Tag Archives: Asia

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 

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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.

CHINA-1, Beijing; a city of many surprises

21 Oct

CHINA, BEIJING – a city of many surprises

China – Beijing, a city that houses 22 million people and one of the 7 wonders of the world that many dream of visiting (us four included)! We have come to know Beijing as a city that has a new surprise in store for you each day, so let me tell you a bit about them.

The first surprise we encountered was our hotel called Hutong Ren, This little place of rest boasts only 8 rooms and is located on a side street of the very crowded and lively Dongcheng area. The staff gets it perfectly – after a day of intense sightseeing (where the masses of people, smells and sounds overwhelm you, and take you by surprise each time) – you need a place to kick back & get back to balance. So at Hutong Ren, we relished the wonderfully calm background music, the delightful assortment of teas, the laughter of the sweet & helpful girls that work there and the enthusiastic welcome of Blackie, each time we entered back “home” (Emile & Filou particularly liked this super sweet dog, who would crawl on their laps for cuddles or run and play with them).

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Staff of Hutongren Hotel with “Blackie”

The Dongcheng area is one of the city’s interesting districts where you can get a great, first glimpse into Chinese culture. It is a maze of charming, small streets  & alleys (hutongs), which boast an interesting mix of buildings, food establishments and stores. Side by side you will find designer stores (where you can buy the most beautiful silk scarves, bags and clothing) and little food and nick-nack establishments (some completely falling apart, others doing their best to cater to the tourists). And the city seems to have enough of those – apparently about 2 million foreign visitors and 60 million domestic travellers visit Beijing each year). So, you can probably imagine how busy those streets were!

The Dongcheng Hutong area particularly comes to life at night as it is then when many street sellers crowd the hutongs and you can buy anything from silly toys (and the Chinese do LOVE their toys – teenagers walking around with wooden noise makers that we would consider buying for toddlers or putting silly, fuzzy animal ears on their heads as a headband), to meat or crickets on a stick!  Each night we went out, we saw something different and it was always a great adventure to decide what to eat, what to do to cope with the masses and not get run over by one of the many honking motorcycles, food carts or bike taxis, or how to overcome the incredible smell that is apparent is some of the streets (the exploration was so worth it as it was super fun, but the smell is one that I still find hard to forget)!

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Dongcheng District; the cultural and commercial centre of Beijing 

Our first night, we enjoyed a nice hot-pot – boiling pot of water in which you cook your own vegetables and meat (a good first choice!). Very close to the restaurant, we saw a barbershop with a young, funky hairdresser who seemed to know what he was doing.  Emile & Filou had talked for a while about getting their hair cut off (practical look for on the road that would require little maintenance and a crazy experiment that isn’t as easily tried at home).  However, we were surprised that Filou was dead-set on getting his buzz cut that first night!  But, we happily obliged his enthusiasm and entered the shop.

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Emile with the hot pot

During the whole haircutting process, Filou laughed hysterically! And once his new look was completed, he showed similarities to a little monk – but he was happy as pie (and still is).  Emile (a bit jetlagged) was not quite ready for this adventure and got a regular haircut. Although two days later (after some encouragement from his little bro – who wanted to become the bald brothers) he went back and did the same.  The boys’ new look (which is a bit more in line with Chinese kids), has proven to be somewhat of a defense mechanism as on many occasions, the kids are being stopped, stared at or taken a photograph of (some Chinese have just never seen Caucasians before). It should be said, that the attention does make them feel like little rock stars!

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The Bald Brothers with their funky hairdresser in Beijing

Of course Beijing’s incredible history is mind-blowing and we joined the masses in visiting some of the city’s top attractions. The changing of the guards & flag lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square was interesting in that we thought there to be a major festival due to the thousands of people – however we later were surprised to learn that it was just a regular day!  The Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace and home of the emperors for over 500 years – from the Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty) was incredibly impressive in size and history, and the Summer Palace (the largest and best preserved imperial garden in China) was a beautiful, serene place, that the boys most enjoyed.

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At Being’s Forbidden City

At the Summer Palace, Filou focused in on a local artist who was making grasshoppers out of bamboo leaves. He was charming the man with his attention and after sitting with him for a while, a nice Chinese couple appeared and kindly offered him one of these crafts (they were just so taken by his enthusiasm).  Emile, too was lucky to get one – and he happily gave his away to one of the super-cute little Chinese girls he met in the park later that day.

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Summer Palace

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Filou with his grasshopper made out of bamboo leaves

798 Art Zone is Beijing’s leading concentration of contemporary art galleries and shops (and many wonderful little cafes). This thriving artistic community, located in the Chaoyang District is housed in various 50-year old decommissioned military factory buildings of unique architectural style. It was a place on Anthony’s hit list!

