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YEAR IN REVIEW – Our Trip around the World

27 Jul

YEAR IN REVIEW – OUR TRIP AROUND THE WORLD

After:

* Visiting 14 countries, 52 cities and…

* 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

* Taking 30 flights

* Riding on 5 trains

* Bumping around on 26 different busses

* And….sleeping in 54 different beds The Watanabe-Swagemakers family is back in Canada.

To reflect, appreciate and let our world experiences settle in, I did a family interview to get everyone’s perspective on the past year. As this journey has ended, a new one is beginning: we are moving to Bangkok, Thailand in September! As a family, we are thoroughly thankful for this past year (an amazing dream come true), and super excited about our new, upcoming life in Asia. We can only wish (and encourage) everyone to pursue their dreams – it makes you come alive in ways you didn’t know were possible.

Thanks to you all for following our adventures on Facebook, and on our blog (http://yolomomonthgo.wordpress.com) – your enthusiasm (even when you despised us as we were posting sunny beach pictures of Thailand during one of the worst winters in Canada) has meant a great deal to us. So, dank je wel, muchas gracias, thank you and merci!

I will try to keep writing about living in Thailand but now we are signing off to spend some quality time with family & friends…Y.O.L.O everyone!

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1. BEST MEMORY OF THE COUNTRIES WE VISITED:

CANADA

Anthony: Driving around Newfoundland in an RV made me proud to be a Canadian. The natural landscape is absolutely stunning.

Rose: Lobster feasts in Nova Scotia with grandpa Jichan, James & Ayako. The kids skinny dipping in the ocean at “Happy Beach”.

Emile: Catching the big codfish with Captain Dave in Newfoundland.

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Felix: Very peaceful RV travel around Newfoundland; you can sleep anywhere you want.

 

HOLLAND

Anthony: Great weather with Oma and Opa in August, as opposed to our many visits during Christmas holidays over the years. The B&B in Maastricht where, without the kids, Rose and I awoke each morning to a breakfast of classical music, linen tablecloth and lekker Dutch treats.

Rose: Seeing my parents show Emile & Filou their country of heritage for the first time….Such joy! Eating herring up-side down, tasting delicious cheeses, climbing windmills, riding bikes in the beautiful countryside, going to the Aalsmeer Flower Market etc.

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EmileThe best was my 10th. birthday celebration with Opa and Oma. And I loved eating all the delicious food.

Felix: Spending amazing times with Opa & Oma. Eating kroketten and Dutch cheese.

 

FRANCE

Anthony: Emile heading off to the supermarket by himself (his independence was starting) and returning not only with a baguette but also a Parisian accent!

Rose: Strolling the local food markets and re-living France memories with the love of my life. This is where it all started!

Emile: Eating Japanese food while dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

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Felix: Playing in the beautiful parks of Paris, especially the play park in le Jardin du Luxembourg, one of papa’s favourites.

 

CHINA

Anthony: Walking the labyrinthine streets of the Dong Cheng area of Beijing where there were tons and tons of people walking and eating at all hours of the day. “Shuffling” was the only way to move through the crowds. And rock climbing, it all started in Yangshuo!

Rose: Hiking the wild and most preserved part of the Great Wall of China while taking in the stunning scenery (China & Mongolia). Such a privilege to walk on this incredible structure & piece of history!  And gliding down the beautiful Li river on a bamboo raft in Yangshuo – taking in the stunning Karst mountain scenery.

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Emile: First time rock climbing experience, great food & friends.

Felix: Running ahead of the family on the Great Wall and getting my head shaven.

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VIETNAM

Anthony: First morning in sweltering Ho Chi Minh City, the first taste of Vietnamese coffee knocked me over. By the end of our month, I was making my own and loving it! Pho soup on the streets of Hanoi with Emile and riding a motorcycle in crazy traffic!

Rose: Enjoying the peaceful beach life in Hoi An and riding a motorcycle on the Hai Van Pass – right into the clouds.

Emile: Living through the aftermath of Cyclone Hayan; one of the world’s biggest hurricanes every recorded (lots of rain and wind).

Felix: Everything, especially eating Pho Soup!

 

CAMBODIA

Anthony: Filou getting chased by a monkey at the Angkor Wat temples! Sleeping in a tree hut in the middle of the jungle at the incredible Jasmine Valley in Kep, and helping make a new roof for a family in need in Siem Reap.

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Rose: Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat. These temples are truly one-of-a-kind magnificent! And going by boat to gorgeous Rabbit Island in Kep.

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Emile: Tarzan jumping into a beautiful river in Kampot.

Felix: Driving around Phnom Penh with Mr. Key, our amazing tuk-tuk driver

 

THAILAND

Anthony: Booting around on motor scooters, on the left side of the road! The ocean water being almost too warm. Rock climbing with locals and visitors from around the world. Christmas day boating and snorkeling around the islands. New Year’s eve on the beach – kids stayed up until 1am – barely! Hanging with our dads in and around Chiang Mai.

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Rose: Too many great memories – can’t choose one: Christmas Day exploring the stunning islands around Krabi by boat. Riding the back roads of Chiang Mai on a scooter with my 75 year old Dad (and having both grandfathers spent 2.5 weeks with us), seeing the children’s commitment to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) where we volunteered; an incredible love for animals (elephants, dogs, cats etc.) came to light and….Dancing my way into a new year: 2014 while lighting & lifting lanterns into the sky…projecting that one day soon we would come back to this amazing country. Our two months here were paradise!

Emile: Amazing people, fun on motorcycles, and the awesome experience of helping the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Thank you Lek for the amazing work you do to save these beautiful animals. I am going to adopt one (or a dog at your shelter).

Felix: Swimming in the pool at the Best Western. Playing with Zack & Sara on the beach and eating the incredible foods, such as garlic chicken on rice.

 

MALAYSIA

Anthony: Penang and Fiji were tied for hottest places we visited. Fortunately, both had pools. Incredible vegetarian food right outside our apartment – ate lunch there every day after discovering it. Kids’ first music lessons with Nelson near Island Plaza, something which has given us a lot of joy and connection ever since.

Rose: Exploring the amazing street art of Georgetown.  And eating some incredible street food: what a wonderful mix of cultures and tastes, you can find in Penang!

