Archive for September, 2011

Crowning achievement

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Andy at the Kaohsiung National Stadium

Football is coming of age in the Kingdom of Cambodia and Hanuman’s Andy Brouwer is part and parcel of  this new beginning.

Hanuman’s Product Manager Andy Brouwer took leave from his day job recently to help promote Cambodian football to a wider audience as Media Officer with Phnom Penh Crown football club. The Cambodian football champions were taking part in the final stage of the Asian Football Confederation President’s Cup in Chinese Taipei (or Taiwan as many of you will know it). This is the third tier cup competition for champions of twelve of Asia’s emerging nations and after a successful qualifying series, Phnom Penh Crown FC won through to the final stage for the first-time in Cambodia’s footballing history. Victories over the champions of Kyrgyzstan and last season’s cup winners from Myanmar in the group stage saw Crown through to the prestigious final, where they met the host club, Taiwan Power Company, at the Kaohsiung National Stadium. Despite a valiant effort, Crown finally succumbed, though not without a fight, 3-2 to their Taiwanese opponents, but certainly put Cambodian football on the map with their extraordinary exploits. Andy spent eleven days ‘embedded’ with the team, attending press conferences, meetings and acting as the club’s translator, as well as supplying written copy and photographs to the newspapers back home in Cambodia, and of course his own Kingdom of Football blog.

Kingdom under water

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Flooding in Cambodia

Widespread flooding has affected many parts of Cambodia in the past two weeks, with around 100 people, many of them children, losing their lives through drowning. Over 40,000 families have been displaced to high ground, as low level areas in Kompong Thom, Kompong Cham, Kratie and Prey Veng in particular, have been seriously affected.

The flood situation in Siem Reap and at Angkor was a real concern a few days ago, but the water levels are now subsiding and all of the Angkor temples are now open and free of flood water. Nearly 200 tourists were evacuated by helicopter from Banteay Srei temple at the height of the problems.

Access to the floating villages of the Tonle Sap Lake such as Kompong Pluk and Kompong Khleang is now okay too, though getting to Chong Kneas by car or minivan is difficult as the road from Siem Reap is flooded. In addition, the area around the old market in Siem Reap town is still under water, for the second time in ten days.

At this moment, water levels in Phnom Penh remain very high, but no flooding has been experienced. There are a couple of tropical storms hitting Vietnam soon, which may well bring more rainfall to Cambodia and further increase the risk of flooding along the Mekong River area.

Around Cambodia, the worst hit areas are Kompong Thom, where Sambor Village Hotel is closed until the start of November, though the temples of Sambor Prei Kuk are now open again after briefly being off-limits. Kratie, on the banks of the Mekong River, where the Sala Koh Trong guesthouse is also closed, is experiencing high water levels, as is Kompong Cham, but both are accessible.

Other locations such as the Northeast provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, as well as Battambang in the Northwest and Sihanoukville and Kep in the Southwest are not affected.

One of the problems facing the country once the waters recede are food shortages with tens of thousands of hectares of rice paddies known to have been ruined by the flood waters. This year’s flood is bigger and much more serious than in previous years.

An Alternative Halong Experience

Friday, September 16th, 2011

You are almost alone in Bai Tu Long Bay

Adventure Manager Jake Corke has visited Halong Bay many times, though on this occasion he tries something a little different.

The Unesco World Heritage area of Halong Bay continues to feature on most itineraries in Vietnam, and for good reason. It is one of the quintessential experiences when visiting the Mekong region. But everyone is doing it, and doing it with everybody else is no longer such a special experience. Views of the amazing karst scenery are obstructed by scores of other vessels some with booming karaoke systems, stairways into caves become congested with jostling tourists and beaches become crowded as more and more boats pull in to drop anchor. Applying the Hanuman touch means escaping from all of this, and this is why we recommend the Bai Tu Long Bay area of Halong Bay. This gives us the chance to savour a Halong experience very different to those offered by other operators. Our partners (Indochina Junk) have exclusivity to the Bai Tu Long Bay area, so we leave the 400 or so other junks behind and sail through far less visited areas. The water is cleaner, the bay isn’t congested, villages are more authentic and the beaches are peaceful and secluded.

