trips to the bar and back.
The huts are simple, made entirely of wood with thatched roof in the same style as the main building. Each bungalow has two large double beds with mosquito nets, sky-blue bedding, shelving for your clothes, tiled bathroom with cold water which is never too cold and a bucket flush western style toilet. Some bungalows come with their permanent residents – I was being spied on by a beautiful Tokay Gecko who lived just behind the shower post. I really appreciated the mini shower for feet just outside the hut – this way there was only half a Sahara in my bed each night.
Brace yourselves, you addicted to your mobile devices – there is no Wi-Fi and very limited (Metfone?) network on the island, electricity supplied by generator only from 6pm to roughly midnight, so it’s at least possible to charge your toys and reading devices for several hours a day. I was worried that the hottest month of the year would be hard to survive without a/c or fan (which is certainly the case here on the parched plains of Siem Reap) but the sea breeze and open windows keep the hut cool enough at night. In the afternoon, when things get seriously lazy it is a hard choice between swinging in your hammock on the porch or heading to the bar for a cool can and the ever so comfortable swing chairs.
For the more active souls there are several walks on the island, all on well-marked paths through shady jungle and occasional openings where buffaloes roam. These creatures are reportedly semi-wild, left behind by folks from mainland who brought them here to help with building some other settlements on the island. Don’t get me wrong, Cambodian buffaloes are not so skilled with the hammer and nail but they are handy with pulling heavy loads and such. Other encountered wildlife included several cute horn bills nibbling on fruits high in the trees, eagles cruising the warm currents, variable squirrels – black with bushy tail dipped in white paint – nimble on jungle branches and hard to spot, long tail macaques, lizards, and the most gorgeous thing you could lay your eye upon – the leaf insect. Mimicking the surrounding bushes so perfectly that they blend in flawlessly and anything with a taste for leaf insect will have a very hard time to find their dinner. Underwater gardens of coral featured plenty of life – some small tuna family fish, some sergeant fish, clams, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and countless crabs of the hermit and own-shell variety.
Chris and the staff (mixture of locals and expats) are efficient, friendly and fast. The menu is extensive and definitely not expensive. The British legacy is responsible for tasty fish and chips - both crumbed and battered fish is available. But not only western dishes are featured to tickle your palate; the selection of Asian specialties is wide and everything I tried was yummy and portions generous.
By charging more that the average hostel in Cambodia for lodging (US$50 per hut, maximum 4 people) but keeping the food and drinks prices low they managed to filter the low end of the market avoiding the place to look like a party central – which is fine by me. The other side of the island apparently sees more action in terms of night life and several levels of accommodation are available – including tents! What has existed in Thailand for decades is now finally arriving in Cambodia. Full moon party anyone?
Due to travel time involved getting to the island I deem three nights to be the absolute minimum of stay and make the trip worth your while. At the same time three nights is sufficiently enough to unwind, relax and enjoy the atmosphere of the place.
And what was the highlight of my stay? Swimming in the sea right after sunrise, snorkeling, having a blast with my camera, walking in the jungle, leaving my footprints in the sand, and at night, lit only by the stars I slipped into the sea unnoticed and completely butt naked and played a mermaid among millions of bio luminescent plankton creatures. Magical.
So go and do yourself a favour, get away from it all and visit Lazy Beach, I promise you will love it.
On a clear day I can see the Kulen Mountain from my rooftop terrace – 40 km north east of Siem Reap it dominates the horizon shaped like a giant loaf in a landscape otherwise as flat as a pancake. The Mountain of Lychees by name and the cradle of the Khmer civilization often lies hidden in clouds and haze but today is promising to be a clear day.
We are driving through the countryside and morning chill is in the air, mist and fog rolling close to the ground lending Cambodia almost a ghostly appearance. I feel the need to jump out and take photos of this African savanna-like scene as the sun is hovering heavy and red in the east but there is no time – not this time. We are scheduled to arrive in the village of Preah Ang Thom at 8:30 and indeed we make it to the top in good time overtaken by only by one racing van.
I am no novice to the area and I know I am in for a treat – my hiking spirit will get a work out and I will definitely sleep well tonight.
Our group consists of several long term Siem Reap residents and two visitors from the USA, our leader is Stephane De Greef who played a key role in the discovery of the lost city of Mahendraparvata and knows the mountain like the back of his own hand. He mapped most of the trails on the mountain and we are in safe cartographer’s hands, nobody will get lost today. GPS dangling from his belt he assembles the group outside, checks that we all have enough water and snacks for the day’s trek and soon we set off leaving one of the main settlements on the mountain behind. Most visitors will stop at the waterfall and this is also a very popular local picnic spot – sadly often littered with plastic bags and polystyrene take-away boxes. This is not our destination today.
What lies ahead is a 17km long trek through dense primary and secondary tropical forest, sandstone plateaus, dry deciduous forest with sandy soil, grasslands, cashew nut plantations and swidden areas (slash and burn agriculture) – so quite a mixture and definitely a spice up to the city scape and rice fields we are used to in the town. We will also pass through couple of small villages along the way.
There are approximately 4000 inhabitants on Mount Kulen, most gaining livelihood from subsistence farming and very few of them actually venture down the mountain. Life seems to have stood still here since the Angkorian times –just take away the generators and motorbikes, the one communal flat screen TV in the local shop and we are instantly back in time. Modern inventions mean very little up here and moving here would be a good “plan B” in case some of Stephen King’s novels came true.
Our trek starts with a mild incline on a shaded forest path. Only few vehicles pass us at this early hour and soon we reach the river with 1000 carved lingas. This time of year the water level is still fairly high but we are also able to admire the intricate carving work on the rocky river bed as the crystal clear water flows towards the waterfall lower in the village and continues all the way to Siem Reap through sections of man-made channels finally reaching the Tonle Sap lake.
As we gather for the “start of the trek” group photo, a monk quietly passes us leaving his barefoot imprints in the sandy soil and his bright orange robe shines ahead of us. He assumes a steady pace but we catch him in the next settlement where he begs for alms at a local Karaoke place offering blessings in return for rice. A few friendly hellos and curious looks accompany our passing through the village, dogs barking protecting their territory, pigs and chickens roaming with not a care in the world. And then we are on our own - we will not see another village or settlement until we reach the end of our journey.
That is not to say that we will not see other humans – the first stop on our trek is the Bat Cave where, as the name indicates, aside from thousands of small insect eating bats, we also meet two monk-hermits clad in white living their simple existence in this forgotten part of the world. Aside from bats one can also come across other creatures dwelling in the dark such as crickets, toads, frogs and even giant centipedes.
I am reminded of ancient European castle walls when we come again into the daylight and the rock mass from under which we just emerged looms above us covered in green moss and tree roots.
Stephane is a forest engineer and a keen biologist with focus on the invertebrates so along the way we learn interesting facts about the “smaller majority” going quietly about their business invisible to non-observant eyes. We spot assassin bugs, learn about the behavior of weaver ants and add a new word into our biological vocabulary: ant lion.
About 30 minutes before reaching our lunch spot we are happy to come across a stream (the young Siem Reap river) with clear water and this is as good excuse as any to have a little rest in shade as the day has now warmed up considerably and the sun beats down reflecting on the rocky outcrops and reminding us that winter is certainly over.
