December 26, 2013

The perfect trip: Cambodia

Phnom Penh.  The Royal Palace (Mark Read)
Click on photo to see additional photos.

Marvel at the palaces, markets and bars of the capital, Phnom Penh, before heading north to Siem Reap for excursions to a floating village on Tonlé Sap Lake and the extravagant, inspirational temples of Angkor. From there, it is south to the untouched jungles of the Cardamom Mountains, finishing with a homestay on a rural family farm.
Phnom Penh: Best for culturePhnom Penh is eerily quiet. A sole remork – the usually ubiquitous motorised rickshaw – rolls languorously past the Royal Palace to a deserted Tonlé Sap riverfront. Here, among the shuttered-up shops facing the palm-lined promenade, food stalls sell noodle soup and beef skewers to infrequent customers.
The peace doesn’t last. As the Khmer festival that emptied the city ends, Phnom Penhois who’d been drawn to rural family gatherings in their tens of thousands flood back to the capital and the beguiling chaos resumes. After a troubled history, which reached its nadir with the Khmer Rouge’s enforced eviction of the city in the ’70s, the ‘Pearl of Asia’ is thriving, with a flourishing café culture and a glut of world-class fusion restaurants.
Prosperity has added an extra sheen to its cultural institutions too, many of which were built during Cambodia’s French Protectorate era, beginning in 1863. Among these is the Art Deco Psar Thmei, a pastel-yellow covered market with four wings radiating from an enormous central dome.
A few hours after dawn and the Central Market, as it is also known, is already a blur of browsing and bartering. Business is brisk at textile stalls selling traditional checked krama scarves, while elsewhere chattering shoppers weave past fruit outlets piled with lychees and crimson dragon fruit, and stalls overflowing with lotus flowers and bunches of fragrant Rumdul, Cambodia’s national flower.
Just a few blocks from the market, the National Museum is close enough to the riverfront to receive some of its welcome breeze. A group of schoolchildren in matching white polo shirts and flip-flops plays in the shade of the terracotta building’s neatly tended garden while, inside, visitors reflect upon 1,000 years of Khmer sculpture.
The adjacent Royal Palace, with its glistening spires and dragon-tail details, still dominates the city’s low-rise skyline. In a corner of one of its courtyards, a team of artists is working to restore a 1901 mural of the Reamker – Cambodia’s version of the epic Hindu poem the Ramayana.
 ‘When I did classical painting at university, we studied the Ramayana,’ says lead artist Roeung Sreyna, gesturing to the mural behind her, where spirits and horse-drawn chariots float over a celestial palace in the sky.
 The project is slow and technical. Matching the colours takes time, as does cleaning stains and fixing damage from humidity. ‘We take one section at a time,’ she says, pointing at a three-foot-wide band. ‘Two months for each section, and we have to work slowly. If it were a normal painting, we could do it in a year, but this is our history, so we have to take care.’
Tonlé Sap: Best for lake lifeIn the village of Me Chrey, the streets are made of water and the wooden houses float. The village’s 500 families are among the thousands who have settled on the surface of the freshwater Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s ‘Great Lake’, where, not surprisingly, life revolves around the water. As dawn breaks, Me Chrey is already abuzz. Toddlers paddle small aluminium tubs down the main street, fruit and vegetable sellers in bright floral clothing and conical hats navigate boats between houses, and householders check for breaches in ‘fish banks’ – submerged reed baskets where fish are kept until market day. Shouted greetings and lively chatter are punctuated by the occasional snort of a pig from a floating pen. Further out on the water, a family retrieves traps and nets laid out in wide, intricate arrangements.
It’s an itinerant existence. The floating houses, which are tied to one another, are moved by the villagers four times a year to follow migrating fish stocks. The lake’s wildly fluctuating dimensions also a play a part – in the rainy season, Tonlé Sap swells to more than 6,000 square miles, raising the floating houses by around eight metres. Dry season sees the potential spots to anchor reduced significantly.
Sok Ang has lived in the village for more than 30 years. Four years ago she opened up a shop, connected to the family’s one-room home, which she runs while her husband and children do the fishing. Today, however, the kids sit behind with some neighbours, watching a soap opera on a TV connected to a car battery – the main source of power in the village. The shop sells all the necessities, from shampoo to cooking oil as well as lotus-seed snacks. ‘I sell whisky, too, but beer is more popular around here – especially Klang beer, which means strong,’ says Sok, laughing. The shop doesn’t have a name – at least not officially. ‘Everyone calls it Yeay [Grandma] Ang’s shop. I don’t have grandkids, but the village calls me that.’
Me Chrey is one of the less visited of Tonlé Sap’s villages and seeing it by kayak is the most atmospheric way to experience it. There is none of the noise or fuss of a regular tour boat, allowing the visitor to glide past a clump of water hyacinth and observe a gaggle of black-and-white mynah birds cavorting undisturbed. The sedate, unmotorised pace is also more in tune with village life. Following guide Chin on a meandering tour of the back streets, a wooden boat squeezes past in a narrow channel. It’s powered by a small girl, with equally diminutive oars. From the back, her baby sister waves excitedly. Children look up from swinging hammocks to note the kayaks’ silent passing.