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Emile: Going to the amazing ESCAPE climbing park to celebrate Ian Minton’s birthday (my new friend from the US).

Felix: Starting to take music lessons for the first time: now I love to play the piano!

 

NEW ZEALAND

Anthony: Filou playing non-stop piano in every hostel we visited. At that time, he only knew 2 songs: Mary Had a Little Lamb and Happy Birthday. Just imagine. Great mountain bike ride in Rotorua, stunning scenery and sparking my interest in trail riding.

Rose: Seeing the geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and learning about the fascinating Maori aboriginal culture. For the first time eating lamb that I actually liked! 

Emile: Cool geysers!  Eating delicious lamb, and taking a nice walk around the Auckland Harbour.

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Felix: Incredible poi dance at the aboriginal Maori show.

 

FIJI ISLANDS

Anthony: Definitely the impromptu and incredible dinner with local Japanese eccentric, Taku Murai. In his self-designed house mixing both Fijian (think ventilation) and Japanese features (think sliding walls), he prepared us a feast. After dinner, he shared his philosophy of life with us, much of which was written in English and Japanese all over his wood, unpainted walls. These are the experiences you cannot find in guidebooks. 

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Rose: Being invited by a Japanese man to his house. He promised that he would prepare us a meal we wouldn’t forget. And so he did – scrumptious sushi dinner and interesting conversation with this eccentric, lovely man! And lots of fun pool time.

Emile: Funny Japanese guy and cooking with Seria, making a delicious parrot fish dish.

Felix: Building a fort on the beach and the Japanese man.

 

USA

Anthony: Airport reunion with mom and James, kids screaming and jumping for joy. Family bowling and everyone’s body gestures to help guide the bowling ball. After a delicious Mexican meal, singing Karaoke in the bar, complete with cowboys, line dancing and lots of twang! We sang the Bare Naked Ladies.

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Rose: Hiking the Santa Monica Mountains – enjoying a nice pic-nic lunch and seeing crazy YiaYia (grandmother) still climbing trees to make the kids happy!

Emile: Having fun jumping in the trampoline park and bowling with YiaYia and Nuno.

Felix: Playing in the park with YiaYia and Nuno.

 

PERU

Anthony: Great community in Cusco. Buying the kids their first musical instruments – game changer for their progress. The restaurant owner beside our apartment with gold stars on her teeth – fashion without function? Machu Picchu and other incredible Inca sites. Climbing La Rocca with other families and our guide, Tiffany. Oh, and altitude sickness at 3300 metres during the first week.

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Rose: Taking part in a traditional Depacho ceremony – giving thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for the abundance she provides us each and every day – surrounded by some amazing friends. Spending 3 days on the edge of the Amazon making a commercial for Scotia Bank …and of course, exploring the stunning archeological site of Machu Picchu.

Emile: Making great friends such as Kane Crawford and learning Spanish.

Felix: Having lots of fun with the many friends we made and hiking the hills around Cusco.

 

BOLIVIA

Anthony: Seeing Lake Titicaca as we arrived in Copacabana – reminded me of how much I love water. Our snail-shaped house at Las Olas Hostel. Oh, and the killer llama there – could tell by his gaze. Snow storm during our tour of the Salt Flats, French tourist falling through a hole during a snowball fight with the kids, sleeping in winter coat, gloves, etc.

Rose: Taking incredibly fun pictures on the Salar de Uyuni  (Salt Flats) and taking a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, Copacabana to a floating reef village.

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Emile: Long but beautiful hike on Isla del Sol.

Felix: Uyuni Salt Flat – we took fun pictures and I scooped up lots of salt.

 

ECUADOR

Anthony: Hanging with Filou in Quito while Emile suffered through chicken pox and Rose tended to him. The incredible lightness of being, after yoga sessions in Canoa. Getting into World Cup frenzy with Emile, talking schedules and stats and of course watching the Dutch win their first 4 games. Beautiful beach in Canoa and truly wonderful people there, locals, expats and travellers we met.

Rose: Yoga mornings on the beach with Leanne & bonfires with friends… Of course HUP HOLLAND, and let’s not forget PARAGLIDING!!!

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Emile: Cheering for the Dutch. World Cup frenzy!!!

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Felix: Learning to surf on some amazing waves.

           

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Anthony: Snorkelling through the incredible, glass-like water, being a guest in another world while holding Emile’s hand

Rose: Being the first person in the family to see a white-tip reef shark that was swimming right below me!  I screamed loudly so that everyone could swim back and see him too, but they were too late – it was a real big one too! And having a sea-lion play and swim all around me and the kids…so much fun!

Emile:  Snorkeling with the turtles and sharks

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Felix:  Playing with the sea-lions, and playing soccer with David and Martin.

 

2. WHAT WAS THE SINGLE BEST MEAL YOU ENJOYED, AND WHERE WAS THIS?

Anthony: Very difficult, but if I must: Pho Ga on the streets of Hanoi with Emile for $1.50. For each of our 2 nights there, we took a foot massage, followed by the best Pho we have ever tasted.

Rose: Ginger Crab in Kep, Cambodia overlooking the beautiful ocean.

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Emile: Morning Glory (green vegetable dish) in Thailand.

Felix: Noodles in China.

 

3. WHAT WAS YOUR WEIRDEST EXPERIENCE OR OBSERVATION DURING THIS YEAR?

Anthony: I saw anti-corruption messaging on billboards, TV, magazines and newspapers in virtually every country we visited. And at the same time, I was following news of scandal, misappropriation of public funds and dishonesty at every level of government in Canada. Corruption in government is, alas, universal. The difference is the degree and the level of transparency.

Rose: Seeing a skinned dog hanging up-side-down in a Chinese food market (during my cooking class market tour), and learning that many petdogs are killed each Fall as it’s a delicacy on menus during that time of year.  So sorry for the loss of all your dogs ahLong and Jessie!

Emile: Eating Guinea Pig in Peru.

Felix: A lady in a village in Hue, Vietnam grabbing my private part 3 times! Just to be friendly (bit of a crazy custom)!

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4. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITY COUNTRY TO VISIT AND WHY?

