Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Cambodian Christmas by Saigon Charlie

December 18, 2003 – Thursday - Traveling to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat for Christmas

by Saigon Charlie

As I crossed the border into Cambodia at Poi Pet, one could not help but marvel at the amazing variations of vehicles and cargos being pulled, pushed or driven from Cambodia into Thailand. If one has ever seen the earlier movies of Mel Gibson (such as "Mad Max" and “Thunderdome”), one might be able to envision the sites one saw unfolding around them as they attempted to pass through Thai immigration into Cambodia.

Mad Max had nothing on the reality of the vehicles on the roads of Cambodia.

On this particular morning, after waking early from my hotel in Aranyaprathet on the Thai side of the border, I managed to enter the immigration line at 07:30, only completing the exodus at 08:30 after being in line an hour; 15 minutes of which was spent with a female Thai immigration official giving me the third degree interrogation concerning my passport and my entry and exits from Thailand.

I found this whole incident absurd, as unlike many others, I always exit the country legally on or before the 90 day visa stamp limit and have never “sent” my passport across the border which has been the custom for so many years by so many expats living in Thailand.

Anyway, the good thing about this entire episode was I had a chance to meet a Cambodian who was studying in Bangkok and was returning to Phnom Penh for the Christmas holiday. She struck up a conversation with me while in line and after spending some time after finally clearing the required immigration points for both countries, she hailed me as I was roaming about trying to find transportation to Siem Reap.

As it turned out, two of her classmates were also heading home as well, but instead of Phnom Penh, they were going in the same direction as me, Siem Reap (it translates into “Siamese Defeated”). This turned out to be extremely fortunate for me and after the required price haggling for a seat in the shared Toyota Camry, (we settled on a price of 300 baht each) I started to make my way out of the chaos of this filthy border town.

We immediately started up a conversation and their knowledge of the world, its geography, politics and history astounded me. Their English was also superb and what would normally have been a boring and rough 4-5 hour trip across this part of northern Cambodia, turned into one of the more enjoyable trips of the recent past.
It wasn’t long out of Poi Pet where we were stopped by “officials”, who I determined to be some form of customs. As you can see from the photo, even though one was wearing a "uniform", my suspicion as to their true mission was highly suspect.

Looks pretty "official" to me!

After going through several of the bags, they allowed us to continue our journey east across the rice patties and dirt roads of the region. (You can always tell the guys who are on the "take" or somehow think they are "bad dudes" in this part of the world as they always wear dark sunglasses....too many American movies!)


The trip east was once again fairly uneventful. I had done this trip back in May of 2003 and knew pretty much what to expect…..and it had not changed much other than a couple of bridges that were unusable in May were now at least “crossable” ...(and that word takes on another meaning here.)

As we headed for Siem Reap, which is actually the province and name of the main town that serves the temple complex of Angkor Wat, I marvel at the serenity of the country side, the pace of life here, the cleanliness of the small villages we passed along the way, the mats of rice being dried alongside the trail we traveled AND the choking dust of the journey.

When I say “dust”, it is not like the dust one normally thinks of. It is a dust that permeates even into the air conditioned Toyota and after only an hour, even with the windows closed, you have a coating on your skin and clothes that transforms itself into a substance like baked mud when water is applied. Even trying to clean your face, arms and hands from this substance with running water takes both quite a bit of water and effort.

The "road" to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

As we are in a private car and not a bus (commercial bus stops are frequent and planned so that the company and driver get a commission), we stop very infrequently. As I was getting a bit hungry during the 5 hours, I pulled out a jar of super crunchy Skippy peanut butter that I always carry with me on trips as well as a small loaf of sandwich bread.

As I prepared my feast, I offered the same to each of the boys that are with me in the backset of the Toyota Camry "taxi". Each accepts readily and taking very little from the jar, spread it on each of their slices. They actually seemed to really enjoy it and this surprised me somewhat but was totally understandable later as I learned that one of them had worked in a factory making peanut butter while studying in school and that the Seven Day Adventist mission that was funding their studies in Thailand also used peanut butter as a daily supplement to their meals.

As we get closer to Siem Reap, one of the young men I am riding with invites me to his home. I considered this a real honor which I immediately accepted.