Srah Damrey – the Elephant Pond – the furthermost point reachable by motorbike welcomes us quiet and serene, shaded by luminous green forest, only some rays penetrating the foliage painting gold speckles on the leafy floor. We are the only ones here – as expected, although some adventurous visitors make it as far as here. This is the best spot for lunch and we rest our weary legs gathering around the giant monolit the purpose of which is not entirely clear. Stephane reveals his theory that the elephant along with the neighbouring lion, monkey and cat, are looking over to the east towards Angkor protecting it in the era of construction with their powerful gaze. Dating back to the 10th century this site has not seen anywhere near as many visitors as Angkor itself and honestly, this is why we are here.
Venturing into the realms of the Lost City of Mahendraparvata with one of the key players in its discovery is a privilege. Our untrained eyes see only our path ahead and occasional bumps in the ground but closer inspection reveals that the soil we are walking on is littered with countless remnants of ancient pots, some glazed, some decorated. The shaded path is lined with thick spiky jungle growth on both sides. Stephane often stops and explains that despite the unassuming appearance of our surroundings the area was once dotted with houses and ponds and crisscrossed with highways not to mention the many temples now buried under layers of soil and vegetation.
Often the environment changes almost with no notice – from thick shaded jungle we are suddenly in the middle of field of grass that towers good 30 cm above the average person’s height. Stephen King springs into mind again but I ignore my uneasy memories of reading “In the tall green grass” and press on. We touch on the sensitive topic of deforestation. It is apparent from the very arrival at the bottom of the mountain that something is amiss. Only 15 years ago there was forest everywhere, now it’s hard to see the tree line on the horizon and things are not slowing down. The deforestation rate is estimated at alarming 80%. The Kulen inhabitants practice slash and burn agriculture and once rice has grown where forest used to be it is often the case that cashew nut orchards are planted there. Lulled into the business by promises of grand earnings locals often find themselves short changed by all middle parties involved in the cashew trade. A sad lose/lose situation.
Stephane’s professional past is colourful and thanks to his in depth years long involvement with Handicap International and International Campaign to Ban Landmines he is able to shed some light on the past and current landmine situation in the area. Kulen Mountain, unsurprisingly due to its topography and location, was the Khmer Rouge stronghold from 1970 to the mid 90’s. Fighting between the Royal Army and the Khmer Rouge resulted in heavy mine contamination of the area and other explosive devices were also left behind. As scary as this sounds specially having picked this place for a hike, Stephane assures us that most areas have been cleared and declared safe by the Halo Trust and CMAC with only few dangerous areas remaining . The message, however, is clear – stay on the path, and when nature calls…. well, yes, stay on the path even if records show no casualty in the last 20 years.
The final destination is only a few kilometers away, we feel the miles in our calves and the pull of the promised cool box with beer and coke waiting for us there in the village of Anlong Thom. We have one more temple to conquer still. Damrey Krap has been a known structure to the archaeologists since the early 20th century – dating back to the 7th century (so pre-Angkorian times) it is architecturally very similar to the Cham temple of Hoa Lai in Southern Vietnam. Three fairly well preserved tower structures are located in the middle of Mahendraparvata, facing east. We explore and admire this ancient site before it’s time to tackle the final stretch.
It has been a worthy hike and we deserve our cold beverages without a question.
The 30 minute journey back to the our starting point is by motodop – 7 friendly locals are waiting for us at the designated spot (the giant red coolbox in the local shop) and once our cans are empty we hop on their Honda Dreams and let the breeze dry our sweat and tangle our hair while we quietly reflect on the day as the jungle is speeding past. The ride is on sandy soil and at times bumpy but these guys know what they are doing and I feel very safe. The sun is now low in the sky and shadows are growing longer, air cool once again. It will be another hour before we reach the outskirts of Siem Reap and the congested traffic reminds us that we are back in “reality”. Some of us will sleep in the van on the way back, some of us will have another beer, all of us will have a satisfied grin on our faces and aching legs for the next two days.
What a fantastic Sunday!
Stephane runs private tours to Phnom Kulen all year round. The months of March and April are particularly hot and this should be considered when planning your visit. Essentials: at least 3 liters of water, snacks, hat, sunscreen, comfortable hiking footwear and clothing. Camera!
Last week's topic turned out to be all about kitties. I fell in love with Tuxedo and Monochrome, Wat Atvea pagoda kitties. It doesn't go beyond this - I am currently occupied by kitty thoughts and "watch this space" is just about appropriate!
Below is my submission for "touch".
It’s Thursday evening and I am feeling uncomfortable, trying to balance the issues in my universe with a chocolate cake and a glass of wine. It’s not working. I have only couple of days left to come up with something for my next challenge which is “out of my comfort zone” – in terms of photography technique or topic or the photographer himself/herself feeling uncomfortable in the act of taking the picture. Sigh.
What makes me feel uncomfortable in the photography world?
It is indeed overdone HDR but I do not want to venture down that road. Tastefully executed HDR photos are fine and I look forward to those in other people’s submissions.
Another nemesis of mine is “pretend photo journalism” equaling capturing poverty or controversial social or political issues for pure gain of fame / money / both with little or none whatsoever return to the subject. I am not going to travel to the rubbish dump of Siem Reap to capture the miserable life of those living off the scraps of the city folk as this has been done before to highlight the said misery – without revealing also the positives and the help that is provided to those living in the harsh conditions. I am not going to capture the non-glamorous nightlife in the Asian cities and nor am I going to take a slice off the “orphanage tourism” pie – life in Asia is one big controversy and surely great stories along with powerful pictures are to be had almost on every corner but I believe in researching the topic and then coming up with something little more complex than a simple caption leaving the viewer hanging in the air. It is almost too easy to generate emotion with pictures of struggle, abuse, poverty, misery and the like and today’s world is full of them.
I feel nauseous viewing overly cheesy wedding or family photography so let’s steer clear of that as it is definitely an issue of taste and also fashion stamp of the times we live in. Luckily there are many talented photographers who manage to take great lifestyle shots leaving me with assurance that there is hope. This is also only my humble opinion on the matter.
I don’t really have issues with snapping photos of strangers. I enjoy low light photography and experiments with speed – capturing movement or movement blur. I am not saying am the master of all but these topics are definitely in my comfort zone. Crouching in the undergrowth in search of 8 legged creatures with many (eight at times) eyes comes close to being a pleasure so I won’t be able to use this venture either.
At this stage I think my “uncomfortable zone” will be setting the alarm to “silly o’clock”, dragging my sorry body out of bed and fueled by a shock dose of caffeine head out before the big red ball makes appearance on the horizon. I have not seen many of those as I like my pillow too much.
Watch this space…
Well, I have snoozed and snoozed and have not left my bed in time for sunrise. Too bad and expected…. Who was I kidding? I took a picture of my bed to prove that getting up itself is in fact leaving my comfort zone.
But that would be getting away too lightly. Being in a self-punishing mood I have grabbed my tripod and headed to the local markets. The light there is difficult, the place is crammed, smelly and hot, fish and shoes and bananas are all on display in the same section and if that’s not uncomfortable then I don’t know what is. My presence with my three legged friend made the trip to the market uncomfortable for others too – do I get any extra points for this? I suspect not. I decided to play with the shutter speed and blur the human element while focusing (mainly) on chicken feet with my own feet unsteady on the slippery and wet floor…. While I am somewhat immune to similar sights and smells I must admit that I was grateful for my slightly clogged up nose as normally the smell of fish and meat in the middle of the day is rather overpowering.
Below is a handful of market shots and these will be similar all over Cambodia. I will pick one before Sunday deadline.
Would you like a chicken claw with that?
Home is where the heart is or at least so they say.
