Archive for December, 2010

To the top of Bokor Mountain

Friday, December 31st, 2010

A section of new road on Bokor Mountain

One of the Hanuman team recently took the trip up to the top of Bokor Hill Station, looking out over the south coast of Cambodia.

Previously a popular pilgrimage for visitors to the south coast area around Kampot, construction has been under way for the last three years with the aim to build a massive 650-room resort, golf course and a number of villas and properties for sale and rent. Basically they want to recreate a small town on top of Bokor. The estimated time for completion of this Sokha Hotels project is 15 years.

So far a huge two-lane road has been carved out of the mountain, effectively a widened version of the original road. Grass and trees have been planted so they will hide the scars that have been made by construction. A lot of work has been done on drainage and supporting the mountainside, but already areas are damaged. There is a section of a few kilometers where the road is not finished and workers are still blasting into the mountain to clear the way. Vehicles can drive all the way to the top even over this section where work is still happening. But tourists are not allowed to be in the vehicles.

On top of the mountain very little has changed. The original and now-derelict hotel, casino and church are all as they were, though the Post Office shell has been demolished. The only noticeable difference is the King’s former house has been fully renovated and is being used for overnight stays for VIP’s. Otherwise, there are lots of workers and building materials around but not much visible activity. So in summary, the top of the mountain is as it was other than a wider road and the presence of building materials. This distracts from the general atmosphere and the overall experience.

It is possible to visit Bokor. All the travel agencies in Kampot combine to organize a daily trip. The different agencies work as a co-operative and 1 agency takes responsibility for one departure a week and they rotate amongst themselves. This means fewer but bigger groups.

The visit involves transport by minibus from Kampot to the Park entrance. You then transfer to a construction company truck and are delivered to a point from which you walk uphill for 1½ hours with a Ranger and guide. A picnic lunch and a visit to a waterfall are included. Then you walk back down to the collection point and retrace the journey back down the mountain.

This is aimed squarely at the backpacker market. The transportation was over-crowded and uncomfortable. Due to this and the poor quality of guiding, this is not a trip we at Hanuman are currently offering to our clients. Private trips can be arranged but costs are un-realistically high for what you get.

Ethnic diversity in Laos

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Ethnic cultures on show in Luang Prabang at TAEC

Hanuman is pleased to bring you a selection of unique experiences in Laos. Enjoy exclusive dining at an abandoned riverside temple on a Mekong island, meet leading figures in Laotian arts and society, learn the secrets of Lao cuisine with a celebrity chef, visit the Vieng Xai Caves with a Pathet Lao soldier, learn the art of travel photography with a professional or enjoy a yoga class in the jungle. All this is possible and more. For inspiration, visit http://www.hanuman.travel/Unique_Experiences/unique_experiences_laos.html.

One of our unique experiences in Luang Prabang that will take you under the skin of the incredible ethnic diversity of the minority groups that inhabit Laos, will be an expert guided tour of the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in the city.

The TAEC is an independent, non-profit museum dedicated to the ethnic cultures in Laos. Located in a historic building in Luang Prabang, it is the first exhibition space in Laos dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of its traditional arts and lifestyles. The museum features exhibits on the ethnic cultures of Laos, a fair trade museum shop selling handicrafts from village artisans, and Le Patio Cafe, serving food and drinks with a view of the mountains.

As an advocate for the survival and transmission of the cultural heritage of Laos and a resource for the development of the traditional arts, TAEC is also involved in research, preservation and documentation of cultural artefacts, outreach and education, and livelihood development.

Charity cycle ride

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Jake at the end of his 30km cycle ride

The beginning of December saw Hanuman’s Jake Corke take part in the 5th Angkor Bike Race, putting his adventure credentials to the test and backing up Hanuman’s own sponsorship of the event. It’s an annual cycle ride organized by Village Focus International (www.villagefocus.org), a non-profit organization which seeks to empower community leaders to create change in their own communities, by building capacity and opportunity, and stimulating community participation.