Anthony: Overall, Thailand had the most checkboxes. But really, every country created unique experiences and memories for us.

Rose: Thailand without a doubt! The amazing hospitality of the Thai people, the scrumptious food, the stunning beaches and mountains, the fun of getting around on motorbikes and the SUN, SUN, SUN!

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Emile: All of them: every country had something special.

Felix: Thailand – cause the food always has a little kick to it and you can swim around some beautiful islands.

 

5. WHAT WAS YOUR SINGLE MOST FUN, EXCITING/THRILLING ACTIVITY?

Anthony: Rosie, you’re killing me – boiling it down to one thing is tough. But I realized that Vietnam had a number of thrilling experiences. Driving through the huge, jam-packed roundabouts in Danang on a motorbike en route to the stunning Hai Van Pass was a nail-biter. Then there was the adventure Emile I took to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi, including early morning bus with Vietnamese Karaoke, getting swindled at least twice and seeing a motorcycle death along the way. And once there, we did deep water soloing – climbing rocks without a rope over water – that was also pretty thrilling. Then of course, we returned to you and Filou in central Vietnam only to be evacuated from the beach to an inland hotel because Typhoon Haiyan was coming towards us. So the most thrilling “activity” would have to be Vietnam.

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Rose: Riding a motorbike in Thailand in my bikini – and trying not to hit an elephant – and motoring on a motorbike in the absolute insane traffic of Vietnam where lights or traffic rules do not exist! Paragliding in Canoa, Ecuador and swimming with sharks, huge tortoises and sea lions on the Galapagos Islands.

Emile: Paragliding in Ecuador.

Felix: Climbing up on tall, funky looking climbing walls, playing laser tag, skating and going to the science lab at Kid’s World in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

 

6. BESIDES FAMILY AND FRIENDS: WHAT WAS THE ONE THING YOU MISSED MOST ABOUT HOME & THE ONE THING YOU COULD NOT HAVE DONE WITHOUT ON THE TRIP.

Anthony: Missed most: I didn’t realize how much I missed the clean and green spaces of Toronto until I got home. The world is not so proper and organized. Couldn’t have done without: Besides my co-travellers? My iPhone. Might sound trivial but it was my camera, my connection to locals and folks back home through phone, email and social media. I could have survived with half the clothes, my guitar and my iPhone alone.

Rose: Missed most: Fresh green salads with lots of yummy things in them. Couldn’t have done without: Earplugs; the world is an awfully loud place…and my I-phone for pictures.

Emile: Missed most: Sushi, Greek and Indian Food. Couldn’t have done without: I-Pod to read and contact friends.

Felix: Missed most: Canadian Summer Camp. Couldn’t have done without: My mom.

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7. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT TRAVELLING THE WORLD?

Anthony: I learned that there are many, many different models for how people live and work and that around the world, some folks actually build their work around their lifestyle – foreign concept for us in the West. I consider myself a tolerant person but I tried even harder not to snap judge those who come at life from a different perspective and who have made choices different from mine.

Rose: Our “once-in-a-lifetime” travel experiences have made me live more in the moment.  They’ve also shown me to value friendships more and be more accepting of others – as people from all around the world have accepted our family this past year and showered us with their kindness. I have learned to have deeper compassion – as it is amazing to see how the rest of the world lives. How can you not care? I also hope that we as a family have lost our sense of “entitlement” and that from now on, we will appreciate that the truly important things in life are not material items, but the creation of unforgettable memories with those you love!   Also, I learned that world schooling is amazing (although I have a whole new respect for teachers) and that travel brings out enormous creativity in children. And finally I have learned to appreciate that there are many ways in which to achieve work-life balance and enjoy life!

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Emile: That I am very lucky to have what I have!

Felix: I never thought Asia would be so poor and that you can make nice friends all around the world.

 

8. WHAT NEW THINGS HAVE YOU TRIED DURING THIS TRIP

As the list would be very long, here is a family recap:

A = Anthony, R=Rose, E=Emile, F=Filou

Family: Paragliding, swimming with white-tipped fin sharks, huge turtles, sea lions, penguins, rays and other amazing marine creatures, eating guinea pig, sitting in a cave mud bath, swimming in a hot & cold geyser stream, floating on a bamboo raft down a beautiful river surrounded by Karst mountains, dancing on stage in front of the Eiffel Tower, going out on a night boat to see fire-flies, rock-climbing and deep-water soloing, eating cricket cookies, flying on a 6-seater plane, volunteering at an amazing Elephant Park.

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Plus for….

Anthony: Let’s just say that I am now a Spanish-speaking rock climber and yogi who has reconnected with his musical sensibilities and enjoys reading somewhat esoteric French novels. Oh, I have tried, and succeeded, in not wearing a tie for a year!

Rose: Blogging, learning to deep-sea dive, be an actress in a commercial, riding a motorcycle on the left side of the road, in insane traffic with no rules, with a child in the back, preparing to be evacuated for a hurricane, learning what world and un-schooling is all about, taking a Chinese and Vietnamese cooking class in the local countryside.

Emile & Filou: Learning to surf, zip-lining, fishing a 30LB lake fish (E), learning to play the guitar (E) and piano (F) and sing, performing music on stage, presenting world travel to a group of Dutch school kids (E), cheering on the Dutch soccer team like never before (E), standing up in the back of a pick-up truck that was driving fast, making a bon-fire by myself (E), learning Spanish, hand-weaving a bracelet, poi dancing (F), skinny dipping, holding a live lobster, taking a Vietnamese cooking class (made a delicious curry – F), riding on a FAST motorcycle with no helmet while being squeezed between mom & the driver (F), learning to compose my first original song (F), karaoke singing, volunteering in a dog shelter, collecting starfish out of the ocean, sleeping in a hotel completely made out of salt, being chased by a monkey (F) and getting our first massages in Cambodia and Thailand.

Boys Massages 

9. DESCRIBE WHAT THIS PAST YEAR HAS BEEN LIKE FOR YOU. WAS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED IT TO BE?