My heart lives in many places, my body is now here – in Cambodia. It was travel that brought me here 10 years ago and on and off I have called Cambodia my home for about 5 of those years. This is where my bed is and I presume my heart is here too, although sometimes I doubt my sanity for having stayed so long. Upon reflection, however, I know deep down that I like it here, just take away the loud music and the crazy drivers…..
The sacred temples of Angkor are literally on my doorstep, I live in a single layer of clothing most of the year and a good friend base makes it a very easy place to settle.
This is not to say that I don’t miss home – my other home, the real one, the place of my origin. Country with deep green forests, rivers and lakes, four seasons, tasty beers and dumplings – Czech it out if you have not already been! This precise topic is the theme of my current local exhibition and I plan to return again this autumn to reconnect with family and friends (and their horses), indulge in beer and cheese and photograph red and yellow leaves, misty mountains and mossy forests.
Then there is my other home – the one down under, where the Goulburn River quietly flows in the shadows of fragrant eucalyptus trees before it joins the mightier Murray. My heart is there, body waiting to return.
Aotearoa also known as the Land of the Long White cloud (in common speak New Zealand) is my other home and I have a tattoo to prove it. The connection was immediate, the landscape breathtaking, the people quirky but open and giving, the sand flies intense, the beaches endless, and the mountains…. don’t let me start on the mountains. Something moves inside me and I yearn to go back. To be on the road again, to swim in crystal clear rivers (and fight the sand flies), to have a campfire on the beach, to sleep under the stars, to hike in snow and marvel at the open vistas… They also have the most amazing wine!
The UK should also get at least a mention despite having featured on the “home” list for good 4 years or so. The memories are hazy and grey, face pressed on a bus window, vacant look and daydreaming of sunny places while travelling to work.
So the question this week was: “how on earth to summarise the place of my current residence in one photo?” I could go the conventional way and snap away the mighty Angkor Wat itself (although I don’t live there, it’s full of bats…), I could hang around town and get some street shots, I could wait patiently by the road and get some good photos of the crazy traffic and the way goods get transported – from family of five on one bike to live pigs travelling strapped on the back of motos, live chickens and ducks hanging off handlebars by the dozen, overloaded tuk tuks and trucks….. or I could visit the floating communities of the Tonle Sap lake and capture their contemporary lifestyle on water….. But instead I felt it should be something with a temple flavour; the above do spell Cambodia but not necessarily Siem Reap at first glance.
So temples then. It’s almost a “yawn” reaction – but only if taken as prescribed – with masses of tourists swarming the sites and making them most unholy, noisy and hectic. If one wanders off the beaten track a little the reward is astonishing. Some temples hardly see any visitors at all as they are not on the “must see” bucket lists of many. Some do get the occasional visitor quietly contemplating the meaning of life and such – and this is fine. Those structures should be admired - with respect and awe which they deserve.
During 2012 I photographed the West Gate of the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom – the head on which is believed to be the one of Jayavarman VII – the “busy king” as a guide-friend once described him to me (he really built a whole lot of temples!). This photograph was since published in the National Geographic Traveller and other publications and thus I decided to replicate the image for the Week 4 challenge. It spells Angkor but it’s not an iconic image that will be recognized instantly for what it is however it does carry the label “Cambodia” quite clearly.
Replicating an image is an interesting exercise in itself. I found the spot but my camera set up was different and Mother Nature decided to give the King a fringe of branches partly hiding his face. The light and time of year were also different. Oh, so be it…. Trying to get a very similar shot resulted in me nearly falling off the 8 meter high wall but hey, I like to live dangerously!
Cambodian weddings….obnoxiously loud (and colourful) affairs and as good a reason as any to leave my house in pursuit of hearing recovery and this week’s topic – the perfect monochrome. (I do manage to find an opportunity to mention my hate affair with wedding music in almost every blog post... yes, I know)
I am leaving the thumping wedding marquee atop my street behind, turning my colour receptors off and cycling to a favourite spot of mine – Wat Preah Encosai otherwise known as the Upper Pagoda (Wat Leu). In early morning hours an undeniable source of noise this time of day the grounds are quiet apart from the murmur from a nearby school where knowledge is being repeated by countless voices and occasionally laughter rings through the air. I have a small window of opportunity to shoot in peace before the curious and cheeky Cambodian youth are "released into the wild".
Pagodas are by their very nature colourful buildings, walls richly decorated with bright colours and interiors boasting murals depicting religious motifs on every available square inch including the pillars and ceiling. Quite the sensory overload. So why come here for a black and white challenge, has she gone mad? ….. Well yes and no.
A quick read-up on how to see the world in black and white reveals the simple truth – shapes, patterns, contrast, simplicity and texture to name the few key elements. Luckily pagodas have these too aside from being a technicolour dream… There are lines and arches, mosaic floors, rusty old gates, peeling paint on wooden doors and window frames, dirty handprints on walls and an old man who has the keys to the forgotten treasures inside. Occasionally a bright flash of monk’s robe catches the eye adding to the authenticity of the place.
But the week is only in its first half and who knows what other colourless opportunities I run into!
So I keep on looking and I come across images that would please the judges (I hope) if our theme was abstract – IF only! I will have to find other visual pleasers down the line but when I am shooting a promotional material for one of the hotels in the area I come across an interesting image which definitely benefits from monochrome and it ends up being my final choice.
I grew up with black and white photography, negatives drying throughout the apartment, the smell of chemicals in the air and bathroom inaccessible for hours on end. My father is a self-taught enthusiast with his own dismountable infrared kingdom which even now, in the digital age, gets the occasional airing and home-made monochrome images are produced.
There is something undeniably nostalgic in black and white photography but it’s also the “new cool” – whatever it means to you, it’s certain that it’s not going anywhere, it’s here to stay and we shall be creative in both colour and monochrome because we can! So here's to black and white!
…there was a bang. A perfectly plausible theory – at least in Cambodia. Those who have witnessed any of the country’s festivities know what I am talking about. Those of you who have not, just read some of my blog posts on my battle with Cambodian music and noise in general.
The second week 52F challenge starts with a bang then! Well, depending on how you interpret it, doesn't it?
I considered several options. Besides the “big bang” theory I was curious to see what the Buddhists thought of the creation of the world, of the very beginning, only to learn, with a little surprise, that they didn't care altogether that much. So that was out of the question.
I considered spying on my neighbours while they were “at it” but the idea was quickly abolished (ew!) as well. With alarmingly rising numbers in the world population I care more for contraception than conception!
The rhetorical question of “What was first? Chicken or egg?” also crossed my mind and I did snap away one shot to experiment. I was not convinced that the final result would speak much to the audience and relay the week’s topic.
Star trails or star light would have also been great but the Weather Gods have decided not to show their kind face when it was needed.
Earlier this week I was a part of the B1G1 group trip to the Cambodian countryside where a playground was being built for one of the schools there and my role was to record the event in photographs. The colourful audience kept me entertained and at one point I came across this beautiful grandmother with an enigmatic face holding a young child, watching all the commotion with bemusement and a cheeky grin. I snapped away and then chatted with them for a little while also showing them what wonderful models they both were - Cambodian people love to see their images and I like to show them the photos I have taken of them.
Later, during the post processing process, I realised that this image actually fits the week's topic perfectly. We all enter life with a smooth face, skin like a blank page of a book where daily events, our experiences, and growing old make their mark, scar us and leave a deepening map of wrinkles; embedded record of all our frowns, laughter and worries. Here I have the two ends of the scale - the very beginning and the (almost) very end.
