Monday, June 27, 2011

Swim with a buddy, people.

I missed work the Monday after the food poisoning. I limped back in on Tuesday, and was proud that I was able to sit up at the desk for the entire work day. The rest of the week I worked with another intern on a funding proposal for the juvenile justice program. This mostly consisted of us editing multiple pages of broken English into something a little more coherent. The proposal is still in its rough draft stages, so I'm not sure yet if we're going to get the grant.

We submitted everything by the end of the week, just in time for us to prepare for our weekend trip to Sihanoukville, a large beach town filled with backpackers with varying levels of acquaintance with soap. What started as a small group from my office morphed into 13 interns from different legal organizations, all ready to spend some time at the ocean. The plan was to spend one night in Sihanoukville, and then take a two-hour boat ride to an island off the coast called Koh Rong Saloem. The island is owned by the Cambodian navy, but a British guy has leased a section of the property and has built a series of small beachfront cabins on a private beach. The website displayed shocking sunsets, relaxing hammocks, and gorgeous, turquoise water waiting steps from your front door. Paradise, right?

Not so perfect if you've decided to travel to said paradise during the rainy season. The short boat ride to the island, touted as part of the exotic experience, turned into a contest between us trying to drive over the ocean and the ocean constantly trying to knock us back to shore. The ocean mostly won. After we had to leap down into the boat (boarding planks are for wimps), culminating in two members of our party landing flat on their backs on the floor of the vessel, we spent the next few hours of our lives being pelted by gigantic, angry raindrops. Each wave sent the boat reeling back and forth, rocking dangerously each way to the point that I readied myself for us to capsize. 

I've never seen so many people turn green simultaneously. Heads dipped between knees at an alarming rate as waves of nausea kept time with the tossing current. Weary hands reached for Dramamine. About halfway through the ride, the waves claimed their first victim, a teacher who was coming to the island for a quick vacation. It was her first, and, given how long she slumped over the edge of the railing, probably last time on a boat. One of the law students, who had spent most of the ride clutching her stomach and staring at the floor, happily stood up as soon as the boat slowed near our final destination. She promptly vomited as one last swell shuddered through the cabin. 

The boat wasn't able to dock ride at the beach because the waters were too shallow, so we had to swim a short distance to shore. Our belongings, which had been pelted with rain through the whole ride out, floated behind us in giant rubbermaid containers. I extracted my soaking wet duffle bag and backpack, ready to settle into my cabin and a healthy-sized cocktail. I quickly searched the coastline, looking for some semblance of housing, but couldn't seem to find anything. I was then told that a short hike through the jungle was required in order for us to reach our lodging. 

At this point, I began to question my travel decision-making skills. This ocean, I remember thinking, better be filled with diamond-encrusted fish that grant me three wishes while singing my favorite showtunes.  The rain was considerate enough to violently start up again as soon as we started marching through the wilderness. Just in case, you know, any of us still had dry underwear. 

And so we walked. And walked. And walked a little more. Some friends of ours had just told us horror stories of being attacked by leeches while hiking in a different province, so each time I came into contact with say, a leaf, I yelped and pathetically flailed my limbs (I did, by the way, make it through the walk unscathed). Finally, the path cleared, and a community of thatched huts dotted the road to a rather impressive open-air bar and restaurant, complete with the hammocks from the website and fantastic chairs, all with a perfect view of the sea. We broke off into groups and were led to our cabins, each with a front porch and two hammocks. The bedrooms had two queen-size beds covered with mosquito nets, and a bathroom attached (with a do-it-yourself flushing mechanism, consisting of a non-flushing toilet with a big barrel of water and a bucket beside it. Ah, camping). We found out later that we had some roommates, including bats in the bedroom and lizards the size of my forearm in the shower. I figured if I was bitten by the former, Robert Pattinson would appear and angsty teen rock would start playing as we rode off for Seattle; the latter, well, maybe I'd develop a taste for insects. 

We settled in quite nicely, eating very nice food (I chose sweet and sour chicken for the first night, absolutely fantastic), and taking advantage of Lazy Beach's board games. Law students--and I know this is shocking--can be viciously competitive, especially when something like winning a game of Taboo or, even sadder, Jenga is at stake. We played for hours, stopping long enough to go for a night swim before heading to sleep. I didn't run into any diamond fish, but the company was still more than lovely.