 Paddling a kayak is easy, but not effortless; the perfect refreshment comes in the form of a strong, sweet iced coffee served by a mother and daughter in a covered boat that is part coffee shop, part convenience store. Competition for Grandma Ang – but here, in this remote, placid, water world, it’s no surprise to learn that cooperation holds sway. ‘The whole village are friends,’ says Grandma Ang. ‘I know everyone. If a family has a celebration, we all go to help out. Same if someone is sick – if one family has a fast boat, they’ll bring them to the mainland. We all have each other.’
Angkor: Best for templesIt’s late afternoon in an incense-filled hall in Angkor Wat. A tough-looking teenager in sunglasses and ripped jeans approaches an altar. On woven plastic mats, women pray to a Buddha statue, barely visible through the thick jasmine smoke. A fortune teller earnestly reads Jataka tales – stories of the Buddha’s former lives – and from the surrounding cloisters, lined with smaller, standing and seated Buddhas draped in saffron silks and fresh garlands, the sound of distant chanting echoes. The teenager takes off his trainers, carefully placing them next to the women’s flip-flops, and silently puts his hands together to join the group in prayer.
Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious structure, an architectural representation of the Hindu universe and the undoubted star of a massive temple city built, over the course of 600 years, by dozens of rulers who considered themselves part god, part king. Known today, rather prosaically, as Angkor Archaeological Park, the 150-square-mile site was the political and cultural centre of the Khmer empire and at its peak supported a population of one million.
The temples are still active centres of faith and everyday life today. Among the tourists who cross Angkor Wat’s sandstone causeways to explore its warren of chambers, courtyards and covered galleries are ranks of the devout. The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas is now bereft of the vast majority of its eponymous statues – a legacy of the brutally destructive Khmer Rouge era of the early ’70s. Yet its spiritual significance remains undimmed.
As evening approaches, sunlight inches across the gallery’s courtyard to probe the dim cool of the covered walkways. Here, bas-reliefs of apsara dancers and pillars enlivened with Sanskrit inscriptions celebrating good deeds take on a rosy hue. The source of the chanting is revealed to be the Hall of Echoes, on the northern side of the gallery. As newly crowned Khmer kings once did, a group of young boys is harnessing the unusual acoustics here by pounding their chests, a process thought to offer mental and physical purification.
The walled and moated city of Angkor Thom sits about a mile due north of Angkor Wat. The most common approach to this sprawling complex, built by King Jayavarman VII as a statement of power in the late 12th century, is the stone-figurelined causeway to the crumbling South Gate. Despite its graceful, moss-swathed decay, the gate is undeniably imposing, its four giant bodhisattva faces staring beatifically out. Disturbed by a passing motorcycle rickshaw, a macaque pokes it head from beneath the arch to observe the scene, before retreating nonchalantly into the shade.
At the exact centre of the city stands the enigmatic Bayon – the state temple of Jayavarman. Built nearly a century after Angkor Wat, its 54 stone towers are carved with more than 200 huge faces; their resemblance to the famously hubristic king is not thought to be coincidental. A Buddhist altar is tucked away in a dark tower of Bayon; outside, rocks thought to create curses if removed are piled in small, thoughtful arrangements.
At Ta Prohm, to the northeast of Angkor Wat, strangler figs spill like liquid over 39 temples in various stages of ruination, creating a tangle of tipsy roofs and dark hallways. Inside one temple, an altar of Shiva, replete with gold-foil decorations and offerings of mangoes and Sprite, is tended by a ‘wat granny’ – the term for older women, often widows, who have taken monastic vows and help maintain religious buildings between meditation and prayer. She whispers blessings into a string bracelet before attaching it to the wrist of a devotee.
Monastic communities continue to live throughout Angkor, with Buddhist monks often passing through the historic sites on their way to and from their pagodas (a blend of temple and monastery). Tao Lav is 18 years old and joined Ta Prohm Meanjay, a pagoda outside Ta Prohm, earlier in the year. ‘When I became a monk, it wasn’t difficult – just a little bit boring,’ he says, laughing. ‘The first few days, I missed my family and friends, but the longer I stay, the more I give up, and now I’m happy.’
He lives in a simple thatched hut and is one of only five monks at the humble pagoda, and also the youngest. ‘This is a good pagoda. There aren’t many monks or noise, so it’s easy to meditate. And this is a heritage area, so the government doesn’t allow it to get built up. It’s very peaceful. Now that I’ve learned how to meditate, I like doing it. I feel so fresh afterwards. I’m trying to meditate more and more – no more thinking about the outside world.’
Cardamom Mountains: Best for jungleThe early-monsoon rains are falling hard in the Cardamom Mountains, perforating the glassy surface of the Tatai River. Lightning cuts through the slate-blue sky, scaring off the fireflies that usually dance over the water at dusk. The forested foothills darken, as the leaves of thousands of palm trees twist and turn restlessly in the downpour.
