March 10, 2017
Koh Chen, Vietnam
Wat Phnom is an 88 ft. high hill near the centre of Phnom Penh. “Phnom” means “hill” and so the city itself is actually named Penh Hill. The legend of Phenh Hill goes like this:
In 1372 Mrs. Penh discovered 4 statues of Buddha on the riverbank nearby and put them in a pagoda on top of the hill.
That’s it. That’s the whole legend. I don’t know about you, but as legends go, that’s not particularly intriguing. But we roll with it here in SE Asia and so we visited Mrs. Penh’s hill to see the small statue of her and the stupa at the top that contains the ashes of King Ponhea Yat ,who died back in 1467 after first deciding that the town that grew up around Mrs. Penh’s hill would be the main city of the nation after the Khmer empire abandoned Angkor Wat.
That’s where our wonderful guide, Pier, told us a way, way better story about the hill. It turns out that it was the 4th Pit Stop for The Amazing Race 15, which aired on October 11, 2009. Pier was one of 40 tour guides hired to assist the crew of tv show as they manoeuvered their way around the city. Each of them received $50 for their help during the day. Easily more than a month’s normal wages.
Helicopters circled the hill with tv camera crews shooting the action from above while a myriad of tv cameras (some from local tv stations) surrounded the place, all waiting for the teams to check in on the Pit Stop mat with Phil.
Pier’s favourite ‘clue’ was the one given to contestants at the Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondents Club. There, they were handed a photo of King Norodom and Jackie Kennedy taken in 1967 and told to find the photo at the Royal Raffles Hotel in the city centre. He said that most of them had a very difficult time locating the life-size blown up version hanging prominently in the prominently named and advertised Jacqueline Kennedy Suite because they were too young to recognize the lady in the photo.
Pier told us that the first couple to spot Phil and reach the Pit Stop mat at the top of Penh Hill were a couple of rough & tumble spiky haired guys with muscles and tattoos and that they were pretty proud of their accomplishment. Until it turned out that they’d lost their passports somewhere in the city.
They offered a reward of $5,000 for the return of their passports and had the police and every tuk tuk driver in the city looking for them but, unfortunately, the passports could not be found before the ‘last’ team checked in with Phil at Penh Hill some hours later. As a result, they were eliminated from The Amazing Race and the team that thought they had come in last and would be eliminated survived for another day.
Surviving for another day. Now that’s the kind of legend that I think is appropriate to attach to Mrs. Penh’s hill, to Phnom Penh itself, and to Cambodia in general.
We have made lots of friends on the boat. We take all of our meals with one or more of them. In addition to Stefan & Heike, we are very much enjoying playing with Eric, Manfred & Michael, Virginia & Andrew, and Patty & Denis. All of them are younger than us (I’m pretty sure they are all the youngest on the boat after us) and are being very sweet to us.
Eric is from LA and he’s living my dream life – he is a travel writer and his regular travel writing is published on his blogsite at “Eric The Epicure”. He has a very keen eye for photos and I find I’m often looking to see where Eric is headed to get an interesting angle for a photo. He was very generous in sharing some thoughts on his profession (to which I aspire – it’s good to dream, right?).
I got chastised by Eric this morning at breakfast, mind you. He said, “You’re not gonna make much of a travel writer if you don’t take photos of food!”. Okay, so I forgot to take photos of the fusion food creations at The Chinese House last night to show him. So sue me – I was just stupefied that The Chinese House didn’t actually serve Chinese food and forgot job No. 1!
Eric has a great sense of humour and would probably be a great fan of Monty Python if only eh wasn’t so young that I don’t know if he’s ever heard of them.
Manfred & Michael own & operate a boutique hotel & café in Cologne, Germany. The group of us have provided them collective tax advice: They should write off the ridiculous cost of this cruise as a business expense because for them, this is a fact-finding mission. After all, if Eric is on duty writing about his experiences on the cruise why can’t they just say that they were making note of the way a competitor provides customer & guest service?