As we drew closer to town and passed the airport, we veered off the main road (it has turned to pavement now) and once again were back on a dirt road which in reality is nothing more than a dike between rice paddies.

After a bit of confusion as to where his house was (this surprised me a bit), we finally pulled down a small path and stopped in front of a simple house surrounded by his family, from the oldest to the youngest.

I was introduced to his father as well as the rest of the family. Once again, as is so typical when I travel, one of the first questions I am asked is if I am married. In Thailand I understand the reason for this question but here, I am not quite sure what the motivation is.

I was than invited to visit some of the other homes in the "estate" or "compound" or "mission". Not sure what you would call it actually but it was a place just outside of Siem Reap where on 20 hectares of land the Seven Day Adventist Church had established a mission and an orphanage.

The entrance to the mission.

The orphanage is called the “Wat Preah Yesu Children’s Home” and is run by an Australian couple, Tim and Wendy Maddocks. They invited me to share lunch with them, their two sons and their family that was visiting with them from Australia on what was now my 1st day back at Angkor Wat.

I had a very long conversation with Tim before the meal and we talked at length about the issues there at the orphanage; the growing of crops, raising of various types of animals and fish and about the state of the children at the school, many of which were dying from HIV/AIDs.

Apparently, only the previous week, one of the more popular children had died and this had been hard on everyone, especially so close to Christmas. I was also able to meet a couple of the younger boys who had cataracts on their eyes but who had been able to have surgery done recently which had helped restore a bit of their vision.

It seemed both Tim and Wendy had their hands full, in addition to raising their own children under such conditions. They did however seem to be doing it with vitality and dedication that would be difficult anywhere to match. If you would like to help these wonderful people and their cause out, their email is 012804017@mobitel.com.kh or you might be able to reach them by phoning them at 012-804-017 or (855) 12-804-017 internationally.

It was also at this stop where I am first introduced to a Khmer delicacy…..trays of large tarantula spiders! Hmmmmmmm ….don’t they look good!"

After finishing our lunch and a after a bit of probing questions from Wendy (marriage, children, why here, etc.) , I caught a ride into town with Tim on his Suzuki dirt bike (which is pretty much a requirement on these rough roads, either in the rainy or dry seasons).

After saying goodbye, I headed across the street and as I was pretty tired and in dire need of a shower to wash away the dust and dirt from the journey, I checked into the Chao Say Guest House which is located in the main part of Siem Reap and is owned by a local character named Dominique Raymackers. Although a bit pricey on a backpacker's budget compared to what you can get a little further out of town or a the Popular Guest House in town; for $8 USD a night, I got a very clean and pleasant room with fan and a bathroom with hot water...and a very pleasant welcoming smile from one of the young ladies!

After getting cleaned up, I headed out once again to find the “Paper Tiger” which is a very popular watering hole for many expats in town, one which I had frequented often back in May and early June.

Bruno L'Hoste and his very new baby girl!

As you can most probably tell from the proper name, "Le Tigre de papier”, has a heavy French influence and patronage. Bruno, the owner is French but speaks English fluently and although portending to be tired often, seems to love greeting his customers and exchanging gossip with them. Michael Bouzon is the evening manager (also a Frenchman) but converses in English as well.

Upstairs there is a large selection of used books (10,000), with a large selection in French (of course) but English as well. In the evenings, Bruno shows a movie on a large screen and the upstairs bookshop is transformed into a 20 person movie theatre! The movie is free but a minimum of one drink is required.

It was here during this first evening back that I once again ran into another fascinating couple, this time headed off to Vietnam to buy Vietnam War memorabilia which they sell on the Internet from their home in England.

The very charming and beautiful ladies from the "The Paper Tiger" cafe in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

December 19, 2003
Friday - Day 2 - Siem Reap

As I was on a tight budget and was traveling alone, the Chao Say was a bit more than I needed and after a good nights rest, headed out in the early morning to get a bite to eat and explore a bit more of this incredible town.

The day was cool, with overcast, gray skies (which was not what I had expected in the middle of the dry season.) and as I continued to explore, I stopped into a restaurant for my first breakfast.

Although this first return experience was not typical, I was unfortunate in having selected a place that advertised a "Full English Breakfast" for $1.50, which sounded pretty good I thought….