Around 60 riders participated in the event in 2006, this year the number had risen to nearly 400, and there were participants from over 30 countries. The Hanuman logo appeared on the back of each competitor’s t-shirt, and though an injury meant Jake couldn’t participate in the 100km race, one that attracted the serious cyclists, he did have a go at the 30km version. Here’s his take on the event.

“The ride was excellent, starting at Angkor and following the Grand Circuit past many of the majestic temples built by the ancient kings that ruled the mightiest Empire that South East Asia has ever known. The beginning of the day reminded me of my days as a tour leader when I would escort groups of  tourists to Angkor Wat for sunrise. It was 5.15AM, as I cycled in the dark past fellow competitors, I was pretty impressed with my pace, surprised with the ease with which I was passing my fellow riders. There was a procession of riders on bikes, tandems, or bikes in tuk tuk’s making their way to the main causeway at the Western entrance of Angkor Wat. This was the start line. As the darkness lifted, the famous towers came into sight and it was nearly time to start. All vehicles were prohibited from entering the area until 9.30AM, so everywhere was free of traffic. At 6.00AM the race commenced. The serious riders competing in the 100km went first and everybody else fell into place behind them. They soon disappeared into the distance.

As I was passing Pre Rup I noticed my pace slowing, my legs tiring and my rear throbbing. Despite my satisfaction with my pre-race pace, 30 kms is no real accomplishment on the flat roads around Angkor. But with no exercise in recent weeks it soon began to take its toll. As the ride became considerably more strenuous my aim of achieving a respectable time drifted away with the race leaders. This was made all the stronger when a rather large lady came whizzing past me on her equally inappropriate-sized mountain bike. It was not the fact that she was on the large side, or that she was an elder lady, but I was upset with the ease with which she passed me and the fact that she did so whilst cycling with one hand while photographing the temple at the same time. Despite my best efforts to catch her, she soon disappeared into the distance too!

I know that the winner of the men’s 100 km race did it in a time of 2 hours and 43 minutes. The oldest participant was a 76 year old Khmer man who raised 4 million Riel for Village Focus (the organizing NGO). He vowed to come back next year and win it! The first 3 finishers of the Men’s 100km race were all Khmer, the Women’s first 3 places where taken by Western cyclists. There was also the 30km and a 12km circuit. The youngest participant was just 7 years old. All of the participants were waved on and encouraged by the local population. Children and their parents lined the road outside their villages and homes, bearing warm smiles and excited cheers of support.

It was a great feel good event. The organizers and participants were all very proud to do something fun and significant for Cambodia and many vowed to return next year. The Angkor Bike Race was followed the following day by the Angkor Half Marathon which attracted nearly 5000 participants and is now recognized as a serious sporting event in the region.

Despite the late notice I did manage to muster some support. At just 24 hours notice I was able to generate nearly 1,000 USD in sponsorship cash. My intention is to use the sponsorship money towards relief work for the victims and families of those affected by the Koh Pich disaster last month. I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to all my friends and colleagues who were generous and thoughtful enough to support this cause at such short notice and at a very taxing time of year.  Both the race and the run will take place same time next year … so please get involved!”

The Other Preah Khan

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Adventure Temple Safari at Preah Khan

Many visitors have been awed and amazed by the temple of Preah Khan at Angkor. Immense garudas guarding the walls, ornate apsaras decorating the lintels in the Hall of Dancers, a curious Grecian-style two-storey structure, and a number of iconic trees, it is s stunning temple. Preah Khan is spectacular and often considered one of the ‘Big Five’ at Angkor, together with Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei. However, rather less visited by comparison is the ‘other Preah Khan’ located in Kompong Svay district of Preah Vihear. Inaccessible for many years, adventurous travellers are now making their way there by motorbike or 4WD. Hanuman pioneered our very own Temple Safaris to Cambodia’s most remote jungle locations back in 2004, including the ultimate lost temple of Preah Khan. Access has got easier over the years, as roads slowly improve, but it remains the most adventurous of all Temple Safari destinations and only for the dedicated temple hunter. One of the largest temples during the Angkor period, it includes several satellite temples, Prasat Preah Stung intricately decorated with the signature four faces of Jayavarman VII. It was badly damaged by looters during the 1990s, but remains an atmospheric location thanks to the almost complete lack of visitors. Camp outside the gates for a night to remember under the stars.

