Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cambodia - Day 1 Kingdom of Wonder

Cambodia... dreams of ancient stone wonders locked deep in the mysterious jungle, entwined with age old vines and giant roots of trees come to the mind. The face of Jayavarman, the serene face of Bayon and greatest priest king of the Khmer dynasty smiles enigmatically...

Today, I stepped onto the tarmac at Siem Reap airport, ending my almost year long wait to visit the self styled 'Kingdom of Wonder', so that I may wander amid the moist, humid jungle shrouded ruins of Angkor Wat, the Khmer people's greatest achievement and symbol of the current Cambodian kingdom.

Boy was I sorely mistaken. As the morning sun beat down onto the parched Earth, I realize romantic visions of the jungle conjured up by reading too many Rudyard Kipling didn't really reflect the reality that I was facing. I had stepped into a furnace!

Visiting Cambodia in April is perhaps the worse time to do in the year. According to wikipedia, it is simply the most hottest single month with temperatures soaring to the mid 40C, scorching the earth and kicking up dust clouds that stings the eyes every so often a vehicle passes over the parched dirt covered roads.

The period between November to January is described to be best, it being the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the dry season. Temperatures then would be a little bit comfortable than it is now. Still, I had found myself with an Air Asia ticket, paid 8 months in advance with Cambodia as it's destination scheduled for April 2009.

After clearing through customs and grabbing my luggage, I rendevoused with my travelling partners, Maxx, Wei Han, George and Er to find our 'Tuk-tuk' waiting for us at the airport parking lot. Little more than a motorcycle with a passenger carriage tied to the bag, I was at first rather sceptical as to whether it could really haul the weight of 2-3 grown adults and their luggage. My sceptism vanished as I saw the 'Tuk-tuk' loaded with the combined weight of Wei Han, Maxx and Er zooming off ahead leaving smoke and dust for me and Er to choke on as our own 'Tuk-tuk' tried to catch up.

Not that I was putting on the pounds or anything, nor was Er contributing unwarranted stress to our poor motorcycle. Rather it's strange chugging sound as it strained to pull our load was because it was a little thirsty. Thirsty for fuel.

The 'fuel' however looks strange indeed. In fact, in place of a petrol kiosk, you have what looked like road side sundry shops selling bottles of something that appeared more like cooking oil than petrol to quench the thirst of the motorcycles that ply the dusty roads of Cambodia.

Once filled with fuel, our 'Tuk-tuk' continued down the road, arriving behind the three others in front of our home away from home, the suitably vine entwined garden porch of the Golden Temple Villa (http://www.goldentemplevilla.com/ )in Siem Reap.

We were slightly early. Arriving at about 10am in the morning, our pre-booked rooms weren't ready for the 5 of us to move in. We therefore, decided to sample a small taste of Cambodia at it's cafe while we waited for our rooms.

The cafe seemed reasonably well furnished and stocked. Coffee and Cambodian tea is provided free throughout the day along with a complimentary supply of fresh bananas. The fare offered in it's menus also appeared somewhat enticing as with it's prices that average about USD2 to USD3 mostly. Yes, in Cambodia the mighty greenback is dominant here, easily overshadowing the 'weak' Riel, it's supposedly national currency.

We headed to the Old Market in Siem Reap after having our complimentary drink. It was a typical tourist haunt, rows and rows of little shoplots selling the odd trinket and souvenier to gullible tourists. The guide book says that you have to always haggle when buying stuff here, often having to start the bargain from half the price offered. We did some browsing, I ended up buying some magnets for my friends and family at home.

As the midday sun reached it's peak, we headed back to the hotel. It was getting unbearably hot and the constant flying dust had somewhat caked itself against my sweaty skin. We checked into the hotel shortly after, paying USD14 for two nights. A VERY cheap bargain.

I took a light shower, heading down to the cafe after that and having lunch with the gang. After that commenced the tour to the first place we will be visiting in Cambodia; the Tonle Sap lake.