The next morning after a breakfast of toast and Nutella (NUTELLA!!), I stupidly decided to go for a morning swim on my own. Some of the other interns were still inside the restaurant having breakfast, so I thought that they could still see me in case I ran into any trouble. There were also some guys on the shore collecting wood, so again I thought a quick dip would be safe. 

Fast forward 30 minutes. I'm splashing around, when suddenly three huge waves consecutively crash down on top of me, dragging me out into the water. I tried to touch bottom, but couldn't reach. Paddling forward a few feet, I tried again. Nothing. Over and over, I tried to swim closer to land, but each time I was quickly sucked back out by the increasingly choppy water. I started screaming for help, but the guys on the shore continued about their business, unable to hear me over the waves. I've always been a decent swimmer-- not strong like Ben or Mom, but able to keep my head above water thus far--but this was overpowering me. My muscles started to get tired from thrashing about so much; I was in a full panic. Finally, I got my breathing under control, and remembered my parents telling me to swim parallel to the shore if I'm ever fighting against an undertow. Inch by inch, for 20 minutes, I crawled my way back to the shore. When I finally got out, every part of me was shaking. 

I wasn't keen to dive back into the water very quickly, so instead I opted to join Leah and Nick on a hike over some rocks in order to see the beach from a different view. It felt a little like bouldering at times; there was a lot of walking over sharp coral, and slick rocks because it had, yet again, started to rain. 

Here are some pics from our trip over the rocky terrain. I was worried when Nick started the trip by saying, "The first person to not break her ankle wins.":

Calm, pretty, private beach:

The road gets a little rocky:

Stopping for a rest:

Do you see a walking path? Because I sure don't: 

View making it all worth it:

The people at the front desk said we could do the climb barefoot. Um....

Back to the start!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Raisin Bran Happy Dance

Leah and I ended up leaving Bridgette in Battambang because she had a hearing to attend there the following Monday, and traveled to Siem Reap with the lawyer and administration manager to meet with another group of clients. Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat, so I knew that it would be a rather big tourist town. However, I wasn't expecting CAMBODIA: THE DISNEY WORLD EXTRAVAGANZA!!! We were tired and muddy from walking through the provinces all morning, so it was pretty startling to drive into Siem Reap and see the Cambodian Las Vegas. Huge, beautiful resorts lined the streets, some starting at $500 a night. There were manicured walkways and gardens everywhere, and iron lampposts guiding your trip to the temple (it looked exactly like Williamsburg, VA at night). I don't usually even see this much money in the US; Leah and I stared out the window, shocked at the change in scenery from this morning. A few hours ago, I was trying not to slip face-first into a rice paddy, and now I was surrounded by malls, luxury hotels, and cars that I don't think I'm rich enough to look at, let alone ever ride in. There's a direct flight into Siem Reap, so many of these tourists probably only fly directly here, walk around Angkor Wat, and leave again; I'd argue that they never really visited Cambodia.

"I don't think we're dressed well enough to walk into any of these restaurants," Leah commented. I looked down at the caked dirt streaked up and down my trousers, and felt the dried sweat on my forehead and neck acting as a strong adhesive to which my limp hair was plastered. I sadly agreed.

Because the next day would be filled with meetings and traveling back to Phnom Penh, we wouldn't have a chance to see Angkor Wat. The lawyer was kind enough to drive us by the entrance, and we expressed great interest in the...well...the inky black nothingness where apparently the temples are. I'm sure it's awe-inspiring in the daytime, or maybe even with a flashlight. 

We pulled up to an outdoor Khmer restaurant right across the street from the temples. There was a huge grill, with various raw meats you could select waiting behind the grates. I learned how to eat fish off the bone (or, rather, the Cambodians laughed at me as I made a mess, causing one of them to take the poor carcass away from me before I did more damage). We also had some Cambodian cheese, which, as I'm finding with most dishes here, was made with beef. Chicken feet rounded out the meal, the black claws jutting out toward my plate as I slowly chewed my rice. At least I missed out on turtle meat, the slimy, gelatinous meat that some other unfortunate interns had to gnaw on the previous week. 