Anthony: On the surface, it was an unforgettable experience of new places, new friends and tons of discoveries, both geographic and gastronomic. But below that surface, I think we will realize gradually how the year has taught us to communicate better, to appreciate more and to contextualize our life through a broader perspective. As a parent, one of the profound takeaways was of course sharing these experiences with the boys, discussing their impressions and watching them learn and develop. Virtually everyone we met was excited about how such a trip would shape them as men. And while I, too, am eager to see how they develop following this year of privileged family time, there’s a part of me that just wants to hold on to those moments of holding their hand while walking on a beach in a far off country somewhere in the world.

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Rose: I only had one major goal for this year and that was to experience, learn and grow as a family: to create unforgettable memories for a lifetime. This year has given me all that and sooooooooo much more!

Emile: It was so much more exciting – and we made so many more friends than I expected!

Felix: Exactly what I expected. Very best year of my life!

 

10. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT STARTING A NEW ADVENTURE IN BANGKOK, THAILAND?

Anthony: I’m inspired and grateful that we have found a way to combine the adventure of travel and so-called normal life. Thailand holds new opportunities for growth for all of us: the kids in an international school (or any school, for that matter!) and Rose and I starting a business in the ASEAN region. We are also fortunate that all family members are unselfish and lovingly supportive of our decision.

Rose: Just thrilling…A new start which will once again bring many new learnings, challenges and incredible joys.  Thailand, here we come!

Emile: Can’t wait, it’s going to be awesome!

Felix: I am excited about going to Lycée Français International de Bangkok as this school has a science lab, track & field, pool etc. Here I will be meeting lots of new, international friends.

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11. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHERS ABOUT FOLLOWING THEIR DREAMS?

Anthony: I don’t have any advice. While I realize this year of travel was a big deal in many respects, for me it was just something we needed to do. The tour itself was truly amazing, but I don’t think that our decision to do it was amazing. It just felt right for our family at this time, and so we went with that feeling.

Rose: As one who LOVES to travel and enjoys being on the water, this quote sums it up for me: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Emile: Just do it. It’s awesome…make the most of it!

Felix: Following your dreams will make you HAPPY!

With incredible thanks and gratitude to Anthony, Emile and Filou for their exploratory and open minds. You guys have made this world travel experience for me what it was; a life-changing, incredible journey that I will carry in my heart forever. You are the loves of my life. Now and always!

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CAMBODIA – SIEM REAP; its stunning temples, countryside and more…

2 Jan

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the capital of the Siem Reap Province in Northwestern Cambodia.  It is a popular town as the city is the gateway to the Angkor Region with its magnificent temples.  These Angkor temples are the most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia and while we usually shy away from busy, touristy places, this is not one to skip. (If you like travel and have a bucket list item, I suggest adding these temples to the list!)….but more on them later.

We noticed right away that Siem Reap is more set up for the tourist trade than some of the other cities in this country. The town boasts many lively café’s, even a dedicated Pub Street! and has a lively core with its Old Market and bustling night markets, restaurants and numerous street vendors.  Massages here were the very best! For $3-5 (yes, you read that right), you can have an hour-long foot or shoulder & neck massage…Needless to say, we had many!! And the street vendors had the most amazing food – one lady was making these wraps that had sticky white and black rice, with bean paste and shredded coconut inside them.  Two of them for $1 – my favorite dinner by far!

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Street vendor with delicious wraps in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia does not have any copyright laws (yet), so locals can copy or download any movie, tv-show, book, language program etc. you like. (Cambodians copy complete books such as the various Lonely Planet Guides and other current bestsellers and sell them on the street for a fraction of the price – however these books are mostly sold by very young, street children which makes buying them an ethical dilemma).

Being on the road though, we are always on the look-out for the next book to read, or movie/show to watch. So, we did go into a fun shop in town named Rogue Cambodia (http://www.roguecambodia.com/shops/siem-reap/). It is here that they have learned to cash in on what travellers want – they offer to download any music album, movie or book to your I-pad or I-pod in a matter of minutes for a very reasonable price. We made a small investment of $20 which got us 15 of the newest movies to watch. So now we are set for entertainment for a while!

After a few days of exploring Siem Reap, and actually doing a little bit of shopping (the temptation of $2 designer sunglasses, the most beautiful silk scarves for $4, and cool wrap-around pants etc. was just too tempting!)…..it was time for our day of temples!

Angkor Wat

Our temple experience started with an early rise (4:30 am) to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (this most famous temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture, and has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and currency). We were certainly not the only ones with the sunrise idea as there seemed to be a stream of drivers with sleepy tourists heading to Angkor in the early morning. However, we had a great tuktuk driver that picked us up from our lovely Tanei Guesthouse (http://www.taneiguesthouse.com) and took us to the famous temple in time for a magnificent red glow to slowly appear over its silhouette. It was quite magical!

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Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.  A real Y.O.L.O experience!

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Taking in the beauty and serenity of Angkor Wat

The temple of Angkor Wat (or “City of Temples”), was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the capital of the Khmer empire (present-day Angkor), as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.  It is the only temple that remains a significant religious centre since its foundation. We observed this by the many monks dressed in orange that flank the various corners of the structure, praying and bringing offerings.

Emile & Filou got quite excited about praying with these monks, who would offer a colourful bracelet with a meaning (“happy family”, “safety”, “long life” etc.) in return for the purchase of some incent sticks.  Before we knew it, the boys were looking for monks everywhere to make an offering, pray and get their good luck bracelet as a kind return gesture!

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Ta Phrohm

After Angkor, we opted for the “small temple circuit” – a loop of about 17 kilometers past a diverse set of temples, all completely different in look and style.  The first one was Ta Phrohm – a 13th.century temple, built in the Bayon style and founded as a buddhist monastery and university. What we liked about Ta Prohm was that unlike most of the Angkorian temples, it has been left in much of the same condition in which it was found. This amazing UNESCO World Heritage site has jungle-like surroundings and the boys particularly liked all the trees growing out of the ruins – some of which they were happy to climb!

Besides the many beautiful trees that had wrapped themselves around these ruins, Ta Phrohm had an overall adventure type feel and we could see why the producers of Lara Croft’s movie, the Tomb Raider had chosen this location for filming. It was very cool!