Our Company Advisor, Lonely Planet author Nick Ray has visited the temple about half a dozen times in the past decade. He shares his stories of early disasters here in an  excerpt from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press. Read on safe in the knowledge that the roads really are getting better, although it remains a rollercoaster ride for dirt bike enthusiasts. Nick travelled there as recently as February 2010 with a group of US pilots on a dirt biking tour to some of the most remote parts of Cambodia, including Temple Safaris at Preah Khan, Koh Ker and Banteay Chhmar.

Nick Ray is haunted by the curse of Preah Khan

Not to be confused with that Preah Khan on Angkor’s Grand Circuit—lest you want to spend several days lost in the jungle—this is the sleeping giant that is Preah Khan in Kompong Svay. A satellite city during the golden age of Angkor, it quite literally fell off the map in recent decades. It was lost in the impenetrable forests of northern Cambodia, but we were resolved to discover its secrets by following an ancient Angkorian highway.

The paths split and reformed like the mouths of the Mekong. Sometimes the trail ran cold—into a confused farmer and his buffalo surprised to see barangs in his rural retreat. But east is east, and the ancient Khmers were like the Romans of Europe, distilling culture throughout mainland Southeast Asia via a network of straight highways. Noble sandstone bridges provided historic waymarkers along the route.

Following the devout and destructive before us, we eventually stumbled upon Spean Ta Ong, a seventy-seven-meter bridge guarded by fearsome nagas. Camping out under the stars at Preah Khan, I realized how privileged we were to have chanced upon our very own Angkor without the tourists.

But did we inadvertently offend the gods by sleeping in their sanctuary? They certainly did their damnedest to make a return to this marvelous place all but impossible.

On my next try in 2002, I traveled the old Angkor road, scouting for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film Two Brothers, a story of tigers in colonial-era Cambodia. The heavens opened, and the trails turned to streams. Before we knew it, we were knee-deep in mud. Annaud took it in his stride, snapping away on his Leica, as we tried to pull the bikes out of the treaclelike mud. “I need to understand the difficulties involved in the locations I am working with,” was JJ’s philosophy.

But failure wasn’t an option on my part, and a dry November convinced me to try again. The gods deigned otherwise. The heavens opened again, and we were soon sliding around like Ski-Doos.

Unrepentant and still oblivious to the curse, I ventured forth once more to conduct a community tourism assessment. This time it was going swimmingly up until the point my colleague, John, took this literally and went up to his neck in a river. I pushed ahead for help.

As dusk was closing in, I came upon a second river, wide and dry. Squirming through the sand, I reached a narrow channel of water. The bank was steep and sandy; the wheels of my bike just churned and spun. Pushing, pulling, raging, cursing, I tried everything, but I couldn’t get the bike to budge. I abandoned it and stumbled on to Ta Seng to raise the rescue committee. We found John dazed and delirious on the outskirts of town, carrying a dirty bowl he’d been using to drink from puddles.

The next morning we set off with ox carts in search of our steeds. As we came upon the first river, it had swollen overnight and was now a raging torrent. All I could see was a handlebar sticking sorrowfully out of the water. Stripping off, we hauled my bike out. John swam the river and trekked in search of his bike. Remarkably, it started, and he came roaring out the forest. Mine, on the other hand, was paraded around Ta Seng in search of a mechanic or magician. After taking it apart with the precision of a surgeon, the local mechanic reassembled it and beeped the horn triumphantly. It wouldn’t start, but face was saved.

We eventually made it out on a combination of ox carts and motorbikes. It was time to return to civilization. Third time unlucky, and I realized the curse of Preah Khan was upon me.