When the rain finally eases, steam starts to rise off the river’s surface, and frogs emerge from their hiding spots to plop around, experimenting with the new water levels. Mist slides lazily along the surrounding hills, meandering through coconut palms, wild-plum trees and pendulous jackfruits. The Tatai Waterfall is for the first time this year rushing over boulders, the moss that clings to them now a little greener. Local boys backflip from the rocks, yelling as they drop into the swollen pools.
This richly verdant pocket of southwest Cambodia is an area of protected forests and conservation corridors. What really preserves it, though, is its impenetrability – a dense web of jungle canopies enveloping a smattering of small villages and, latterly, eco-resorts. No surprise that the Cardamom Mountains was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, with militants hiding out here for nearly two decades after the regime’s barbarous heyday in the late ’70s.
Hand-cleared paths linking isolated villages now serve as trekking routes for those looking to explore a less familiar side of the country. One such link, between the villages of Takat and Tuleki, clearly serves as a major thoroughfare. ‘The trails became well worn,’ says guide Ravy, Vy for short, ‘because those two villages are good friends.’
Red, white and black crabs emerge to bathe in puddles, while a troop of long-tailed macaques flits through the trees with a cacophany of screeching. On damp logs, mushrooms flourish. One type of these is used in spring rolls, another in mice poison. ‘Luckily, they look very different,’ says Vy.
Leaves that will later be used to wrap sticky rice are glistening, and an ‘ant house’ – a tiny, box-shaped nest made of leaves – has been dislodged by droplets and lies on the ground. Villagers will employ this in traditional medicine. Little goes to waste in such a remote and bountiful environment.
Midway along the path, a woman and her two sons emerge from the jungle carrying weathered shopping baskets full of wild mushrooms. Other days they might contain frogs. ‘When it rains, we go out in the early morning with a torch to get them,’ says Vy. He does the same with durian in season. ‘They fall in the night, so I come out at 5am before anyone else can take them.’
Back at the Tatai River, the sky is putting on a show of pinks and violets, while monsoon clouds churn in the distance. Birds start to shift and sing, and the forest rustles with the sounds of animals heading out on their evening rounds – and villagers returning home with firewood.
Takeo province: Best for rural lifeWhen Siphen Meas was growing up in the ’80s, her family lived off the land. Like most Cambodians, they’d lost their property and savings during the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge that ended in 1979. Unlike many, they’d escaped with their lives. ‘We didn’t go shopping. We found our own fruit and grew our own vegetables,’ she says. ‘After school I’d pick greens to eat, fish in the lake or go to the bush to get firewood.’
Today, Siphen and her family shop all the time – nearby Angk Tasoam market is a favourite – but they still work the land in their village of Prey Theat, around two hours south of Phnom Penh. And it provides generously, producing rice, taro, coconut and mango. She now runs a homestay with her husband Mach, a fellow English teacher. Their house is surrounded by paddy fields, in which ducks frolic under the irate gaze of yoked oxen, as children wobble past on oversized bicycles. A neighbour harvests snails and small fish from a paddy field using a woven-basket scoop, stopping to pass the time of day with a family on a scooter – two children sandwiched uncomplainingly between their parents on the slender seat.
Rice season is July to December, and everyone pitches in – even homestay guests. ‘They work hard,’ says Siphen with a smile, ‘and the villagers laugh and say, “Why do they want to work like that?”.’
The homestay is a focal point of the village, many members of which are related to Siphen and Mach – Siphen hazards a guess that they have 100 family members in Prey Theat. Guests become part of the family too, staying in bungalows in the fruit-tree-laden grounds or in wood-panelled rooms in the main house. The peaceful, hammock-strewn courtyard is the centre of family life – a place for cousins to chat, braid one another’s hair and catch up on village gossip.
Siphen’s kitchen is also outdoors, lending the preparation of meals a communal feel. With the early evening sunlight dancing off the lily pond at the back of the homestay, Siphen lays out pork ribs, fish amok (fish curry steamed in banana leaves) and beef lok lak (beef stir-fried with red onions), before calling over Mach from his task of trimming the grass around the fruit trees.
Assisting her with the cooking are young pupils from the small school next door, who sing Cambodian pop songs as they chop vegetables. Their English is excellent and they chat excitedly with the native speakers at the homestay, some of whom will head to their classroom in the morning to join a class and offer some impromptu language tutoring.
The meal ends with a mango dessert – the family property is home to seven different kinds of the fruit, which Siphen’s niece picks using an ingenious tool made from a plastic bottle and long stick.
The homestay really is a family effort. ‘Even the distant cousins are close,’ explains Siphen. ‘Everyone looks after one another. Many people were lost from our family during the Khmer Rouge’s rule. So we all feel cold in our hearts and want to be closer to each other.’

