Saturday, January 25, 2014

Shuffle Off To Buffalo

From Monday to Friday, we make our way to Honour Village by tuk-tuk. As one of my last posts described, we spend a good portion of our ride out in the countryside, and get a close-up look at rural life. Seeing how hard the people work and how difficult their lives really are has helped me to understand Cambodians so much better, and to appreciate what a struggle life really is in a third world country. 

Once we get out beyond the edges of the city, and we hit the countryside with it's slow, easy pace, a peacefulness and calmness descends upon me and I feel the tension flow out of my bodyThe fields seem to stretch on for miles. It's like being thrown back into a time long ago when there were no farm machines and all the work was done by hand.  Back then, people had little, yet they survived. They were happy, and appreciated everything they had. This is what I still see here. 

Every once in a while, we pass a farmer walking alongside the road with his cattle. I am almost bewildered by their lack of reaction! Not a blink, a flinch, or a turn of the head, even when we approach from behind. They just continue to trudge along, seemingly oblivious to our presence, unruffled by the clatter of the tuk-tuk trailer or the low rumble of the moto.

A farmer leads his cattle alongside the road.
Most cows are pretty bony, 
which might explain why beef is so tough here!

It's usually a quiet drive down those country roads, except for those occasional exciting days when we get lost or overturned. (click on 'overturned' to read about that episode). The sights are pretty much the same - open fields stretching off on either side and the occasional herd of water buffalo lazily grazing away. These creatures are interesting and beautiful in their own hulking, ugly way, weighing around 1000 pounds each, definitely an animal I'd prefer to keep at a a distance.

We will often see a few water buffalo.
Large numbers together like this are a less common sight.

We sometimes see them cooling off in the streams
or in flooded rice paddies.

A few weeks back, as our tuk-tuk turned off the pavement onto the dirt road that leads to Honour Village, we could see a large herd of buffalo  plodding along the road, perhaps fifty or sixty head in all.  At first it looked as if all the animals were keeping well off to one side, and as we got closer, the back of the herd appeared to be veering in together to let us pass.

Water buffalo moving alongside the road.

Some were still on the opposite side of the road in the field

A little farther down, we began to approach them head on.
They still seemed to be steadily moving off 
to the side to let us pass.
The driver slowed down, staying to the far right, and kept going...
Suddenly, we were in the middle of the herd.
More started coming out of the pasture, coming at us straight on,
or crossing directly in front of our tuk-tuk!

The driver braked hard, sending our tuk-tuk into a little skid
and it was only then that the buffalo seemed to notice us.
For a few scary moments, they began to act a bit nervous, frightened.

See how this one has its ears back, head craning forward, almost in a run....

The tuk-tuk driver crept forward cautiously, trying to keep his distance
and the water buffalo passed by and moved off to the side of the road once again, 

Finally they'd all passed, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
As I looked back, I spotted a lone farmer, walking calmly at the rear of the herd.
He seemed to know better than to get in front of them.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1950's, Western movies were all the rage. Even though I watched scene after scene of cowboys perched high atop horses, engulfed in a sea of cows, I never once dreamed what it might be like to be a cattle rustler. After all, I'd never seen even one cow close up, let alone hundreds! There's an old saying that goes 'Never say never'. On that particular day, driving through a herd of buffalo, I think we came pretty close to the real deal.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Welcome To Our Humble Abode!

This is our fifth time visiting Cambodia, and our fourth time staying long term. If we go somewhere for a short visit, I don't mind living out of a suitcase for a few days, but when it's longer than that, I can't stand rummaging through things. I need to feel settled and uncluttered. (Everything has it's place, and everything is in it's place.)

When we're here, we stay in a guesthouse rather than a hotel. In the simplest of terms, the difference between a guesthouse and a hotel is that you take your shoes off at the front door of a guesthouse. Guesthouses also tend to have fewer rooms and lower prices.

For our last two visits, we stayed at MotherHome Guesthouse, which was fairly upscale.

Motherhome Guesthouse
lit up at night

It had a 'western-style' bathroom complete with western toilet, bathtub, shower (with shower curtain) and sink set into a vanity top, with plenty of room to lay out all our toiletries. The dark wood paneling in the bedroom made the room rather gloomy, but there was a large wardrobe to hang our clothes, and a mini-fridge where we could keep food. (Well, we THOUGHT we could keep food in it, until we discovered they turned off the electricity whenever we went out somewhere.) The rates were fairly reasonable and the service was excellent, yet we felt isolated from all the rest of the Honour Village volunteers who were staying across the road at Golden Takeo Guesthouse

Front view of Golden Takeo
showing the 2nd floor balcony

Front entrance of Golden Takeo at night

Prom, the owner of Golden Takeo, is our very good friend. Three years ago we were honoured guests at his wedding, and we felt we were dishonouring him by not staying with him. Once, when we were going up to the rooftop restaurant of Golden Takeo, we'd managed to sneak a peek at one of the guest rooms. Although it was more than adequate for short term stay, it didn't seem to have storage spaces for long term guests, which made us a bit hesitant to switch. Then, in 2012, the decision was made for us...the owner of Motherhome Guesthouse almost doubled his rates. We contacted Prom and asked him if it would be possible to stay with him and make some 'small additions' to our room. He agreed and so here we are.