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Tree climbing at Ta Phrohm, just like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider

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The beautiful details of the ruins at Ta Phrohm

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Angkor Thom

Next, it was onto the city of Angkor Thom, a temple ruin with the most impressive sculptures at its entrance.  A long causeway leading to each entry tower is flanked by a row of 54 stone figures on each side (demons on the right with grimacing expressions and gods to the left, looking serene), to make a total of 108 mythical beings guarding this city.

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Stone Figures at Angkor Thom

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We weren’t actually allowed to visit the city of Angkor Thom itself, which looked mighty impressive with its very long, central staircase – as the kids were deemed too young (not 12 yet) to climb the very high structure of stairs. However, by this time, it was getting incredibly hot and the kids were easily distracted to move on.

At the base of Angkor Thom, Emile & Filou found a huge, gold buddah temple where monks were praying. Hoping to make another donation in return for a bracelet, they quickly joined them.  While I watched them from a small distance – a monkey “fell” out of a tree, right in front of me.  Before I knew it, he saw Filou, making his way back from the temple.  He must have liked his bright red t-shirt or something, as the animal made a bee-line for him and started chasing Filou at high speed.  I have never seen my little man run as fast as he did!  The monkey finally gave up his chase and Filou concluded that he was a speed machine (“but mom if it was you, or I was still 5 years old, the monkey would have gotten to me”). He was quite right, so thank goodness he ran fast…. as a monkey bite is not an experience we wanted to add to our list!

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The nasty monkey that started chasing Filou

And although many tourists like pictures with monkeys, we know better now.  They are actually quite vicious, and not all that cute. Our tuktuk driver told us a story about one of his tourist clients who insisted on a picture with one of them. He took out some bananas and in no time, had a few monkeys on his shoulders. However, when he “mistakenly” grabbed a little one by the tail – its squealed so loudly that monkeys from trees all around, quickly came to its rescue and attacked the tourist.  He was lucky that the tuktuk driver quickly came to his defense, but the tourist had major scratches all over his face and body, and had been close to losing an eye….

We also noticed that the local Cambodian kids are actually quite afraid of them. So NO…the monkeys – we don’t like so much anymore…but the temples.  Wow, were they ever impressive, stunning, must-see!!!  What a fantastic day.

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Resting after a great day of Angkor Temple visits

To close off our time in this wonderful country, we took the “Day in the Life” Tour of Husk Cambodia (www.huskcambodia.org), a non-profit organization that is working with communities to help improve the lives of Cambodian families. Their goals focus around the basics of providing access to safe water, livelihood opportunities, health, education and environment.  This outing, run by Beyond Unique Escapes (http://beyonduniqueescapes.com) – was a tour that our friend Brian Robertson had recommended.   The hands-on experience promised a first-hand look at life in rural Cambodia while providing us the opportunity to learn and give back a little.

Following our arrival in the local village (about 20 minutes outside of Siem Reap), we quickly climbed onto two traditional ox carts and were driven around the village. The roads were very dusty, and at times extremely wet with thick mud – however the animals seemed to pull us through with ease. We did however, have to dodge the occasional thick tree branch and steady ourselves to remain seated on the wobbly cart (taking pictures was virtually impossible), but it made us laugh and thankful for the unique experience!

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Our fun Ox Cart Ride

We arrived at the local family, most in need of our help that morning. It was a very poor, childless couple that needed a new roof; theirs was full of holes and consequently leaking.  After we said our hello’s, we sat down on a large, square mat. A big pile of bamboo sticks and palm leaves were put in front of us and we were taught how to weave (overlap) the leaves and string them together with the bamboo sticks to make a waterproof ensemble.

Anthony, being Mr. Green Building, was just thrilled that this was the way in which were asked to help out.  He really wanted to do a good job for this couple but the lady of the house, just kept laughing at him (as his work wasn’t quite what she was hoping for, I think). However, he quickly got the hang of it and got very productive….as were the kids!

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Learning how & helping to make a roof out of palm leaves and bamboo

While we worked, we were in the company of many beautiful, sweet children – who came to spend a little time with us.  They were just so happy to have their pictures taken (showing them their shots –gave them great laughs!) and interact a bit with Emile & Filou (swinging together in the hammocks and feeding the chickens together was a thrill).

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Village children coming the spent some time with us

We were very pleased to have spent the morning helping this warm, smiley couple that apparently received one bag of rice as a thank-you for hosting us (the rest of our tour fee went into projects such as planting trees, implementing water purification systems and building houses and schools – things to benefit the entire community).

From there, we went to another family, where together we made a chicken curry for lunch. The lady of the house (a beautiful widow), first gave us some big knives and a large mortar and pestle. With that, the kids had fun cutting and mashing up all the fresh ingredients and spices. After an hour of cutting, mashing, stirring and boiling – we ate fried fish on a sugarcane sticks and a very tasty chicken curry with lots of local vegetables. A fun, personal cooking class & wonderful experience with a great end result!

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Lady of the house!

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Emile mixing up many wonderful, local spices for our curry dish

Following a little rest, we took a long walk through the village and visited a local school (insulated with empty water bottles filled with dry rubbish), a beautiful temple and a successful community project – where women were learning how to make children’s toys and gift items from sowing materials together (we bought a little pencil case for the boys).

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A community-sewing project. Emile joined right in!

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Several of the villagers we encountered on our walk through their area

We learned a great deal about current life in Cambodia and its people, mainly because of our knowledgeable guide, Kimthet.  Although the country is still extremely poor (apparently more poor than AfricaCambodia’s GDP is made up of 60% foreign aid), its people are extremely hard working and moving towards of a better tomorrow. We felt privileged to have learned from them and experienced a little with them….….and to have travelled this incredible month in their beautiful country.

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Kimhet, our wonderful guide during the “Day in the Life” Tour

So thank you Cambodia & your smiley people, for the many wonderful memories you have given us!

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From here, it is onto beautiful Thailand….a country especially dear to our hearts!

CAMBODIA – Phnom Penh

13 Dec

Phnom Penh [p-nom pen], a city whose name took me a while to pronounce properly, let alone write correctly!  The Cambodian capital appeared chaotic, intriguing while surprisingly modern to us, with its many hip cafes and enormous variety of fantastic local street markets, food halls, and expat-run restaurants (like in Toronto, you can eat any cuisine in Phnom Penh).