I recently enjoyed a 2 night-3 day experience on the Dragon’s Pearl junk. The boat had twelve cabins and though not as luxurious as some of the other larger boats, it was beautifully decorated, with a safe and fire safety equipment in each cabin. However, the real beauty of Indochina Junk are the routes and itineraries.  I have cruised around Halong Bay more than twenty times over the past 16 years, but never have I seen so few other tourist boats. When we kayaked from the boat to the beach there were only a handful of other visitors and they were all from the other Indochina Junk boats. The inhabitants of the floating villages we visited did not seem jaded by tourists and the water was much cleaner.

Otherwise, the experience is everything you would expect from Halong Bay, misty mornings punctuated with the silhouettes of limestone islands, as the sun burns through the mist the colours and true splendour of Halong come into view. Sumptuous seafood feasts on board, swimming, kayaking, socializing. exploring caves (without fending off hundreds of local tourists) and relaxing on deck for a few sundowners or a drink under the stars. We recommend spending at least 2 nights on the boat, one is never enough. The rewards become that much more satisfying the deeper our exploration takes us into the bay. The karsts become more chiselled, the views more spectacular, there is more time to explore by kayak, time to swim and really relax. For those wanting a social experience we can share with other travellers. For those wanting more privacy there are the Princess boats with just the one cabin for romantic intimacy, or there is also the Prince boats which have 2 cabins, perfect for families or groups of friends. Imagine having a boat and a crew all to yourselves on your very own custom made cruise of the majestic Halong Bay.

Indochina Junk's Princess boat

Peace at Preah Vihear

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Preah Vihear in the mist

Hanuman’s Adventure manager Jake Corke makes his first visit to the World Heritage mountain-top temple of Preah Vihear.

The arrival of a familiar name in Thai politics has had a big impact on Cambodia-Thai border relations. Early last month Yingluck Shiniwatra (younger sister of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) was unveiled as the new leader of Thailand. This seemed to have an almost immediate effect on the border issue involving the Unesco World Heritage site of Preah Vihear. The previous few months had seen numerous border skirmishes resulting in several military and civilian casualties on both sides. Tens of thousands of local villagers became overnight refugees and there were reports of damage to the temple itself as a result of Thailand’s use of rocket propelled grenades and other ordnance.

The temple site was closed to tourists as an uneasy peace emerged as both sides bickered and exchanged accusations. However, the new government has a much more sympathetic relationship with Cambodia and things have calmed down significantly, and although nothing has been formally resolved, the temple is again receiving visitors. Having never visited Preah Vihear, I jumped at the chance to see the Kingdom’s most dramatically located temple. So I set off with a colleague in mid-afternoon, our destination, Sra Em, a small town close to the border and on the approach road to Preah Vihear. The journey was just 2½ hours, considerably quicker than before I was told. Sra Em was evacuated a few months back due to the ongoing battles between the respective troops. Today, it’s experiencing a mini economic boom. All the hotels and guesthouses were full. I spotted a group of Korean visitors in one but most guests were Cambodian visiting their relatives stationed with the army nearby.

We departed at 6am the following morning and drove for about 30 minutes on a good sealed road to our meeting point with our motorbike taxis. The final stretch of road has actually improved a lot by all accounts, but it is still necessary to use a 4×4 or a motorbike on the final stretch. As we climbed several hundred metres to the mountain-top temple we soon found ourselves in thick cloud, visibility limited to about fifteen metres. We were greeted by many smiling and waving road construction workers and soldiers who appeared cheerfully out of the mist. Road works are underway and appear to be making good headway.

Preah Vihear was built by a succession of seven Khmer monarchs, the final touches added in the 12th Century by Suryavarman II, the king responsible for Angkor Wat. We were guided through the five levels of the temple by our 10 year old guide Boran. Fully kitted out in military fatigues, Boran was the son a soldier based at Preah Vihear for the past two years. Born in army barracks, he had never attended school, but he was quick-witted and knew everything about the temple and the current situation between the two opposing forces. There was still a strong military presence and the squatter settlements that could be previously found on the mountain-top had been replaced by bunkers and small huts made from sandbags, where soldiers were living with their families. Even our 10 year old guide stayed in the bunkers during the worst of the fighting, along with the other children and their mothers. Needless to say, he proudly reported that he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up.

