Monday, January 15, 2007

Cambodia- New Year's 2006

Overall, a country that brings out a bag of mixed emotions- awe, inspiration, sadness, horror and tranquility.

Once again my tour guide extraordinare, Mykol, organized a fantastic trip and only had to rip a few people "new ones", after failing to fulfill their promises.

Met Mykol at our Chinese hotel in Phnom Penh after overzealously avoiding the taxi hawkers and looking like a frightened fieldmouse wildly driving a baggage cart to find the easily-located airport-sanctioned taxi company. So green, I know.

Myokol found a great hotel in Phnom Penh with satellite tv and cheap foot massages on the first floor. Hello, heaven. It was our comfortable and cheap base for the first and last parts of the 8-day trip.

Arriving in Siem Reap after 7 hours on a cramped bus ride desperately avoiding eye contact with a socially-inept foreign traveller who regaled his poor Cambodian seatmates with TMI life stories and photos and tried to get our attention by snapping his fingers in front of our faces, we were so looking forward to a hot shower. We booked the hotel in Phnom Penh at our reliable travel agency and thought all was taken care of. However, the hotel decided to double-book our pre-paid room. After being told we couldn't have our pre-paid room, but could go to a hotel 30 minutes away, Mykol brought out the angry face and away the manager went looking for the poor couple who thought they had a place to stay. The manager literally interrupted the couple during dinner and made them haul their suitcases out. Exemplary customer service.

We could only stay one night, so after dinner we traipsed down the main hotel drag looking for available rooms. Walking to hotels with snarling security dogs to greet us, Mykol half-joked that we were Jesus and Mary looking for a manger to lay our wearied heads. After walking into 15 different places at 10:30pm, we found a clean guest house and the manager, still pyjama-clad, made our reservation.

Like Vietnam, Mykol and I had a hard time not overbuying, as we went to outdoor markets, night markets and street-side stands selling so many different products. Bought some beautiful bamboo purses, multi-coloured silk bags, scarves, purses, wooden handicrafts, dried fruit, not to mention overseas toiletries at a great supermarket in Phnom Penh. Also handmade shoes everywhere- my dream.

There are so many places to see in Cambodia, from World Heritage sites to museums to French-colonial architecture to somber memorial sites. The highlights:

- Our dream had been to see the thousand-year old ruins of the Khmer Empire's region, Angkor. What I didn't realize was that this is a huge area with over 1,000 temples, not simply a few beautiful temples as I had naively thought. Favourite temples were definitely Angkor Wat (surrounded by a moat and featuring 5 massive towers), Thom (the last capital city of the Khmer empire) and Bayon (featuring massive smiling faces facing all directions). Our tuktuk driver also took us to some more remote wats (temples), with few people and more greenery. Amazing experience. Also enabled us to see small housing areas within the grounds where families live and create wooden and other handicrafts.

- National Museum: sandstone open air museum exhibiting ancient Khmer artifacts from around Cambodia, shared with a roof full of bats.

- Wat Phnom: a temple from the 1300's overlooking Phnom Penh, still used by locals to pray.

- Royal Palace: beautiful, ornate architecture covered in silver or gold and featuring a variety of stylized animals to decorate roof tops. Also has the famous Silver Pagoda, with over 5,000 solid silver tiles, although to be honest we didn't realize we saw it until after looking at our guidebook. A little underwhelming.

- Killing Fields: It was a sunny, blue-sky day when we visited, making for an eerie juxtaposition of beautiful landscape and a history of horror. The focal point is a glass mausoleum with 8,000 human skulls belonging to the tens of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims killed at this site. Surrounding the tower are many grassy pits, which were once the mass graves. We saw a few people break down after walking through the site.

- Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21): one of the most disturbing but necessary museums to visit in our lifetime. Here you will see torture rooms with the original metal bed frame where prisoners were leg-shackled and brutally tortured, poles in the middle of the compound where prisoners were strung up for days in the blistering sun, and cells about 5ft long by 1 1/2ft wide. I will never forget these images. The prison, a former high school, features thousands of photos of these prisoners, some literally with their heads propped up because of starvation, including men, and their wives and children. Upstairs there's a well-organized exhibition that gives a voice to some of these victims, explaining their life histories as told by family members and friends.