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Skyline of Phnom Penh

For food, we followed the suggestions of my Facebook friend Gabrielle Yetter, who has been living in Cambo for 3 years now. She had all the best insights on what to eat and do!  For example, she suggested one of her favorites, the Chinese Noodle House  – where you eat noodles and dumplings from dough that is freshly made and spun on site (see picture).  For $3.00, you receive a plate of 12 steamed vegetable dumplings and fried green beans with mushrooms and tons of garlic.  The very best!

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Fresh Noodles being made at the Chinese Noodle House in Phnom Penh

And when we met Gabrielle’s friends Phillip and Katarina at El Mundo Café (on the Riverfront for a wonderfully, insightful chat, Emile had the very best “broodje Kroket” he had ever tasted (Dutch fried meatball on bread) and I must say, this Dutch Café owner knows a thing or two about kroketten as even this Dutchie thought is was a really good one! 

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Emile with a delicious “Broodje Kroket” – Dutch fried meatball on bread

And many of the cafes and restaurants line the Mekong River in PP as it is such a wonderful location.  The riverfront is the spot where the Cambodians hang out – starting around 5 pm they join in exercise classes and/or sit all along the river enjoying its cool breeze.  The boys and I took a lovely river cruise down the Mekong, just as the sun was setting (so we had the pleasure of admiring a gorgeous sky!), where we witnessed how the boat people lived on the river, in self made sheds and boats.

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Boat Village on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh

It was quite hard to witness such poverty (eye-opening for Emile & Filou), but at the same time extremely heart-warming, as what we also saw where little girls swinging in hammocks singing happily, boys their age having the best of fun sliding down a ledge & jumping into the river, and the Cambodian people (adults and children alike), greeting us with their warm smiles.

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The boys with the sweet boat owner’s son 

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Fishermen on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh

And while we enjoyed our 2 hours on the river, Anthony decided to take in some history and visited the former torture and detention centre, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (necessary to do this country justice but a bit too gruesome for the kids!).  “The four years’ rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, were responsible for the deaths of one in five people in Cambodia, through execution, starvation, or forced labour. Countless others were simply swept away from their villages without leaving a trace behind” (as quoted from Somaly Man’s book, “the Road of Lost Innocence” – the true story of a Cambodian heroine who fled sexual slavery and now devotes her life to rescuing others).

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Message of Hope & Justice at the Genocide Museum

We also did a quick tour of the Russian Market and the Central Market, locations mostly geared towards souvenir hunters (and therefore not particularly of interest to us, although fun to see what is being sold at what incredibly low price!).

More of interest was the visit that Filou and I took of Wat Phnom.  Seen by the people of Phnom Penh, as the spiritual heart of the city. This temple, located on top of a small hill in the centre of town is a lovely place of worship with gorgeous ceilings.  I took a quick peak and then Filou played a bit in the adjacent play park where he met some lovely Cambodian kids to have some fun with.

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Wat Phnom, the spiritual heart of Phnom Penh

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Filou with a mighty Cobra, made out of bamboo – in the park surrounding Wat Phnom 

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Three sweet girls that kept waving at me..they loved that I wanted to take their picture!

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Nap time in the park

Kid’s City

A few hours were spent at a super fun, multilevel entertainment centre for kids.

Each floor of Kid City’s complex ((www.kidcityasia.com) houses a different activity to keep the kids entertained (climbing wall, skating rink, laser tag, science gallery & discovery, jungle gym etc.); a deal at about $8.00/hr as the complex is air-conditioned, has WIFI and coffee for the parents!

Emile and Filou particularly liked the climbing walls; about 12 different, colourful climbing structures to test their endurance!

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Filou being a monkey and trying to fly

Our last day in Phnom Penh, while Anthony was giving a keynote presentation at the European Chamber of Commerce Cambodia – Green Business Forum (www.eurocham-cambodia.org), the kids and I, once again, called our very sweet, tuktuk driver Mr. Key (a gentle man who knew his way around the city and adored the boys).

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The boys with Mr. Key, our lovely tuktuk driver in Phnom Penh

He took us to the beautiful Royal Palace, with its famous Silver Pagoda.  Here, the kids saw monkeys, turtles and huge fish up close, played local musical instruments with the experts, and saw Cambodia’s first King on a Horse!

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At the grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

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Our monkey friend, coming up close…

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Filou learning to play a very melodic, local musical instrument

That night, I finally got to meet the lovely lady who made our stay in Cambodia so very fabulous  – my Facebook friend Gabrielle Yetter.   Not only did we read her wonderful book called “The definite Guide to moving to South-East Asia: Cambodia” http://www.amazon.com/Definitive-Guide-Moving-SouthEast-Asia-ebook/dp/B00BX5FWJU, we also followed her many insightful tips on where to stay & eat, what to see & do. She and her husband Frank met us at a nice Italian place for dinner and it was like we were old friends. The night was the perfect ending to our wonderful stay in the nation’s capital.

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A toast with my new Facebook Friend, Gabrielle Yetter 

Cambodia – Jungle Trekking in Koh Kong

7 Dec

Koh Kong is the most Southwestern province of Cambodia and has a long undeveloped coastline and a mountainous, forested and largely inaccessible interior. Tourism to this area is still relatively new and we were excited to be among its newest explorers!

In the province’s capital, Koh Kong City, we found a little paradise in the Oasis Bungalow Resort (http://oasisresort.netkhmer.com) – a small complex of five, very spacious hut bungalows.  This very calm resort has the most beautiful infinity pool overlooking the gorgeous Cardamon Mountains.  Its owner, Jason Webb, a passionate Irish expat with strong views about Cambodian life, and plentiful energy to entertain the kids (showing them the many creatures living on the premises – especially large geckos and frogs), kept us dutifully informed and entertained.