Our home for the next few months is Room 107..

It's right at the top of the stairs on the 2nd floor.
A cheery mural of lotus flowers greets us...

To the left of the stairwell is a computer station.
We have wifi in our room, so we don't use it.

A door beside the computer station
leads to a balcony overlooking the street

The balcony is a bit narrow to sit on,
and is mainly used by smokers
since all rooms are non-smoking.
Still, it's nice to step out of our room
and walk a few feet to catch some fresh air.

To the right of the stairwell,
the hallway extends to the back of the guesthouse.

The guesthouse has 10 rooms in total - six on the main floor, and four on the second floor. The rooms on the first floor are smaller, with either one 'double' bed, or two 'single' beds, and smaller bathrooms than the second floor.  On the second floor, all four rooms have two 'twin' beds, and larger bathrooms. (In Cambodia, a double bed is the size of a king, a twin bed is the size of a queen, and a single bed is the size of a double bed.)

Prom gave us the best room in the house. It has two twin (queen) beds, two windows, and a large bathroom.

This is what it looked like before we moved in. 

The view from our front bedroom window

Rather than having the staff make two beds, we decided to just
use one.  After all, we sleep in a queen bed at home. We moved
the table from between the beds over to one side, and pushed
the beds closer together. The second bed is used
as my bedside table, and a catch-all for other paraphernalia.

We bought a metal clothes rack to hang things,
and a shelf unit that acts like a dresser / catch-all.

The original wicker unit that was in that space went on the wall
next to the desk and TV stand. We use all the available space.
Unfortunately, the wicker unit covers up our pretty lotus mural....

We have cable TV, and there are many
English stations. We haven't watched TV yet.
It does make a nice plant stand, nest-ce pas?
Next to the TV is an electric kettle so we can
have tea & coffee in our room.
The guesthouse will supply it, but we buy our own.

Our room comes with A/C (which is called 'air-con' here).
Night temperatures aren't too hot yet, so we've only
used it once or twice.

The ceiling fan is quite adequate most of the time.

There are only two outlets in the room.
We use the one next to the kettle as our
'charging station'
Electricity here is 220 V

The other outlet is underneath the bedside table.
It's tough to get at, and we use the shelf
for storing our electronics, batteries, cords, etc.

We have a well-stocked bar.
We can buy a half-decent bottle
of New Zealand red or white
for around $4.50
Liquor is also greatly reduced, but might not
be exactly what's stated on the label.
Buyer beware!

Water out of the tap is not potable.
We have to drink bottled water only.
We get 6 - 1.5L bottles for $2.50.

Breakfast on the rooftop is included
with the price of the room. It is so big,
we split it in two and eat the rest for lunch.
These are our lunchboxes.

The bathroom floor has been raised to accommodate
the drainage system, so you have to remember
to step up when you go in!

We have a very large bathroom
completely tiled

The shower has 'hot water on demand'.
Fortunately the pressure is low, so we don't need
a shower curtain to keep the water
from wetting the toilet seat.

Bathroom sink has cold water only.
No vanity here, just a pedestal sink
with a shelf above it.
We've added some plastic shelves
to hold our toiletries & pills.
Again, it's fortunate that the spray
of the shower isn't forceful enough to reach here.

The bathroom mirror is mounted so high up
I can barely see my face.
It's the only mirror in the entire suite.
It's a fast way to rid a person of vanity

In Cambodian homes, squat toilets are the norm, but
I think most places that cater to westerners have
'western-style' toilets now.
You use the spray nozzle to 'clean yourself off'
which cuts down on the amount of toilet paper you use.

We don't have our room cleaned every day,
so they leave us a package of toilet paper
to make sure we don't run out.
It's pink,

Actually, it's pink for a reason.
Pink coloured toilet paper breaks down much faster
than regular paper.
Putting it mildly, the sewage systems in Cambodia
are inadequate.
By the size of the roll,
it's obvious you're not supposed to use much.
There is a big ridge on one side
where the end of the roll is glued together.

And this is the way you get it apart.
Gee it's fun living here!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

All Roads Lead To Rome.....

...and all roads lead to Honour Village....eventually.

December to March is 'high season' in Cambodia, a time when Siem Reap sees the highest number of tourists. During this period, tuk-tuk drivers who hustle can make a lot of money taking tourists sight-seeing and to the temples. Most guesthouses have tuk-tuk drivers that work exclusively for them, and when new guests arrive, these drivers have a pretty good chance of getting their business. 

Golden Takeo Guesthouse has three tuk-tuk drivers - Hom, Nark (pronounced Nah!), and On. These guys are pretty fortunate because, even during low season when fares are few & far between, they get first crack at driving volunteers to Honour Village. The round trip costs $8 per day per tuk-tuk to go to HVC, which is a good day's wage for off-season. We know we're getting a great deal, because it's a discounted rate exclusively for volunteers, and when four people share the tuk-tuk, it ends up costing us only $2 each! What a bargain!

