Exploring Phnom Penh

March 26, 2018 at 4:42 pm (Travel) (, , )

I was super excited to escape the Suzhou winter and embrace the sunshine in Cambodia for my Chinese New Year break.  It was a new country for me and it meant some backpacking time as well as catching up with my friend Jen who I spent last Chinese New Year with in Vietnam.  She now lives and works in Phnom Penh so I organised my flight to spend the first weekend entirely with her.

My airline had other plans.  After a cancelled flight, much confusion and lot of waiting around, we finally boarded a flight to Cambodia the next day.  We ended up staying the night in Shanghai and I didn’t arrive in Phnom Penh until 11pm Saturday night.  Making the most out of an annoying situation, I did make a new friend, Amanda, who is an absolute superstar.

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I had an absolute blast hanging out with Jen in her new city.  We made the most out of our Sunday together by visiting Wat Phnom before heading to the Sunday hash.  Wat Phnom is regarded as the only ‘hill’ in town and was first erected in 1373.  The area was beautiful and we managed to see Jen’s first Phnom Penh monkey.  🙂

IMG_6785Afterwards we headed to the hash which was an awesome experience.  We got herded out about forty minutes on a cattle truck to the start of the trail.  The group was heaps of fun and the trail had us running through paddy fields and small settlements.  I loved seeing a more ‘authentic’ Cambodia and am very thankful that I was welcomed into their hashing world with such friendship.  I hope that my travelling will enable me to have many more similar experiences in the future.

The next day I met up with Keith who had also hashed and we visited the Russian Market and the Royal Palace together.  I also dragged him along to a couple of fair trade shops.  The city is always bustling and you can’t go very far without being asked about a tuk tuk so it was fun having someone with me to explore it with and not quite as daunting.

IMG_6802The Royal Palace is a beautiful structure near the riverbank.  It very much reminded me of the Grand Palace in Bangkok although I remember the visit there being much more awe inspiring.  The Palace compound has classic Khmer roofs, ornate decoration and lovely murals.  We visited the throne room and the Silver pagoda Complex where we saw both the Emerald Buddha and the life sized Gold Buddha embellished with 2086 diamonds!

After a wonderful day and some sunset cocktails, the evening finished on a sour note.  Keith had his phone stolen right before my eyes as he was checking something on the curb.  I had stepped back with my phone to call Jen, and as she answered a motorbike rider pulled in close to Keith and snatched the phone straight out of his hands.  I screamed and was quite shaken, as was Keith.  We had been warned about the crime in the city and had been careful all day with our belongings, yet all you need is that one moment.  He took it well, and we were both thankful that it in the end, it was only a phone.

We had planned to meet up again on Tuesday to go to Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes and the Killing Fields but understandably, Keith didn’t feel up for it and I ventured out on my own.  It was a humbling day and in some ways I am glad that I spent it alone.  I have seen many examples of human atrocities in my travels an everyone of them change and move you in different ways.

The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide is on the site of the Security Prison 21 (S-21) which was established in 1975.  This is where Pol Pot’s regime tortured victims until they admitted crimes, many of which they did not understand.  When the required information had been extracted, the victims were sent to the Killing Fields.  In the three years the prison was in action, over 17,000 people lost their lives.

When Phenom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese in early 1979, those still working at the prison did their best to get rid of as much documentation as possible.  The current victims were led to bleed to death.  They did not shoot them for fear of the shots being heard and arousing suspicion.  It took them three days to find the prison and when they did they found the people as they were left.  The photos of the bodies found are gruesome, especially when it is clear that the photo was taken in the very room you were standing.  In some rooms you can still see the blood on the floor.  Everywhere echos mistrust and the human capacity for cruelness.

