Welcome to the Crossroads of the Multiverse: cover reveal for The Secret of Zoone

Welcome to the Crossroads of the Multiverse: cover reveal for The Secret of Zoone

After sitting on this beautiful design and artwork for the last couple of months, I’m finally able to officially reveal the cover for THE SECRET OF ZOONE, the first book in a new series I’m writing for HarperCollins Children’s Books, due out in March 2019.

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It was my intention all along to not illustrate this book, and I’m so happy with that decision—because I simply adore the cover, with its beautiful artwork by Evan Monteiro and whimsical hand-lettering by Michelle Taormina. A big thank you to HarperCollins for providing such an awesome team, including my editor, Stephanie Stein, who guided me through the process.

I’m so thankful that Stephanie and her team allowed me and my agent, Rachel Letofsky, to participate in the design of the cover. Even though I am in a unique position, having worked as both a professional graphic designer and illustrator, I knew that didn’t automatically mean that I would be invited to contribute. Which is all to say that I am really grateful—and thrilled—that my ideas and character suggestions were incorporated into the artwork.

In a future post, I’ll show some of those sketches and ideas, but suffice it to say that this cover really matches what was dancing inside my imagination:

Giant winged cat—check!

Boy with a key—check!

Princess with inappropriately purple hair—check!

Doors—check!

Station house in the background—check!

Here’s the official text that will appear on the dust jacket:

WELCOME TO ZOONE, CROSSROADS OF THE MULTIVERSE

When an enormous, winged blue tiger appears on his aunt’s sofa, Ozzie can tell he’s in for an adventure. He’s thrilled to follow Tug, who calls himself a skyger, through a secret door in the basement of his apartment building and into Zoone, the bustling station where hundreds of doors act as gateways to fantastic and wonderful worlds.

But some doors also hide dangers—and when the portal back to Earth collapses behind them, Ozzie gets more than the adventure he bargained for. With the help of a friendly blue skyger, a princess with a peculiar curse, and a bumbling wizard’s apprentice, Ozzie will have to fix his only way home . . . and maybe save the multiverse in the process.

~

I can’t wait to introduce everyone to Ozzie, Fidget, Tug, and the rest of the ZOONE crew in 2019. In the meantime, I’ll continue posting new visuals and background art for the book.

And, hey—the book is already available for preordering. Just sayin’.

 

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Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

I’ve been doing a lot of prop-building lately—for example, crafting dragon eggs. Since prop-building is such an important part of my writing process, it’s something I like to bring to my students as well.

Getting away from the screen

One of the great things about prop-building is that it allows me to work on my book without staring at the screen. Let’s face it: Writing is hard and often exhausting. Sometimes, I feel like I have no words left in my brain, but I still have the desire to playin my world.

I’ve found that prop-building is a way to accomplish that. Working with tangible objects, working with my hands, has helped me to sort out plot problems. It’s kind of like doing the dishes and being suddenly struck by a eureka moment. Of course, when you wash dishes, all you get is clean dishes. When you build a prop, you get a tangible item from an imaginary world.

Nightmare Bottles

I’ve been working with a group of tween and teen writers this spring and one of the things I’ve tried to do is bring in the prop-building angle.

One of our first projects was to build “nightmare bottles.” This involves creating a character and metaphorically putting their fears in a bottle. Of course, this could provide fuel for a story in its own right, but the main purpose here was just to coax the kids into some brainstorming time.

Here’s some of their creations . . .

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Character Kits

The main prop-building project I introduced this term was to create a personal kit for each character. This could also be metaphorical or could actually appear in the students’ stories. I’m big on inventing interesting “tools” for my characters and, especially if you are writing a fantasy book, I think you have a lot of opportunities to add extra sizzle to your story.

For this project, the students get to decorate and paint the kits themselves, then fill them with a variety of mini-props that fit their specific characters’ journeys.

