Archive for November, 2011

The Bear Necessities

Monday, November 28th, 2011

It's a tough life being a Sun bear

Up close and personal with the under threat Sun bears of Cambodia

Sun bears and Asiatic Black bears are under serious threat in Cambodia. So the Free The Bears Fund have set up their own Bear Keeper for a Day programme to bring in much needed revenue to contribute to their mission to provide a safe haven for rescued bears.

The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Center, where the Free The Bears project is home to more than 120 rescued bears, is the world’s biggest sanctuary for Sun bears. You really have to see it to appreciate it. I visited the center last week to get the run down on the Bear Keeper project with the organizer, Pesei, showing me around and explaining how participants are invited to prepare enrichment toys for the bears, filled with food, to help brighten up their day and to give the bears activities that encourage them to use their natural talents. Later in the day, you get to go inside the forest enclosures to hide the food toys and then witness as they are eagerly sought out and enjoyed by the bears.

Going behind the scenes with Pesei and meeting the bear keepers, vet and volunteers was an eye-opener as to exactly how much work is involved in looking after these animals every day. There are seven ‘houses’ to maintain over a vast area of land and it’s a tough job. As a newbie Bear Keeper, you don’t get to have direct contact with the bears, that’s the domain of the real bear keepers, but you get privileged access to areas that visitors are not allowed to see and watching the three small bear cubs at play – or squabbling as it turned out – was one of those “aren’t they lovely” moments everyone would enjoy, but few get the chance to see. The project is enabling the bears to live a happy and healthy life in their forested sanctuary and it works a treat. Top marks to the staff and volunteers who make Free The Bears such a success story.  We also took time to visit a few of the other animal enclosures, getting the low-down on each of animals we saw, and gaining access to more behind-the-scenes sections of the zoo, including the tiger house, where I was literally inches away from three gorgeous tigers eating their food and relaxing, and therefore, fortunately, paying no attention to me. It was a great experience, and between Free The Bears, Wildlife Alliance and the forestry authorities, who all co-manage the Wildlife Center, all of the animals I saw looked well-fed and cared for, healthy and in good spirits. I was suitably impressed.

Ask Hanuman for more information about the Bear Keeper for a Day programme at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Center, located some 40kms southwest of Phnom Penh.

Exploring the remote Ramsar

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Tree roots exposed in the Ramsar Wetlands

Navigating through the flooded forests of the Mekong River

The Ramsar Wetlands area, stretching south along the Mekong River from the border with Laos to Stung Treng is one of the remotest places in Cambodia. Only accessible by boat, it is a haven for critically endangered mammals, birds and fish and a unique riverine flooded forest system that is a photographer’s dream.

Experiencing the Ramsar Wetlands by kayak is without doubt, the best way to enjoy this special location. A kayak gives you the flexibility to weave amongst the trees, seeing the cormorants, darters and kingfishers at close quarters, as well as the expansive tree roots that follow the flow of the river, and are a particular feature of the area. Navigating the deep pools, river channels and sandbars calls for a certain level of expertise, but the rewards are worth it. My recent visit to the area, with my kayak guide Theara in charge of navigation, was a great opportunity to see the Wetlands at close quarters. We left the village of Ou Svay and almost immediately, entered the flooded forest, next to the main river channel. With only birdcalls announcing our presence, we maneuvered our way leisurely downstream for a couple of hours before reaching the only village on that stretch of the the river, Veun Sien, where we beached our kayak and wandered around the village, which has no road access, to find out about recent NGO efforts to assist the forty families living in the hamlet with fish and pig farming techniques. Inside the makeshift pagoda, the bones of a dolphin have been preserved in tribute to the endangered species that inhabits the Mekong. We returned to the water to continue our paddling tour of the forest, pausing at one of the massive sandbars that form islands in the middle of the river. When the water level is lower, these islands are numerous in number and support much of the wildlife such as otters, turtles and lizards that are common to this particular region, not forgetting of course the numerous species of birds that count the rare white-shouldered ibis, fish-eagles and river terns amongst their number. With upstream developments such as hydro-electric dams threatening the river’s future and the area’s rich biodiversity, the best time to see the Ramsar Wetlands is now. It’s a beautiful stretch of the Mekong River, either at high water as it is now, or during the early months of the year when levels are lower, more islands and river channels are exposed and the region takes on a different perspective. We concluded our kayaking adventures at the village of Koh Ky, coming to the end of around twenty-five kilometres of unparalleled scenery, to be found no-where else in Cambodia. It was a privilege.

If you are interested in kayaking the Mekong River in this remote area, contact Hanuman for more information. There is the option to explore the Ramsar Wetlands in more depth, with an overnight camp on one of the sandbar islands. This unique area is a bird-watcher’s paradise and a photographer’s dream, but please note, it’s a real adventure tour in one of Cambodia’s remotest hot-spots.

Along the West Bank

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Making rice Ambok on the west bank

Enjoying a personal, intimate experience with local people can make your visit so much more rewarding. Try our new West Bank of the Mekong ride, either as a motorcycle passenger or by bicycle, and you can take home long-lasting memories of such encounters.