As it turned out, this translated into an egg, coffee with no milk, 2 pieces of very, very burnt “bacon” (I think), a few slices of bread with no butter or jam and some pretty pathetic looking and tasting French fries. (Fortunately, my breakfast experiences improved radically as this trip continued….)

After "breakfast", I continued to walk about town and as I had only baht, I decided to change that to Cambodian Riel. Although everything is in US dollar (and I do mean everything), having “small money” in Riel makes things a bit easier. There is an exchange near the main market down from the Chao Say Guest House where I haggled with the girl on the exchange rate, finally getting 190,000 Riel for a 2,000 baht. (I was later however able to get 100,000 Riel for 1,000 baht at an exchange at the Central/New Market.)

As I walked across the river, I started exploring some of the back paths away form the "tourist market" area. I soon discovered a place that is located behind the Crocodile Farm and the next bridge on the road headed south out of town. It was called the "Fresh Air Guest House” and for $2 USD a night, you can get a clean, fairly large room (with no bathroom) or if you really want to splurge, $3 will buy you a room and a bathroom. I didn’t actually count the total number of rooms, but on the ground floor there appeared to be 10 or 12 rooms.

This was obviously the epitome of a backpacker’s hotel with drinks from the cooler taken on an honor system and paid for when you checked out. There is also an area near the front entrance with a TV, some tables, chairs, hammocks and forgotten books and magazines where people gather after their long journeys here.

Not sure how exactly you can make money on hotel rooms at $2-3 a night but I suspect the “peripherals” are how this is accomplished as both bus and boat journeys are heavily displayed here. I suspected and later verified that the $8 bus tickets to Phnom Penh can actually be had for $4 if you go and buy the ticket yourself from the bus company, with the same ticket showing a $20 price! (so it appears there is a lot of flexibility as to how much a hotel, guest house or travel agency can make from the unsuspecting tourist). Not sure about the kickback on the $25 ticket for the 5 hour boat trip to Phnom Penh but I suspect it is at least half as well. (I later confirmed at the docks in Siem Reap that it was in fact $12 for a Cambodian...)

20 December – Saturday - 17:30 Day 4
(Saturday) 20 December 2003

Today's sunset was a huge fireball, perfectly aligned with the section of the river looking west as I crossed the bridge back into town from walking from the Fresh Air Guest House. Absolutely stunning!

It was really a nothing day with the main events consisting of picking up a $4 USD bus ticket from the bus company (G.S.T Express) to Phnom Penh and finding a the “real locals market” on a dusty side road just south of town. It is always fun being the only foreigner in such places; the smiles, the raised eyebrows, the sparkling eyes…..

I was told by Bruno (owner of the Paper Tiger) that the best bus company in town was a very low key operation just west of the Central Market on Achamean Street where I was able to pick out and reserve my seat south with a 07:15 departure time..

(Note: Achamean Street has a huge Sokimax Gas and Service Station on the corner and is the same company which has the "concession" to sell tickets into the Angkor Wat Temple Complex).

On my way back from the bus company, I strolled around the Central Market and ended up buying a $2 USD t-shirt from a really vivacious young lady named Marina who owned one of the many newer stalls there. Her whole being was enchanting and bubbly and I found it impossible to not be her first customer of the day and give her “luck” for the remainder of that day. (Who knows if it was true or not, but it sure felt good!)

I also explored some of the stalls of the other vendors and found a nice little stall with lots of interesting used books, mostly in English. Once again there seemed to be a two-tier pricing system for the books as there was one price for Cambodians and another (higher price) for foreigners.

In walking back to the guest house to pick up some software for a friend, I came across a very loud and very large birthday party. Seems birthdays as well as weddings and funerals are all large productions here. I witnessed all three with the weddings being a very colorful production with brightly colored tents and guests and the funerals having large processions; some of which are filled with hired individuals to participate (such as entire classes of school children).

I also had a great lunch today for $1.50 consisting of a large bowl of chicken curry (Khmer Curry) and a plate of rice. Just thinking about the curry makes my mouth water and this was only the first of several times that I ate at this market restaurant downtown.

It was also interesting to note the young boys who hung out around these restaurants with their small plastic bags. Although not begging or bothering you as you ate, they would, once you were finished come to the table and take the remaining food/rice, pour it into their bags and scurry off.