We finished our work the next morning and headed back to Phnom Penh, stopping only once about an hour outside the city for some lunch. I gratefully ran inside my guesthouse, ready to jump in the shower and take a long nap.

And then the food poisoning started. Dear God, the food poisoning.

What started as a brief stomachache morphed quickly into a feverish, horrific explosion of what I was certain were the beginning stages of organ shutdown. I sadly huddled in a bed sheet next to my laptop and frantically searched for a doctor. After working in healthcare for three years, I've turned into a terrible medical snob ("I'm sorry, you graduated 2nd in your class at Harvard? You're not touching me."), so I was pretty worried about my options. 

Apparently I was very dramatic on the phone, because my mom was ready to ship my dad to Bangkok to meet me after my medevac. Luckily, I felt better on Monday just as quickly as I became ill on Saturday, so he didn't have to fly halfway around the world. I had a really rough time trying to find light food to eat, until I took a trip to Lucky Supermarket, the western grocery store. Here's what I found:

I wanted cereal so badly, and here was my favorite brand! I did a happy dance right in the middle of the aisle, causing quite a few people to pull their children away from the crazy lady and her raisins. I picked up some milk from Singapore, cereal from the good ole U.S. of A., and a bowl and spoon from Malaysia, so really, I was still getting an international culinary experience. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"It's like a family vacation. A never-ending, together-for-16-hours-a-day family vacation."

Battambang is smaller than Phnom Penh, so we were curious as to how we would spend our evenings after work. The business trips here are a little different from the American counterparts. In the US, a business trip would usually involve traveling separately to an agreed-upon destination; going to some meetings in a nondescript, beige room with a powerpoint screen gently swinging in the breeze from the air conditioner; breaking for a business lunch where reports and proposals are passed around over bleu cheese salads, pasta, or maybe even a steak sandwich; followed by another meeting where attendees could congratulate themselves on the great work they did in the morning meeting, before everyone broke off to do their own thing for the night.

Not here. Here, you eat every single meal together (and no fast food; count on everything being cooked from scratch, so every table gathering is at least 90 minutes), then you travel on, well, things that once were or aspiring to be roads, crammed together in a midsize Toyota while you battle for knee space with fellow passengers, followed by some sort of evening activity.

The first night's evening activity, however, was well worth all the travel. When you flip open the Lonely Planet Cambodia travel guide (or, as I call it, my iPhone replacement for the number of times it's fed, housed, or entertained me), the section on Battambang is about a page and a half. Not exactly a happening night life for 20-somethings. Under the activities section, there were two options:

1) one night club
2) the circus

The club kind of got a mumbled, half-hearted response from us, kind of a "mweeh" sound, so it wasn't at the top of the list. The circus sounded more interesting, even though I've always been uncomfortable with circuses because of their treatment of animals (and seeing a circus in a country not especially known for animal rights protection sounded like a recipe for horrors). 

As it turned out, this was more of a Cirque du Soleil program, run by one of the coolest organizations I've seen so far in Cambodia. The circus is actually just one arm of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO that runs a traditional school as well as art programs for low-income kids. The school is open to anyone, and the classes run on a drop-in basis, so whenever the kids can make it to the center they can take a dance, art, theater, or music class. The circus is made up entirely of kids and teens, and they're really successful; some of the students are just finishing up a tour of Europe and Australia. We saw jugglers, silk climbing, contortionists, and clowns; so good! It was especially cute to see a French family in the front row with two little kids that were cracking up at the three clown students on stage. Each laugh from the French kids egged the Cambodian kids to be even funnier, making wild, exaggerated faces and running all around the tent until everyone dissolved into laughter.