Cambodian cuisine comes from the country's centuries-old Khmer culture and includes fish, spicy curries and coriander and lemon grass-infused vegetables dishes. Very delicious and so cheap. People often compare it to Thai cuisine, only less spicy. Some highlights:
- amok: steamed catfish in a coconut curry
- fermented shrimp or fish paste used to flavour many dishes
- beef noodle soup, influenced by the Chinese
- traditional Khmer dessert: banana-leaf-wrapped sweet rice balls (something like Japanese mochi)
- sour fish soup
- all kinds of fruit- especially mangosteens, durian (!) and pineapple- made for every-morning shakes
- Spent New Year's Eve at the famous Dead Fish restaurant, eating Khmer curries and drinking smart cocktails (unfortunately this was followed by a street party full of drunk foreigners dancing to techno music, while the 50-something beer-bellied men hit on anything that moved)

Before I left a Kyoto, a friend warned me that poverty in Cambodia would be unlike anything I had seen. He was definitely right. At night, we saw mothers and their 6 month-old babies crawling on sidewalks looking through piles of garbage. Everywhere there were street hawkers and so many of them are children, working late at night. Their eyes betrayed their little bodies. Their smiles and banter to get you to buy their postcards or books were sweet, but the minute you bought something or gave them change, they quickly move on to their next buyer, ignoring you when you say goodbye. They were little old people, missing out on their youth.

However, there seem to be many organized charities operating in Cambodia to help these children and other misfortunate people. It was heartening to find a store in the Russian market in Phnom Penh combining social initiatives and commerce. Cambodian parents receive training and support to make goods, so they can support their families and help their children get an education and avoid becoming street hawkers. The products are artistic and cool- like bracelets made of rolled magazine pages or wallets made from cigarette boxes. There seems to more of a crackdown on child prostitution as well, with magazines and ticket backs featuring ads for the serious penalties involved.

What made the trip was meeting so many interesting Cambodians: our kind and patient sightseeing driver in Phnom Penh who got us access into a beautiful private temple; the guest house manager who took care of us each day and showed that courting is not that different in Cambodia (he proudly described his New Year's gift to his girlfriend); and our hardworking trilingual tuktuk driver Eang Visal, making money for school, while taking heat from his girlfriend for working long hours.

Cambodia is a breathtakingly beautiful country and one which still hasn't been overrun by development. For now. Although my trip was too short and there are many other places I want to visit upon my return, it's a place that has stayed with me, almost 5 months after I left it.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Home Sweet Home

To complete my 3-week vacation in the homeland, here are some more details:

After my brother's wedding, spent time with my aunt and uncle from Vancouver, and got to be a tourist again. Love that. It's funny how we never go to the hometown sightseeing spots unless we have visitors. But it was a beautiful and balmy week after the freak snowstorm before the wedding, so took advantage of the weather. Spent an afternoon in Niagara-on-the-Lake, an old British town settled over 200 years ago, famous for historic homes, the Shaw Festival, the Prince of Wales Hotel and many local wineries. It also has one of the prettiest liquor stores ever, just second to the LCBO in Elora, Ontario. Here's me happy to be near vodka. That's one of the many things I love about Ontario- we don't do cheap liquor stores. No crass red sale "only $5" signs. Just lots and lots of gleaming bottles of the good stuff on dusted shelves. From all over the world, too. After capturing some pics of the changing of the leaves, we took the long way home and drove through the countryside, stopping at a quaint apple farm. Yes, they still exist and this one's run by a friendly family who grows about 7 different kinds of apples. Macintosh is my fave.

After the celebrations, I was lucky enough to have almost 2 full weeks to see family and friends in and around Toronto. I squeezed in a trip to good ol white Niagara-on-the-lake, my stomping ground in-between uni years, when I needed to make tuition payments. Followed this with a trip to a very charming old mill town called Elora, to visit my good friend Chris, a former Film Festival colleague, and his partner Dave (their beautiful B&B, Tynavon). I even got my hair straightened (God is good and so are flat-irons) by Michael, the local fab stylist, and visited the Desert Rose for a delish egg salad lunch (with alfalfa sprouts).