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This project has also tasked my students with a different approach to creativity. I’ve been trying to make sure they solve some of the problems they face.For example, one of my students wanted to build a spy kit with a gun. I looked around for toy guns and felt the creativity being sapped right out of me. I decided we could do something more original and unique. So, instead of buying a pre-made toy pistol, I bought tiny water guns and told the student to use it as a base for building something more unique.

He took one look at the brightly colored water guns and scoffed. I couldn’t convince him what a little paint a few cannibalized odds and ends could do. There was nothing I could do to change his mind, so I went home and built my own gun.

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Admittedly, my gadget turned out part steampunk, part alien ray gun, but I hope I’ve made my point! And, now, I have something more unique and interesting that I can use—yep, I decided this can belong to a character who’s currently running around causing havoc in one of my own stories.

That’s the power of prop-building!

A new addition to the dragon’s nest

A new addition to the dragon’s nest

I have been building dragon eggs for a couple of years now, but I recently took on the challenge of crafting a giant one. I originally wanted to build an egg so that I could use it as reference in a book I’m working on (not the MAIN book I’m working on, but a side project).

I realized that my eggs were all too small—I wanted a model that would be the exact same size as the one my characters would have to deal with in the book.

So, I hunkered down over spring break and set to work . . . Here’s all the stages, starting with the raw materials: a giant plastic Easter egg shell, acrylic jewels, and plaster.

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I started by plastering. This is the same type of material that doctors use for casts, but you can buy it at most art stores. I cut the plaster sheets into manageable strips then begin forming designs on the shell.

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The plaster dries quickly, but can snap off if you’re not careful. A coat of mod-podge does wonders to keep it intact.

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Once I was done with the plastering, I began the bejeweling phase, using a variety of different sizes and colors—the color variation doesn’t actually matter, because everything gets painted over at the end.

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I like to start with a black coat of paint, then build up color afterwards.

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I chose metallic greens for the final color, so started dry-brushing over the black undercoat.

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Here’s the final product, sitting in my studio and shown next to an average hen’s egg, to show scale!

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And here’s four of my dragon eggs, showing the different sizes, colors, and patterns.

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Finding the threads: weaving together different strands of inspiration for a new children’s book series

Finding the threads: weaving together different strands of inspiration for a new children’s book series

Everyone has a different approach to writing. Some of my friends are unabashed “pantsers” (flying by the seats of their pants as they write), while others are plotters. I’m somewhere in between. I like to plot to a certain point, then fly by the seat of my pants, trusting in the process.

What about you?

Last year, I reached the stage that so many authors dream of: signing a three-book deal with a major publisher. In my case, it’s a children’s middlegrade book series called Zoone, which will start coming out with HarperCollins in 2019.

It’s really exciting, but it’s forced me to confront a schedule I’m not used to, essentially having to deliver three books in three years.

Book 1, no problem! It was mostly done anyway. But I took a decidedly different approach to Books 2 and 3.

I’ve written sequels before (four of them, in fact, for my Kendra Kandlestar series) and I find myself facing the same situation: the world is created, the main characters established, and now it’s time to make something that equals—and hopefully surpasses—everything I achieved in Book 1.

A New Approach

The differences with this series is that 1) it just doesn’t involve one made-up world and 2) it doesn’t have one major plot arc stretching over all three books. (An emotional arc, yes, but not a plot one).

World-Building

This time, I’ve created a multiverse filled with many different worlds. I don’t cover them all in the series, but there are dozens that are mentioned, which has prompted me to become an expert record-keepering, building a “bible” of kingdoms, empires, and lands. This bible lists all the important details of each world: flora, fauna, official symbols and colors, type of money, and of course any specific mentions in any of the books.

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Plot

In a way, world-building is the easy part for me. Or at least the super-fun part. Plot is always a bit more challenging. This time, I decided to tease the plots out of my world-building.

Inspiration from everywhere

Even before I had a contract, I knew I wanted to do more than one book with these characters and worlds. So, for the past few years, I’ve been collecting lots of inspiration, especially from my travels. At the time, I didn’t worry about where exactly anything would fit; I just focused on recording the things that inspired me.