If I could recall what my geography teacher had taught me a long, long time ago, Tonle Sap is the single largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. It is fed by the Mekong river which flows from the mountains in Laos down into Cambodia before ending at the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Tonle Sap is formed because the volume of water flowing into sea was too much for the small delta to cope thus, a significant amount of backflow is created, coalescing into the low lands of northern Cambodia.

It took us a while for our 'tuk-tuk' to reach the jetty where we will be taking our boat over to the floating village at the center of Tonle Sap lake. Along the way, we did stop for a while to take photos under the sweltering sun.

When we reached the jetty, I was surprised to see how much the lake had dried up. I guess the waters had receded a good 10 meters to it's current level since the end of the rainy season. But of more immediate concern was the payment to rent the boat.

A man claiming to monopolize the boat services told us that we had to pay USD12/person. We tried to haggle but the man wasn't in the mood to bargain. In the end we had no choice but to agree with his price before we went down to edge of the jetty to mount our boat.

It was a pleasant surprise to find out that our 'guide' could speak malay. (Gosh! I must be feeling homesick already!) He took us to the floating 'village' consisting of mostly poor people living in boats in the middle of the lake. He claims that they are mostly Vietnamese and that they are sort of stateless here. The people subsist on mainly fishing and craftmaking, bartering their wares to the people living on the lake's shores.

A ferry service also operates from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, costing USD35/trip. We saw the ferry boat floating about during our trip to the lake. It looked really impressive. The brochure advertising the trip says that a lunch buffet is also served onboard and the total travel time to the capital city will take 6 hours. We have however, decided to take the bus later on the capital. Compared to the extravagant price charged for the boat ride, the bumpy bus ride to the capital will cost USD6/person.

We were brought aboard a floating restaurant, kinda deserted since we have arrived during the 'low' travel season. There were some crocodiles kept in the lower decks, the guide telling us that their hides will be used to make bags and such. There was a souvenier store onboard as well but since none of their wares are a price tag and we don't really know the 'market' yet, we chose not to buy anything. We did take a few pictures on the highest point of the floating restaurant which offered a good view of the village.

Before we head back to shore, we stopped by at a floating school where we were introduced to a teacher. A few students were playing onboard when we entered their classroom but they paid us no heed. We were asked to offer donations to the teacher to buy school books and stationeries. I offered USD5.

Back in Siem Reap, we went to the Old Market, a bargain hunter's paradise. Here, I found out that you are expected to haggle for the best price as again there are no price tags shown on the wares sold here and that initial prices offered are ALWAYS overinflated. Of course, there is this conspicuous 'foreigner's' pricing, so bargain hard to get the lowest these people can offer. I got myself a number of Angkor Wat themed magnets for USD0.30 each. The rest got T-shirts, more magnets and other knicks and knacks.

Finally, we headed back to the hotel, where internet is freely available 24 hours a day. Here I stopped for a while to check my email and update my facebook. A quick bath later, we went downtown to one of the restaurants, which offers Khmer food for prices between USD1-USD4. Not surprisingly, we found out that the food presented to us doesn't really look anything at all like the food shown in their menus. :p
The night ended a compulsory Cambodian massage at one of the many parlours in Siem Reap town. Nothing hanky panky... all professional of course. :) The average price for a massage is USD6.After that is another session on the internet in which I found myself partially writing a portion of this blog before going to sleep and awaiting the next day's adventure!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ching Ming and Earth Hour

Saturday, 28th March 2009.

Two events marked the dawn of another weekend, one age old and tradition bound, the other modern, new and urgent: Ching Ming and Earth Hour. :)

Having did my bit of shopping the night before, I descended from my upstairs bedroom to discover that my grandmother had defrosted the chicken breasts from the fridge. She had awoke earlier in the morning, preparing her much anticipated nasi kunyit and curry chicken for lunch. She doesn't cook very often nowadays with age catching up, but when she does, her nyonya inspired dishes become very much in demand within (and sometimes without) the family! :)

With the kitchen cleared, I proceeded to reprise my culinary skills long neglected since I was studying in the US. Back then it was a matter of survival and economics to cook, now it is merely an occasional indulgence. For the Earth Hour Potluck party that is to be held at Linus's place tonight, I would be cooking one of my signature dishes: Curry Chicken (too) ;).