Perhaps, this visit hit me so hard because before becoming the prison, Tuol Sleng was a school.  It looks like any other Asian school with its courtyard and double story buildings facing into it.  Some play equipment still stands.  It too has a story to tell in the torture that happened.  Now, it is eerily quiet, even with so many visitors.  As I passed people, I realised that we were all sharing this experience through our grim faces and reflection.  We were sharing the burden of what had happened, what will hopefully never happen again.  Yet it does, the cycle of our cruelty is possibly never ending.

Already quite shaken, I made the trip out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where a similar experience awaited me.  Now a beautiful memorial, I was glad I had not eaten.  The land should be flat but instead seems to bubble from the bodies that are hidden beneath it.  As you walk around, you can see remnants of clothing and sometimes even bones that have raised to the surface due to rain.

They played revolutionary music to mask what has happening at this site.  Often, bullets would not be spared and the victims were killed in any way possible with whatever materials were on hand.  The memorial stupa pays tribute to this by housing the remains of some 8985 people.  The bones are categorised into types and the skulls into cause of death.  It is haunting yet also beautiful in its own lopsided way.

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Sunset from Jen’s place

On my return, Jen listened to my thoughts and feelings.  She buffered my experience and I am eternally grateful for her responses and ability to bring me back to reality.  Phnom Penh will get under your skin.  Between the motorbikes, the mix match of architecture, its frightening history… it is not a city that one forgets easily.

xoxo

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Snow, running and surviving till Chinese New Year

February 11, 2018 at 4:32 pm (China) (, , , )

IMG_6471Basically the five weeks between the Christmas and Chinese New Year Holidays has been filled with running.  Running in pollution, running at night, running on the treadmill and even running in the snow.  Olli and I spent a Sunday re-exploring the beautiful area we did the Wine hash in.  If we had more time before he leaves China for good, we would have reused the area!  As always, it is so good to get out of the city and into the country side around Suzhou.  Especially, because we have had some awful pollution.  We had a WHOLE week with no outside play at school!

I ventured out to Shanghai twice to participate in two hashes I hadn’t been to before.  The Posh Hash is an all ladies kennel that runs once a month and the Drunken Dragons hash monthly as well (I think).  I seem to have a bit of a reputation in our little hash circles… hardly surprising considering how much I like talking and how loud I am!  It’s always good fun but often eventful evenings.

A surprising bonus was my first ever snow day!  Two to be exact.  It doesn’t snow that often in Suzhou so when it does it gets a bit chaotic, especially as the roads and facilities do not have the means to cope with snow.  The local government decided to shut down all local schools for two days and after careful debate we were also closed.

We woke up to a a snow splattered Suzhou.  There wasn’t really enough snow to warrant closing the school but it did get worse, and it is true that people are not used to driving in it.  The snow continued over the next couple of days and resulted in some breath taking landscape in and around Suzhou old town.  While I didn’t venture out there myself, I did ‘borrow’ some other people’s photos.

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Instead I spent a day with Banyu watching movies and eating pancakes.  I didn’t really want to venture out of the house, but when you wake up to absolutely gorgeous voice messages you can’t help but turn up!  We watched both Annie and Mary Poppings and thoroughly enjoyed having a lazy day.  That’s what snow days should be for, right?

 

With Chinese New Year Around the corner we had our annual Chinese New Year staff meeting celebration.  I made dumplings, danced like a lion and practiced my Chinese New Year calligraphy.  It’s tradition for new signs to be made and changed to frame your door each Chinese New Year.  I was stoked when a Chinese teacher was able to read my characters without knowing what I was trying to write!  I plan on having them framed, that way I can be lucky forever.

So after snow in Suzhou, cold temperatures and a weekend in Harbin, I am more than ready for a new adventure filled with sunshine and warmth… Cambodia, here I come!

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Freezing in Harbin

February 7, 2018 at 4:18 pm (China) (, , , )

IMG_6618One of my aims for my second year in China was to visit the world’s largest ice festival in Harbin.  The Ice and Snow World is over 600,000 square meters, has ice sculptures that reach up to 46 meters high and is simply mind boggling in its size and depth.   Not only are the sculptures amazing to experience, but they are also, in total Chinese style, lit up creating an almost Frozen like Disney Princess World.  I travelled there for the weekend with four ladies from work to share the experience.