I took a lot of photos, of course, but more important to my process are the ideas recorded in my various notebooks. I usually like to have one notebook per project, but in the past couple years, I’ve been filling those up and now am in the multiple notebooks stage for this one project.

Hunting for inspiration

Some places I went to intentionally to seek out specific inspiration. For example, Hạ Long Bay in Vietnam was a place I knew that would serve as a model for one of the worlds I wanted to build.

Of course, in today’s world of connectivity, you can browse photos and videos of virtually any place on the planet. But there are some ideas that you can simply only stumble upon by being in a place.

That’s exactly what happened at Hạ Long Bay for me. I knew the limestone cliffs would inspire me, but I hadn’t considered the interractions with the people. To be honest, I didn’t even think there were people (other than tourists) at Hạ Long Bay.

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But it was on the second day of our tour when I wandered onto the deck of our boat at the crack of dawn to hear this almost-woeful call: “Something to buy? Something to buy?”

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I gazed over the railing and there, appearing out of the mist, was a young girl on a boat full of snacks and sodas.

She was, as I later learned, a Vietnamese boat child. These children live with their families on their junks and traditionally eke out a living by fishing, but now they’ve adapted to the hordes of tourists and add to their income by selling stuff. We were told that many of the children live out their entire lives on the boats. It’s only recently that the government has been making some changes to try and ensure these kids get some formal education.

That whole situation sent a spark flying through my imagination. I remember sitting with my wife afterwards and stopping halfway through a sentence to stare blankly into space (I do that a lot). When she asked what was going on, I replied with one of those countless “What-if” questions that every author asks his or her partner about a plot.

After I asked my question (which, of course, I can’t reveal) I immediately rejected the idea. I knew it would cause A LOT of problems overall to the series. In particular, it would flip something already established in Book 1 completely on its head. As soon as I realized THAT, I knew it was completely the right call to make for the series. Yes, it’s a problem for me to write, it’s a problem for the characters to deal with. So now I’ve got to go that way—it will make the rest story. That initial spark of inspiration has become a lightning bolt. And it would have never have happened if I hadn’t actually gone to Hạ Long Bay.

Inspiration accidentally discovered

There are times when I’m not seeking for inspiration AT ALL. When we went to Hawaii a couple of years ago, it was to seek true R&R, to take a break from our creative but consuming careers, and to switch off.

Yeah, right.

Thankfully I was clever enough to pack my brainstorming journals. Inspiration walloped me from every direction on that trip, not only in terms of the diverse landscape of the big island of Hawaii, but in terms of the wonderful wildlife.
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Time to deliver

So, now I’m in this fun (harrowing?) stage of combing through everything, trying to find some thread of a storyline from this tapestry of setting sketches, character and creature doodles, and ramblings scribbled across all these different notebooks.

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There’s not only drawings and words made while in Hawaii and Vietnam, but also Korea, Cambodia, Ireland, and England. I am now seeing a theme in my notebooks: I rarely wrote facts down about each of the places we visited. I was already creating new worlds in my sketches and notes. Those experiences went through my filter and instantly became alternate realities.

It’s still the roughest of brainstorming, but at least there is a lot of fuel for me to dwell upon and to—hopefully—turn into something concrete.

Well, there you have it. Time to do some plotting—and some pantsing.

 

Our days in Cambodia: exploring the Killing Fields

Our days in Cambodia: exploring the Killing Fields

The last couple of days my wife Marcie and I spent in Cambodia were spent exploring the Killing Fields. Even though the focus of this trip was about seeking fantastical inspiration by exploring the temple ruins of Angkor and exotic cultural experiences, we knew it was incumbent upon on to examine this aspect of Cambodia’s history. When it came to the Killing Fields, this was not about finding inspiration, but about increasing our awareness.

We made visits to two different sites related to the Killing Fields: the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, just outside of Phnom Penh, and the Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum, which is located within the city itself.

Both visits were difficult experiences. That probably goes without saying, but our visits coincided with the storm coming out in the news of certain presidents referring to developing countries as “sh*thole countries.” There’s been a lot of debate about what was actually said, but to me, it’s not the specific words that matter—it’s the sentiment. And that unthinking, unfeeling attitude pervaded my thoughts as we trudged through the grounds where thousands—thousands—of people were killed because they did not fit a political leaders view of what fit. Men. Women. Children.

I had read quite a bit about the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and, in preparation for our visit, had rewatched the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Still, nothing had prepared me for our visit.

I knew that there was a memorial “stupa” at the Choeung Ek Genocidal site, and that it was filled with the skulls and bones of victims. I had seen photos online. The ones below are the ones we took:

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The bones and skulls have all been exhumed from the grounds. They are all real and grimly categorized by researchers who have tried to determine the sex of the victim and the means by which they were killed. There are over 5,000 skulls in the stupa.

So, yes, I was prepared to see the stupa. But what I didn’t know was that the grounds themselves are still scattered with human remains. It’s a testament to just how many people were slaughtered there between 1974 and 1979. Cambodia lost one-quarter of its population during the time and there are dozens of killing fields scattered throughout the country.

Choeung Ek was one of the main killing fields and because there are so many bodies buried there in mass graves, human remains are still rising to the surface. You can see them as you walk about—bones, clothes, teeth. They boil to the top of the ground, especially during the rains. It’s overwhelming, shocking, eerie, and heartbreaking to see them as you tour the place. There are not just one or two. They are everywhere.

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There are so many in fact, that the caretakers go through every few months to gather the ones that come to the surface. There are many display cases throughout the site, containing rags and human remains, and even on top of the cases there are piles of bones and teeth, newly-discovered and waiting to be put away.

There are many specific horrors described on the tour. We found the ones involving children and babies especially difficult to comprehend and absorb. Actually, I’m not sure we have absorbed it yet.

And now? The site is quiet, green and peaceful. Chickens wander the grounds. There are cattle grazing beyond the fences. Blossoming flowers. The shallow depressions in the ground, the remnants of the mass graves and the scattering of bones and rags are the only things that reveal the tragic nature of the site.

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After visiting Choeung Ek, we climbed into the tuk-tuk we had hired for the day and headed back into the city. We were actually meant to visit Tuol Sleng Prison afterwards, but when our driver pulled up, we just didn’t have it in us to do it. We had our driver take us back to our hotel and worked up the fortitude to visit the prison the following day.

Which we did.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is situated in one of the most famous prisons that was used during Pol Pot’s regime. It was once a high school, converted into a prison and torture chamber. People did die here, but that was never the regime’s intention. This was meant for detention and interrogation. It’s estimated that between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (also known as “S-21”). Many people, after torture, were sent to the Killing Fields to die. There are only twelve people confirmed to have survived the horrors of the prison.

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I’m glad we went to Tuol Sleng, but I’m also glad we didn’t do it in the same day as Choeung Ek. It allowed us to manage it emotionally and to give us a fighting chance to absorb it.

Here, you can see the prison cells and torture chambers, many of them in the exact same condition as when they were first used.

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Rooms once used to educate high school students were converted into individual or mass cells, hastily built with wood or bricks. Holes were punched crudely into the walls to allow guards to see down the entire chain of cells. Many of the floors are still stained with the result of gruesome torture.

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There also many rooms in the buildings that showcase exhibits related to the genocide. One of the most overwhelming aspects are the photos—there are hundreds of them, the mugshots of the people who were detained there. Every single prison (man, women, and child) were photographed and catalogued. You can see into their eyes in the photos—going to Tuol Sleng, it’s impossibly to escape the grisly reality of the genocide.

And that is a good thing. Nothing about the prison—or Choeung Ek for that matter—is sanitized.

Marcie and I are still thinking about our visits to these places and trying to rectify the Killing Fields with our other experiences in Cambodia. We have found the people here so friendly, kind, and generous. How can this possibly be after having gone through such atrocity?