Few tourists ever cross the Mekong River to its west bank, opposite the town of Kratie in northeast Cambodia. So that’s exactly why we take you on a trip that will give you a host of rural countryside experiences that take you closer to the real Cambodia and enhance your understanding of their way of life like few other encounters can. I recently took the opportunity to find out more about the lifestyles of the locals with my motorbike guide Sithy, who speaks fabulous English and whose family live on the west bank of the river. So he was the perfect man to introduce me to a host of activities from rice-harvesting and planting, to tobacco production, prahok and noodle-making and palm sugar collection, as well as enjoying some of the numerous fruits his own family grow in the shade of their wooden stilt home. We stopped many times to interact with the locals, and had a fun time helping one family group make the special rice delicacy of Ambok. The pagodas along the west bank have many folklore stories to tell including the princess and the crocodile tale and Sithy is well-versed in all of them, as are the friendly monks we met along the way. Waves and shouts of hello are commonplace as we headed north, where if we had time we could’ve stopped for a swim in the Mekong itself. Instead we crossed the river on a local ferry and called into the Turtle Conservation Center at Wat Sarsar Mouy Rouy pagoda, where the Cantor’s softshell turtles are being cared for and released back into their natural habitat. Further south at Kampi, the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins are found in great numbers for such an endangered species and if time permits, a late afternoon boat ride to see them at play would round off a memorable day. On my visit however, we had spent so much time getting our hands dirty with the rural activities on the west bank, we just about made it back to Kratie in time to see one of the stunning sunsets that the town is renowned for. The West Bank of the Mekong trip can also be completed by bicycle though the visit to the Turtle Center and Kampi would not be possible in the time allowed.

Unique luxury

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Song Saa Private Island

The Song Saa Private Island, opening up on two tiny islands off the southwestern coast of Cambodia, will bring a level of unique luxury to the region, and will be open for business early in the new year, after a soft opening in late December.

With just 40 days until their soft opening on December 23rd, construction is in the final stages.  Landscaping is taking shape all over the island, with the Vista Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge over the water nearing completion.  This is just one of the many impressive locations on Song Saa.  While each villa does have its own swimming pool, the resort also has a main pool.  It’s going to be a spectacular work of art with views of the sunrise, moonrise and sunset, all while looking over the infinity edge out into the Gulf of Thailand.  It will be unmatched in Southeast Asia.

The resort will feature 27 luxury overwater, rainforest and beach villas built with sustainable materials and with the deepest respect for the natural environment.

The Song Saa Sanctuary spa and wellness centre is suspended among the rainforest. It will also comprise a number of private treatment rooms along the water’s edge. They have brought the spa specialists, ila, on board to design the concept around the Song Saa Sanctuary.  ila is the brand responsible for the Four Seasons spas.

The food concepts that the Song Saa team are creating continue to excite the senses.  The first photo shoot of the various dishes on offer has taken place.  These pictures are for the room service cook book, which is a new concept we are very proud of.  As opposed to a traditional menu for room service, we will have a book that allows guests to read the recipes, methods and stories behind these exciting Khmer fusion offerings.  Best of all, guests can take the book away as a gift when they leave, so they can relive their time on Song Saa by recreating the beautiful dishes they enjoyed!

Song Saa have a touch of disappointing news regarding the private plane option to reach the islands.  The operator has not been able to deliver the plane to them in time for the soft opening and potentially for the resort opening on February 13th, 2012.

However, this can be overcome by the new flights to Sihanoukville from Siem Reap by Cambodia Angkor Air, which are expected to open up all kinds of new opportunities for the coast.   Although these flights are only three times a week, it will still make a world of difference.  Song Saa will provide free private car transfers from Sihanoukville Airport to their boat where guests will be taken directly to the resort. Alternatively, car journeys from Phnom Penh can be easily arranged.

If you want to step into a world of luxury at Song Saa, please contact us direct at Hanuman.

Vann Nath’s Last Wish

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Tuol Sleng artist Vann Nath had a dying wish, namely to have a memorial stupa in his home province of Battambang. 66 days after his death at the age of 66, the Hanuman team is committed to helping his family make this wish possible.

On 11 September 2011, the painter from S-21, Vann Nath, was cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Hanuman Director Kulikar Sotho joined the traditional procession to pay her respects to Vann Nath and his family. Hanuman Films Production Manager Robin Waldman filmed the event for the family and you can see this video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHG4AVZzBRg

Vann Nath's paintings from Tuol Sleng

Hanuman plans to help Vann Nath’s family raise money to construct a stupa in his memory. We had the privilege of knowing him well, as we worked with him on many television documentaries about the Khmer Rouge and their terrible legacy. An ambassador for the Cambodian genocide and its countless victims, we mourn his passing and all that he did to ensure the innocent were not forgotten as Cambodia moved forward. Dignity personified, his memory will live on long with all those who were fortunate enough to meet him.

If you would like to contribute to the funds to help raise a memorial stupa for Vann Nath, please contact Kulikar Sotho (kulikar (at) hanumantourism.com) or Andy Brouwer (andy (at) hanumantourism.com) at Hanuman who are supervising the collection.