There wasn’t that many actually, never numbering more than three that I saw. They did not bother me or anyone else and there seemed to have been established some form of “protocol” as to the practice. I intentionally left some rice and curry on my plate for them to have although I felt like buying the entire lot lunch….

21 December 2003 - Day 4 (already!) Sunday

Got up at 05:30 to shower and pack for the bus trip south to Phnom Penh. Although I found the weather crisp and extremely pleasant, many at the time, including the foreigners found it cold and some at the guest house were loudly complaining that they needed more blankets. Funny to see the Cambodians moving around, bundled up in large jackets, long sleeve shirts and heavy socks on their feet, stuck into their flip flops.

I also took another long walk this morning on the way to the bus company, walking from the Fresh Air Guest House with my backpack in only 25 minutes.

Daniel Jump having a snack as we cross the river by ferry on the way to Phnom Penh.

As I board the bus and find my seat, I see another couple and a small boy board the bus as well. She is obviously Cambodian and he looks American. Even as I am thinking this, he comes back to my seat and starts up a long conversation which as the days go by during this adventure, turns into a warm friendship.

Dani as it turns out is a trained horticulturist who spent many years growing up in India with his missionary parents and who subsequently, (after getting degrees in agriculture and languages in the USA), went off to work in the US Peace Corp, living in countries from Paraguay to West Africa to Cambodia! Presently he has taken up a position as “beekeeper” with a NGO in Siem Reap where he will be both establishing hives and teaching the art of beekeeping to his Cambodian colleagues. More about him and his family later….

Note: Dani also introduced me to David Cowled who owns and runs with his wife "The Balcony", which is a very nice coffee lounge and art gallery ( www.timbrez.com ) located around the corner from the Paper Tiger.

What made this conversation so interesting was that Dave was also very interested in light aviation and had purchased an ultra-light which he now had at his home.

Dani had found out on our long, 8 hour bus trip south to Phnom Penh that I had once been a flight instructor and still had a keen interest in civil aviation in Southeast Asia and thought Dave and I might be able to share some ideas. He was absolutely correct as we discussed for well over an hour what was going on with civil aviation and flying in Cambodia and discussed the future possibility of setting up a flying club there. More to come on this later!

At 07:25 we left the bus company 10 minutes later than the advertised departure time of 7:15 AM. Although the company apparently won’t leave without you if you have already purchased a ticket, I found out as the trip progressed they will leave (without you!) if you are not onboard after one of the many “rest/food stops”.

As we head east and than south to Phnom Penh, after only 20 minutes the road turns into hell, and this is the way it mostly remains for the next few hours. What is funny about this is that when you ask “locals” about the road, they tell you it is “great” (Tilt!). After trying to understand this, I finally determined that it is “great” compared to what it was only a year ago. The “road” however does not really fall into that definition of the word and at best can be described as asphalt between huge and numerous potholes with “bridges” no more than loose, wooden planks more or less overtop some type of metal, wood or old stone structure.

At 08:15, we have our first stop for Breakfast where I witnessed some form of large “military convoy” whiz by in their numerous Land Rovers and other 4 wheel vehicles. Some of the vehicles appeared to contain people of some importance and other than the crash-helmeted soldiers wearing body armor, there however appeared to be no weapons of any sort (which I thought rather odd.)

After leaving this first rest stop at 08:45, we continued on to Phnom Penh hitting the upper regions of Lake Tonle Sap at 10:45. Only 15 minutes later we crossed a large river and bridge and entered the town of Kompon Thom where we took our second break (from 11:00-11:40). I wandered about the market with Dani and snapped a few photos. We boarded the bus and headed south again 40 minutes after our stop.

The road from this point on is horrible as well and shakes your insides out. (Fortunately no one used the bus company provided "barf bags"!) We stopped at another area where I was a bit hungry after all this bouncing around and decided to have another simple lunch of rice and vegetables but soon discovered the outrageous sum of 3,000 Riel which is more than twice what it should have been. Oh well, should have asked before I ate it. We left this place at 14:10.

We eventually arrived in Phnom Penh later that afternoon (15:30 at the taxi stand) but as I soon discovered, we are not actually dropped off in town but before the large “Japanese” bridge that spans the point of land where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet (the Chroy Chang Va/War area) .

