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Friday, July 23, 2010

Ask Lonely Planet: Getting a taste of real life in Cambodia

My fiancee and I are heading to Siem Reap next month for our honeymoon. While the temples are an obvious attraction, we'd like some advice about getting out and about in everyday Cambodian villages to see real life. More specifically, we'd like to spend some time investigating the impact of land mines on people in the area. We don't want to turn people's suffering into some selfish tourist attraction but, if there is some place we could go and see the continuing efforts to clear away this plague and return some semblance of safety to the countryside, we'd be very interested.
- Matt Hollinshead

Tashi Wheeler, a former commissioning editor with Lonely Planet, writes:

Siem Reap is a gorgeous town to spend time in, but sight-wise it really is all about Angkor Wat. Heading out in a boat to some of the further-flung temples such as Banteay Srei and the river of a thousand lingas at Kbal Spean will take you out of Siem Reap. Although there isn't much in the way of village life around there.

You can't exactly watch land mine clearing in action but, if you are interested in the impact of land mines, you should definitely check out the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. It was established by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier turned DIY de-miner, Aki Ra.
It has informative displays on the curse of land mines in Cambodia and includes an extensive collection of mines, mortars, guns and weaponry used during the civil war in Cambodia.

Not only a weapon of war, land mines are a weapon against peace and proceeds from the museum are ploughed into mine awareness campaigns and support an onsite orphanage, rehabilitation centre and training facility.

Visiting the floating village of Chong Kneas, which is a bit of a tourist trap but still very scenic, can be a nice escape from Siem Reap and a good break from the temples.

Further afield, about two hours from Siem Reap, and more memorable than Chong Kneas, is the village of Kompng Phhluk. It's an other-worldly place built on soaring stilts. The village is a friendly place, where most of the houses are built on stilts of about 6m or 7m high, almost like bamboo skyscrapers. Check out the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook for more information on the villages and how to get to them.

The winning question this week is from Matt Hollinshead, who receives a copy of Lonely Planet China ($69.99).

Travelling by rail

I'm planning a backpacking tour with a friend of mine around Europe for six weeks, visiting Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Marseilles or Nice, Munich, Rome, Naples (for Pompeii), Pisa, Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Krakow, Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, possibly Rotterdam, London and back to Paris. We are wanting to travel by rail, but are a little stumped by the multitude of rail passes available and what would be best for this. We are both 22 and are planning on travelling using 2nd class youth tickets. What would be the best rail pass(es) to buy to suit this trip?
- Mathieu Wilson

Former Lonely Planet commissioning editor Tashi Wheeler writes:

Think carefully about purchasing a rail pass. In particular, prices for the multitude of Eurail passes have been going up much faster than inflation. They are pricey. Spend a little time online on the national railways sites and determine what it would cost to do your trip by buying the tickets separately. More often than not, you'll find that you spend less than if you buy a Eurail pass.

You have a lot of destinations, about 17, you want to get to and not that much time with only six weeks to spend doing it. This gives you about 2.5 days per destination and this isn't taking into account travel time on the trains or anything else that happens along the way.

Most of the Eurail passes only allow 10 to 15 days of travel within a one- to three-month period and Eurail doesn't cover the UK.

Out of all the Eurail passes, I would recommend the Eurail Youth Flexi pass. It's for those under 26 and for 2nd-class travel only: 10/15 days travel in two months for about $720-$940. Two to five people travelling together can get a saver version of Eurail passes, cutting about 15 per cent off.

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Japanese Textile Artist Drawn to Silk Mystery

While the Freer and Sackler galleries showcase rare Khmer bronzes in an ongoing exhibition, traditional Khmer silks are also on display.

The silks are a bit of a mystery, at least to Kikuo Morimoto, the founder of the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles, who was invited by the Smithsonian to explain Khmer silk dyeing and weaving.

Morimoto brought with him examples of hand-woven textiles that include an important twill pattern, called “hol.”

“I am interested in the mysterious story of yellow raw silk of Cambodia as material relating to Cambodian textiles,” he said, in addition to finding the source of the unique weaving technique.

An artist from Kyoto, Japan, Morimoto said he started his project to restore silkworm cultivation in Cambodian villages and to preserve a culture of weaving that is similar to that in Japan. He especially worked with weavers in Takeo province.

“I met an old woman, she is still keeping the old-day [hol],” he said. “This is the same in Japan also.”

He moved his institute to Siem Reap in 2000, after establishing it in Phnom Penh in 1996, and he hopes to find a way to teach the old methods to younger generations. He now has five hectares of land north of the temples of Angkor, a region that was the heart of the Khmer empire from the 9th to 14th centuries.

His work earned him a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2004 and an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni in 2007. The king praised the institute for providing employment opportunities to impoverished Cambodian women and maintaining the old tradition.

Louise Allison Cort, a ceramic curator at the Freer and Sackler galleries, said she admired Morimoto for working to preserve the environment as well as the methods.

“When I wear this piece, I know that it was made completely by hand,” she said. “Somebody grew the mulberry trees to raise the silkworm; someone sponged the silk from the silk cocoons; someone used the natural dye to make the colors; someone weaved on the loom; and all of these people enjoyed their work and felt that it contributed to the whole finished result. And when I wear this I feel like I am participating in that project as well.”

The products of the silk weavers' labours are already being sold at a shop above the Siem Reap workshops. They are also available at the Freer and Arthur galleries withing the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
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