Hom, Nark and On know the way to Honour Village so well they could probably take us there blindfolded. The most direct route travels down the main road through the busiest part of the city, past large resorts and hotels. When traffic is busy, which is almost all the time during high season, motos whiz by, buses and large trucks often bear down on us, and cars zoom past like they were practicing for NASCAR. Even though the road is well-paved and quite wide, this route will often take longer because the heavy traffic snarls at intersections as vehicles jockey for position. (In all of Siem Reap, I think there are only about eight or ten sets of traffic lights, so intersections tend to be a free-for-all).

Very often, our driver will take one of several alternate routes through the city to avoid the crush on the main road, winding down back lanes and through scenic countryside. Especially during high season, it often ends up taking less time, and the bonus is we're away from heavy traffic and get to enjoy a different, more pastoral view.

During high season, there are days when all three regular tuk-tuk drivers are booked with tourists, so the guesthouse owner ends up having to call in his 'reserves'. Occasionally, we end up with a driver who doesn't know where Honour Village is located, and to add to the confusion, sometimes he doesn't speak much English. When that happens, the guesthouse owner will give directions in Khmer, and with my limited ability with the language, we always end up just where we need to be.

The morning of New Years Eve, all our regular tuk-tuk drivers were busy with tourists. The substitute driver didn't appear to be very confident in where he was supposed to deliver us, and his English was sketchy at best. We hopped in, trusting that the guesthouse owner had given him fairly detailed directions. When he headed down one of the 'usual' back roads, we were relieved he'd decided to avoid the main route on such a busy day! As we passed familiar landmarks, a sense of comfort settled in and we felt confident that he knew where he was going after all..... that is, up until he turned onto a narrow dirt road that we'd never been on before. 

At first the road was fairly smooth, with a few bumps and jostles that were tolerable. As we got further and further into the countryside, the road turned into a series of deep longitudinal ruts, baked into permanence by the blazing Cambodian sun. Although the driver drove very s-l-o-w-l-y, and tried his best to drive around the deep dips, the tuk-tuk rocked from side to side and listed so badly we feared the whole carriage would tip over. To avoid disaster, we decided to get out and walk over the rough spots, and get back in when it leveled out. 

The driver suggested we turn back, but we were already so far down the road, we figured it HAD to come out to a junction soon, and we urged him to forge ahead. Besides, the thought of riding over those horrible ruts again was unbearable.

You can see the deep ruts in the road.
The main road had disappeared in the distance long ago.

When the ruts got really deep, we got out and walked,
for fear of tipping over completely.
We encountered a few places
 where part of the road was washed out on one side...

Another washout on the opposite side of the road.
The ruts and wash-outs that had formed during rainy season
had not been graded out, and it just seemed to get worse and worse.
We kept hoping we'd come out at some junction that we recognized.

Several times we'd get out and walk, for fear the
tuk-tuk would tip over.
Here Gordon is just getting back in.
We both wear motorcycle helmets in the tuk-tuk,
after a 'close call' a couple of years ago,
Susan also had a serious tuk-tuk accident.
If she'd been wearing a helmet,
her injuries would have been far less serious.
We know we look like dorks, buy we're safer.

Sean and Sylvia, two volunteers from the UK,
were sharing the tuk-tuk with us.
The expression on Sean's face says it all.

It felt like we were lost in the middle of nowhere,
and we just kept trying to think positively, telling ourselves
'It can't be too much farther!'

The tuk-tuk driver admitted he'd taken the wrong road.
He had no idea where we were.
We began to pass signs of civilization, and figured
it couldn't be too far now.

Power lines.
A good sign that it would join up with a main road.

...and still the rutted road stretched out
far ahead of us with no intersecting highway in sight.
We'd occasionally see a moto or a kid on a bike,
and suggested the tuk-tuk driver stop them
and ask directions, It never happened.
A billboard far off on the right got our hopes up.

Now we were passing more signs of civilization.
A barb-wire fence to keep animals in and intruders out.

An open sewer canal.
Good sign of 'modern amenities'!

The number of homes was increasing...
The road was still really rutted, so we kept getting out,
walking until it looked relatively level before getting back in.

Sean and Sylvia kept cracking jokes,
and had us all in hysterics.

All along that long narrow dirt road, we kept looking for familiar landmarks, thinking we'd have to eventually come out somewhere we recognized.  We couldn't be lost! (Could we?) We kept reassuring each other we must be heading in the right direction. 

Then far off in the distance, we saw a big white house that looked very similar to one on our 'regular route'. Now we were pretty sure we were on the right track. At last, our rutted cow path intersected with a paved road. Using the white house as a marker, we told the driver to turn left, and suddenly familiar landmarks emerged.

When we arrived at Honour Village almost an hour late, our driver apologized profusely. We all said 'No, No! No problem!' (In Khmer, "Ot bpunya haa"!) After all, we'd gone on a wild adventure, and experienced a new part of the countryside we'd never seen before, all at no extra cost. One thing was sure though... we knew what road NOT to take on the ride back home.