Different from my grandmother's concoction with respect to the amount of spices used (a lot more kayu manis and cloves), the addition of onions, tomatoes and eschewing the use of curry leaves, it's rather hard to pinpoint which catergory of curry would it fall other, whether 'Indian' or 'Chinese'.

After spending about 2 hours in the kitchen trying my best not to cause a fire, and with generous inputs and advice from grandma, the curry is ready. And not a moment too soon because it is time for lunch. :)

It was pass noon when the entire family gathered for an afternoon feast prepared by grandma. By 2:30pm in the afternoon, it is time for us to visit my grandfather who now 'resides' at Fairey Park Columbarium in Meru.
This is the 2nd anniversary of our Cheng Ming visits to pay our respects to him. The roads were of course busy on the way to the cemetary but fortunately the threatening afternoon rain and hot weather had reduced the number of the people that were really at the cemetary that day.

Still, there was enough to completely fill the parking bays directly in front of the columbarium and my family had to park our cars a little bit further down the hill. We did however drop all the passengers at the columbarium before the drivers (me being one of them) proceeded to look for parking. It wasn't such a hard task and soon I was with my family in front of the niche containing my grandfather's ashes.
We made our food offerings and prayers to grandfather, my mother also drawing us to recite the mantra to 'transfer our merits to the departed'. We hope that with our merits transfered that he may be able to be find a better rebirth in the next life.

Of course, while he awaited rebirth, we have to make sure that his current state is as blissful and as comfortable as possible. First though, we have to make sure his 'friends' and 'neighbours' are appeased. ;) To do this, we lighted joss-sticks and offered one stick for every vertical row of niches surrounding his part of the columbarium. Along the way, I couldn't help reading the names of the departed, the clans with which they belong, their date of birth and time of death, reveling at the long lifes of some and feeling a tinge of sadness as I look onto the faces of those whose lives ended way too soon. Needless to say, being acutely aware of your mortality is one obvious experience you will get from being here.

The burning of paper offerings is next on the itinerary. The morning throng had already filled the burning pits with their offerings and it was overflowing with ash. Perhaps there were some that were a little bit impatient while waiting their turn and so, there were also piles of ash on the nearby road as well.
My father, mother and myself chose a spot in the burning pit that is relatively clear of people. The wind was blowing very strongly and the weather cloudy, good for burning offerings in the open. Once we have finished, we headed back into the columbarium, saying our goodbyes to grandfather before heading back home.

When I arrived, it was time to prepare for the next event: Earth Hour at Linus's house.

Quickly taking a shower to wash off any remnants of ash and sweat, I then gathered my pot of curry chicken and loaded it into my car. Leaving the house at 6:30pm, I arrived at Linus's place at 7:10pm, discovering Audrey and Valerie already in the house. Linus, the host was out to church and wouldn't be coming until well into Earth Hour which is between 8:30pm to 9:30pm.

Chris's and Aurelius's arrival heralded the time to commence our pot luck dinner. With Valerie's fried mee hoon. Audrey's bacon rolls and my own chicken curry we chowed down, supplemented of course by Chris's, Aurelius's and Yee Wei's contribution of a bucket of KFC. Aaron provided two boxes of pizzas while Dennis supplied the drinks and needless to say, Linus supplied the venue.

Kok Kin came slightly before Earth Hour with a bottle of Jim Bean; somewhat of a loaded gun, but welcomed nonetheless. ;)

As 8:30pm arrived, it was time to switch off the lights and light the candles.

With only 7 people present, we couldn't really play 'werewolves' so we started off with 'Taboo' instead. After initial hiccups, the game went on smoothly until Linus's arrival with his currently still 'friend'. ;) He wanted to join our game of 'Taboo' but having his hands full with oily chicken and chili sauce didn't really encourage Valerie to hand him a card.

We sort of 'extended' Earth Hour pass 9:30pm because we felt the candlelight presented an ideal atmosphere to play 'werewolves'.