Getting to Preah Khan
There is no public transport to Preah Khan itself, but there are very infrequent trucks to the nearby village Ta Seng. Realistically most visitors are going to get to the temple under their own steam, either by moto, rented motorbike, or chartered 4WD. Getting to Preah Khan is quickest by motorbike from Kompong Thom. Follow National Highway 64 north toward Tbeng Meanchey. After about 80 kilometers, a small track leads west from the village of Phnom Dek through the forest to Ta Seng and Preah Khan. The total distance is about 120 kilometers from Kompong Thom, and it takes about five hours in the dry season.

Coming from Siem Reap, it’s multiple choice. By 4WD, take National Highway 6 to Stoeng, before heading north on a long, long dirt road to Ta Seng and Preah Khan. By motorbike there are two options. Easiest is to follow National Highway 6 southeast to Kompong Kdei before heading north on a good dirt road to the village of Khvau. From Khvau, it is forty kilometers east to Preah Khan on a miserable ox-cart track. Or … get your kicks on Route 66.

More adventurous and romantic is to follow the old Angkor road from Beng Mealea east to Preah Khan, which includes about ten Angkorian bridges dating from the twelfth century. Forget about trying this in the wet season, unless you can handle an ox cart. The best time to visit is from January to April, as the trails are reasonably dry.

Meet the living masters

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Meeting Em Theay (center), a living icon of Khmer ballet

An essay in the brand new guidebook, To Cambodia With Love, edited by Hanuman’s own Andy Brouwer, introduces us to Em Theay, the living embodiment of classical Royal Cambodian dance. She’s an amazing woman, full of energy and a zest for life and Hanuman are proud to give its guests the opportunity to meet The Tenth Dancer, Em Theay and other iconic masters of the classical Khmer arts from ballet to shadow puppetry as part of our Unique Experiences that are available in Cambodia. Contact us for more details.

Andy Brouwer meets Cambodia’s Tenth Dancer

Excerpted from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

Around the same time as I first came to Cambodia in 1994, I watched a memorable documentary that focused on the fledgling revival of Cambodian classical dance. It featured one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed nine out of every ten of the country’s dancers-hence the film’s title, The Tenth Dancer. The survivor’s name was Em Theay, and it was clear that she was a remarkable woman. Little did I know that years later I would meet her and discover that she was an even more exceptional individual than I first thought.

I was acting as the local fixer for a documentary about Cambodia, thirty years after the end of Pol Pot’s iron-fisted rule. We’d interviewed Vann Nath, the famous painter of Tuol Sleng prison, and now it was the turn of the living icon of Cambodian royal court dance. Dressed in her finest clothes, her toothless grin spreading from ear to ear, Em Theay arrived with her eldest daughter, also a leading classical dancer. She was seventy-eight years old, and the prospect of talking about dance-her lifeblood for so many decades-was something she was eagerly anticipating.

With the help of a translator, Em Theay launched into the story of her life, a tale of funny moments interspersed with the sadness of the Pol Pot years and the subsequent struggles to resurrect her beloved dance traditions. She was chosen to dance at the age of seven by Queen Kossamak, for whom her parents worked as domestic servants. She grew up in the Royal Palace and was a dancer and singer in the King’s Royal Ballet until the Khmer Rouge took over her country. At that time she was forty-three and was sent to live in Battambang, where her talents did not go unnoticed-her captors encouraged her to sing and dance as well as work in the fields.

In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, twelve of Em Theay’s eighteen children were alive. By the end of the Khmer Rouge period in the late ’70s, seven more had died and only five were left. Her spirit unbroken, Em Theay returned to Phnom Penh, where her knowledge and skills of the traditional arts were put to use as a teacher at the National Dance Company and the Royal University of Fine Arts until a few years ago.