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So we spent a lovely afternoon browsing through many interesting galleries and funky shops. We even came across an outdoor rock concert (with a terrible sounding band!) – but in a cool courtyard with fantastic vibe.

We left the arts vibe and enjoyed our best and cheapest meal in Beijing when we found some 5-6 food carts lined up outside on the street (the four of us feasted for about $5).  When waiting for our last portion of delicious grilled vegetables, tofu and meat – Emile almost got run over by the food cart when it suddenly packed up, rushing away in great hurry when the police arrived.  Quite the nightly adventure that the boys still talk about – illegal street food was definitely a new experience for them!

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The guy that made our delicious “Illegal” street food

But the highlight of our stay in Beijing was undoubtedly our walk on the magnificent Great Wall of China.  We picked a perfect day for our adventure as it was slightly cloudy and therefore not too hot for our big walk.  We chose to go to the “Wild Wall” (the portion of the wall between Jinshanling and Simatai). This portion is still in its original state (has not been rebuilt or renovated like some other portions) and is a lot less touristy due to its more distant location from the city (about 2.5 hours outside of Beijing – instead of Badaling which is only 1 hour away).

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Little guy on the Great big Wall

We usually like to do things on our own, but we chose to go with an organized tour for this one (as we didn’t want dishonest cab drivers to ruin our day). We learned that the Great Wall is in fact a discontinuous network of wall segments (and not continuous as many think) built by various dynasties to protect China’s northern border. This UNESCO World Heritage site is over 20,000km long, and took millions of people (soldiers, common people & criminals) over 2000 years to build.  It is the longest man-made structure in the world, and seeing all those big rocks, it must have been a tremendous job to create this masterpiece (without any tools but bare hands)!

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Once arrived, we chose to take a cable-ride up to the #10 Tower on the Great Wall – from there, we would make the trek to tower #20. Frankly, I was ignorant in thinking that the Great Wall of China was an ancient structure that once arrived at, could pretty easily be walked upon. O, was I wrong – it is 4 days later now and my calves are still in serious pain – best stair-master ever!  There were several portions of the Great Wall that we could only climb, using both hands and feet –as double strength was needed to pull ourselves up on the incredibly steep staircases (nothing for you mom!).  But it was little pain for the privilege to be walking on this most incredible, historic structure.  Gazing out, there was stunning nature all around us – looking left were the mountains of China while paying attention on our right, and we were looking at the gorgeous scenery of Mongolia.

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It is without saying that the Great Wall of China needs to be preserved at all cost and no littering of any kind is allowed (including the human bathroom kind).  If you have to do your business (with no facilities anywhere in sight) you need to climb down from the Great Wall to find yourself a secluded spot. And of course, our little boys with small bladders had to (they thought that this unfortunate incident made for a cool story though, as now they can say they did “pipi” in Mongolia!).

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We met several sweet locals on the Great Wall – encouraging us to keep going and trying to sell us some souvenirs. But we were happy, taking our memories and our many “snaps” with us from this most wonderful day.

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So the surprises of Beijing were many;

– The serenity of our hotel amidst chaos

–  The incredible masses of people everywhere & the traffic that knows absolutely no rules (motorcycles zoom all around you when you cross the lights on a green – even cars don’t respect the signs and go when they feel like, even go against traffic all the time!)

–  The many different smells & sounds (loud and not always pleasant)

–  The mix of designer shops & little merchants everywhere

–  The childlike interests of the Chinese and their love for toys & mega drinks

–  The variety and multitude of food (some extremely spicy!) – we even discovered some fabulous Japanese restaurants in Beijing when looking for a change of cuisine

–  The unexpected safe feeling, moving around the city

–  The incredible history of each Beijing attraction

–  The differences in restaurant service (waiters will stand by your table immediately and wait till you have made your selection without giving you a few minutes to ponder the menu and/or dishes come out when ready – and never at the same time for four people dining together!)

–  The deliciousness of Beijing’s illegal street food

–  The incredible beauty and steepness of the Great Wall of China!

–  The behavior of the Chinese, which we at once consider to be rude (spitting, making loud noises during meals, pushing – an 80 year old Chinese woman gave me a mean push when she felt I was taking too long trying on a scarf in front of a mirror) and very kind (laughing and staring at us, being thankful for the opportunity to take pictures of us, giving us gifts, assisting us in showing how a meal is properly eaten or giving us directions, helping us make the best of our stay in their fascinating city)!