When Yee Wei, Dennis, Timmy and Henry arrived much later, the game went into full swing. The game became more interesting with the introduction of a new character 'Cupid'. ;)

Having the power to make two players into a 'couple', Cupid then reverts to a normal villager/citizen after that. The two couples however, were to have their 'fates' locked. Knowing each other's identities, the two of them will die if any one of them is killed off (either by the werewolves, witch or villagers). Also, there is no restriction to having a villager be 'coupled' with a wolf, invoking cheeky cries of 'beastiality'. ;)

Down the road, Yee Wei displayed his 'clubbing' skills, taking advantage of the Jim Bean and pouring drinks to Valerie and Audrey with the rather obvious sinister objective of trying to get the girls drunk! :) He succeeded somewhat with Valerie who also subsequently influenced Aaron to join her. Kok Kin bored the brunt of the assault and as the clock struck midnight, was soon sprawled on the floor dozing off in alcoholic dreams (but not before trying to rouse the whole neighbourhood with his loud voice).
We finally ended our 'werewolves' session around 3:30am in the morning, the alcoholic haze somewhat dissipated enough for those afflicted to drive home.

Overall, a successful event. Now... for Cambodia! :) Until next time, "Don't Drink and Drive!"

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Endau Rompin Day 2 - Journey to Buaya Sangkut

Endau Rompin, Day 2.
I awoke to the sounds of clashing crockery, chattering conversations and quacking ducks. :) I reached out to my handphone to look at the time (my watch had since passed away during the Batu Maloi trip), it was close to 6:30am in the morning. 'Early' to some people but a 'luxury' for one who wakes up at 5:30am every other day of the week. :p

The night wasn't as cold as I thought despite opening up the tent flaps to let the jungle air in. Previous stays at sites in Taman Negara (Jerantut), Rumah Rehat Adeline (Gopeng), Mulu and Ledang provided much cooler experiences than this time. I have to admit, I was rather dissappointed at not having to cringe in my sleeping bag for warmth.

Crawling pass my still slumbering (and snoring) tent mate, I stepped out into the open to see the makeshift canteen filled with people. Some, were preparing their breakfast, others were just sitting around chatting with one laying lazily in his hammock blowing his duck whistle as he swayed left and right.

Dennis preparing breakfast ala 'K-9' :)
I really wasn't very hungry but realizing that with our 4 hour hike to Buaya Sangkut ahead of us, I'd better grab something to eat as well. First though, it is time to freshen up.
Reaching into my tent, I got out my bag filled with the 'essentials of civilization' (my shaving cream, shaver, toothpaste, toothbrush, facial cleanser, shampoo and body soap). I went over to the wash basin conveniently supplied with pumped river water and lighted with surprise, surprise, my propane latern. ;)
Once I have 'cleansed' myself, I head back into the tent to get out my breakfast: White Bread, Baked Beans and a serving of coffee.
With breakfast taken, I then prepared for the hike, filling my small sling bag with a bottle of 100 plus, and some bread. My tent mate, Maxx brought what's left of the baked beans, some snacks and a small bottle of water. He had chosen not to eat for fearing that it might cause discomfort during the upcoming hike.
Making the translation from Civilization to Jungle
At about 8:30am in the morning, we moved out, forming into teams which Aurelius had organized before the trip. I was slotted into Team 2, with Linus, Valerie, Aaron and Maxx. Henry, supposedly our team member, chose to stay behind citing that he had contracted a fever from the previous day's rain. We crossed over a suspension bridge, leaving behind our pale resemblance of civilization to venture into the dark, damp jungle on the other side.

Bridge on the River Kwai?
On the Suspension Bridge

It took us 45 minutes before we reached our first stop, another campsite where water thundered over large river rapids not so far away. Our initial journey had taken us along the sides of small hills and gulleys, ending with a march along the river side before we reached the campsite. Here, our group stopped to do the needy, washing away mud gathered along the way and plucking stray leeches that had hitch hiked for the ride.

River Rapids

A short rest and we were off, a steep hard climb immediately after our stop heralding the condition of the coming trek. A few members of our group were beginning to feel the strain taking it's toll on their legs, slowing down ever so frequently to rest and catch a few breaths. Gradually, our steady march became a slow slog as the team tried to move at the pace of our slowest members.