I was a bit apprehensive going to Harbin because I had been told horror stories of how cold it would be.  I borrowed a puffy jacket as well as some boots, fished out my bright pink ski pants and bought disposable heat packs to keep in my gloves and my boots.  Even when the temperatures dropped to -26°C, I was toasty warm apart from my big toe when we visited the Ice and Snow World.  I have no idea how people survive in those temperatures though!  The snot in my nose literally froze which was such a bizarre feeling, as was having my eyelashes freeze over.  Fun to visit, but to live?  No thank you.

Over the weekend we visited the Sun Island Scenic Park and the Ice and Snow World.  The first park had amazing sculptures made out of snow and the second out of ice.  They were both spectacular in their own right… the craftsmanship in the snow sculptures was phenomenal.   The sheer size at the Ice World as well as the detail in some of the smaller pieces were equally mind blowing.  In fact, it takes over 10,000 workers to cut and haul the blocks of ice to make the ice sculptures.

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IMG_6466At about midnight on Saturday night, Jenf and I decided to change our plans for the next day from visiting the river bank (seemed like a party fair like atmosphere) to going to visit the Unit 731 Museum.  Harbin was the Japanese site for the largest human experimentation, biological and chemical research facility during World War II.  We had read reviews about how well the museum dealt with the content matter and that the information was easy to read in English.  It was by the far the best museum either of us had been too in China.

The atrocities that took place there I will not mention here but I can assure you that both Jenf and I were clearly shaken after our visit.  What really upset us, was that the majority of the people involved with the administration of the ‘tests’ was ever trialled for their crimes.  At the end of the war, the USA secretly gave the researchers immunity in exchange for all the data they had found out.  The whole undertaking was kept secret for many years.

Thank you to my roomie Jenf for the laughs and fun times and particularly to Renee for the organisation.  Harbin was definitely a worthwhile experience even in the freezing cold!

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Home for Summer

January 25, 2018 at 12:28 pm (Australia)

I’m writing this while watching Annie with Banyu.  We have two days off due to snow!  It doesn’t snow much here so everybody is in chaos mode.  All the local school have been closed for today and tomorrow, and we have followed suit.  Perfect time for me to pdate my blog.  🙂

IMG_6339For the second year in a row I ventured back home to Australia for Christmas and a slice of summer in the middle of the Chinese winter.  I loved catching up with people, lazing about in the sun and simply being home.  It was busy as usual… off the plane and straight to a school catch up in Cheltenham Park.  This time around I was pretty good at not overdoing it with catch ups.  It was really good to have time for me and family.

Unfortunately, the first night home ended up being quite dramatic.  We had a family incident that really threw me and ended up with a visit to the hospital.  Everything has worked out now but it was definitely a reminder at how quickly health issues can happen and the cost of living overseas.  As a result, mum and I spent a lot of time together over the weeks I was home which was perfect.

IMG_6358Christmas was a family affair.  Dad’s for Christmas Eve and both breakfast and an early dinner at mum’s.  Santa came and mum did a traditional turkey with all the trimmings, including Yorkshire Puddings!  It was lovely having all four Sleeth’s together for Christmas dinner as well as my sister in law Sharne and my niece Mya.  It wouldn’t really be a Sleeth Christmas without a ring-in so James’ flatmate Gregor rounded off the meal.

A highlight was Bob’s presents of random costumes to the boys.  Suddenly we had a Gnome, an Indian, Elvis and Superman in our midst!  Welcome to Christmas at the Sleeths!

