Turning “50”: A birthday dinner … and farewell and thank you.

This month, I celebrated my 50th birthday. My friends in Phenom Penh and I went to a wonderful seafood restaurant and feasted on fried garlic crab, steamed fish, and stir fried clams … all in all, a delicious meal and a great way to celebrate a milestone birthday.

I felt that this was a good way to end such a fantastic trip. I have had the most gracious hosts these past months and I want to thank everyone one of them that might be reading this post for their immense hospitality. Thank you.

And to my new friends here in Cambodia who helped make this journey successful, thank you as well. You support and guidance were most important for the success of the trip.

To my family and friends back home, thank you for keeping in touch. Your emails and comments were greatly welcome when sometimes I felt so very, very far away.

Now, I turn my sights on life’s journeys ahead. I will continue to explore and will someday start a new travel blog on a new adventure. Many ideas have come to mind already …

But, for now, this is the final post. If you have been following this blog, thank you for allowing me to share my journey with you. I hope you enjoyed it.

50th birthday dinner at the Tai Tai Chinese seafood restaurant, Monivong Blvd, Phenom Penh

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A sunrise at Banteay Chhmar temple

I took these photos on my third day visiting the temples. I was leaving that afternoon, so that morning I made sure to get up early. I wanted to take my last “sunrise” photos today before departing.

That morning was my second sunrise in the park.

I entered the park by the back gate, which was close to where I was staying. Again, in the park, there were no visitors. The only people were the park guards at their ranger stations. Most were still cooking and getting ready for the day. I had met the main guard last night. He had invited me to the ranger station for us to sit in hammocks and chat. He talked to me about the park, his life, his job, about the temples, and the future of the park. This morning he was headed down the path to the river for an morning dip. We each waved hello.

I could see the sun coming through the trees but it was still very low, not yet above the treeline. I took a few photos from one vantage point I had grown to like. Then, I meandered around the area, up one temple wall and then down to another structure, stopping here and there to take photos sometimes, but mostly just looked again at the carved reliefs and thought about the detailed stories they intended to tell. In the morning sun, the rays hit the carvings at such an angle that the reliefs still stand out with great detail, although the carvings are several hundred years old.

At one point, I rode over to one corner and parked my bike. I had spotted my favorite spot to sit. I sat down and put aside the camera. I decided not to worry about photos. I sat and watched the sun rise over the temples and the trees.

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The road to Banteay Chhmar temple

The Banteay Chmmar temple complex is in a remote area of northwest Cambodia, close to the border of Thailand. The nearset border crossing would be the town of Poipet. The closest town is Sisophon. The neighboring village and temple complex itself seem almost as one, but my guide told me that the local villagers think nothing of the temples at their front doorstep, only about survival from day to day in this province so off the beaten track. Some things have not changed much in over a thousand years. Water is still pulled daily from a temple lake to supply local water, as was the case in the Angkor period.

Visitors right now are few to Banteay Chhmar temple, due to the poor road from Sisophon, a “road” that is nothing more than dirt at the time of this writing. For those pedaling on two wheels, this is either a “fun challenging ride for the cyclist seeking adventure” or “one really long day of hell that you will never forget”. Perception is everything. Be sure to wear a dust mask while you ride, or like me you will spend the next two weeks waiting for the accumulated muck in your lungs to finally work its way out.

At the time of writing, about thirty visitors a day come to Banteay Chhmar, and arrive via either day tours from Siem Reap or arrive from Thailand, on their way to Siem Reap. And then, there are the “cyclists”, many of whom think, for whatever reason, that this ride is ‘fun’. One of my guides told me that the cycling groups are the largest groups who come visit, and they usually fill all the beds of the local home stays in the village, a total of about 14 rooms when I visited.

The road up to Banteay Chhmar is not much of a cyclist’s friend in the midday sun. At times I wondered why the people who stripped this area of seemingly every last tree could not have left at least one under which to get shade. But, for most of the road the trees that I imagined would line this remote region were gone. Only empty land. How does an entire area so large get deforested so thoroughly? The vast majority of the tall hardwoods that previously graced this stretch of road are now gone.

Even the stumps are now hauled off to furniture makers, such as the one I visited in Sisophon, who makes chairs, tables, desks, and more … all creatively tooled out of the last remnants of the great trees … stumps. Today, I did not even see stumps.

There are no accommodations other than the “Community Based Tourism” guesthouse network, from whom it is easy to arrange a guesthouse and food for staying in the village. The village has no running water or electricity, but my 3G wireless network card worked wonderfully for high speed internet access on my laptop powered by a battery. I spent the first night before bed reading world news … a world so far away.

A new road is coming soon, one reason for all the dirt. When that road IS completed, Banteay Chhmar shall no longer be remote, one won’t be able to ride through the temple complex to breakfast at dawn, tour buses with thousands of camera laden visitors will descend upon the temples, tuk-tuks will roam everywhere, and hawkers of t-shirts and other essentials of life will not be in short supply. In fact, the plans are to make Banteay Chhmar “the next Angkor Wat”. Many of the villagers told me of the items they wish to sell these future visitors.

However, for now, there are no tuk-tuks at Banteay Chhmar.

Now is the time to visit Banteay Chhmar. Now, one can still enjoy a candlelight dinner on the grounds of the temple under a full moon. Now, one can catch a moon rising in the evenings and ride a bicycle amongst the temples and awe in the wonder at the marvelous engravings ,,, and do so in the privacy of silence and solitude.

One of my nights I visited, I watched a nearly full moon rise over one of the temples. Everywhere was silence. The temple grounds were empty. I had to sit down and enjoy. A moonrise over ancient Angkor ruins. In total privacy. How many times would I get to do this? I sat down and watched the moon rise over the trees that cover the ruins.

As I neared the village on the road from Sisophon, the dirt road narrowed considerably and the traffic increased due to the trucks going south with loaded with bags of newly harvested cassava headed for Thailand. At the end, I was cycling the final “winning kilometers” in cloud after cloud of dust stirred up from these monster trucks, from whence I could only glance up at times to make my way up the road. Grime stung my skin and my eyes, and every part of my body was simply covered in yuck. I simply gave up and accepted that filth was my friend that day.

Finally ,,, I arrived at the entrance to the village. And there in front of me were the walls of the Banteay Chhmar temple.

I looked. I smiled. Yes. It was all worth it.

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Dancing across Cambodia …

The sun is setting. And all across Cambodia, at innumerable parks and riverside promenades, people are dancing …

Exercise and fitness are an important part of the new Cambodia’s mindset. “Exercise and you will be healthy and live a long life,” is the mantra I have been told over and again.

And the Cambodians do not only dance. They walk. They run. They play soccer and badminton, as well as other games. There is always music in the park. It is fun. It is festive.

Sunrises also find people exercising. My first morning in Phenom Penh found me dancing at Olympic Stadium, joining a group of dancers welcoming in the new morning.

Personally, I was welcoming in my first dawn in Cambodia.

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Pailin: Phnom Yat

Any visitor to Pailin should include Phnom Yat. There is much here to see.

This is also a perfect place to catch a sunset.

After climbing the many stairs that lead up to the pagoda and other structures at the top, you will have a view of the surrounding countryside.

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Frogs … and more frogs

If “frog” is one of your favorite dining delights, Cambodia will not disappoint you.

“Frog On A Stick”: Sold by street vendors. Always served with a slice of lime!

Pan fried spicy frog dish from the Asean restaurant, Battambang city. Asean restaurant offers fried battered frogs, grilled frogs, or this delicious dish of frogs pan fried in a saute of vegetables and peppers. Served with steamed rice.

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Motorbikes, motorbikes, motorbikes…

Motorbikes are the number one mode of transport across Cambodia.

Not uncommon to see three persons (or more) aboard a single motorbike.

Also not uncommon are the unimaginable huge loads that are carried on these two wheeled vehicles.

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Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles…

‘Bicycle Parking’

Hundreds and hundreds of bicycles.

Best to avoid the “rush hour” when they all come pouring out of the school at once.

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Arrived Pailin: Frontier region on the border of Thailand

Clouds hung over the sky today. It had been raining most of the night. Ahead of me was the northeastern edge of the Cardamon mountains. Up and through those mountains was the city of Pailin, a frontier city on the edge of Thailand, described by many as an “adventure traveler’s destination”.

And today, an adventure it was.

I left Battambang and headed up into the mountains and into the clouds toward Pailin. I cycled up and up through a desolate landscape with an unnerving emptiness, through a part of the world that is truly isolated and remote by anyone’s definition. For several long stretches, I would not see another human being for a long time. An uncomfortable and eerie stillness seemed to hang over the mountains.

The road is lined with an undesirable number of minefields (both cleared and those not yet cleared) as well as areas with UXO (“Unexploded Ordinance”). One does not wander off the road in these parts.

Finally, after ascent after ascent, I came to where the mountain road thankfully went straight down for several kilometers. After having had my legs “give out” at one point, the sight of that descent was more than welcome.

Six hours of hard cycling (and a bit of worry about being in so empty a place alone!), I reached Pailin … a frontier city that was still under Khmer Rouge control until even very recent times. Those former “Khmer Rouge” are still here. But now they are “Cambodian” government officials who run this province.

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Battambang: “Flat for Rent”

I saw this posted at one of the cafes in Battambang today:

Flat for Rent
Centre of town.
Located on Street 2.5, near Indian Restaurant.
First Floor, with small balcony.
Kitchen, bedroom, and main living room.
Semi-Furnished, comes with TV, fridge, table, desk, wardrobe, and chairs.
Cambodian style bathroom.
Very secure.
Bicycle, motorbike parking available.
TV and internet connection.
There is no air conditioning.
Electricity and water bills go directly to tenant.
Rent: $70 a month.

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