Indeed, there is going to be a demonstration of folding towels into animal shapes near the end of the cruise and I told Michael that this would be like a seminar that would FOR SURE qualify them for the tax deduction. Michael agreed that might be the case but flat our refuses to learn how to fold towels. Manfred, being more practical, doesn’t know if the time it will take for him (after all, this is an owner/operated hotel) to fold towels into animals will be the most efficient use of his time during the normal workday.
Me, I’m going to the demonstration for sure. I’m thinking if I can master it, they’ll give me a job on the boat and won’t make me ever leave. Did I mention the food yet?
Patty & Denis are from Janeville, NB. “But we just say Bathurst – nobody’s ever heard of Janeville”, said Patty. Umm, Patty, I got news for you about Bathurst… They own & operate Patty’s Beach Chalets and I’m guessing that it’s a beautiful holiday spot. Denis & I are enjoying Kingdom Beer. A lot. We’re on holiday – leave us alone. Just a couple of good ol’ Canadian boys doing what we’d be doing at home (except without any hockey on tv).
Andrew & Virginia are a young couple who live on a farm near Coffs Harbour in Queensland, Australia. Virginia works remotely from home as an American Express Relationship Manager for AMEX Centurion Card members.
Andrew’s mom sent a couple of stuffed animals (a kookaburra and a sheep) for them to give to children here in Cambodia but there really wasn’t an appropriate time or place to do so this past week as each time we were in the vicinity of children there was a small pack of them and it would have been difficult (no, impossible) to hand the gifts to only two of them.
Virginia gave the stuffed animals to us to deliver to the Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap when we visit the hospital where Lizzy worked last summer in the next few days and we’ll make sure to take a photo and send it to them so they know that the animals were delivered safe and sound.
They were surprised that we’d ever heard of Coffs Harbour but how could I ever forget the Big Banana for which Coffs Harbour is justifiably famous? Or, even more important, for allowing me to set up my best ever ‘yes, that is a banana in my pocket & yes I’m also glad to see you’ photo sight gag ever.
During breakfast this morning I took a break from stuffing my face (it wasn’t easy but I did it) to notice that every tuk-tuk (pronounced “toook toook”) in Phnom Penh was lined up at the dock next to the boat, waiting for us to get in one for a tour of the city. There were so many, it looked like a tuk-tuk train.
The tuk-tuk train took us to the Independence Monument at the junction of Norodom & Preak Sihanouk Boulevards. The monument is in the shape of a huge lotus and occupies the traffic island at the roundabout at the junction of the two streets, just south of the Royal Palace. It was completed in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France back in 1953.
And then it was time to weigh anchor. That is a technical term that people are throwing around. I have no idea why there is such an issue with the weight of the anchor. It seems pretty heavy to me when it plops into the river every time we stop somewhere for the night and so I don’t think there is much of a problem but everyone was pretty excited that we were weighing the thing again and leaving Phnom Penh to head up the Tonle Sap River to Tonle Sap Lake.
The Mekong River (and now the Tonle Sap) is home to water hyacinth plants. They grow on top of the water and float along in little islands (sometimes not so little). They have a pretty flower that is harvested for eating but must be consumed very soon after harvesting.
When the island is big enough, it can ‘seem’ to form a little mattress or pad for soft landing – if you were, say, throwing things onto it. Like, oh, I don’t know…. children? That’s what Markus was doing this afternoon when we docked upriver at Koh Chen.
Markus is the Hotel Manager on the boat. He is Austrian and has a great pair of lederhosen but mostly he is sneaky crazy smart. He can’t be more than (say) 40 but he has many years of experience in the hospitality industry – on both river & ocean cruise lines as well as (and this is my personal favourite) operating a hotel in Austria for a Russian owner where he decided to forego a marketing and business promo budget in favour of (I am not making this up) operating an ostrich ranch on the hotel property.