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The infinity pool the Oasis Bungalow Resort in Koh Kong, overlooking the jungle

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Jason Webb, the spirited owner of the Oasis Bungalow Resort

Visiting Koh Kong is not complete without a jungle trek, and so we booked our full day of Cardamon Mountain explorations.  We were picked up by a tuktuk and transported to the dock for our Long Tail boat ride, taking us deep into the mountainous region. The hour-long boat ride was a fun one; we had to ensure we were all sitting still not to capsize the structure – one move from someone on one side of the boat had to quickly be compensated by someone on the other side (we has some very close calls)!  The views were magnificent – we saw large, white herons fly fast & low over the water and thoroughly enjoyed the many sounds of the various jungle species (apparently the mountains are home to 450 types of bird species as well as Siamese crocodiles, Asian elephants, Indochinese tigers, clouded leopards, Malayan sun bears, white bellied rats etc.– none of which we sadly or… should I say gladly, encountered on our trek!)

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Our Long Tail boat

The start of our jungle trek was quite steep as we made our way high up into the mountains, through very dense forest. Our guide always walked ahead of us with his incredible large, sharp and primitive looking knife. He quickly cut away any bamboo or menacing branches in our path and used his knife to make spear-like, bamboo walking sticks for the kids.  After about 40 minutes of hiking, we reached a beautiful viewpoint – giving us a bird’s eye view of the elegantly flowing river we had just crossed and the vast region of surrounding, lush jungle.

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Viewpoint over the Cardamon Mountains

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Filou in Bamboo Jungle

Our trail continued and we eventually reached a gorge and arrived at some beautiful waterfalls. It was here that we paused for an extended time to have lunch and a swim. A section of these waterfalls were a natural waterslide, and of course the boys had to give this a try. Sliding down in the rushing water over many a slippery rock gave them lots of giggles and slightly sore behinds, but they loved it! The cool flowing water also helped to rinse off the blood from their legs and ankles – caused by the many small leaches that had attached themselves and caused what Filou called a “mini blood bath” on his leg (nothing too serious but this was the real jungle after all)!

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Our legs attacked by the jungle leaches

Trying to keep up with the climbing skill of our boys, I tempted to mount a large, very slippery rock that would lead me to the top of the waterfall.  Unfortunately, I am not quite as monkey-like as my sons and slipped with my leg into a deep groove and scraped it going all the way down!  Our smiley guide was quick to my rescue! When I first looked at my foot and saw a bone sticking out, I thought this was the end of Cambodia and we were heading to Thailand for medical treatment, but putting my legs into the cold running water of the waterfall helped the swelling go down quickly – and it was not as bad as I thought!  However, our lovely guide leader was now completely focused on me – rubbing Tiger balm all over my scrapes & bruises and providing his very strong, steady arm all the way during our trek back.

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Cooling sore legs in cold, streaming waterfall water

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Of course, we gave him an extra little tip for his kindness – something he deserved but might have also helped to save an extra animal or two. You ask why? Well, the population in the Cardamon Mountain Ranges is small and very poor. It has always threatened the biological diversity of the region due to illegal logging, wildlife poaching and forest fires, caused by slash-and-burn agriculture. Jason told us that our jungle trekking guide was one of those animal poachers – but that since he has learned to make a living from tourism, his activities have decreased (not completely gone yet, as he still goes out when the tourism season is slowing down!).  He seemed like a very genuine, caring man, and we hope he can stay on the right path to protect the beautiful environment he is living in!

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Our jungle trekking guide 

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Perfect ending to a perfect day of jungle trekking

So we survived the jungle of Cambodia (without getting Malaria!) and had a great time!  As well, the boys learned the skill of playing pool.  Using the high quality pool table at Oasis, Emile practiced “sans cesse” and was able to beat his Papa, challenged several of the other resort guests and won….. So now, he’s ready for the master of all – his grandfather. So get ready Jichan!

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Emile the pool shark!

So it was Koh Kong, that made us into jungle trekkers and pool sharks…Now, we are ready for some culture as we move onto Siem Reap to visit the most magnificent of temples.

CAMBODIA – Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville

28 Nov

KAMPOT

The charm of Kampot, a somewhat sleepy provincial capital & port town, lies in its colonial architecture and its attractive riverfront. Kampot has a retro ambience and is mostly known for its caves and pepper plantations (they produce varieties of pepper that are well sought after by chef’s worldwide- and having tasted it now first-hand, we know why!).

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Kampot’s pepper (red, green or black), sought after by chefs worldwide!

In Kampot we stayed at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge (http://www.mangokampot.com) – a wonderful compilation of wooden huts, overlooking the Kampot River with stunning views of the mountains. The sunsets there completely draw you in!

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Our bungalow, overlooking the Kampot River at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge

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Stunning sunsets overlooking Kampot River & surrounding mountains

Emile & Filou loved this “French place” (run by a French-Cambodian couple), as Les Manguiers attracts many Frenchies with kids so a great deal of friends were made!  This eco-lodge also had some fun things to entertain the young ones – such as a Tarzan rope that propelled the kids into the water (Emile and Filou spent hours perfecting their different jumps!), animals to pet (the sweet looking rabbits where their favorite), and many board games, table tennis, swings, hammocks etc.

They even offered a fabulous night river cruise where we saw hundreds of fireflies light up the trees like it was Christmas!!! – Going out on a boat and exploring the river by night (it was pitch black)… was priceless!

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Filou spent several hours feeding and playing with the rabbits at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge

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Emile rope-jumping into the Kampot River

One of the highlights of staying at Les Manguiers was their Table d’Hôte menu (2 options to choose from at each meal).  The surprise of what we would get to eat each day was first a bit daunting for the kids (we don’t get to choose? What if we don’t like the food?), but this quickly turned into the wonderful surprise of the day! All the dishes offered were amazingly fresh, copious (even for the “light” meal option) and absolutely scrumptious! Eating, overlooking the river made the meals even better and the kids still can’t stop talking about them (we are starting to create some real foodies!).

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The scrumptious Table d’Hôte Menu at Les Manguiers, Kampot

On our first morning in Kampot, we took a tuktuk and ventured out to the local Phnom Chhngok Caves that house a 1200 year-old temple. The drive on the extremely muddy road, full of potholes, was half the adventure!  It was an hour-long roller coaster ride before we arrived, but it was worth it, as we were greeted once again by many warm Cambodian smiles & “hello’s” while enjoying beautiful green landscapes & rice paddies– and of course the caves. With our very young Cambodian guides (they probably shouldn’t be working yet, but were all smiles and had good English), Emile and Filou climbed very steep walls down, deep into the dark, slippery caves and loved every minute of it (mom and dad decided it was best not to risk breaking a leg)!