New Year is here and with it comes (or should come) the stream of New Year’s resolutions counting the usual suspects: less wine, beer and food intake, more exercise, less stress and more fun. I scrap the first two candidates as I know come mid-January all good resolutions disappear into thin air and I resume living the same old (good) way.
Instead I focus on my New Year’s revolution: self-employment, self-development and in the first week of January ….. self-portrait or selfie – a word which recently found its way to the Oxford Dictionary and the like. Love it or hate it – it’s there.
Self-portrait is the first topic of the weekly assignments in an online community of fellow shutterbugs I recently joined – Fifty-Two Frames. Led by Yosef who is quite a character, the colourful bunch from all corners of the globe proudly present their interpretation of the given topic with a brief caption and Master Yosef picks his top three every Sunday evening. He must have quite fun doing so.
I normally break into cold sweat when the word “portrait”(of me) is mentioned, self-portrait results in a similar reaction – I break into hot sweat. Cambodia does not allow one to sweat “coldly”. How exactly do I want to execute this challenge, how do I see myself and how do I want other people to see me? Does it actually matter? If it didn’t I guess none of us would faff this way, or would we? Left side is definitely my better side – just for the record.
Moving on – my approach is to present Me, Myself and I in a triplicate and to achieve this I must blow the dust off my Neutral Density filters I last used to smoothen the waters of the Gulf of Thailand countless months ago. Neutral Density filters allow me to keep my shutter open for a considerably longer time without the risk of overexposure even in bright daylight. During this prolonged exposure I have time to place myself in one position and hold this for about 20 seconds to “burn” the first image of Me onto the sensor before I move several inches to the right and record Myself with a different hair do. Fast movement is almost non traceable so this is perfectly possible. Last but not least – I gets its firm place in the image, this time smiling. When the time is up (I am guessing here following many trials and errors) I quickly crawl and grab the remote release and depress the button. Needless to say, the mode here is Bulb and remote shutter is a necessity, wireless would be even better!
Voila, couple of post processing magic tricks in trusted Lightroom finish the picture and I am ready to present the triple Anna to my friends near and far – nice to meet you!
As the handmade stands are firmly holding their place in the manicured lawns of the attractive Wat Damnak (pagoda) eagerly anticipating to bear our works of art as of tomorrow for a month I am scratching my imaginary beard and reflecting on photography and motivation in general.
“Beyond Borders” will showcase the work of five artists from five different countries and their view on the world, what they see, how they see it and how they choose to interpret it through their eye and lens. It is a great mixture of photography styles, different stories and takes on what is happening around us, near or far.
Taking off in Cambodia over the flooded plains around the Great Tonle Sap (Kimleng Sang) the viewers will travel above the subcontinent and witness the first light on sacred mountains and over breathtaking valleys of India and Sri Lanka (Holly Barber), touching ground in the sand blizzard of Western Sahara and learning of the fate of the inhabitants of the refugee camps there (Stephane De Greef). We will then move on to Europe and breathe the fresh summer air and walk on damp forest carpet made of moss (my part) and finally be touched by the hands of humanity (Valentina Chiodi).
Having ones work shown – on large prints – is a great kick, especially when all goes to plan. With great help of others and well co-ordinated team of our own we have made it (I dare say) to the deadline with only a couple of stumbles along the way but that was expected.
The main aim of this pilot exercise is to make photography more accessible to the general (Cambodian) public and try and peel off the “label of seriousness”. It can be fun. Photography SHOULD be fun. Everyday is a school day and we learn as we go. I always hated the term “serious photographer”…. What does it mean? Does it mean that the person with the camera frowns all the time? No need for that. It’s meant to be fun and without much attitude and ego the connection between you and your subject shows, there is no denying that.
When photography is not just a hobby but also a job, motivation is important. I am proud to announce that I have joined the ever growing colourful community of the Fifty-Two Frames where weekly challenges are keeping participants on their artistic toes. I love it. Having tried this myself and failed due to lack of self-discipline, I am grateful that the machinery will force me to perform. If not, I am obliged to give Yosef one million dollars… hmmm only joking! Watch this space!
So, let it be a great year – many stunning images are waiting for us just around the corner!
Below are sample images from the upcoming exhibition at Center for Khmer Studies at Wat Damnak, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
As festive season is fast approaching and Santas worldwide are putting their hats on I feel the need (prompted by a couple of requests) to share a recipe for a delicious mulled wine with you out there, folks in need of warming up their cockles at this cold time of year. Even here in Cambodia the chill is in the air and I have had a couple of test runs just to make sure that the recipe still works, you just never know. It works.
Here it goes:
Grab a bottle of cheap(ish) red and empty the bottle in a large saucepan. If you have a few friends visiting add another bottle or two. To spice things up you will need a few cloves (say 8 per bottle), star aniseed (two per bottle), cinnamon stick(s), vanilla pod, raisins and most importantly a cubed apple. If you are adventurous, add a few peppercorns for some extra bite. Sliced orange also fits the bill as does nutmeg so feel free to add this. Those of weaker constitution may prefer to add some orange juice into the mix but let’s not become too soft here. I personally am quite generous with all spices as there is nothing better than the smell of cloves and aniseed filling the air. Other recipes (and I have explored a lot) suggest adding water (what?), brandy (better!) but your imagination is your limit and taste buds your best guides……. Admittedly it is a matter of a few test runs… oh too bad…
Mix and stir. Add sugar to taste, you may want to add just a little bit and let consumers add more if they need more sweetness in their lives. I have also experimented with brown sugar and/or honey – it works!
Mulled wine is a hot drink so the pot of goodness goes on the stove and you will gently bring it almost to the boil. Don’t boil, just keep hot, we don’t want the alcohol to evaporate! I find that it’s best if the ingredients soak in the wine for a little while before it gets heated. The second helping always tastes better (stronger) and after that there are no more helpings and you are no longer able to walk. The drunk apple and orange pieces are perfectly edible while you sip on this heavenly concoction but can also be harvested for later use in drunk apple pies, strudels or simply eaten cold the next morning replacing your morning cereal…. Just an idea….
So off you go and get creative and enjoy.
Happy Merry Christmas as we say here in Cambodia.
….Tuesday, 9am, barely out of bed, showered, breakfast made….
In the drudgery of my previous existence where my daily routine was summed up by the ever so non glamorous (and peeling) label of 9 – 5, life was easy. Well, the sequence of daily events was or perhaps predictable is a better way of describing it. Alarm, shower, coffee, bite, quick assembly of random wardrobe items, slap on face and sleep cycle to work miraculously surviving the muppet traffic in all directions. Second shot of tea or coffee just about kick started the system and off I went. The relentless steady stream of e-mails and pending tasks got tackled one by one, admittedly accompanied by something which was diagnosed by my colleagues as a mild case of Tourette syndrome. I got through, we got through. Despite (or maybe because of - I am starting to wonder) things got done, tasks completed, e-mails answered, however there was little time for anything but work in my previous life.
When my position became part time for a brief period I found myself completing almost the same amount of work in half the time. Oh the stretchy quality of time when we are truly pushed!
Having recently embarked on the “eat what you kill” path also known as self-employment I need to, somehow, find my balance back, I need to readjust my rhythm and create my new routine – or do I?
…toilet break and brushing teeth…
Now, where was I? Oh yes, I was going to touch on the subject of procrastination (what a beautiful word), self-discipline and focus. Not that I am lacking inspiration but my windows definitely need cleaning and I am glad I finally managed to repot those plants.