I tried to get some photos, but my camera battery died, so here's the website if you want to learn more about the circus:

Before the circus, we visited one of the art classrooms. There was an art show exhibit displaying the work from one of the visual art classes. Over twenty beautiful outfits hung from the ceiling, each made by the kids. I ended up talking to the teacher, a really laid-back, cooler-than-I'll-ever-be girl from Minneapolis. Her mom is American, and her dad is Cambodian, so she said that she's spending the year here teaching to learn more about her dad's side of the family. She graduated with a visual arts degree last year, so she joined Phare Ponleu Selpak and took over one of the largest art classes with students ranging from 6-years-old to 26. On her first day, she handed out pencils and paper to all the kids and asked them to draw anything they wanted. She got back about twenty pictures of Angkor Wat; apparently, looking at your partner's paper is as big of a problem here as it is in elementary schools back home.

She decided that she needed a new plan. She told everyone that the next assignment was to make a piece of clothing, using only discarded materials that you found on the street. There was no way for them to cheat, because even if their dress or shirt designs initially looked the same, the likelihood that they would find the same materials to use was very slim. 

This was such a cool concept to me; it was great to see her use the piles of trash that collect on the street for an amazingly beautiful homework assignment. The outfits hung over tables full of decorative masks and paintings (another homework assignment, and not many Angkor Wat pictures). The kids in the class milled around as tourists came to look at their work. They looked so proud whenever one of the paintings or masks they created sold; it reminded me of every art show back at Herman L. Horn or William Byrd, where all the hours you spent working in the art room finally pays off with a purchase. I really wanted to buy some paintings and masks, but I didn't have enough money on me so hopefully I can make it back to Battambang before I leave the country. 

Here are some pictures of the artwork:

The tower of masks:

A paper mache crab that I wanted to bring back for mom, but didn't know how to not crush him in my suitcase!

All of their art materials are donated from the United States, so if you want to donate to their program check out their website for details. Trust me, the acrylics, watercolors, pencils and paper are well-used and well-loved.

The next day, we traveled to meet with one of the clients in an extremely rural region. It rained really hard the night before (sensing a weather theme here?), so the red dirt road turned into a soupy, slippery mess of slop. As we crept along, we passed several Greyhound-sized buses that were admirably Little-Engine-That-Could-ing it down the path. We had one close call, as one of them slid out of control after it passed our car and swung horizontally across the road, blocking traffic in both directions as it sunk further into the mud. 

We weren't able to take the car all the way to the client, as the road narrowed down until it became a farmland path, easily traversed only on foot or by tractor. As we didn't have access to the latter (I knew I forgot to pack something from Roanoke), we set out on a rather arduous 2-kilometer walk (a little over a mile). 

Did you know that it's actually better to wear dress work shoes for this kind of activity instead of flip flops? Apparently, and I now know this from experience, the first time that you slip into a rather large puddle of tepid, gnat-infested water, your flip flop will attach itself to the mud and manure piles. When you try to remove said flip flop, an arch of that mud and manure will spray gracefully in the air, landing on every spare inch of skin and clothing you own. Your feet become covered in a wet, thick slime, which causes them to slip around on the flip flop until you end up straggling behind the group, calling for help (I swear that if we reverted back to a state of nature I'd die first). I only caught up after one of the lawyers spotted me, walked me over to a pond, and showed me how to clean off my feet and washed my shoes for me like I was a 3-year-old.

We met with the client and discussed the upcoming case. They fed us a lunch of rice and chicken, and gave us a hot tea made from water and the juice of a local fruit that's said to calm an upset stomach (it totally works, I loved it!). On the way back, we upgraded from our feet to one of the farmer's tractors. 

The tractor's engine was, I'm convinced, ripped from an out-of-date washing machine. We were all piled on top of a wagon, which was attached to this tiny, sickly-sounding motor. It broke down on the journey. Twice. After the second time, we thanked the farmer and continued the rest of the way on foot. The lawyers kept laughing about how the American interns' answers to every inconvenience was, "No problem!" They said we must be soldiers because of all of the harsh elements we survived in order to get our legal work done. 

Here are some pictures of us as soldiers:

The walk begins:

Upgrade to tractor for the ride back:

The washing machine engine!

The travel doctor I met with before leaving for Cambodia asked if I would come into contact with any livestock. Nope, I said, no livestock.

Our lawyer:

Our trusty steed breaks down the first time.

Ominous clouds gathering while the engine is fixed. Rain can only help matters.