After that, enjoyed the comforts of suburban Oakville, with their big houses, 2-block grocery stores and decorative Jack-o-lanterns. Ate steak (!) and blueberry pancakes with Anje, Chris and Alexandra, while talking about the upcoming arrival of Ciaran, (who arrived Feb. 23). Hung out with my cousin Michele, Arun and their two little girls, drinking beer and eating real thick-crust pizza. The next day Michele took me to the University of Guelph to visit our cousin Kate, who's continuing the lineage of family alumni. Also checked Dairy Queen off my list of places to visit. When will Japan get Blizzards?!

Then it was off to the "Big Smoke', as my father loves to call it, to test my liver. I started at my former coworker's place for homemade garlic soup and paella. Ana, Ines and Chummy hosted us- Jess, Mo, Kate and Brian. They joked they would never make it out for drinks as it would be after bedtime- i.e. after 8pm!

I headed to the burgeoning West Queen West area. Loved my time at Jess' and seeing more Film Fest colleagues and friends, drinking vodka and Red Bulls at the Beaconsfield and trying out the Beaver (good G&T's- thanksPSmith). I worked off my hangover the next day enjoying real pizza with Kate and catching up with old friends from Japan (Johnny A!). I enjoyed the artsy boutiques along Queen West before meeting Du-Yi and indulging in good Italian food. One thing about Asia- the portions are NOT that big. I spent the next few days catching up with old friends. Adam and Vladia showed me designs of their hot King St condo and I met Ashley for Thai in the Annex (her beautiful jewellery line- MsPeacock).

I ended the trip with a detour to Washington, D.C. to see dear friends from Osaka- the Princess, Arjewtino, Shiftless Badger and the Congressional Page.

It was a jam-packed 48 hours of delish tapas, pupusas (corn tortillas filled with chicken, cheese and beans), tamales, a Bruce Lee-chi martini, Smithsonian museums, a proper Halloween party in Adams Morgan (best costumes: Superman on Vaykay, KFed, a congressional page after the Rep. Foley-email "incident", and the Pope).

They luckily helped me overcome my horrific flight there on Air Canada Jazz (never again). After following the PRINTED directions on my ticket to Gate Z, I ended up on a tarmac the size of my driveway, next to the Olive Garden or some other frightening airport restaurant. Of course the friendly staff member whom I offended by asking her a question, raged at me that I was at the wrong gate and I had to put up with a shuttle bus driver who only communicated with one finger. Then I was seated next to a recent divorce who wanted to try out his smooth moves after 15 years of not using any. Good times. He even offered me a bite of his banana. Gross.

The Princess and Arjewtino generously drove me to the airport on Sunday, while navigating 70 roadblocks out of the city for the big marathon, to get me to the church on time. I was rewarded for my torture and got to fly ANA. Three seats to myself, plus decent food and a fantastic in-flight entertainment consul. Had planned to sleep but... so many movies, so little time.

Arriving back after a long vacation is always difficult, but after 3 long and fulfilling weeks of Canadia and catching up with family and friends, I was happy to return to my shoebox and ramen. Who knew the sights and smells of 10 million people could be so welcoming?!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wedding Bells

I recently went back to the homeland for my brother’s wedding. It was a fantastic event. The ceremony was heartfelt, personalized and clocked in at less than 25 minutes. My brother surprised us all with his show of emotions and my sister-in-law was that perfect mix of grace and strength to guide him through it.

My parents were the happiest and proudest I’ve seen them, with my dad shedding a few tears during the ceremony too. He also gave one of the best wedding speeches and my mom, albeit hesitant she would be able to add nothing more than a few choked sobs, got the last laugh of the speech.

Family and friends came from all over to share the day, including Slovakia, Dubai and Japan (my brother seemed almost surprised that I would fly home for his wedding- as if I’d miss it!). The venue was beautiful, dressed in fall colours, the food was excellent and the DJ didn’t suck and went with the ‘80’s vibe. I caught up with people I hadn’t seen in years and we got updated family portraits.

Not that it was all sunshine and happy times two days before. On Oct. 12th it snowed. Now I know everyone always thinks Canada is an icebox 12 months of the year, but we really have 4 seasons (not just in Japan, like some think) and winter usually starts in late November. So, we were just a tad surpreezed when the flakes started coming down. The wedding ceremony was planned in the outdoor courtyard and we knew the bride would be very disappointed if Plan B had to be enacted. However, luck shone down on us and after two days of snow, it stopped and melted before the ceremony. It was a chilly one, that’s for sure, but nothing that band aids couldn’t hide.