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The biggest highlight though was Michael and Erin’s wedding.  It was a beautiful day for the perfect wedding and I am pleased as punch to have welcomed Erin to the family.  Us girls are slowly multiplying, FOUR lady Sleeths!  Yahoo!  The night was perfect and I really enjoyed spending time with Paula, Charlie and finally meeting James’ girlfriend Pip.

Of course, the best bit of heading home is my gorgeous niece Mya.  She is picture perfect and so cute.  I love that she knows who I am and I can never tire from her smile.  Next time I’m home they’ll be another Sleeth to meet, which just means I need to get home more often!

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xoxo

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Always busy at Christmas!

December 22, 2017 at 3:17 pm (China) (, , , )

Thorsten and Doris had had a similar rainy experience at the Yellow Mountains as mum and I, so we decided we should try again but this time base our trip around the weather report.  I am so glad that we did!  Doris reckons she saw more just taking the cable car up than we the the whole last trip!  I think the photos speak for themselves!

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This weekend was ultra special because Doris and Thorsten have now left Suzhou.  They are moving to Shanghai, but won’t be back in China until April.   I am already missing their friendship and am very thankful for modern technology which allows us to stay in touch.

65B91EE8-A28D-47C0-8C4E-F74BE12F7BAF-659-00000108212ADB7A_tmpAfter living in Suzhou for sixteen months, I finally managed to spend a day in Shanghai!  It was more of a shopping trip than a sightseeing trip but at least I’ve now seen the Bund from a taxi window.  🙂  Alyssa and I head in to check out the fake markets and to visit the German Christkindmarkt.  Martha was our fake markets guide and she sure knows her stuff.  We were greeted with hugs and kisses at the stores and she helped us find quality and bargains.  We both spent a small fortune but were also happy with our purchases.  The Weihnachtsmarkt was lovely, even if it was too warm for Glühwein.  The stores were set up beautifully and you truly did feel that you were back in Germany.  It was lovely to have a little piece of Heimat right here in China.

Christmas themed activities always manage to take up time in December no matter where you live in the world.  I co-hared the first Suzhou Santa hash which was a smashing success.  We dressed as elves and led the group to Suzhou’s replica London Bridge while taking in other bridges and lovely lit up buildings along the way.  The next night I attended the Gaelic Football Christmas party where I won the Christian Stein Award for the most German-esque member of the club.  Big surprise there…

I had a bit of a Staff Christmas Party fiasco.  I arrived at the event only to realise that a bag had fallen off my e-bike.  At the time I was only concerned about my Secret Santa present, which was in the bag!  I headed in, dropped the bag I had off and headed back to school.  I thought the bag might have fallen off the bike as I put it on and was hoping it was lying disowned in school’s e-bike parking lot.  Alas it was not.

So before heading back to the party and checking the road, I double checked with the guard in the guard house.  This involved me doing a pantomime of losing my bag.  The guard had seen it and even had pictures on his phone of my wallet (with all the money).  I managed to explain to him that is was my bag to which he replied in Chinese and then kept talking to me even though it was clear I had no idea what was going on.

I finally thought to get me agent on the phone as a translator.  Unfortunately the bag was with the police!  Apparently the guard and a passerby had seen me lose the bag as I drove out the gate and because the passerby had picked it up and handed it in, the police had to be called.  Great!  After about 30 minutes of this and that, lots of translation and waiting around,  I was on my way to the Chinese police station for the first time.

IMG_6335With my bag finally back with me, I headed back to the Christmas party only to get half way before my bike decided to die on me.  Luckily, one of my friends lives in the area so I parked the bike in her garage, plugged it in and caught a didi (Chinese uber) to the party.  I managed to squeeze in one hour of food and fun, as well as deliver my Secret Santa present, which of course, is better than nothing!

Those of you who have taught with me at SISS and ISS, will remember the famous Christmas tree headband and outfits which just keep evolving.  This year I had a whole week of fun Christmas themed dress ups to celebrate.  It’s been a long start to the year and I am more than ready for some time in the sun at home for Christmas.

xoxo

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