When we attended a show of cultural dancing, the host of the evening said that it was Cambodia’s hope to be known for its art, and not the Killing Fields. That made me ponder. In truth, the first thing that always popped into my head about Cambodia was the wonders of Angkor. And I think that will still be the case in the years to come. When I remember our time in that wonderful country, I think I will dwell on the temples first. But it is certainly hard to not think of what we saw at the Killing Fields.

My former student, Dona, is currently volunteering in Cambodia and learning more about it’s culture everyday. After parting with her, she messaged me to say, “I hope that you two had a good time in Cambodia and find inspiration but also knowledge on how this country has been shaped and continues to persevere. I hope you take back your learnings to the communities you meet everyday.”

Such a wise person (and isn’t it humbling when your student becomes the teacher?). Perhaps what I will take away from Cambodia is not a visual memory, but an emotional sentiment: Empathy.

Our days in Phnom Penh: culture, creativity, and a lot more cars

Our days in Phnom Penh: culture, creativity, and a lot more cars

We’ve ended our “inspircation” in Southeast Asia in the city of Phnom Penh. I’ve fallen behind on the daily blog, but not because we’ve been more busy—ironically, it’s because we’ve slowed down a bit and have been taking it a bit more easy.

We arrived her via bus from Siem Reap. We actually missed the pick-up from our hotel  by the van that would take us to the bus depot, so we had to jump into a tuk-tuk and race across the city. At one point, our driver suddenly pulled over and passed me the phone. Turned out it was the hotel calling, saying that they had forgotten to charge me for one of our tours that we had booked through them (at about that exact moment I had been wondering why our bill was so low). So we had to hurriedly arrange payment, then we were off again. We managed to catch our bus to Phnom Penh, though just barely.

The drive between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is a leisurely four or five hours, with obligatory stops at markets and restaurants. The company we book through, Giant Ibis, has comfortable buses, fully air-conditioned and supplied with internet. We enjoyed watching the Cambodian countryside roll by—seemingly endless rice fields, herds of cattle, and massive flocks of domestic white ducks.

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Once we arrived in Phnom Penh, we gathered our embarrassing amount of luggage, hired a tuk tuk and he took us through the city towards our hotel.

I have a former student living and volunteering in this city and, prior to our arrival, she had warned us it would be pretty wild. But we have cut our teeth on cities such as Bangkok and Hanoi, so we actually found Phnom Penh quite sedate by comparison.

To begin with, there is only 1.5 million people here (compared to Bangkok’s 8.3 million and Hanoi’s 7.5 million). There is no constant honking by the traffic and we wonder if this is at least partly due to the fact that there are a lot less scooters here. Cars are more prevalent. Don’t get me wrong—there are a lot of scooters here; it’s just nothing like Hanoi.

Once we settled into our hotel, we met up with my old student, Dona, and we got caught up while wandering the city. Dona was worried about how we might do crossing the traffic—but once again, it’s a breeze here compared to Bangkok or Hanoi.

The city has a very modern feel to it, especially at night, when all the lights are pulsing.

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As you can see by the above photo, there is lots of space for pedestrians on the wide walkways between the avenues.

The next day, we met up with Dona again and checked out the city by natural light. I’ve found it to be a mixture of French colonial architecture, dilapidated buildings, and sheik modern architecture . . .

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The people themselves are incredibly friendly and most everyone in the service industry (that includes people selling at the markets) speaks excellent English.

We spent the first part of the day exploring the Russian Market, which is a giant beehive of stalls and stores and, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with Russia whatsoever. You can buy all sorts of good there, everything from sprocket wrenches to clothes. And, of course, food!

We bought some fruit on the street, including some that I’ve never heard of. For example, here’s something called “snake fruit.” It’s aptly named; just check out the husk:

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It reminds me of one of Daenerys’s dragon eggs in Game of Thrones.

