Friday, March 27, 2009


25 Mar 2009 -- Sihanoukville, Cambodia – We docked here too far from Pnom Pen to go there on a tour. This is a port city and beach town and we didn’t expect to see much of interest, but were pleasantly surprised. The port itself was of interest. They had a large fishing fleet of small wooden boats with gasoline engines that make a loud “putt putt” sound. Most of them went out at night and returned early in the morning with fresh fish for the market. As we left the port dozens were leaving at the same time and hundreds were already out dotting the horizon. In fact, all the time we have been in Southeast Asian waters we have rarely been in a place where there was not at least one little fishing boat on the horizon.

We visited the “Lower” Buddhist temple there (the upper temple was further uphill). A tranquil, tree-shaded place with a temple building in the center and several exotic shrines on the grounds. There was a motel-like building where the monks lived and, back in the woods, some humble wooden buildings where some nuns lived. We found out that boys can become monks for as little as a few months as part of their growth toward adulthood and Cambodian parents are very proud of them when they choose to do that. Older/career monks are respected as holy men and wise counselors. People will come to the temple not only to pray, but to seek spiritual guidance or to get advice on how to bring luck to their homes. On the wooded areas of the extensive grounds there were many monkeys. We visited a nun who was feeding them fruit. The monkeys were very gentle and orderly about taking the fruit – just the opposite of what you might expect. Mary also spotted a cat which, despite a skinny and generally unhealthy appearance, seemed fairly energetic and playful. Nuns, we found out, come to the temple to live so as to advance themselves on the path toward Nirvana. Nuns wear white and monks wear orange robes. Both are shaved bald and you could not easily distinguish between the men and the women with the color coding.

The tour also took us to a typical Cambodian home out in the country and we were allowed to tour it. We felt a little uncomfortable doing this, but rationalized it by the idea that the tour company was surely paying this family – and they clearly could use it – and we did come on this trip partially to see how other people lived. It was a two-story building that housed 4 generations of the family of 20. The men of the family are fishermen. The ground floor had a concrete floor. It contained several small sleeping rooms with straw mats and hammocks and also contained the kitchen. The kitchen was simple with a gas burner, a stone grinder for making rice flour, and a single water tap. Several woks hung on the wall. There was no refrigerator – marketing is done every morning. The front porch area was partially devoted to a small store not much larger than a card table in area in which they sold cigarettes, chewing gum and a few other odds and ends. It also housed a TV, stereo, and VCR – so they had electricity. We had to remove our shoes to enter the upstairs area. On the porch was a leather couch and a framed set of family pictures. Among the pics was a European-looking couple. The guide told us that the people in the house knew them and that they were captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge (who killed about 1 million during their reign of terror). There was a large living room with two shrines – one for Buddha and one for ancestors. Joss sticks are burned and offerings are made on special days or when help is being requested (safe return from fishing, etc.). There was a shadow box on the wall that contained a number of simple mementos including some small koala bears given them by an Aussie visitor. Clyde made acquaintance with several of the kids.
We then visited a local elementary school and took a tour. The kids were very friendly and some had a few words of English. Many made a bid to become Clyde’s new parent. Mary made the issue clear to them with protective, baby-cuddling gestures. This is a poor country that is making a comeback after years of war and devastation. The Khmer Rouge made a point of killing off intellectuals. This country primary school was built using materials and funds donated by Japanese and the actual design and build was done by Aussies. We met the Principal, who was nice, but no-nonsense. We all made donations to help them continue their work and one person on our group had the forethought to bring along a bag of school books to donate. Primary education is mandatory and free. Some students take private English lessons at night for which their parents pay. This is a tourist area and English is a big economic plus for those who can speak some.

In the city of Sihanoukville there is a central market – a large, dark, rabbit-warren of a place. A long central aisle and many narrow side aisles. All sorts of things on sale – clothing, food, flowers, hardware, etc. The further we went down the central aisle into the interior the more “exotic” the smell became. So much so that we turned back after we went in about 100 yards or so. We bought some flowers to brighten our cabin. The city itself has many western touches – English language signs for restaurants and hotels. While we were waiting in the bus for others to finish their shopping we amused ourselves by watching the swirl of motorbike traffic out the window. Helmets? You gotta be kidding? One small motorbike had a family of 5 aboard. Dad driving with one hand while clutching an infant to his chest with the other. Mom on the back and two young children sandwiched between. Then one young man had a 1 ft square, 4 foot long block of ice strapped crosswise to the back of his motorbike – look out pedestrians! Another man was driving with one hand on the handlebars and the other cradled a bundle of 20 or so 12 ft lengths of plastic pipe.

Our final stop was a 5-star beach resort called Sokha Beach. It was lovely. The beach was beautiful white sand. The water was clean and a light green in color and was very warm – at least 90. We had a half-our swim and a half-hour to dry off. Near the beach there was a folk band and dancers in a tree-shaded plaza in native dress doing native dances. There was also a foot massage concession under the trees nearby.

You could look around and see the signs that this area was beginning a comeback. Clyde learned the Cambodian greeting bow. Hands clasped in front in a prayer attitude and bow with nose touching finger tips. Even though he has no fingertips he got quite good at it and was a hit with the locals when one of their busses pulled alongside ours at a traffic signal.

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