My hand clutching on for dear life during the bumpy ride.

After breaking down a second time, back to walking.

I am literally marching in this picture.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Flip Flop Saga Continues.

On our first morning in Battambang, Leah, Bridgette, and I woke up early to grab some American breakfast at a Chinese restaurant next to the hotel (American meaning eggs and toast...I've eaten so many eggs on this trip that my blood probably just looks like yolks). We've all become a little addicted to the iced coffee here; when you ask for milk with your coffee, all the restaurants give you the condensed version. We've decided to write a letter to Starbucks when we return to the US, because condensed milk iced coffee is just the type of heart attack in a straw that America needs to round out our morning meals. Plus, the sweetness of the condensed milk covers up the fact that ALL the coffee I've found so far has been instant, which makes my soul cry a little each day. When I get off the airplane in Richmond in August, I need to go straight to a 7-Eleven for some real beans.

After eating, we packed into a car to drive out to one of the villages to meet with a client involved with a land dispute. Actually, that's not exactly true. The lawyer and administrative director hadn't eaten yet, so we went for a second breakfast. This was odd to us, since we had been told to hurry because apparently the land dispute was reaching dangerous levels, but apparently no emergency is too great to miss eggs. 

I'm not going to go into much detail about the specifics of the cases in order to protect client information, so here's the basic background to give you an idea as to what's happening with property rights in Cambodia. A lot of land was converted to government property, specifically military property, after the KR regime ended in 1979. Many farmers, having no actual title to the land, have nonetheless been working plots of land, many for over 20 years. (The saying among rural populations is, "He who works it, owns it.") The military, however, has had this habit of gifting those same plots of land to their favorite officers (again, no title, no documentation). So now officers and farmers both try to claim the land, each trying to prove that they are the rightful owner; very difficult, without any title or records of transfer. The land isn't always given just to officers; wealthy business owners or people who are politically connected can very easily find a sympathetic court who will find that yes, indeed, they are the true owners of land on which they've never lived. It's really intense, because if we lose these cases countless families will have absolutely no where to go. 

The disputes can turn violent, as we saw with the first client. During breakfast (the 2nd), we received a call saying that the client was being threatened by men with guns saying that she needed to leave the land immediately. We jumped in the car to drive out to her. I kept sizing up the lawyers and law students in the car, hoping that at least one of them knew some sort of kickboxing/karate/James Bond skills. We all looked like we'd be more comfortable behind a desk with an Excel spreadsheet instead of in a cage fight. It was time to start worrying. 

Luckily, when we arrived the client happily told us that she stood her ground, and the men ran off when she said she had lawyers coming. We ended up walking the land (Plater students!) to see the crops that the officers had destroyed (hence more flip flop destruction). The lawyer talked about the upcoming case with the client, and we were back on the road.

That evening for dinner, they took us to what I can only describe as The Melting Pot for the Cambodian countryside. We all sat around a gas hot plate, ordered beers (the two main brands in Cambodia are Anchor and Angkor...we aren't sure why the marketing departments felt it would be a great idea for the only two main brands to be separated by two letters), and then had plate upon plate of uncooked things brought out to the table. We had some trustworthy, identifiable items like dark leafy greens, rice, and chicken, but some of the other items...well...led to conversations like this:

Leah (sifting through soup bowl): I see some spinach, and some mushrooms, and hmm. What's this white rubbery piece with the crisscross pattern? I've never seen this before.
Lawyer: Cow stomach.
Leah (flipping the stomach back into the bowl): Ah.

We made it through the dinner, stomachs and all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I'm going to have to burn my flip flops.

Which is sad, because my little navy-and-white troopers have made it through many years of travel.  I can still see a smudge of paint on the strap of the right shoe left from a volunteer project in Belize. They're broken in at all the right places. So why do I need to send them to flip flop heaven? Read on...

Last week started off pretty innocuously. Bridgette, Leah, and I went to meet the landlady of the apartment Bridgette and I will be renting starting in July. I LOVE my landlady; she's so hilarious with her delivery, and had us all cracking up the entire night. She's Cambodian, but was raised and attended school mostly in the U.S. She's back in Cambodia now, helping with the administration side of the next Khmer Rouge trial that starts up at the end of June. There's a total of four trials for the top KR leaders scheduled, and we're now on the second trial. The trials are happening at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which is a hybrid tribunal made up of a mixture of international and Cambodian judges and lawyers. I'll post more information about the trials in a separate post. 