Signs to the next trek
A steep climb ahead!

At Takah Kunyit we stopped again, another hour in our 4 hour trek still beckoning before we reach Buaya Sangkut. Little more than a passing stream with a sprinkling of large boulders, Takah Kunyit isn't really suitable for prolonged frolicking other than just serving as another 'leech' stop.

Crossing Upeh Guling, poor Timmy :)

About 15 minutes and a couple of group photos later we moved again. This time however, our group cohesion begin to unravel as the faster moving members became more anxious to get to the falls. It wasn't long before the echoes of 'Hoo-Ha' and weird 'Quack-Quack' duck calls echoed through the jungle as members in the front and back try to find their relative locations. Throughout the journey, Aaron, Valerie and myself remained in the group while Linus being the 'Director of Photography' moved up and down the line taking photo shots when opportunity presents itself. Maxx though, being the maverick that he is was far ahead with the 'fast ones'.
Single file in the jungle

Exotic mushrooms on the jungle floor

Sometime later, the droning of cascading waters replaced the recurring hoarse howls, shrill whistles and incessant 'quack-quacks'. It was at once inspirational to those that were anxious to finish the trek as well as comforting to those members that were by now almost struggling against the physical protests from their aching legs. But the 'prize' demands one more last surge of effort however, there remained a very steep climb down to the base of the waterfall before the trail ends.
Buaya Sangkut Waterfalls

Finally I reached the famed Buaya Sangkut which appeared now to be a very large fall some distance away from where we found stepped out of the jungle path. As I approached the gathering team, those who arrived first were already doing the now familiar routine of checking and picking off leeches from their weary feet. To my dismay, I found even this close to the waterfall, leeches abound, taking note of one particularly HUGE one attempting to loop itself towards my Baygon poisoned shoes. There was no doubt perhaps that these critters might have been carelessly disposed off by our members to the surroundings instead of throwing them directly into the rushing waters nearby. I therefore quickly chose this nearby boulder protruding out of the flowing waters to be where I shall laid down my bag and dry my wet socks. It's a sure bet than anything else that no rogue leech is going to find it's way across the water and slip into my shoes/socks/bag here.
With my stuff laid out to take advantage of the afternoon sun beaming down onto us, I proceeded to take a dip in the cool waters.

Ave 'Imperator (Marcus)' Aurelius!

At length, there were frantic exchanges between Aurelius, Linus, Dennis and a few others on the lost of team cohesion as we neared the waterfall earlier on. I gave my two cents worth before quickly retreating into the shelter provided by the cascading waters when I sense a little tension building up among the participants. ;) Well, I figure I have had enough 'training' in diplomacy and conflict management while in office already to eschew additional 'on-site' training.

Jungle Hair Saloon...

Eating Apples in the water

Linus making sure something is not wiggling inside his pants...

This is better than going to the spa!

Cam Whoring in the extreme
As temperatures (and tempers) go down, our members begin to frolick in the waters despite being pretty much confined to the banks. The center of the torrent had a pretty strong current so none of us dared to venture close to risk being battered by rocks and boulders downstream (which reminded me of my river rafting escapade in Gopeng that bestowed upon me this gigantic bruise).

Me bruise (from River Boarding trip in Gopeng)

Returning to Mother Nature... Fertilizing the plants

Yee Wei and our Orang Asli guides
Overall we spent a little bit more than an hour at Buaya Sangkut, taking photos, bathing, washing, getting a good massage pressing our bodies against the rushing waters, having lunch or simply just lying down among the boulders basking in the sun. Eventually, the call to muster finally came and we were soon up the steep climb from the base of the waterfall.

Returning from Buaya Sangkut

At the top of the climb we decided to make a short detour, trekking to a vantage point where the waters begins it's cascade down and taking a few photos for posterity.

Top of Buaya Sangkut Falls

Having done so, we begin our trek back in earnest.

Like clockwork, the skies opened up to dump rain onto us in the late afternoon, right at the moment we neared Takah Kunyit. Again, some of us choose to don their rain jackets and again, I choose not to do the same so that I may keep myself nimble. I had to seriously reconsider my decision when the constant trickle became a constant torrential downpour, the force of it strong enough to penetrate even the thick jungle foliage.

Rain, rain go away, come again another day! (Too late)

Taking a page from the Orang Asli survival guide, I cut down a leaf from a jungle fan and fashioned myself an umbrella. It was a crude construction and a far cry from the one crafted by our orang asli guide for one of our female members, but it serves it's function. :)

The rain abated shortly before we reached the campsite by the river rapids. Relieved members headed towards the rushing waters, plunging into it but staying close to the edge to cool themselves down after the 3 hour hike. It was a completely unplanned stop but I guess Aurelius himself needed the break and therefore spared ourselves from further tongue lashing! :)

Return to River Rapids

We returned to our campsite shortly before nightfall, everyone of us eager to find out whether our 'sole survivor' left at the site had the sense to zip up our tents to shelter the interior from the earlier downpour. He was conferred the title 'King' (King Henry I, get it? ;)) when they discovered he did not.

King Henry VIII (see the resemblance?)

Fortunately, Maxx and I were spared the brunt of the deluge that inundated the other tents, thanks to the 'verandah' he had constructed the day before. Some water did come in but his much lamented flood didn't look as bad as it sounds. Others weren't so lucky. A few tents had to be completely up ended to remove the rain water trapped within... ;)

Not long after drying our tents came the call to venture to another place within the park to supposedly take a nice, relaxing shower. Selling it off with facilities including chalets, showers, swimming pools and fully lighted toilets, Aurelius enticed a small detachment of us to visit Tasik Air Biru as dusk begins to set in.

Distances from Kuala Marong

Admitedly, I was VERY sceptical (I'd rather put my money on aliens coming down from flying saucers than a cleverly hidden 'resort' 500m from our campsite), but I went anyway if not to get myself properly cleaned, at least to check out this new place in the park.

Braving leeches with my now sandaled feet we arrived at this completely deserted natural pool about 15 minutes later. As expected, instead of a well furnished resort, all there were was this wooden hut by the side of the pool to greet us as we arrived.

Jungle 'friend' ever waiting to give me a blood soaked 'kiss'

Those that didn't mind jumped into the pool to bathe while the ones really expecting to see a resort and equipping themselves to actually go into one, ending up dissappointed, turning around to head back to the camp.

Tasik Air Biru and protecting their 'modesty'

We spent about 30 minutes there, bathing in the aquamarine waters before the threatening dark forced us to head back.

On arrival at the campsite it is finally time for dinner.

Tonight's menu was dry Indo Mee Goreng, pickled chinese vegetables and spam, once more a Spartan's meal compared to those cooked up by Audrey and Charlene. Charlene conjured up more rice with various canned sauces and meats for accompaniment while Audrey and gang manifested another banquet comprising spaghetti carbonara and ABC soup!

Chef Charlene in action, "Rice anyone?"

Dinner dispensed with, it's time for a shower.

Despite already sort of having 'bathed' at the 'blue' pool, I just couldn't shake off that 'sticky' feeling that requires me to clean myself with a proper shampoo and soap. So, with eyes peeled wide open and bated breath, I braved another round in the wooden shower stalls.

Nightfall brought new things to do for idle minds. With the power of delayed screen capture technology and vast experiences with optical tricks, Linus and Dennis created some magic.

Harry Potter?

The day's activities ended with another bout of 'werewolves', this time with a much larger participation than the night before, requiring the introduction of a new character, 'The little girl'. Valerie, our previous night's game master and originator of the game was too tired to play so the task of managing the game fell onto Aaron's shoulders. The 'little girl' character was HIS idea! :)With the addition of Linus, Aurelius and Vit Ping, the game became even more hilarious. Cheers and jeers punctuating the silence of the jungle night as villagers burn and wolves running scot free.

La Nina (The Little Girl)

Shortly pass midnight, we all called it a day, reluctantly relinquishing our biological pestering to rest and recuperate our aching and tired limbs, although at least not after round after round of "last games". ;)