December 11, 2013

Partner Spotlight: Cambodian Living Arts

In order to fully understand and appreciate the empowerment Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) provides for Cambodian artists, we must learn about Cambodia’s history. Between the years of 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary anti-Western group that gained power, conducted genocide of Cambodians. It is estimated that during those years, 2 million Cambodians died from execution, torture, starvation, and overwork at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Among those who perished, about 90% were artists, musicians, and other creative individuals who were perceived to be embracing Western ideas of culture. The few remaining artists hid their identity in order to blend in and ultimately save their lives. In the decades following the Cambodian genocide, the people were crippled with economic hardships and could not make a living on their artistic talents. Oral traditions of passing down artistic and musical knowledge ceased and there was fear certain talents would be lost forever. 

Then, in 1998, Arn Chorn-Pond, the founder of CLA, and a small group of dedicated people decided to track down and revitalize the sliver of magnificent Cambodian talent still remaining. Initially, the program included four Master Artists who had the ability to teach and spread traditional Cambodian arts. Chorn-Pond and the blossoming CLA provided these artists with instruments, teaching spaces, and a salary to nurture the revitalization of Cambodian culture. By offering classes to youths, CLA spreads Cambodian artistic heritage and focuses on the preservation and recovery of Cambodian traditional arts. Over the years, CLA grew to support 16 Master Artists and 11 assistant teachers reaching over 200 students in 8 provinces in Cambodia yearly.

“We believe that through creativity we can each expand our potential as human beings.”

            More than simply recovering and preserving Cambodian arts, CLA hope to create self-sustainable channels of empowerment and global awareness of Cambodia’s history and culture. In 2010, CLA was awarded a Global Vision Award for Cultural Restoration from Travel + Leisure magazine. Their work promoting peace in Cambodia has led to a cultural transformation. Through the arts, individuals and communities connect with their heritage and identity lost during a dark time of oppression.

            Like CLA, Friendship Tours World Travel (FTWT) values peace and the restoration of culture and identity in countries stricken with war, oppression, and genocide. Through educating youth on these atrocities and their effects on the people, students become advocates and evolve into globally conscious citizens. Currently, FTWT has two upcoming trips to Cambodia: an 11-day Cambodia Alive! Tour and a 15-day Renaissance Tour. Both of these trips include workshops with CLA, such as sitting in on classes, trying out instruments, and listening to teachers share their incredible stories.

December 9, 2013

All Kidding Aside, A Great Teacher

Francis Parker group visiting Sapa in the northern part of Vietnam, Spring 2012 in front of their home stay accommodations with their host (front middle)

Eric Taylor, a History teacher at Francis Parker School in San Diego talks about the importance of travelling abroad. He describes travelling with students as an educational tool that is necessary for human development. It adds “texture” to education and to the lives of people. Mr. Taylor truly has embraced why the travel abroad experience with students is not just about learning.  Those experiences are about tuning into oneself, into each other, and shaping one another as part of humanity. He enthusiastically explains how trips abroad are about leading life lessons and education that cannot be grasped from a book. After three trips with Friendship Tours World Travel (FTWT) and Alethea Tyner Paradis, director of FTWT, Francis Parker students are very excited for their next journey to Vietnam this upcoming year. In the following interview Mr. Taylor talks about his experience, his gain, his student’s gain, and why he does what he does.