We ended up talking to her for a long time, because she's worked for the UN for the last 30 years in various departments, so she had some amazing stories to tell (my favorite of which were her stories about the alternative energy and environmental protection branch). We didn't get to see the apartment because someone else is living there right now and it was late at night, but we discussed the details of the lease and other bits of business. She also told us a little about the place:

Landlady: I had a French designer from Paris do the planning, and he had a very modern concept of the building. Very strict lines, all white. His idea was that life energy is supposed to flow from room-to-room, so there originally weren't any doors in the apartment.
Us: No doors? Like, the bedroom...or the bathroom? All open? 
Landlady: Yes. I'm not sure, I think he thought everyone should walk around French and glamourous and naked all the time. The girl who's living there now couldn't stand it, so we put swinging wooden doors up on the bathroom. But it kind of ruins the image, so if you guys don't mind we can take them back down.

The next morning, Leah and I met with the Land Law division to discuss a funding proposal to the EU that we'll be working on over the summer. They suggested that we would better understand what was going on with the land disputes if we took a trip out to the provinces. Sure, of course, why not? So the next day at 6:30 a.m., I found myself sitting in the back of a Toyota Camry with Leah and Bridgette, driving off to the Battambang province with one of the attorneys and administrative managers.

The only thing I knew about Battambang before embarking on this trip was that Maddox Jolie-Pitt of Brangelina fame hails from there. It's about a 5-hour drive from Phnom Penh; normally not a big deal for me (especially after the plane trip to eternity and back), but on this particular morning I was suffering from what the interns have now come to lovingly call Doxy Belly. Battambang being a safe haven for my winged arch-nemesis and the fever-inducing parasites they carry (see previous post), I decided to play it safe and try to follow my anti-malarial medication instructions perfectly. Unlike the previous weeks where I've just been popping the pills whenever I happened to remember, on the Battambang morning I poured carefully over the instructions in a way that would make any pharmacist proud. The bottle told me to take it on an empty stomach and not eat anything for an hour, which is exactly what I did. 

The dry-heaving took about, and this is a generous estimate, 23 seconds to start. My anti-malarial, Doxycycline, has a lovely upset stomach side effect that apparently, and I learned this the hard way, is much worse if you take it on a COMPLETELY empty stomach versus just waiting a couple of hours after breakfast. I sat swaying in the back seat, mumbling something about my melting stomach lining, aching for some food to make the nausea go away. We finally stopped, and had a breakfast of warm noodles and broth with green tea. I instantly felt better. 

On the road again, we drove for several uneventful hours, passing huge rice fields, lakes, and now and then a small town. As we made our way out of one of the towns, a police barricade was set up, for, what we later found, was for absolutely no other reason but to hassle random cars for bribes to pass. Unfortunately, our car caught the attention of the police, so we were asked to pull to the side of the road while our driver's license and registration was checked. There we sat, watching car after car fly by, as the cop tried to hassle him about the documents. The administrative assistant, not overly bothered by this situation, used this as an opportunity to slide out of the passenger's side door, saunter over to a nearby bush, and relieve himself. By the time he made it back to the car, the driver had handed over some cash to the officer, causing the "document check" to instantly cease and our road trip to resume. 

At this point, I realized that I also needed to go to the bathroom. I knew that this was going to be an issue, since there really wasn't anywhere to stop until we reached Battambang, but I was reaching an emergency state (all that damn green tea at breakfast...).  We searched and searched for a gas station, but none could be found. Finally, we pulled over at a small local restaurant. I knew two things when I saw this: 1) that there would be no toilet paper, and 2) that it would be an eastern toilet, and I had stupidly worn trousers. I was right on both counts. I half limped, half ran into the bathroom. 

I stared at the toilet. 

It stared at me. 

Or rather, it stared UP at me, from it's very, very low position on the ground. 