…washing dishes after breakfast, coffee nearly ready…
A quick glance in the mirror reveals that my eyebrows really need plucking and should I dye my hair today? I seem to crave manual jobs. I am planning to paint the railing of my balcony and varnishing my doors, you should see what the wet season does to wood here! My landlord shrugs and says :”up to you”…
…putting calming face mask on while sipping coffee…
I am going to cook something nice for lunch and while I am at it I might as well make a cake. Note to self: shopping!
I find myself making To Do lists these days primarily to be able to cross things off them.
I consider knitting a scarf as today’s temperature reads mere 19 degrees Celsius. It’s cold. I have knitting needles but no yarn…..
But now on a more serious note:
I am learning not to feel guilty for not being busy and stressed out every waking moment of my days. This is, after all, the freedom I was dreaming about in front of my two glaring computer screens not so long ago. I am the master of my time and if I find myself possessed by the procrastination demons and the urge to paint my toe nails red seizes me – then be it, it’s no crime. There is more to life than work, right?
When I have finished this blog post (drafted by hand on paper as evil facebook and internet are lurking in the computer background) I will – I promise – finish those captions for my photos as the exhibition launch is only a few days away.
Now let me just make the bed and sweep the floor as it is a bit dirty…..
…taking the cake out of the oven….
…putting The Doors on….
The crease between his mighty dark eyebrows deepens but his eyes retain their cheeky, slightly bemused and “above the matter” expression.
He studies my face and says: “….hmmm, so you have ….. never?!?”
“Never” is my answer and he shakes his head in disbelief, dark shaggy curls bouncing. I am losing my street credit by the minute – not that I am trying to impress Stuart. The balance of the universe (excuse the pun) is somewhat restored when the conversational topics move into the field of the great British comedy and we agree that it is second to none.
Nonetheless, several seconds later we are back to my culture-deprived youth and the fact that I have never, ever, at my ripe age of 35 seen a single episode of Star Wars! I argue with a weak comment “surely I am not alone” but the disapproving looks, tsk-tsk and head shakes of others who are starting to gather around us tell me that I should not voice my opinion on said subject so loudly.
It is Thursday and with funky jazz tunes and a nice chilled white wine we are catching up on the week’s events and Stuart’s T-shirt is getting thumbs up from all around. I am confused as the graphics and illegible squiggles mean absolutely nothing to me. The majority of folks around us appear to be devoted Star Wars fans and get the T-shirt right away. They become sad when Stuart reveals the origin of his outfit to be San Francisco. Surely, it would not take much for the local entrepreneurs to come up with a decent copy. Would it be a crime against Star Wars I wonder……
I hesitantly agree to take part in a special social experiment – put down my thoughts on life before and after Star Wars. This ultimately means watching the said series – but here I come across a hick up straight away. The self-appointed committee consisting of random friends and onlookers starts to discuss in a heated fashion if I should watch the original series, the remake (yes, NOW I know there was no such thing), starting with episode One or Four – I shake my head and think to myself that this lot has seriously gone mad… the pros and cons of me watching it from Episode One and the possibility of watching ME watching the series to which I categorically say NO. You copy and provide the files, I watch and I write. The committee is bemusedly excited and I wonder why. I am starting to feel like a lab rat and I am not sure I like it.
So here it goes, in a few words, what I think I know of Star Wars – what my sponge of a brain soaked up without trying, realizing or wanting to, the following are mixed up messages and hazy memories hailing from my subconscious mind:
· Star Wars and Star Trek are not the same thing (I should get some points for that)
· The following encounter is most likely a mixture of both for which I apologize ahead
· It’s set in space and characters have funny haircuts and the wardrobe is questionable too
· There is princess Layla and Luke Skywalker
· Something with a sword – a glowing one?
· May the Force be with you is uttered frequently
· Darth Vader – I don’t think he is a very nice man
· Funny V sign which I have tried to master (for whatever reason) but am not able to
· Anything else…..hmmmmm…..Jedi! It’s a religion or so they claim, isn’t it?
Now let’s watch!
I spend the following weekend in a plush hotel bed embraced by super soft cushions and pillows with the curtains drawn creating my own dark cinema room and the flat screen TV is a very decent size, sound system top notch. Chilled bottle of wine is in the fridge and a glass of this tasty grape juice by my side. The room light and temperature control reads 24 degrees Celsius. The lights are dimmed. Perfect.
"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....“ appears yellow on black and instantly I am mesmerized by the text disappearing into the open galactic space. I try to retain my indifference and skepticism to the series that have shaped so many lives of people around me during several decades but I feel the strings being pulled already. Little do I know that soon my flesh will prickle with goose bumps and I will feel the sting of tears in my eyes for something remotely resembling a vacuum cleaner my grandmother used to have when I was five.
Here I should mention that I have gone against the current of collective advice and selected Episode I - The Phantom Menace - to start the marathon series. This is, after all, meant to be a unique social experiment and whichever way I’d choose to get immersed in the series would not matter – I would never have the opportunity to experience exactly the same what my fellow thirtysomethings have and go through what they have gone through.
absorbing, thinking, processing…
Now several weeks have passed since I have pushed the Play button on the remote control and life has not been the same since. I have devoured episodes I to III in one single afternoon and then I have gone back in time some days later. I have portioned this goodness of episodes IV to VI in careful slices and sometimes, I must admit, I have dozed off. My work load is to blame rather than assuming that I was bored. No way. I have always gone back and watched religiously where I left (read dozed) off.
Looking back over my initial text I feel sort of embarrassed for my lack of knowledge but at the same time how was I to know without knowing? I still don’t know the topic of Star Wars in any depth and I could not hold a conversation with the experts in the field as names of exotic characters escaped me and I simply need to watch the whole series again. But that’s a result, isn't it?
I observed an eternal battle of good and evil where good eventually wins – until there is time to kching monies from a new episode but I hear that was always the plan, or was it?. That’s fine by me, new entertainment – how well executed? Let’s see.
I saw resemblances with Lord or the Rings but that’s easily explained by the epic take on good versus evil – again. I saw Saruman. I loved princess Leia’s bikini. Wasn’t Harrison Ford a hottie in his cocky young years? Hottie - he was.
While I still have not totally absorbed the new dimension opened to me I am being pressured by the self-appointed committee to finally produce my thoughts on my experience……. So here you have it.
Did I like it? Definitive yes – where “like” is such a mediocre bland word and “love” is something I reserve for chocolate, wine, cheese and whatever else that like does not suffice for. I was touched by it. It mesmerized me and I wanted more. I still do. I felt dizzy from the speed and race games. I adored the variety of worlds still remotely resembling what we know or think we know. At times I found it difficult to follow the plot or remember the names of the exotic characters but I definitely have my favourites – R2 being in the lead without a question. I am relieved to know that I can look up all details online and retrospectively make them fall into place but I will not immerse myself in Star Wars’ own Wikipedia by choice nor will you find me in the middle of a heated discussion involving any of the episodes/characters/battles…..unless provoked.
I loved the cheesy puns throughout and many more jokes make sense now.
Which episode is my favourite? I simply don’t know. I think I need to watch it all again. Now what do you think I should do? Or does it matter? Start from one or recreate the experience most devotees had?
I will quietly re-absorb and enjoy. And then I will do it again – in whichever order I want because…I CAN!
…and as a final thought – because of all the excitement (and/or possibly falling asleep…) I have MISSED Stuart’s T-shirt materializing in the movie….damn it! I can’t believe it!
Winter is here!
Mere 20 degrees and my a/c pony finally gets some rest. Hot shower is a must and the bathroom door remains firmly shut to eliminate any kind of breeze; my skin prickles nonetheless. Mornings arrive crisp and clear with a hint of smoke in the air. My neighbours with obsessive compulsive sweeping disorder have to work harder than usual to keep their front yard leaf free.