She told her moving story with such grace and dignity that it was impossible for those present not to feel the emotion of the moment, and as I listened in awe, I quickly wiped away the tears before anyone could see. But laughter is never far from Em Theay’s lips. She even surprised the cameraman on a couple of occasions by springing up from her chair to demonstrate the wealth of postures and movements that she knew by heart and had passed on to countless students over the years, including her own children and grandchildren. As she finished her tale with more of her amusing stories about her students, I found myself unsure whether to laugh or cry. She ended the session by sitting on the floor and handing me countless photographs of her family and some of herself, yellowing with age, but obviously precious items and memories. Clearly, her desire to pass on the secrets of the royal court dance has been undiminished by time.

In March 2009 Em Theay and her daughter lost everything in a house fire. Irreplaceable documents of dance and family history – her treasured notebooks, which contained the record of many important sacred songs and dances, along with those yellowing photographs, which she kept hidden from the Khmer Rouge on pain of death – were gone forever. A benefit concert and a screening of The Tenth Dancer have raised much-needed funds to assist her. While such support helps, nothing can be done to retrieve her invaluable possessions. Yet she continues on, undaunted. Her life has been – and still is – an incredible journey. She is not only a true survivor, she is also a vital link to Cambodia’s glorious past.

Fact File: The Tenth Dancer

Sally Ingleton’s 1993 documentary is a testament to the resilience of Em Theay and the rest of the Cambodia classical dancers and their dedication to resurrecting this vital link to Cambodia’s past. For more, go to: www.singingnomads.com/tenth

Find out more about the Unique Experiences available in Cambodia at:

http://www.hanuman.travel/Unique_Experiences/unique_experiences_cambodia.html

To Cambodia With Love

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

To Cambodia With Love

With its unique insights into dining, shopping, sightseeing, and culture, To Cambodia With Love is a one-of-a-kind guide for the passionate traveler. Just published by ThingsAsian Press in San Francisco and edited by Hanuman’s own Andy Brouwer, when it comes to Cambodia, no one knows it better than the contributors to To Cambodia With Love. Sharing their own stories in their own words, they will introduce you to some of the country’s most memorable experiences.

One of those contributors in Socheata Poeuv, who made her filmmaking debut with the award-winning film, New Year Baby which was broadcast nationally in 2008. She was formerly on the staff at NBC News Dateline, ABC News World News Tonight and NBC News TODAY. She’s also the CEO of Khmer Legacies, an organization whose mission is to document the Cambodian genocide through videotaped testimonies by having the younger generation interview the older generation. Here is one of her memorable experiences from To Cambodia With Love.

Socheata Poeuv stops in her tracks in Siem Reap

I will never forget the day I arrived at the HanumanAlaya Hotel. I had been shooting a documentary film for over two weeks throughout Cambodia. We had visited former Khmer Rouge cadres, Pol Pot’s grave, and even the site of the refugee camp where I was born. We had been bumping and rolling for more than five hours over the notoriously broken-down Cambodian back roads from Anlong Veng to Siem Reap. My back and bottom felt like they had been treated with a meat tenderizer.

Parched, sweaty, and cranky, the crew and I crawled out of our cars. We stopped in our tracks. Beyond a lush green patio was the HanumanAlaya. Named after the home of the monkey king, Hanuman, the hotel was inspired by a traditional Cambodian teak house. Before we could walk inside, we all paused simply to admire the place.

Every square inch of the hotel is accented by traditional Cambodian handicrafts, including luxurious silk bedspreads and exquisite bronze figures of dancing apsaras. In the open-air dining room, we were greeted with a tray of Cambodian ice tea, a special blend that came straight from the owner’s private plantation. It had the natural sweetness of almonds—the best tea I’ve ever tasted in my life.

Nearby are the sprawling five-star monoliths known as luxury hotels in Siem Reap, but compared to the exquisite intimacy of the HanumanAlaya, those other places seemed like a fraud. After two hard weeks on the road, immersed in the tragedies of Cambodia’s not-so-distant past, it felt good to find this oasis, which captures the real beauty and the real soul of the country.

HanumanAlaya
This boutique hotel is located in a quiet corner of Siem Reap, near to the Angkor Conservation Depot.
(063) 760-582 http://www.hanumanalaya.com/