As the cloud lifted the extent of the military presence was apparent. Most of the living areas were at the base of the temple but more and more soldiers could be seen patrolling, making offerings and lighting incense to the spirits for good luck. The mood was up-beat and the soldiers cheerful and friendly. As the cloud beneath us cleared, the cloud above us let loose a sudden downpour. We sheltered in the temple with a gaggle of kids who had become our chaperones and some of the soldiers. Beneath us, we could see the Thai road, perfectly built but empty. Closeby was an area of no-mans land, home to the 5 + 5, land occupied by five Khmer soldiers and five of their Thai counterparts. Although the situation has calmed down considerably, there is still a lot of distrust on both sides. The word is that both parties will soon sit down and come to some kind of solution. Preah Vihear is now open to visitors from the Cambodian side (but not from the Thai side) and while visitor numbers are low, it offers a very different and interesting experience. Leaving early from Siem Reap makes it possible to do in a long day. In the wet season, the cloud generally doesn’t lift until around 9 or 10am. Otherwise you need to stay overnight in Anlong Veng some  120kms away or Sra Em just 20km’s from the foot of the mountain, though the accommodation in the latter is pretty basic.

Jake's young Preah Vihear tour guide, Boran

Guide Training in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Hanuman guides at Angkor Thom

Hanuman has just finished its latest round of guide training in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in readiness for the high season.

Hanuman guide training workshops were held in Siem Reap on 2nd-3rd September and in Phnom Penh on 9th-10th September. Both sessions were conducted by Adventure Manager Jake Corke and Company Advisor Nick Ray. There was a great rapport with the local guides and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Jake Corke has been leading tours for more than a decade now and has trained guides and local tour leaders for a host of companies from Explore to Indochina Services. Nick Ray has worked as a tour leader since 1997 and has led and lectured for a variety of companies and organisations ranging from British Museum Traveller to the Harvard Business School Alumni.

The Siem Reap training was held at HanumanAlaya hotel and included a lively evening social at Samut Siem Reap or Siem Reap Beach, a popular local beer garden. The following morning involved hands-on, as well as feet-on-pedals, practical training with a new cycle tour from Ta Prohm to Angkor Thom via jungle paths and trails.

This involved 12 of our top Siem Reap guides cycling from Ta Prohm Temple to and around Angkor Thom. This was a chance to introduce our new Giant Escaper mountain bikes complete with specially selected larger and more comfortable saddles. This ride is designed to take in some of Angkor’s most magical temples, but what sets it apart is the chosen route. First time visitors are usually blown away by the incredible temples but also by the natural beauty of the surrounding area. On this ride we cycle through the forest on little used trails avoiding the ever growing traffic and crowds. Birds and parrots fly between the trees, butterflies float past and even troops of monkeys can be seen.

We select alternative approaches to temples to accentuate the magic and cycle past little visited temples hidden in the jungle. Even some of our most experienced guides who have grown up in Siem Reap commented that this was an imaginative route that really brought back the magic of Angkor. It’s the closest thing to being there in the time of the ancient kings. To best appreciate this ride, start at dawn at Ta Prohm, you’ll be the first ones there. Then take trails less travelled and soak up the atmosphere of what is still one of the most amazing travel experiences on the planet.

In Phnom Penh, guide training was held in the Hanuman head office. After a lively day of debate and exchange, the team moved on to Sbov Meas Restaurant for the evening. Practical training in Phnom Penh included our signature Living History tour of the capital. About 30 guides completed the training in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, ensuring Hanuman is in good shape for the coming high season. Many thanks to all our full-time and freelance guides for their attendance and we look forward to a successful high season ahead.

Great accommodation in Siem Reap

Friday, September 9th, 2011

HanumanAlaya in Siem Reap

We urge you not to miss out on the fantastic Green Season Promotion for 2011 at our very own boutique residence in Siem Reap, HanumanAlaya. The promotion is valid through to 30 September 2011. Throughout the period, if you stay for 3 nights, you only pay for 2, or stay for 4 nights and only pay for 3, or extend to five nights and pay for 4. And if you stay for 2 nights or more, we’ll also include one complimentary dinner or spa treatment, free transfers to and from the airport and a free room upgrade on arrival, subject to availability. Unbeatable value at one of Siem Reap’s favourite boutique hotels, offering a perfect blend of traditional Khmer design with sophisticated international amenities. Do not hesitate to contact us at Hanuman sales to ensure availability. Find out more about Angkor’s Boutique Residence at http://www.hanumanalaya.com/.

Be a bear keeper

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Hanuman’s Responsible Tourism portfolio already has a close relationship with the elephants of the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri. Now we have joined forces with the Free the Bears Fund team who are doing fabulous work in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to rescue and rehabilitate bears in the Mekong region.

Join us on our Bear Keeper For A Day programme where we get to go behind the scenes and learn what it takes to look after 100+ rescued Sun bears at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, south of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. You join the bear keepers in preparing food and enrichment toys which keep the bears happy and healthy in their forested sanctuary, as well as taking a look at the other endangered species at the Centre. Your personalized visit includes a traditional Khmer lunch and best of all, the opportunity to contribute directly towards helping care for bears that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.

Direct contact with the bears is not possible as they are rescued wild animals and Free the Bears Fund want the bears in their care to enjoy as natural a life as possible. Nevertheless, you will be up close and personal with these wonderful animals and have a ring-side seat to watch them in their forested habitat.

Tuol Sleng Artist and Activist Vann Nath Dies

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Renowned artist and Tuol Sleng survivor Vann Nath died on Monday 5 September and Hanuman would like to extend their condolences to his close family at this difficult time.

Vann Nath filming at Tuol Sleng

Vann Nath was one of just seven survivors to walk out of Tuol Sleng alive on 7 January 1979. Although more survivors have been found in the following years, Vann Nath spoke with passion and pain on behalf of all prisoners who passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng. Thanks to his famous paintings of torture scenes in the Khmer Rouge prison, he became the unofficial spokesperson for the suffering that took place there. Speaking after his death, his family said “Nath just left us. A big rain pours when he dies.”

Hanuman has been fortunate enough to work closely with him over the years. Our Executive Director Kulikar Sotho interviewed him on many occasions for television documentaries and features regarding his time in the prison and his views on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. He also spent time with visitors from many countries to share his memories and experiences during his time in the prison. During his illness with kidney disease in 2009, Hanuman sent a donation to assist with his medical treatment in Thailand. His death is a great loss to Cambodia. He was an ambassador for the victims of Tuol Sleng and a witness to genocide.

Hanuman Company Advisor Nick Ray interviewed him back in 2009 for the Lonely Planet guidebook and below is an excerpt:

“Vann Nath: Portrait of the artist Nick Ray

Vann Nath was born in Battambang in 1946 and took up painting as a teenager, finding work as a sign painter and artist for cinema posters. Like many Cambodians, his life was turned upside down by the Khmer Rouge takeover and he found himself evacuated to the countryside along with other urban Cambodians. On 7 January 1978, he was taken to S-21 prison, aged 32 years, and spent the next year living in hellish surrounds, as thousands perished around him.

As one of the only survivors of the notorious prison, the Vietnamese brought him back to S-21 from 1980-82 to paint the famous images we see today. He spent much of the subsequent decade enlisted in the Cambodian army, battling his former tormentors along the Thai border region.

“I only started to paint again after the 1993 election, as I felt more free to speak openly,” he says. “This is when I was discovered by the world and became famous for my museum paintings.”

I ask what it feels like to see Tuol Sleng as a tourist attraction today. “We must think of the souls of those who died there,” he laments. “These souls died without hope, without light, without a future. They had no life,” he continues, “so I paint my scenes to tell the world the stories of those who did not survive.”

He remembers a pledge he made back in 1978 when first incarcerated: “We were taken up to a holding room on the first floor,” he tells me. “We agreed that whoever survives would need to tell the families of the victims how they met their fate.” As one of the only survivors he is duty bound to tell the world what happened.

So how does it feel to return to the scene of such personal horrors? “The first time I went back was a real struggle, as everything looked the same as before,” he recalls. “I could hardly speak or move.”

We finish by talking about the Khmer Rouge tribunal for surviving leaders. Vann Nath has learnt about human rights in the years since his imprisonment, but it’s hard to accept as a victim. “As a person who represents thousands of dead prisoners, I am not sure the tribunal will deliver enough justice for the dead,” he muses. “Based on human rights it may be fair, but the Khmer Rouge was about human wrongs as well,” he says with an ironic smile.

“If we talk about human feeling, then we want more than this, but we must ask ourselves what is fair?” he considers. “If we demand too much justice then it becomes revenge. I just hope the court will deliver justice fairly,” he says with dignity.”

Lonely Planet Cambodia, 7th Edition