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Climbing the Phnom Chhngok Caves

We also learned about the local social initiative “SAMAKI” – a program supported by Solaid International that provides school support & help to the most vulnerable families by association. So to give back a little, we took our bikes and rode to the local school “Kampong Kreng” to go help with their English program.

We all had our turns in front of the class while helping the hardworking children practice sentences & improve their English pronunciations. At the end, class was divided into four, and each of us had a small group to interact with (they loved learning about the snow in Canada and wanted to know everything from our favorite colour to how old we were)!

At the end of the 1-hour class we were all sitting in the dark – as electricity is very expensive and the one light they had in the classroom was not put on (also we could hear every word of the class being taught next door as windows and doors are just holes in the walls). But even though the class had the most basic of amenities, the kids were happy with their enthusiastic English teacher and our “surprise” appearance.  After a productive class and a smiley group picture, they happily jumped on their bikes and raced back home…

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English teachers Filou & Emile  in front of the class!

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The kids we helped with their English, at Kampong Kreng School in Kampot

And after a last look at Kampot river‘s “Green Alley” via canoe, we raced to the next local town of Kep.

KEP

An idyllic coastal location, backed by hills covered with lush jungle, Kep was originally built as a retreat for the French colonialists.  For sixty years it thrived as Khmer’s favorite coastal holiday resort, with its heydays in the 50s and 60s until it fell into ruin – especially after the Khmer Rouge, when locals in need of money and food started to dismantle the old villas.  But Kep is currently experiencing a tourism revival and we got to enjoy it (thoroughly!!!).

We stayed at Kep’s Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort (www.jasminevalley.com)– where our accommodations were a large jungle tree house, complete with veranda overlooking the Cambodian Jungle! Every night we enjoyed the many sounds of nature (a chorus of vocal frogs and birds) and took in the magnificent views of the mountains, and smells of Jasmine and jungle blossom.

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Our jungle tree house at Jasmine Valley Eco-Lodge

Kep is known for its seafood, and in particular its crab dishes. We went to Kim Ly Restaurant (http://www.kep-cambodia.com/mainpages/PlacesinKep/kimly-restaurant.html), well known for having the best crab in town, and we were not disappointed. Emile is still raving about his crab dish with ginger! It was truly divine and without a doubt, the best we have ever had!

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Kep and its famous crab!

We also spent an absolutely lovely beach day on Rabbit Island, an island just of the coast of Kep, given its name mainly due to its shape. It is a true idyllic beach hideaway, with its gorgeous blue ocean water and stunning views of clouds with fishing boats on the horizon.  We took a 30-minute boat ride to get to the island (which is delightfully non-touristy) and enjoyed swinging in the hammocks, swimming in the incredibly clear blue waters and taking in a lovely massage on the beach.

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Sweet little Cambodian boy on Rabbit’s Island

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The views from Rabbit’s Island

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Rabbit’s Island, the perfect place to chill for a day!

And to end our wonderful stay in Kep, we took a 6:30 am morning walk, via the local monkey and mountain trail, to reach the mountaintop. The few enjoyable hours that we explored Kep National Park, were aided by the useful and very informative signage posted by the local Squirrel Association. The park is home to many red squirrels, as well as many snakes, birds, butterflies etc. – overall amazing flora and fauna! Filou was eager to capture it all on camera (he took pictures of every little animal, flower or leaf we saw in the park)!

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Sunset playing on the beach at Kep

SIHANOUKVILLE

A jolly Khmer taxi driver took us on our 2-hour trek from Kep to Sihanoukville.  He told us that he used to work in construction but that he had to leave his post behind due to the pain in his arm.  I did notice the many scars on both his arms! He explained that his father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge (as they thought he was a policeman), and that he – at 5 years old – was given a gun to kill someone. When he refused, they broke and cut his arms in many places. Such a sad tale, from a man that had the happiest face and seemed to be the local comic entertainment for the girls at Jasmine Valley. We were happy it was he who took us safely to Sihanoukville! 

Once there, we arrived at the Don Bosco Hotel School (http://www.donboscohotelschool.com), where we were welcomed by a large group of enthusiastic students.  The Don Bosco Hotel School, created by a foundation with the same name, is a unique concept in that it is at the same time a quality, 31-room hotel in Sihanoukville (with fantastic food and an amazing pool in a lovely, quiet location), and a professional school educating and training Cambodia’s disadvantaged youth for the hospitality industry and a better life.  A former hospitality student myself, this was totally up my alley…

One of the volunteer teachers, Thomas Lerch (specializing in Front Office Management), was kind enough to tour us around the hotel & technical school complex. Set on well-kept grounds, the school provides bright classrooms and clean, comfortable eating and sleeping quarters for the students.  Thomas explained that each year, about 1000 students from all over Cambodia, apply for the program (of which 200 get enrolled into the hospitality program and 400 into the technical one).  The selection criteria used are guided by the core principles of the Don Bosco Foundation, which is to provide the most disadvantaged children a chance of education.  Although the students are required to pay for their own school supplies; some of their English textbooks and pencils (usually a couple of dollars a year), few cannot even afford that.

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The hard-working students of the Don Bosco Hotel School in Sihanoukville

Educating and supporting these children makes a real difference in their lives (and the lives of their families as they go on to support not only themselves but the many loved ones around them!).  Thomas Lerch (pictured above) and his volunteer colleagues – educators from England, Germany, Poland – are truly committed to making these kids succeed (Thomas for example is taking a full year away from his wife in Dubai, and is totally driven to see his students land jobs at top 4 or 5 star hotels in the country – positions at local guesthouses is not what he has in mind for his protégés!)

Apparently, they do lack a volunteer French teacher, so if anyone is interested  🙂 or would like to stay at this great hotel, please contact: Thomaslerch2003@yahoo.com

We were grateful that our stay helped a little towards the education of these very friendly and hardworking students! A wonderful program and relaxing stay in Sihanoukville before heading to the jungle in Koh Kong!