My floor tiles are cold. Even mid-day breeze is refreshing and I finally remember the sensation of shoes on my feet again.
Cycling all day produces almost no sweat – an unknown phenomenon.
The sky is deep blue and the air is dry. My hair doesn’t know frizz anymore.
I make myself a hot chocolate and put socks on as the evening draws near.
The bats fly over in the remaining traces of red and stars come out one by one, bright as little diamonds on dark blue velvet.
The air is fragrant and cicadas are singing their evening song.
The winter is finally here. I am absorbing every cool moment of it and enjoying it while it lasts!
I am a frequent cyclist – I cycle to and from work, I cycle to go shopping, I even choose to spend my entire holiday on my two wheeled horse. I am a smiling cyclist – I often have small insects stuck in my teeth. I am a grumpy cyclist – I curse a lot at people who drive like insert your favourite swear word here regardless of which country I am exploring. I am “up for a ride anytime” cyclist. I am a cyclist photographer with a soft spot for nature.
Sunday dawned misty and quiet – a refreshing change from previous few days arriving with a loud bang, tingalingalinga notes and wailing from the nearby pagoda at wee hours of the morning, daylight still several hours away. By the time my luxurious lay in was over and coffee on the boil the sun already burnt through the mist and promised a clear crisp day with a slight hint of coolness; winter must be on the way I thought.
We depart and soon the township of Siem Reap is behind us, and we are getting closer to the Angkor park through the outskirts on bumpy dirt roads where the diminishing wet season and recent floods have left their mark. The simple right angle pattern of country roads soon spits us back on tarmac and we are grateful for it. Dodging the official entry points and ever present Apsara hound dogs we enter the park through a lesser known opening without being noticed. Here it may be worth mentioning that we are on officially public roads and not doing anybody any harm – we are not here to explore the temples, quite the opposite actually – we are focusing on fauna and flora of the forested areas that just happen to be near the ancient sites. Outside the Angkor Park Cambodia mainly has rice fields to offer and we don’t like to get burnt….much.
Cycling through the forest / jungle is quite a joy. Away from civilization – or so it seems – we meet not a single soul for a while. Occasionally singing and chattering announces a group of local women collecting fire wood and carrying their bulky load back to their nearby village on rickety old bicycles. Friendly hellos, shy smiles and quizzical looks all spell Cambodia and we enjoy the brief exchange as much as they do. No doubt they will talk about crazy barrangs crawling on forest floor for the rest of the day.
Quick glance up through the canopy of trees and vines reveals patches of blue and wispy white-grey clouds adding to the image of perfection.
We focus on things often unseen by most – and very easily overlooked when attention is on the overall scenery. While mammals and other larger animals have all but disappeared from the scene, the undergrowth is teaming with life. Countless species of ants roam the forest floor, spiders of all shapes, sizes and colours capture their prey into intricately woven webs; bugs, lizards, frogs, stick insects, moths and other creatures I lack names for are going on about their daily business unnoticed – well almost. Mosquitos, on the other hand, are taking advantage of our sweaty presence, look – lunch just arrived! Smothered from head to toe in OFF we rise to the challenge.
Macro photography reveals another world. Getting close to your subject literally means close – and on your hands and knees, or other peculiar contortionist position which often prevents normal flow of breathing – just as well; the tiniest move destroys your focus and it often takes several attempts to come away with a subject looking at you with a sharp eye. It’s mostly all about the eye!
The aim here is not to get into the ins and outs of macro photography and I have tons to learn still, it’s more about how cycling and nature and photography go hand in hand.
Then the light changes. Green and blue hues become dull, the wind picks up and it signifies only one thing – rain. There are betting shops in Phnom Penh (and I bet elsewhere too) that make living out of general population guessing the time it will start raining. Sophisticated I thought when I first heard about it and also very seasonal. Amateur attempts of mastering the art follow the pattern of sky greying, light changing rapidly, wind picking up, leaves dancing in spirals and…… approximately 8 minutes later the rain arrives...
Today we are not counting minutes, we are lucky to have one of the outer gates of an unnamed temple to our disposition as a hiding place with no other wet or dry soul in sight. The heavens open and the show seems to have no end. Impatient we dodge the first drops to reclaim our bikes, now sparkling clean, and then we give up. We are going to get wet. Very wet.
The innocent, winding sandy jungle paths suddenly become rivers – in places knee deep. Water gushes from higher grounds and follows the given direction of the forest trails, the surface churning and muddy making it hard to guess how deep the water is. Our bikes are getting a good wash here.
Grinning and with stinging eyes we finally arrive in town, clear wet t-shirt competition winners and I make a note to self to reach for a black t-shirt next time. Not a thread is dry on us and ironically now the sky is blue again; we look like we arrived from another planet and Mother Nature can be proud of her efforts.
As I whizz down the hill on a borrowed (beautiful green) Trek bike I feel tiny flies embedding themselves in my teeth. Some have passed the barriers and I am now having my involuntarily early dinner of random protein. My grin widens, I am the typical grinning cyclist.
It’s close to 8pm and the sun will not touch the horizon for a while yet; I know I have time to enjoy the scenery although the shadow of my biking self (helmet included) grows longer.
My camera is with me, and it’s as much a blessing as it is a curse. One part of me just wants to enjoy the ride, yet the photographer in me has to give in to the compulsion to capture these precious memories, moods and gorgeous late afternoon light. I don’t care when the occasional passer-by slows down and wonders what I am doing, crouching in the undergrowth, taking photos of bending blades of grass against the setting sun.
I have always loved summer and early July is a particularly special time. Everything is green (admittedly a notch less saturated than the Cambodian version of my favourite colour), the hills are dotted with wild flowers, patchwork of crops almost gold, the air is sweet and days last forever. Forests bear wild fruits and a bit of patience is rewarded with delicious fragrant strawberries and blueberries no supermarket will ever sell.
Purple grin and stained fingers tell tales of forest harvest and I saddle up my green horse and ride on.
Shadows are now longer and I am glad I packed my fleece – by local standards I am a sissy. The air in the woods is cold and damp and the last light of the day is getting through and shines on the carpet of soft green moss.
I inhale deeply the essence of summer dissolved in every molecule of air.
It is my first full days at home; now over as I drop my keys and crack open a bottle of beer. Hydration is important even outside the tropics.
Jetlag all but forgottern, I ignore “Airline Disasters” TV show and watch daylight finally completely disapper and give way to the dark blue of the night.
I am already excited about tomorrow.
She arrives on her leopard print bicycle which even has an ashtray mounted conveniently on the handlebars. Bad habits die hard but thumbs up for the creative DIY not to mention the extra thought for the environment. The machine had raised eyebrows in town before and continues to do so but many who are settled in the temple town know Josette and her quirky ways.
From behind gold rimmed spectacles bent slightly out of shape gaze two keen bright eyes full of energy and urgency. Tiny in frame, she hugs and kisses me tiptoeing but there is no time to waste and this is so much more true when it’s feeding time!
The meeting place is Wat Atvea today ablaze in pre-Pchum Ben festivities – perhaps the most important Khmer holiday which attracts families to pagodas and with monks chanting and ting-a-ling music filling the air at maximum decibels, the majority of Cambodia pays homage to their ancestors with the aim to keep the spirits happy and content. I am yet to be given scientific proof that spirits enjoy loud music but will let this one slide today.
Josette is laden with bags of various sorts vaguely resembling a Christmas tree and I lend a helping hand carrying one while I fish for my camera to get ready. Clad in not-exactly-Sunday-trousers (which give way later in the least convenient place – but that would be telling) and Siem Reap Pagoda Cats t-shirt made to order, Josette starts mimicking meowing sounds and it works wonders. Cats of all shapes and sizes come out of the woodwork – literally. Pavlov would be pleased as pagoda dogs also take part in this ritual, trying to blend in. All this commotion leaves many onlookers bemused to say the least. Pagoda kitties come running tails up – be it full length, bent, crooked or none - for those bags contain nutritious tasty goodies. We have been expecting you!
If you were to ask Josette “So, are you a cat or a dog person?” I imagine she would grin and with sparkling eyes say that she loves all creatures alike. Note to self….
Pets in Cambodia are a fairly unrecognized phenomenon. Dogs and cats belong to all and none. In villages dogs serve the purpose of property guardians and get fed scraps but affection for the creatures which are over their cute puppy stage rarely exists. Only seldom one sees a groomed pooch on a leash – so out of place in areas where rough street characters roam the neighbourhood in look for scraps. That goes for food and a doggy lingo for “sorting things out”. The battle scars they carry paint an ugly picture.
Cats mind their own business – as they do. In towns animals of all levels of domesticity congregate in pagodas creating little living communities and are grateful for anything remotely resembling food that the monks and nuns can spare or drop by accident. How do they end up here? Pagodas have doors open to all and often unwanted animals are dropped off at the gate……. More often than not cats and dogs are in terrible health condition and with little hope for improvement as veterinary care is all but nonexistent.
Josette’s colourful life path has taken her through many scenes, from Paris movie industry to living and working in tourism in Japan for 21 years all the way to Cambodia where she retired three years ago.
Lifelong love of all creatures of fur led her to cross paths with Katie Beattie – an Australian vet nurse residing in Siem Reap. Together they plotted and planned and Angkor Paw Animal Rescue (APAR) was born in 2012 with the sole aim to rescue and care for stray cats and dogs of which Siem Reap has a steady supply. During this time Josette has learned the ropes and now is an expert on eye and ear infection treatment and deworming, the more serious cases she refers to Katie at her own expense. Often she houses patients in recovery in her own house. The Pagoda Cats “project” dates back to February 2013 when Josette’s visits to Wat Atvea started and she keeps them up with meticulous regularity.
I admire her as she sits cross legged on a scruffy floor catching kittens one by one – and they seem to come in a stream – checking their eyes and applying ointment and lots of love. Fed and happy most furballs find a nice cozy corner and just dose off enjoying the beams of sunlight coming through the various holes of the pagoda’s impromptu walls while lively kittens find the extra energy for playtime.
Then it’s time to rescue the Kisser. A beautifully grown fully tailed tabby who somehow got himself stuck on a high beam and can’t get down. The tantalizing sounds of his fellow cat-friends munching on goodness leaves him even more frustrated. A nimble old man can’t watch our pathetic rescue attempts any longer, puts down his plate of rice and in no time climbs up the beam and grabs Kisser by his neck. The Kisser kisses the old man, then everyone in his path before he reaches his bowl. The name is very fitting and well earned. Crunch crunch munch and everyone is happy. Rrrrrrrrrrrr.
Josette has treated various stages of eye and ear infections as well as burns and other ailments and often has to deal with the heartbreak of non-survivors. Like today. The litter of 5 tiny kittens in a separate nun quarter of the pagoda grounds has suddenly become a sadder bunch of 4 as one little fellow didn’t make it due to severe diarrhea. Another day in Cambodia and in the next coming days the litter will be reduced by further two who won’t make it. Survival of the fittest rings true here and mother nature has her cruel way with little human interference – aside from Josette. She persists and with generous help from others (via fundraising, donations) and dipping into her own savings she comes everyday rain or shine, today knee deep in flood water and brings nutritious kitty calories and affection into the pagoda grounds.
Life goes on and with plenty of friskiness and loud cat love cries carrying on the waves of the night Josette can be certain that soon she will have more bundles of fluffiness to feed. Hopefully, in the process of doing so some local souls will be inspired to follow in her footsteps.
Would you like a kitty with that?
A petite and very pale Asian woman screams at the sight of a cricket. Better not tell her that they eat them here...Her chubby partner jumps up to the rescue and hushes the critter away with vehemence. Then they kiss.
I am heading to the land of fluro-essence. Well, only for several hours and then catching a plane to the land of knedliky and fried cheese sandwich. Oh and beer.
My passport is stamped. I am – apparently – Czeched in all the way to Prague and hope to see my suitacase pregnant with goods and essentials appear on the conveyer belt in some ridiculous amount of hours, half a world away – in a country I once called full time home.
Around me, at Gate 3, expensive small water bottle at my side, it’s a gadget galore of ipods, ipads, tablets, smart phones and godknowswhatelse. I feel like a dinosaur with my pencil and a note book. Better send my last message from my smart phone – mainly to fit in.
Most passengers will call Seoul home and I – oh, the cricket returns and is swept away with help of the sturdy boarding pass..... and I? Where was I?
I will spend several hours marveling at goods similar to those I see around me now. I expect to see no crickets.
Extremely short shorts clad family (dad included) finds their nesting-waiting place right opposite me. Dad can barely stand straight unsupported, extreme camera gear weight crushing his shoulders while he seems to be having a wrestling match with his top notch tripod. One of the superfluous cameras hangs around his neck and would match my newly polished nails perfectly – it’s PURPLE! I would have loved to see their photos.
10 year or so old boy screams at the top of his voice as his tiny ankle swells up with two pink hillocks of a mosquito bite. The family emergency kit emerges and various ointments are applied, comforting the boy only little. Maybe all he wanted was tiger balm....
The official airport fluro crew starts to stir and passengers eager to be seated flock to the gate. We will be boarding soon. A Korean youngster with more adventurous blood in is veins than is customary offers his boarding pass to the cricket as a ramp for international and inter-special friendship, but cricket finds this little exciting and returns to haunt his little pale victim. Much more fun.
Purple techno family – one fancy SLR each in various colours (the kids are about 6 and 10) are in hysteric pressing frantically the review buttons and laughing at the fun they had. I have seen them – or their clones, V here, V there, temple, temple, tick – we've been!
Blink – and I am in Korea. Or maybe not. I wish it was this simple and teleportation actually existed. Alas, mere 5 hours later with little to report in terms of excitedness, I am gliding across the smooth and polished surface of the Icheon (renamed Itchy On) airport resisting the urge to jump on my trolley and whizz through like a rebel. Grow up. I am falling over at the sight of drinking water fountains dotted along the corridors every few meters, fancy round free standing sinks in the loos and – behold – automatically replacing plastic toilet seat covers.....rrrrwhizzz and here we go, ready to use, bum conditions very hygienic indeed. Have I been living out the realms of civilization for too long? For the botanically inclined, Itchy-On has an array of impressive live trees and plants scattered throughout the airport building accompanied with the description of the species in various languages. Impressed.
Gloria Jean has kindly provided me with much needed coffee and my stuffed travelling companions (Nat the Knit and Fennec the Fox) are having a fight over a 1000 Won note. No winner is sight.
Shorts of various bright colours (but not much fabric) seem to be in, specially in gum boots combo. Hmmm. Land of fluro stands up to its name as I see bright footwear everywhere, shell suits and clashing patterns. Hello 80’s, I have missed you.