It seems the rationale for this is that a new road tax has been instituted on buses entering and leaving the city via this route and to avoid paying this fee, the bus companies simply drop their passengers off at the Chroy Chang Va/War Taxi Station on the peninsula between the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. If I had not been with Dani (who was explaining this to me), I would have been very, very confused by these events as there were no signs or explanations as to what was going on.

Dani had stayed in Phnom Penh before at the Sunday Guest House and after calling them earlier in the day, called them again whereupon they sent a car and driver to pick us up. (Seems they pickup and drop off their guests at the various bus stations.) I was booked into the $3 a night room with fan, Dani and his wife and son got a large room with TV and bathroom for $5 a night.

As it turned out, this place was actually quite nice with huge common balconies overlooking the city. The family that run this place were really quite nice with the young girl who worked as the manager taking English lessons during the evenings. I noticed this as a van pulled up one evening to pick her up and she later told me about the school and her lessons.

I also got some of my clothes washed here for a dollar a kilo and rented a bicycle for $1 a day. A young Japanese guy who is living at the guest house put a small website up for them and it can be found at www.geocities.com/sundayguesthouse .

The Sunday Guest House is easy to find on Street 141 just off Street 214 (also known as "Yugoslavia or Tito Boulevard-I call it "Embassy Row"), just past the German Embassy and the Cuban Consulate. Seems to be a popular place to stay for a wide range of nationalities and budget travelers.

22 December 2003 – Monday – Phnom Penh

A good part of this day was spent helping my new friend from Siem Reap, Dani, find and buy a digital camera. We visited the huge Canon Shop as well as Olympus and Nikon shops. Although my experiences and prejudices were more inclined towards the Olympus line, we eventually ended up with a 3 mega pixel Nikon that started off at $410 USD but after two more trips back to the store for comparison shopping, we got the owner down to $375. Bargain hard on these items and you will get a pretty reasonable discount.

I also spent part of the day with a young English chap who asked me for directions in his effort to find a language school that he had flown in from Hong Kong to start work for. Once again, a very, very interesting young man who had spent most of his life in Hong Kong or England studying. His father was a captain for Cathay Pacific and he was here to teach English while his knee recovered from an accident before he moved onto an appointment at Sandhurst.

23 December 2003 – Tuesday – Phnom Penh

With a stiff breeze blowing from the northeast and a sky filled with high, puffy white clouds, I started a four hour walkabout the city that took me up near Boeng Kak Lake, passing both the Cambodian Army Headquarters and the Ministry of Defense while walking down the conf. de la Russie Blvd., than down pass the railway station and Wat Phnom, and eventually around and into the main Post Office where I posted a letter to Germany for 2,200 Riel. This street eventually ends on the riverfront at the area where the high-speed ferries to Siem Reap are docked and boarded.

As I walked along the riverfront opposite the many 4 storied shop houses, hotels and restaurants that lined Sisowath Quay (the river boulevard), I noticed no less than 5 “For Rent” signs on 2nd, 3rd and 4th floor balconies of flats facing the Tonle Sap River.

There are no lack of places for rent but expect to pay at least $250 per month and up for anything within a few blocks of the river. I went to several "apartments" to investigate what my money would buy and at the "low end" you will get a floor in a shop house with a very odd floor plan. If you are willing to spend $650 and up, you will be able to find a more "western" setup. No matter how you look at it, prices are increasing rapidly in what will soon become a very cosmopolitan capital. (I kid you not!)

If you look towards the junction of the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong, you will see a huge “freighter’ that seems very out of place so far up the Mekong from the South China Sea. In actuality, what you are seeing is a huge casino named the “Nago Casino” that can only be reached under very tight security through the Cambodiana Hotel.

Also across the Tonle Sap River and on the peninsula that is formed by it and the Mekong River, you will notice a huge monstrosity of a building "under construction".

In actuality the construction has stopped on what was suppose to be an exhibition center. It seems that the Cambodian minister whose pet project this was when he was in power was ousted so consequently the construction stopped. (I noticed the same thing in Siem Reap.)

As I wrote these notes in my journal, I reflected on the fact that in 2 days it would be Christmas and unless you absolutely knew that, there was nothing in sight or sound to remind you that today was nearly Christmas.

My journal notes...