In Malawi, I had no trouble with these. But now I'm old, and my muscles have atrophied. There's no motivation to do more leg exercises than to know that the only thing standing between you and the puddles of poor aim on the floor are your very weak, flabby legs that keep shaking in an untrustworthy manner. My poor flip flops slid around a few times, but luckily I made it out alive. 

We arrived safely in Battambang, the second-biggest city in Cambodia, and checked into our hotel. Our work would really begin the next day, with our client visits. 

Until the next post!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Monkey Attack!

Last Sunday, I decided to spend the morning at Wat Phnom. Built in 1373, it's on a small hill and is the tallest temple in the city. According to legend (and to the clay figurines that depicted the story in the museum underneath the temple in a stations-of-the-cross-esque exhibit), a wealthy woman named Daun Penh found a large koki tree floating in the river. She told other people to wade in and pull the tree on shore (a girl after my own heart; always delegating hard labor); when they cut the tree open, they found four bronze statutes of Buddha. Lady Penh made a small shrine to the statues, which eventually became a sacred site for people to pray. 

Today, a park where families bring their kids to play surrounds the wat. It also has tons of merchants, many of who sell small birds that you're supposed to release at the top of the wat for good luck. I felt really bad for the birds, because they cram about 50 in a cage meant for, at most, 3, and they're all losing their feathers from rough living conditions and stress. I paid for one to be released, even through I'm sure it'll be captured again in the same day, but I don't think I'll be the recipient of the good luck since I made the merchant release it on my behalf. He kept trying to thrust the bird in my hand, but visions of a horrific avian flu death flew through my head, so I politely declined. 

As it got closer to noon I began to melt in the humidity, so I decided to do one last climb to the top before hailing a tuk tuk to go back to the guesthouse. I was lost in my own thoughts, focusing on the steep staircase leading to the top of the wat. When I reached the crest of the hill, I looked up for the first time during my climb. Suddenly, to my right I saw a tan and white blur barrel toward me. At first glance, I thought it was a small child, but after a second look I realized it was a monkey. This wasn't some cute little creature that could ride around on your shoulders, doing tricks for your friends in return for banana chips. This guy was BIG, about as large as a hefty small dog, but he moved much faster than any dog I've ever met. His pink, wrinkled face and people hands gave an altogether disturbing picture, especially when he was galloping straight for my lower body. I let out some sort of primal yelp, something like, "YEHAAAOOO!!", which surprised both the monkey and me  long enough to stop us both in our tracks. I turned around to run back down  the stairs, only to find his monkey friend running at me from the other side. This being the closest thing I'd ever experienced to a gang attack in my life, I started to panic. I clutched my bookbag and camera, because I'd been told that sometimes they like to snatch your belongings, and thought that the only thing that would make this experience more embarrassing would be if it turned into a monkey mugging. I took off back down the staircase, leaving the monkeys and more than a few laughing Cambodians in my wake.

At the bottom of the hill, I noticed that there were more monkeys strolling around the park benches where people were relaxing. Feeling a little more comfortable, I took out my camera to snap some pictures of one particularly lazy one who was lolling under a woman's feet. After I finished, I turned to put the camera back in my bag. In that instant, the monkey decided to dart across the sidewalk and leap onto the bench beside me, causing me to yet again let out a sad scream and stumble off the seat. This was again entertaining for everyone around me; the monkey, however, looked unimpressed and eventually found a bag of juice under a trash can that held his interest more than I did. He grabbed the bag, climbed a tree, and proceeded to recline between two branches, sipping it like it was a cocktail. 

Here are a few pics of my trip to Wat Phnom, and the nature show that ensued:

Clay figurines depicting the history of Phnom Penh:

The explanation of the scene on display, which says, among other things, "small children from 7 year olds who always were sent them to monk for literature and calculation learning by their parent." I don't know about kids in ancient Cambodia, but I hated it when my parents sent me for calculation learning.

Portrait of Lady Penh:

Entrance to Wat Phnom:

View from the top:

Monkey business...

Sad elephant roped up for tourist rides :(

Tuk Tuk (I'll get a better picture soon):

Random pictures from the ride back to the guesthouse: