Cambodia, Part 2, Modern Culture

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May 15, 2013 by Rokman61

Cambodia and southern Vietnam share somewhat similar landscape/climate, and are separated only by an arbitrary line on the map, so one might suppose that the two are very similar countries.  Not so – it is immediately apparent that the two are very distinct.  Most obvious is that the languages, both spoken and written, sound and appear totally different.  The closer one looks, the more contrasts are apparent.

We entered the county via the smallish city of Siem Reap, the service centre for visitors to Angkor Wat.  Here are many hotels, offering a wide range of luxury – this is a view of the lobby of the one we stayed at.  Moderately opulent, smacking of French colonial influence, and featuring considerable fine woodwork and stone.  Interestingly, no elevator.  (Click on photos for larger view).

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Visible in upper right of the photo above, this traditional artist performed as we dined near by.  Again, note the beautiful wood and woodworking.

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So much for how the tourists get by.  In the countryside, one can observe a little of how the common villagers live.  As in Vietnam, the roadsides are lined with small businesses, offering every imaginable product or service.  The style of architecture is rather interesting, with most structures being perched on stilts.  No tall, thin buildings like those in Vietnam.  Much of the landscape we drove through was floodplain, so perhaps raised buildings evolved to accommodate flooding.  However, stilt houses are also prevalent in areas that would not be subject to floods, so presumably this is the preferred design.

This modest house has walls of bamboo thatch.  Note the banana plants in front and tall coco palms at back.

thatched stilt house 2013.03.19 i1456

In this example, the open-sided front is clad in wooden boards, the rest in bamboo.  The rustic planks are not trimmed to even lengths along the bottom – a common style.   Note the satellite dish – priorities are evident here.sat dish stilt house 2013.03.24 i1630

Enormous round clay urns like these are extremely common throughout rural Cambodia (and Vietnam too).  Here they are serving as cisterns to collect rainwater off the roofs, used to provide water for garden plants and animals, and also for family bathing – I’m not sure in what order.  Elsewhere we saw them out in the agricultural fields, where they were obviously used to store water for crops.  Note also the large cooking pots sitting over small fires.  Apparently they are preparing for a wedding feast the following day – more on this later in this blog.

big ceramic pots 2013.03.23 i1594

The stilt buildings readily reflect the relative economic status of the occupants.  The photo below shows quite a contrast: a simpler, bare wood-clad dwelling on left, with a much taller and fancier one for comparison.

stilt houses 2013.03.19 i1446

I have to wonder about how the the stilt-style structures would fare in an earthquake.  Without any cross-bracing, one might suspect they would quickly fold up and collapse under shear.

Here is a family dwelling at the lower end of the prosperity scale.  Ground level, thatched roof, and no sign of a satellite dish.  Bananas growing behind, and a wee papaya tree struggling at lower left above the tire.

low-end housing 2013.03.19 i1466


In rural Cambodia we encountered a very distinctive type of vehicle that I had never noticed before.  It consists basically of an engine mounted on an axle with a pair of big wheels, with very long handlebars used for the steering and controls.  A separate tilling device with a seat for the operator can be attached behind.  We assumed that the principle use for these machines is for working the ubiquitous rice fields which the economy is dependant on.  Here is  a line-up of the engine components at the local dealership.tillers 4 sale 2013.03.23 i1555

During the dry season, there is no work in the rice paddies, and the tillers can be put to many other uses – an extremely versatile implement.  Some sort of hand-crafted wagon is hooked up to the engine component, and away we go.

utilty cart 2013.03.19 1460

Some heavy-duty hauling.

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Family SUV.

Family on SUV 2013.03.22 9062

The people we met in rural Cambodia were invariably friendly and helpful (with the one exception of the boat driver who wanted us to pay double because we asked to look for birds in addition to dolphins – we refused, so he had the local police come after us).  Since there is almost no English spoken, communication was extremely limited.  As ‘wealthy’ tourists, we were somewhat of a novelty.  I don’t generally take a lot of people photos, but here are a few I thought were worth including.toddler 2013.03.21 i1631woman with child 2013.03.23 i1608

Boat driver (not the one who tried to bilk our tour).

Boatman 2013.03.24 9192

This young fisher was pleased with his catch of a small catfish (at bottom edge of net).

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Weddings are obviously VERY big affairs for Cambodians.  We passed by quite a few as we drove through the countryside on a Saturday.  The standard protocol appears to be the rental of a large awning, draped with acres of brightly-coloured cloths.  Moulded plastic chairs are covered in gold fabric, and everyone is dressed to the hilt.  I noticed one gentleman wearing a ‘day-glow’ salmon-coloured dinner jacket – regrettably, no photo.

Because the properties are usually too small to fit such a large event, the awning is often erected beside and extending out onto the roadway.

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wedding awning 2013.03.23 i599

One afternoon, our van got a flat tire.  The wrench supplied was inadequate, so there was some delay before we could continue on.  Meanwhile, it was blazingly hot, and the only shade available was under this awning that had just been erected for tomorrow’s wedding.  Our tour group was invited in to take shelter whilst we waited.  (The cooking pots on the fires mentioned above were part of the preparation for this big event).  When we passed by again on the next day, the scene was a mass of people and colours.

Tour group shade 2013.03.23 i1593


Another interesting feature of the country is the sprinkling of Buddhist shrines throughout the region.  They ranged from very large walled complexes containing spectacular temples, to tiny front-yard shrines the size of a rural mailbox.  The common denominator in all is the  extremely intricate and ornate design, and the use of gold colour.

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Wood is a very utilitarian and highly valued material in all of Southeast Asia – an important component of the rural economy.  There is one specific group of trees, the dipterocarps, that I was particularly interested in, because we see a lot of the wood products in North America.  Dipterocarps comprise a family of trees that occur mainly in Southeast Asia, where a number of species are important timber sources.  Considerable amounts of it are exported under the various names such as ‘Philippine mahogany’, ‘meranti’, ‘luan’, ‘balau’, or just plain ‘mahogany‘ (which it is not).  Much of what we see at home comes in the form of plywood panelling.

We spent several days in northern Cambodia, in terrain described as ‘dry dipterocarp forest’.  It is a very open-type habitat – widely spaced large trees, with innumerable small rice paddies tucked in between.  Here are two typical scenes, the second showing a patchwork of rice cells.

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After the rice is harvested and the vegetation has dried out, the area is burned flat, leaving only the blackened stubs of the rice plants.  The fires kill some of the dipterocarps, which are eventually harvested for lumber.

‘Dipterocarp’ means ‘two-winged fruit’.  All species have a nut-like seed with paired, blade-like appendages.  In this example, the red colour is not a flower, but the wings of the seeds. (Yes, they do ‘helicopter’ like our maple seeds).

Dipterocarp seeds 2013.03.19 8850

A pile of harvested trunks – typical rich dark red colour.

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Dipterocarp woods show up everywhere: examples include the fine woodwork in the hotel in Siem Reap, and the rustic hand-made ox-cart and tiller-wagons illustrated in previous photos.  Here are a few more examples.

A ‘home-made’ roller.

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River boats on the Mekong.  These particular ones are used to take tourists to view  Irrawaddy dolphins.  Note the very long propeller shafts on the outboard motors (here with squared covers) – as featured in James Bond movies.

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A carving of a happy Buddha.  The amount of sanding alone required on this rock-hard wood must have been incredibly tedious.

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All of the finished woodwork I saw was coated with a thick layer of ultra-glossy plastic lacquer.  Their reflectivity makes for rather poor photographic images.

Heavy, fancy, clunky furniture seems to be very popular.  This example perhaps represents the extreme end.  I don’t know what one would do with these chairs if they had them in their home – probably not sit in them to watch TV.

carved chairs 2013,03,22 i1524

In contrast to all the creative use of beautiful wood, this picnic set is fake!  We saw a surprising abundance of concrete made to look like wood, and admittedly they do a fairly good job of it.  But not that it would appease a true xylophile (xylem ≈ wood).

fake wood table 2013.03.244 i1667

Bamboo is another material of seemingly limitless utility .  This bridge connects a sand island to the main bank of the Mekong River.  The island is a recreational destination, complete with a fancy restaurant.  Each year the bridge is washed out by the monsoon floods, and must be rebuilt.  It is substantial enough to carry small trucks.

bamboo bridge 2013.03.22 i1543

The Mekong River becomes rather shallow upriver, unsuitable for large freighters or cruise ships.  Small wooden boats are used to move goods and people.  Here a group of workers are commuting from their island home to their place of urban employment.

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And the ladies in another commuter boat – a little more friendly.

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I could not figure out what this big vessel was doing, until I noticed the other end of one of those blue hoses in one of my photos.  It was delivering sand into a vacant lot.  Along the flood-plane of the Mekong, there is no rock and no gravel for building material, so they suck sand from the river.

sand-sucker boat 2013.03.21 i1536

This is what a typical gas station looks like away from the major outlets.  Riders on small motorbikes can pull in for a Pepsi-bottle full of fuel.

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Suburban taxi.

taxi 2013.03.24 i1621Street food is ubiquitously available.  In this selection, a bag of snails on left, sliced nearly-ripe mangoes on right, small eggs of some kind at lower right, and a few unknown finger-foods in the middle.  Two days after I took this photo I was afflicted with some sort of vicious internal disruption, the effects of which dragged on for more than a week.  There is no way of knowing what I was hit with, but I strongly suspect the little triangular things in the middle – with the bit of red pepper at the tip.  I ate only one and it was yummy – but maybe I should have passed on it.

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Our tour ended in Phnom Penh, the major city and capital of Cambodia.  Here the contrast between old and new is conspicuous.

Phnom Penh 2013.03.25 i1684

For our very last night we were booked into a very trendy and up-scale hotel.  For just two of us, we had an enormous African-themed suite which included a huge bedroom, spacious shower, an enormous sitting area, full kitchen, and this dining area.  Not too shabby a send-off.

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Coming next – a look at some wildlife.

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