Sitting here on the short wall at the confluence of two large rivers, the Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekong, with my back against a flag pole and my journal and pen positioned on my lap, there seems to be an inner peace that even the people passing by respect. In reality, it is a beautiful site and as I look out over the river, I can't help but feel at peace with both myself and the world....maybe this is my gift for Christmas!

24 December 2003 - Christmas Eve
Heading to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

(more journal notes) - I awoke way too early and after a shave and a shower, I waited for the guest house to come alive (and open their doors). Nowhere is there an item mentioning the idea of Christmas. In a way, it is a bit mind-boggling when you think how important a concept it is to us in the "west", but here, absolutely meaningless. It is Christmas Eve and I would have no idea about it unless I was keeping this journal.

I do however remember this day last year in Instanbul....it was cold and wet and a light snow was falling. I remember thinking that this was not what I expected and although I love that city and Turkey, being alone and cold on Christmas was not what I had in mind.

It was also the day after Christmas a year ago, that I walked into the airport in Istanbul, bought a ticket to Bangkok and was in a few hours later winging my way east to Thailand, spending New Years in a far more “receptive” environment, Nana Entertainment Plaza in Bangkok!

I wonder what Christmas and New Years 2004 holds for me and the world ??!!

At 06:55 we pull out of the bus station which is 100 meters from the building which serves as the Central Market and true to the word "central" is actually the epicenter of many roads and directions. (The BTS Express is right behind the Shell gas station.)

Once again we must avoid the "police bridge trolls" and head out of the city along the banks of the Tonle Sap River north to Siem Reap, this time however taking a different route out of the city than the one we entered by car from the guest house.

At 07:35, we arrive at the Prek Kdam (means crab in Khmer) Ferry Crossing, which has obviously been used for many years as there are hulks of old ferries and tugs strewn along the shore near the crossing.

We have to wait a bit which gives me a chance to grab a bit of tea. It is here that I discover that the tea I have been paying for in other places along the way is actually free to those who know. There always seems to be kettles of tea setting around these places when you arrive, all at least warm and sometimes even hot.

After a bit of a wait, we manage the crossing and head north. Two hours later at 09:25, we reached the town of Skun. (after a 09:00 "breakfast/tarantula" stop in between). At 11:00 we arrived at the town of Tang Krasang which also has a large river and bridge. (Dani indicated to me that he had spent a year here previously working as a Horticulturist Advisor for ADRA in Tang Krasang).

At 11:30 we stopped for lunch once again at Kampong Thom, leaving at 12:10. At 12:50 we passed through Stong and at 3 P.M., we finally arrived on the outskirts of Siem Reap/Angkor Wat, 8 hours after we left Phnom Penh.

I headed back to the Fresh Air Guest House and after once again washing the dust from my body, changed into some clean clothes and headed out to find something enjoyable on what is now Christmas Eve.

Fortunately, I once again discovered the Dead Fish. This is a place I had hung out before in my trip to Angkor Wat in May. Seems the same blind piano player is still there, but on this particular evening, he was signing and playing Christmas tunes! This definitely filled my spirit again and turned out to be a very lovely evening.

25 December 2003 - Siem Reap/Angkor Wat , Cambodia

Without a doubt, Christmas Day at Angkor Wat was the most amazing Christmas of my life and probably one of the more incredible days of my life. It did however begin "normally" enough with me leaving the Fresh Air Guest House early in the morning to have my glass of tea, some fresh bread and to exchange some smiles and words with Logn Sochinda who has a small roadside "cafe" between the guest house and the main road.

Logn Sochinda - A very lovely lady

Her mother and daughter worked there as well, and as always, we spent some time with each other with this Christmas Day morning going 45 minutes, with her teaching me Khmer and me teaching her more English. Over these morning sessions, I learned she was 33 and was no longer married although the reason for this was never explained or mentioned.

Her daughter was always stealing glances at me and when I "caught her", we always exchanged big smiles. Even when I would walk by during the day, her mother or her or both would smile at me and wave.

My breakfast here was always the same; some fresh bread purchased for 500 Riel and several glasses of tea which I always paid 500 Riel for. Not exactly a western breakfast but for some reason, it was always one of the highlights of my days.