FTWT: What did you study in college?

ET: I joke about it, but I majored in history and I minored in beach.  I went to UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara) and I grew up in a rural part of California, the beach and city were so foreign that I was very attracted to it. I also studied comparative history looking at the globe and various contacts. I later began to focus on American history. Those were my under-graduate studies and now I have three masters’ degrees in various other humanities. I have been fascinated by reading as much as I can to learn about conflicts and how people react.

FTWT: Why did you become a teacher? What do you love about it?

ET: I became a teacher because I wanted to be poor, overworked and generally punished by society. I’m kidding! (as he laughs) I like conversations with people. I think learning from people, you learn about people; so teaching for me was kind of a no-brainer. Growing up, teaching used to be a very respected profession. It showed me how much people did or did not respect learning. Teaching for me has always been something I’m passionate about. I learn so many things from young people, just because they see the world in a different way and they have a different perspective. Even though, chances are 99% of what I say in the classroom is irrelevant to them, every now and then there might be something that can catch them. It’s very cool that we can shape each other, and I like that idea, very humanistic.

FTWT: Why do you like leading trips of students abroad?

ET: I like the FREE travel. No really, I suffer from wanderlust. Taking kids abroad is just an extension of the education you get in the classroom, except it’s really much more powerful. You know, when you take them (people in general) out of their comfort zone, they learn new things about themselves. If I am able to help students learn more about themselves by taking them to a country where they are going to learn more about the culture, the people, their customs and histories, then that’s just an awesome way to experience education. I’ve been doing it now for a while; this is my fourth trip with Alethea and FTWT. Plus two weeks’ vacation, it’s great!     

FTWT: What do they learn on these experiential adventures that can’t be taught in the classroom? 

ET: You can’t really feel education. In many ways we can, when we can read something, have conversations with students that get you emotional, excited about or get goose bumps when we are studying it. Which is great because one of the major psychological foundations for why we teach is to get people inspired emotionally and also physiologically. But there’s something about travelling abroad. You can take kids out of their comfort zone, away from their parents; it forces a sense of responsibility among all of us that we usually don’t have on a daily basis. You know, making sure that we survive a trip abroad together. Everyone tunes in a little bit more, they are tuned in into each other a little more, they are listening to each other more, and they are paying really close attention to the environment because it’s so new. The psychological response to it is really intense, and so what they get out of it is so much more than what they are getting in the classroom.

It’s like showing a documentary about a place and going to that place and just recognizing that you may know everything you can about a place.  You don’t really get it until you go there and realize that even though you think you know about the culture, you know nothing about the culture. You haven’t been there to interact with the culture and the people that are there creating it.

It’s fun to say that you are going to walk the streets of Hanoi, and several thousand motorcycles come at you (because that’s how it works), but when you go and try to cross the street in Hanoi and realize that you might get run over by several thousand motorcycles, its just something you can’t get in the classroom. 
FTWT: Leading these trips is a lot of work and responsibility. Why is it “worth it?” to you?

ET: It’s great because it requires me to be a teacher in a different way.  For me it adds a layer of knowledge to what I do that allows me to become more of a master of that knowledge.  I then can pass that knowledge to the students in a much more confident way. In a much more textured way so that I can tell them stories about things I saw, things that we did together in Vietnam and what that means to the bigger picture of globalization and cultural blending of people. I know that abroad there will always be dozens of experiences that will allow me to become a more complex person, not only in my everyday life, but also in the classroom. It allows me to add that texture to a conversation.    

FTWT: Why is working with Alethea and Friendship Tours better/more rewarding?

ET: I really can’t say because I haven’t worked with anyone but Alethea. But, working with Alethea is rewarding because you have an entrepreneur that is a teacher. She knows very well that it is the human element of the transaction that matters most. Meaning, working with her is meaningful because she recognizes that you are not just someone providing an experience, you are actually a human being who is in the experience.  Alethea is a very humble, magnanimous and kind person. She recognizes that what she is doing is going to make literal people much more complex and interesting.  She understands how people are not just something to be profited on, but people are designed to interact. Working with her is really human, and I really appreciate that.

FTWT: What would you say to a teacher who is considering taking students abroad for the first time?

ET: You have to be courageous, you have to be well prepared and you have to be willing to expect the unexpected. You are going to have to be more mature and recognize that the world is not simply organized, but it takes a lot of work to organize the world. Generally have an open mind and expect to have a lot of fun. By the end of the trip, you will be a much more complicated and articulated person.