He is, I believe, the pre-eminent authority on ostrich ranching in Austria. He says not to get him started as he could talk about it all day long. That, in and of itself, Is sufficient for me to declare him the pre-eminent authority anyway.
During a discussion with him he outlined, in great detail, his rambling plan to introduce ostrich ranching to Cambodia in conjunction with a series of public health clinics overseen by his Cambodian girlfriend who is a doctor in Phnom Penh but who he thinks ought to organize retired doctors from Europe to provide medical help on cruises during the cruising season here and then populate remote rural clinics in the off-season.
Or something like that. I could be wrong as I was still wrapping my head around the idea of a herd (?) of ostriches roaming the range in the Austrian Alps with the Von Trapp Family singing a cowboy lullaby in the background.
Anyway, this afternoon we returned from an excursion on land in Koh Chen to find Markus in the water next to the boat throwing the local boys onto the water hyacinth islands. And loving it.
He said he pays them $5.00 each to clean up the water and beachfront in advance of the boat docking and then usually spends an hour or so swimming in the Mekong with them, before giving them an ice cream treat and sending them on their way.
They were making almost as much, I think, as the children who sell silver & copper bracelets, necklaces & charms that surrounded us the moment we got off the boat in Koh Chen. Koh (island) Chen (Chinese) is an island near the Nek Luong Ferry in the Tonle Sap River that was originally populated by people from .. well, I’ll bet you can guess.
Their specialty is making delicately engraved silver and copper stuff. Stuff that is used for traditional ceremonies at the pagoda or for marriage ceremonies. Or, in this case, for me. There was a whole swack of things on offer at the silver & copper ‘factory’ we visited.
The factory was, of course, someone’s house. Where a few people sat on the ground making the delicately engraved silver and copper stuff itself. And a few other were ready to sell us what they made including, most importantly, my brand spanking new little silver elephant tchotchke that you can pull apart to stuff things inside (well, it’s little – so maybe a couple of pills will fit in there but that’s about it).
The little silver elephant will look great in my office. Debbie said it’ll never see the light of day to collect dust in the house so the office it is.
Meantime, the highlight of the day – hands down – was a visit to the Talmud Torah public school in Koh Chen where we had a chance to drop off school supplies with the teacher and be greeted by the class singing with great gusto the song that they had learned in honour of our visit. An old Cambodian folk song. The Khmer name of the song translates (roughly) as “Old MacDonald’s Farm”.
When they got to the ‘with a quack, quack here and a quack, quack there’ part, we all joined in and general mayhem and tomfoolery ensued. The teacher was at her wit's end because kids wanted to have indoor recess because it was so hot outside but since there are no doors or windows it's really kind of irrelevant. Kids are crazy, eh?
As I mentioned yesterday, children only go to public school for ½ a day so as we were visiting the classroom this afternoon, the children from the village who attended in the morning were all gathered just outside as there was no freaking way they were gonna miss out on gawking at the tourists and practicing their (very impressive, might I say) English skills.
Most conversations in Cambodia with small children go like this:
Child: Hello Sir, where you from?
Me: Soor s’day (“hello”). Sok sa bai (“how are you?”).
Child (with quizzical look on face): Are you impaired in some way, Sir?
Child (to Debbie – swiftly understanding that I’m a lost cause): Hello Mrs., where you from? How many children do you have? How old you? How many brothers you have? How many sisters you have? Buy something? ….. (and repeat)
Actually, the school visit went spectacularly as, by the time we left, I had taught my name to all of the children (those in the classroom as well as those peering in through the windows just outside). A great chant of “Ha Wee, Ha Wee, Ha Wee” was ringing through the school room and school yard and, well, it makes a guy choke up a little, if you want to know the truth.
I started out the evening with a “Khmer Soul” (today’s ‘Cocktail of the Day’). Shabbat Shalom to one & all.