I than saw Dani coming down the path to the guest house from his home. I called out to him and he came over to the "cafe" whereupon we headed back to his family for what was to be our Christmas breakfast.

I was impressed to find when we arrived two plates of pancakes with peanut butter, maple syrup and a plate of pineapple. I also managed to get another cup to tea but it wasn't long before I was stuffed on what were probably some of the best pancakes I had ever eaten!

The rest of the morning was spent upgrading his new computer with some software I had brought with me from Thailand and taking a look at his son and daughter's older PC.

At exactly 1 PM that afternoon, we set down for our Christmas Dinner and after a short blessing, dove into huge plates of rice, vegetable curry with duck eggs, a salad made of onions, cucumbers and tomatoes and baked pork and beans. Once again, I just couldn't stop eating but the best was yet to come with each of use getting a bowl of vanilla and chocolate chip ice cream that was rather soft but delicious nonetheless. It seems refrigeration is always a problem....

After all this food and friendship, I thanked my wonderful hosts and headed back to the guest house where I laid down until 5 PM. A bit later, I collected some things that I wanted to drop off at Dani's house before my return to Thailand the next day very early.

As I approached the porch, I noticed all seemed very quiet so I placed the items on the bench in front to the door and just as I was about to leave, Dani came to the door and started to introduce me to Jake, his new part-time beekeeper assistant.

I had listened to Dani tell me before about this young man and how wonderful he was. It seems that he was working several jobs, not only assisting Dani but leading tourist on adventure tours into the "wilds" of Cambodia as well as getting ready to start his own traveler's assistance business! (A very busy man...)

Over the next few hours we talked about many things, mostly relating to business in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. As Jake's English is extraordinary, it was easy to converse with this 26 year old man who has the intensity and knowledge of someone far older.

Jake relaxing after an evening with foreign guests.

A bit later we decided to hop on his motorbike and head for the airport as I wanted to see with my own eyes which airlines were actually flying in there.

After a side trip on the way back, with the setting sun quickly ending that part of a spectacular Christmas Day, we decided to have a meal at the Central (new) Market and a bit later, I invited Jake for a beer at the Ivy Guest House where we continued our discussions about the future of Siem Reap and Cambodia.

Still on a "high" from the day's events and people, I decided to head back to the Dead Fish and finish my Christmas with a glass of merlot and a bit of Christmas music from my favorite piano player. I was also able to check my e-mail for free on 1 of their 3 computers.

After a couple of wines there, I decided to head home to the guest house, but as luck would have it, I met an American couple who were from Boulder, Colorado who were teaching English in Japan.

As we walked down the street together we decided to share a beer at the Banana Leaf across the street from The Paper Tiger. Our conversation quickly intensified and before long we were discussing some rather spiritual and new age concepts that are expressed in books such as "Fingerprints of the Gods" and "Heaven's Mirror" by Graham Hancock and "Hamlets Mill" by the Professor of History of Science at M.I.T. named Giorgio de Santillana.

Kevin and Janel (Brockman) were an extraordinary couple to say the least. If I remember correctly, he had taken degrees from the University of Colorado in both Religion and Astronomy. Janel had studied there as well and her family shared many of the same "New Age" beliefs as Kevin and his family. At 30, their knowledge of events shaping our world left me breathless. I can only hope that one day they too will come and share the knowledge and mystery of what really is encapsulated in what we call "Angkor Wat".

Once again, it being midnight and "Christmas" drawing to a "spectacular" close with the lights around us starting to slowly go out at the various cafes and restaurants, and saying our goodbyes, we headed our separate ways.

As I started my walk home, I headed down towards the all to familiar bridge that leads to my "home" now. As I approached the intersection, in the deep darkness of the night and my thoughts, I heard a large crash which I immediately knew had to be an automobile accident of some type.

As I turned the corner, sure enough, a crowd was beginning to gather around what was obviously a head-on collision between a motorcycle and sedan. It seemed both vehicles had lost the encounter as the motorcycle's front fork had been crumpled and the car's right front bumper and light had been crushed.

It seemed no one had been hurt severely but what appeared to be the motorcycle driver was stumbling around either in shock or very drunk (or both).

As I continued walking, a crowd of well over a 100 had now gathered around the scene to watch the spectacle of who would be right and who would be wrong.....and have to pay!

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