This very real and heartfelt affair was a far cry from the staged media show that was the Holmes-Cruise union recently. Tom even serenaded her with “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling”! Are you serious?!! But I digress. AND, I feel sorry for people who have sham weddings.

A few insights I’ve learned from weddings:

1. They are the perfect opportunity to make an ass of yourself.

Standing nervously in the wedding courtyard, mentally rehearsing the poem I was about to read in front of 140 family and friends, my brother suddenly puts on his “cop face” , grabs me by the shoulders and directs my back to the nearest wall.

L’il Bro: “I have 2 questions.
#1, Do you want a mike for your reading?
#2, What’s wrong with your dress? Is it supposed to be bunched in the back of your underwear?"

Me: “That would be a THONG, and umm… yes, it’s ahh…a.. Betsey Johnson and it’s all the rage in Tokyo.”

I know, it's such a clich├ęd embarassing moment that even advertisers use it to sell shaving cream/razors/bikini wax. Yet that didn’t make me feel ANY better. I quickly yelled for my mom and she dragged me into a broom closet to pull the offending underskirt down. All that was between me and half my hometown was a sheer layer of navy chiffon. Mortifying.

2. There is always a guest who wants to take control of the proceedings.

I admit it, I acted like a bit of a battle axe as the MC. Perhaps keeping the wedding party waiting for their introduction for 15 minutes, while I dagger-eyed a group of people who were busy taking photos and catching up and NOT listening to my instructions, was a bit much. Or getting on the wait staff for not bringing out the plates in precision order. I did see tables drooling over their neighbours’ shoulders at their prime rib.

The bride’s mother hilariously summed up my dogged determination to keep the evening under (my) control when she was asked about a planned game for the evening and said, “See that woman over there (with her almost bare ass showing)? She’s in charge of keeping things on track. And they WILL be. Trust me.”

In my defence, I was honoured to be asked and wanted to outdo Robbie Hart in THE WEDDING SINGER. Not that that would be hard. My bro and sister-in-law just didn’t realize when they asked me how much of a hard-ass I was really gonna be. But they were happy when my “skills” procured us a microphone from the wedding festivities upstairs (likely cutting some wannabe-Mariah's song short- oops, my bad), for an impromptu live performance.

3. Weddings are no longer "singles" events.

In the past, many an available wedding party member or guest looked forward to the event as a chance to find new action. Think FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL. Every wedding was a new chance to meet someone who didn't see you projectile vomiting the previous weekend at your local watering hole.

However, times have changed. Drastically. For example, at my brother's wedding I think I was the ONLY single. Almost the entire wedding party was married and expecting. All of my brother's friends from our high school? Yep, married with children. I think the only other single person was my teenaged cousin. Oh wait..., that's right, even my 16-year old cousin has a full dance card.

Maybe it's because people are getting married later in life and therefore by the time you walk down the aisle, your attendees are at least in a "committed relationship". It's something to keep in mind when preparing your guest list. If you're gonna invite single John from work, then you better invite single Kanako from yoga and so on, to fill that 8-seater. As well, don't forget to ensure ALL members of the teams have someone to strive for. And don't even think you can stretch out the numbers by making that one crappy singles table. Y'know, the one where you stick your 8-year old nieces and nephews who get to eat at the "big kid's table" for the first time, and put your three 30-something single friends plus sister in charge of babysitting. No matter how tight you are for space and food. If you do, you can rest assured your invite to their next birthday/housewarming/Grey's Anatomy/tummy tuck party will "be lost in the mail".

4. There is always one “lampshade-wearing” guest.

Case in point, a very affable and funny guest who entertained many with his tie around his head, showing us his best break dancing moves, including, of course - the worm. Gotta love the guy who will take one for the team and make everyone else look sober. They’re my favourites because I’m usually the one veering dangerously close to the starring role, so they often save my ass. My friend Dave once gave me the best advice about drinking in a group: “Always make sure there are at least TWO other people who are drunker than you.” I think it’s sage advice and try to stick to it.

At another wedding, there was a guest who used his best James Bond maneuvers to sneak into the wedding downstairs, which hadn’t yet closed its bar for dinner, and proceeded to sneak drinks up to our floor. He ended the night spinning wildly on the dance floor, sans partner of course (see #3), while we all counted the number of rotations. He then puked on the bride’s gown.

Ahh, good times kids, good times.