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Meet the Bears outside of Phnom Penh

Free the Bears is a bear sanctuary, situated 40km outside of Phnom Penh, off National Road 2. The sanctuary is part of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, the entrance is $5 for foreigners and $3 for Cambodians. There isn’t much in the way of public transport to the centre, so it’s best to make your own way there via motorbike, tuk-tuk or rent a taxi.

Free the Bears was founded in 1993 by an Australian called Mary Hutton. There is clearly still a need for the sanctuary as they currently house 118 sun bears and Asiatic black bears. I was shown around by Chuon Vuthy , the Cambodian Programme Manager. He told me that some people buy bears as cubs, and abandon them as they grow into full size bears. The sanctuary also houses bears who have been injured by animal traps.

I also chatted to Emma Gatehouse, who is the Volunteer Coordinator and Technical Expert. Emma tells me Fortnam’s story (pictured in the Hammock). Fortnam is a sun bear cub, he arrived at Free the Bears six months ago. He had been kept as a pet and was in a bad way when he arrived. His fur was balding and brown – a sign of malnutrition in sun bears. Since arriving at the sanctuary, Fortnam’s coat has got darker, but he still needs to put on weight.  Emma tells me that the hammock is Fortnam’s favourite spot, he can often be found there fast asleep.

I had an agenda behind organising my visit to Free the Bears – my agenda being wanting to photograph sun bear cubs. Fortnam and his friends don’t disappoint. The cubs are either, wrestling, eating ants or napping in hammocks.  I had naively imagined being able to get closer to the cubs, but the staff explained that they bears would try and wrestle with me, so I reluctantly Iet the idea go.

Lonely Planet’s website erroneously states that visitors can wash bear cubs as part of the ‘bear keeper for a day’ programme. I must confess to liking the idea of washing bear cubs, but Emma and Chuon Vuthy explained that it would be bad for the bear cubs to have a series of tourist washing them. It’s generally important to manage how much human contact the bear cubs have. Where possible the sanctuary will introduce a rescued cub to a group of similar aged bears. If this is not possible, trained members of staff help the cubs learn bear behaviour, such as how to climb trees and catch ants.

I generally have reservations about zoos, but these bears aren’t kept for our entertainment. They are rescued bears. It wouldn’t be possible to release these bears into the wild. The bears seem content wrestling and eating in their large enclosures.

The sanctuary does offer a ‘bear keeper for the day’ programme (without bear cub washing). They also welcome volunteers from between 1 week – 8 weeks.  The Free the Bears team are really friendly and passionate about the bears’ welfare. If you like bears, I think it would be a great experience.

Read more about volunteering at Free the Bears on their website:

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Nerd Night in Phnom penh

Nerd Night (sometimes known as Nerd Nite) is an international movement, where people get together for presentations and drinks. Phnom Penh’s Nerd Night is based on the principles of Pecha Kucha presentations. Pecha Kucha presentations are short. Presenters are allowed 20 slides, with 20 seconds for each slide. Phnom Penh’s Nerd Night takes place twice a month and the venue changes each time. Check out the events to see where and when the next Nerd Night will take place.

Nerd Night was founded in Phnom Penh, by Yi Wei, just over one year ago.  I asked Yi about her all-time favourite Nerd Night presentations. She tells me about the time when local artists Chhan Dina, painted ten portraits, during her Nerd Night slot. Another guy wrote a song. He got the lyrics, music and melody from the audience and created a Nerd Night ditty. It seems like there are endless presentation possibilities.

Last Monday (Feb the 20th) Nerd Night took place in Score Sports Bar. This was my first Nerd Night and I was surprised at how packed Score Bar was. It was at it’s capacity with around 200-300 people in the bar. It’s amazing that such a large crowd wants to watch five Phnom Penh residents talk about random topics.

The topics included cadavers, BuckHunger (a children’s soup kitchen), wine, acupuncture, and things expats need to get used to about Cambodia. Yi introduced Mara Harris, who kicks off the proceedings with her presentation on cadavers.  Mara HarrisMara says she isn’t an expert on dead bodies, but she read an interesting book on cadavers and wanted to do a presentation.

Next we move on to Johnny Phillips from BuckHunger, a children’s soup kitchen, who have featured in previous Your Phnom Penh articles. John Schute, then takes to the stage with his presentation – ‘if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving’.  John organises wine tasting events in Phnom Penh. Then we learn about acupuncture with Kimberly GruberKimberly Gruber,. The audience are given tips, such as relieving pain by rubbing the web of skin between the thumb and finger.

The night finishes with a presentation called ‘things expats need to get used to about Cambodia, because they are not going to change’. This presentation could be an article in itself. Sopheak Hoeun talks about how expats need to accept squat toilets, getting charged more than locals, and weddings taking place on the street. We also need to get used to women wearing pyjamas, as they are light colourful and cheap. The audience laugh a lot, because it’s funny and because we know she’s right.

I caught up with Hoeun after her presentation. She claims to have been nervous, which is hard to believe, as she seemed so confident! Hoeun says ‘The reason I decided to make today’s presentation is because I’ve been hearing these kind of complaints, and words from foreigners, and maybe it’s time to put it in public, so they can use my presentation as a mirror’. Hoeun says we should try to live within the Cambodian framework and culture. But Hoeun didn’t want to tell people off, she wanted to get her message across with humour. It was a funny presentation with a serious point, many expats need to ease up on their complaining about life in Cambodia.

At the end of the night, I ask Yi, (one of the Nerd Night team) why she thinks Nerd Night is so popular. She says that ‘one of the reasons people like it is because it’s your friends and peers in the Phnom Penh community, it’s a small town, and the night brings out a side of people you might not usually see in regular conversation’. We end our chat with Yi saying ‘I can’t emphasise enough how much it’s a community event, people need to sign up and show their nerdiness, without the speakers there isn’t an event’. I’m definitely converted. I’m not sure I’ll have the nerve to speak, but it’s a great way to socialise and learn about strange and unexpected topics.

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One Day in Phnom Penh

If you are limited to one day in Phnom Penh, you have plenty of things to see within a short period of time. Phnom Penh was once known as “The Pearl of Asia” with its beautiful French architecture and was one of the most modern cities in Southeast Asia from the 1920s to the 1950s. Unfortunately the recent history has taken its toll on the city but you can still see the beauty beneath the surface.

To get the most out of one day in Phnom Penh you will have to start early and rent a Tuk-tuk for the whole day to get around (Approximately $15- $20). Phnom Penh is not a big city but it is too hot to walk and the city is not always walking friendly since most of the sidewalks are either used as parking space or outdoor seating area for restaurants.

If you do not have breakfast at your hotel a recommendation is to have breakfast at The Shop on Street 240 just behind Royal Palace. It is a small western café with a lot of breakfast options and they also have a selection of bread and sandwiches if you want to buy some snacks to have during the day.

When you are finished with your breakfast you should take the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace and look at the King’s residence, the beautiful garden and the Silver Pagoda. The Royal Palace is only open until 11AM and then the closes for lunch and opens again at 2 PM. It takes about an hour to see Royal Palace and remember that if you what to go into the pagoda you should wear shorts that cover your knees and a shirt that covers your shoulders. Next to the Royal Palace is the National Museum and if you are interested in sculptures and art from the Angkor era this can be worth a quick visit.

After the Royal Palace take your tuk-tuk to Wat Phnom, the oldest pagoda in Phnom Penh, built in 1373. Wat Phnom means ‘Mountain Temple’ and is a Buddhist temple where the Cambodians go to pray for good luck. Wat Phnom is located in the north part of Phnom Penh close to the old French part of the city. On your way to lunch you can ask your tuk-tuk driver to make a quick stop at the post office just to see some of the old French architecture.

Time for lunch!  A perfect place to eat delicious authentic Khmer cuisine and enjoy the view of the river is at Bopha Restaurant by the riverside, just 2 minutes ride from Wat Phnom. This restaurant often has live khmer music and dance performances during lunchtime.

After lunch, it is time to go to the south part of the city and visit the tragic past of the Khmer Rouge era, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng is a former high-school that was transformed into one of the most notorious prisons, Security Prison 21 (S-21), during the Khmer Rouge era. This museum is heartbreaking but definitely worth a visit, it will give you a glimpse of the suffering the Cambodian people have gone though during the Khmer Rouge.

Not far from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum you will find the Russian Market, which is the most popular market among tourists and expats. This is the best place in town to pick up souvenirs; you will find everything from beautifully hand carved statues, colorful lanterns and handmade silk scarves to fake bags, printed T-shirts and DVDs.

After a busy day like this it can be nice to take a break for some relaxation so why not take a massage before you have dinner? One of the popular Spas in Phnom Penh is U and Me Spa at Boeung Keng Kang 1.

For dinner we highly recommend supporting the local community and dining at the NGO restaurant Lotus Blanc, which provides a great selection of western and Khmer cuisine.

Finish off the evening with a drink at Le Moon, a rooftop bar with a beautiful view near the riverside.

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Visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21)

Tuol Sleng is a former high school that was transformed into one of the most infamous prisons, Security Prison 21 (S-21), in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era. The name Tuol Sleng translates to ‘hill of poison tree’ but to many Cambodians the prison was known as “Choul min dael chenh” – the place where people go in but never come out.

In August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge took control over Cambodia, this High School was turned into a prison and interrogation center by Khmer Rouge. They renamed the High School to Security Prison 21 (S-21) and reconstructed the building into a prison. The classrooms were converted into tiny cells and torture chambers, all windows were covered with iron bars and the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire.

During the four years S-21 was in use over 17 000 people were imprisoned and killed at this prison. Only six people are known to have survived the prison.

In 1979 the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and the prison was uncovered. When the Vietnamese Army found S-21 the prison staff had already fled leaving thousands of written documents and photographs of all the people that had been imprisoned at S-21. Altogether more than 6 000 photographs were found and these photographs are still remaining at the museum today.

In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.


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Improve Your Health Through Outdoor Exercise

Public gym and public exercise are becoming more and more popular in Phnom Penh among those who are interested in improving their health through outdoor exercise. The Riverside Public Gym is one of the newest communal fitness center located on Preah Sisowath Quay near Amanjaya Hotel. The gym consists of 13 different types of exercise equipment  and is free for everyone. Next to the public gym you can find aerobics and dance classes during evenig time (5.30-6 pm to 8.30pm) but these will cost you about 1000 Riel (o,25 USD) to join.

The most popular area in Phnom Penh to do outdoor exercise is in the Wat Bottom Park by the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument. Every night, hundreds of Cambodians gather to do aerobics, play football or badminton, exercise or just walk around. it is located on Street Sothearos Blvd, in front of Hong Kong Center, close to Independence Monument.

If you want to do aerobics or dance just pay 1000 riel in person no matter residence or expats. Normally they start from 6 pm to 8:30 pm.

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Visit the oldest pagoda in Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom is the oldest and the tallest religious structure in Phnom Penh, it was built 1373 and it stands 27 meters. Wat Phnom means “Temple of the Mountains” or “Mountain Pagoda” and it is a Buddhist Temple.

Legend says that a wealthy widow, Daun Penh, found a large koki tree in the river. Inside the tree she found four bronze statues of the Buddha. Lady Penh constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill to protect the sacred statues. Eventually this became a sacred site and sanctuary where people would make blessings and pray.

Today, many people come here to pray for success and good luck. It is also one of Phnom Penh’s many tourist attractions so you will find a lot of beggars and women and children selling drinks, souvenirs and birds in cages. You buy the birds to let them free but the birds are trained to return to the cage afterwards.

You can also take a short elephant ride around the temple if you want.

You can find more detail about it’s address on Wat Phnom venue.