Horizontal, plugged in, I am passing time staring at the ceiling while the sound of snoring from couple of benches to my left is keeping me from dozing. Just as well. My phone is set to Cambo time and I’d better not miss my flight.
Hello, my name is Anna and I am a Sakura-holic.
I have always had a thing for second hand stuff. Third hand is not bad either but how do you really know how many owners an item has had before it found refuge in a “second” hand store? You don’t. Some items carry original tags from the shop where they were once displayed and I can only imagine their fate; wrapped nicely under a Christmas tree (well, maybe not so much in Japan….) with a big ribbon on top, yet tossed aside unwanted because their new owner simply didn’t like them or they didn’t fit and exchange wasn’t possible. Some items are true antiques and worth more than the dusty half peeled sticker reading US$1 – lucky the pricing squad will never know.
I am mainly talking about clothes and household items. Second hand bikes and cars are a more serious business and unless you have built your own house, it is also at least second hand but I doubt many people think about it this way. While some houses come with ghosts I hope that my plates and pots and pans acquired via various second hand means don’t. It also wouldn’t be fun to have a ghost in your jeans.
Now let’s get down to (Sakura) business. For those who wonder why I talk about Japanese cherry blossom, let me explain that MY Sakura has everything to do with Japan, just not with flowers or trees in general. It is a store selling second hand (or more glamorously described “recycled”) Japanese goods. Clothes, shoes, handbags, kitchen ware, furniture and limited electronics plus other obscure items which don’t fall into any category. Sakura currently has several branches in Phnom Penh (I read about 5!) and one in Siem Reap. If I am not mistaken, I have also seen one in Battambang and good on them for having one as well!
I am a veteran of Sakura shopping. My kitchen consists of various semi completed sets of plates, cups, glasses , pots and pans. My sense of balance and tradition tells me to aim for at least 4 pieces of a kind but 6 is better. I buy even when only 3 pieces match, unless there is an outstanding piece which can survive on its own. Several times, to my great delight, I found long lost brothers of already owned (incomplete) sets and had a victorious feeling that I achieved something spectacular in this big messy game of miss-match.
My eyes scan the shelves in a methodical way and I know what I am looking for – not that I actually need anything, maybe apart from another kitchen cupboard to store all my new purchases in….. I move from top to bottom and select possible candidates following my criteria while my head subconsciously bobs to the blaring Khmer pop music or dreary love songs coming from the speakers. Yes, good music is also one of the reasons I come here. I sweat.
Customer service is another one. Attention to detail, responsiveness and speed = yes, take all these with a pinch of salt. I once grew an inch taller waiting to be served at the check out while a telephone conversation (about rice) was much more important than cashing my money. But it’s all for the greater good. By buying cheap (and original) things I surely save money – or not?
Once I am finished with the crockery and breakables, I move on to the clothing isles. It is a game not for the fainthearted. Strong muscles are required to be able to shift and move hangers in a speedy fashion, at the same time keeping a straight face coming across items where fashion police should have interfered long time ago. If you are having a dress up party, this is a place to go and look for originals.
Some pieces remember when Elvis was still in the building and some pieces carry labels such as Zara, Levi’s, Lee and other internationally recognized brands. The thing I love the most about Sakura is that size matters and in fact a tall white female with healthy padding in all the right places has no competition in the rows of locals who also meticulously scan for bargains. Our tastes differ hugely too, I let you have all the Hello Kitty goodies, girls! Only occasionally I give a sharp eagle eye to the very rare sight of another westerner sifting through the mountain of randomness and carefully measure her waist and bum size to see if she is in fact a threat to my future purchases. Mostly I win…. because I am faster and I know my territory, not because of the size of my bum.
My small sub-addiction is scarves – last time I counted I had about 35. I move past the stand and look through knowing that I have a 50:50 chance of finding a decent one, I shift and sift through already eyeing up the next stand. Miraculously several pairs of trousers have fitted me over the years of addiction and I always wonder if it was an English teacher or a student or somebody of my dimensions living and working in Japan suddenly finding themselves in a situation where quick decisions were required and they had to get rid of most of their worldly possessions in order to be able to move to their next point of call. Thanks for your pants and thank god that some long legged people live in Japan.
Skirts, tops and shirts….. all there, along with shoes (not my cup of tea plus I have a zero chance there with my small skis for feet), handbags (oh yes) and ties (for fancy dress party only). Patience is a virtue and persistence is the key. One visit to Sakura is most likely to leave you slightly disturbed, slightly grossed-out and generally unsatisfied. But if you come back….
It’s raining today and I can’t go to Sakura. I am upset and I feel empty, but tomorrow… tomorrow I definitely will. New shipment has arrived – Maersk container full to the last square inch. I saw it with my own eyes, being offloaded…. I wonder what goodies have arrived this time!
When I was little, I hung off trees, walked on my hands and nothing excited me more than the prospect of packing bags and going somewhere. Near or far, just somewhere.
When I was a teenager I made a conscious decision not live at home (read home country) and to move out. Just for the sake of it and also to “stick it to the Man”. The grand plan at the time was America but I eventually came to my senses and even my baby English started to shape up in the British way.
When I then moved out to and started my new life in the UK I was considered somewhat strange and mildly adventurous within my own peers. Little did they know.
When I announced that I was going travelling and that my journey was starting in Turkey, my mother went one shade greyer and my dad uttered his favourite swearword under his non existing beard.
My brother is a much more conventional soul, yet he shrug and let it slide. His childhood tricks consisted of such pranks as hiding his report book under the carpet only to be found when the family moved houses years later. But what do I know? He may have secrets to tell me…… I have not seen the fella in years. Not properly. He has grown taller, more muscular and has a big nose, the family trademark. He is a spitting image of our dad and already his forehead is more visible, hair thinning. The grumpiness is inherited – in both of us. He is no longer my little brother and if he wanted to return all the punches I served him when I was the taller one, I would probably hurt a lot.
So I, the beloved sister that he calls me, have come up with a plan. A grand plan. It may have something little to do with my soon approaching mid life crisis and the need to do something EPIC. Something grand and memorable. Out there.
In the last 10 years I returned home twice and no member of my non adventurous family ever came to see me in the various exotic destinations. Maybe I should check out what the milkman looks like. The grand trip #3 is coming up soon. My return will coincide with my mother’s 70th and my own 35th birthdays, all but one day apart. It’s a powerful constellation and fits perfectly with all my crazy ideas.
Brother + sister + two bikes + some essentials and 350km on top of this birthday cake to reach the town where we were both born and where the celebration will take place. I would do anything for a cake.
The planning of the route has commenced whilst some resisting force has been forming in the rows of the village elders. But this is more like pouring oil on fire and we may add a couple of kilometers just for a good measure.
I have started training. For Czech. This equals at least one beer a day and for the cycling part, the endless roads crisscrossing the countryside in my town of Siem Reap provide for a perfect opportunity to try and test one’s ability to stay in the saddle for a few hours and race the wind. The scenery here is breathtaking (sometimes literally with the blistering heat) and so quintessentially Asian, it feels like my second home which it is. But the more I think of my first home the more I yearn for meadows, fields or corn, rolling hills, wild flowers, pine forests and misty mornings. The photographer in me cries with a pure excitement only thinking about the new opportunities ahead. So fresh and so new. God knows if we will ever get anywhere……click click click…
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night excited and unable to fall back to sleep.
I will remind myself of this when I am saddlesore, rediscovering hills, in the middle of nowhere with nothing else but fatty sausages to eat – but more on this, and other aspects of tackling the Czecho culture later. Watch this space, 26 sleeps to go ….
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.