After the market, Dona expressed a desire to try a Cambodian photo shoot. We decided to indulge her, so made our way to a studio and arranged a shoot for that very day. Marcie and Dona were instantly whisked away to a make-up room where a pair of women began clucking away and working on their hair and faces. I didn’t get any such treatment—I just had to watch!

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After this portion of the process, we were escorted to another room and dressed up in our costumes. Unfortunately, by body is decidedly not designed for traditional Cambodian clothing. The attendants had to make many adjustments to make it all fit.

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Eventually (and by “eventually” I mean an hour and a half), we were ready for our shoot. We were positioned against a white background and the photograph began posing and positioning us and clicking the shots.

Afterwards, we were taken to the computer lab to see our shots and to select from the options. Here’s the final photos we chose, and how they turned out . . .

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The removal of the costumes and the make-up was a lot quicker than the set up. In fact, Marcie and Dona showed their remnants for the rest of the night:

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We had an amazing dinner in a restaurant situated on the Mekong River, and while the boats trundled past, we talked about art, literature, film and about Dona’s experiences living in the city and her attempts to learn Khmer. (For the record, I think her Khmer is pretty good!)

The following day, Marcie set out to visit Choeung Ek, the best known and most-visited site of the Killing Fields. I want to save a discussion of our visit there for a future post, but for now I just want to say that we quite enjoyed the tuk-tuk ride there and back, as it afforded us a closer look at the daily city life of the people.

Similar to Hanoi, the traffic we zipped in and out of was a mixture of modern cars, scooters, bicycles, and other tuk-tuks. Some people were laden with traditional wares, such as this banana peddler:

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Other wares, are a bit less traditional:

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As we left behind the city, the roads became less busy and we saw the humble homes and shops of the people, as well as a lot more children and old people, cycling about, engaging in their daily activities.

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The thing we found the most heart-breaking about the countryside is the level of garbage. It’s everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

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The above photo is just a typical sight that greeted us as we rode along in our tuk-tuk. It’s hard to imagine the level of effort it would take to clean-up this amount of garbage. It’s a typical aspect found in developing countries, but it still makes me feel despondent.

On our way back from the killing fields, we encountered rush hour traffic. Here’s a shot from the back of our tuk-tuk. Our driver was facing a wall of cars and scooters and he had to turn left through it all, against multiple competing streams of vehicles.

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He did.

He handled it far better than we did.

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Once we made it back to our hotel, we refreshed with a drink and dinner, then met Dona again, this time to see some traditional Cambodian dancing. I always love to see this type of cultural expression when we’re in a new country, as it is so deeply connected to the ancient lore and legends of a place.

The Cambodian dancing did not disappoint. We were mesmerized by the costumes and the way the female dancers’ fingers gently bent backwards in an arc.

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In particular, I really enjoyed the enactment of the story of Hanuman, which I knew from my study of Indian mythology. Turns out, it migrated to Cambodia, and the dancers performed it with great aplomb—especially the actors who portrayed the monkeys. They wore colourful masks (reminding me a bit of the flying monkeys in 1939 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz film) and nimbly leapt about the stage and even into the aisles of the audience.

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The next time I blog, I’ll post our experiences at the killing fields. To be honest, we’re still digesting it.

 

 

Exploring Cambodia, Day 5: Seeing a different way of life on the floating villages of Tonle Sap

Exploring Cambodia, Day 5: Seeing a different way of life on the floating villages of Tonle Sap

For the final full day of our “inspiration” in Siam Reap, Cambodia, my wife and I decided to take a day trip out to Tonle Sap to see the floating village of Kampong Phluk.

We booked the trip through our hotel and were picked up by a van that then drove us to connect with a bigger bus, and more tourists. As is the case with so many tours, we had one couple that seemed to be bungling along at every step of the way—and that included step 1, getting going! It took ten minutes for our guide (Sok) to track the couple down and then, at last, we were off into the Cambodian countryside.

The drive was about an hour and a half and along the way we could see a more rural part of the country, far removed from the gentrified tourist hub of Siem Reap. Along the way, Sok told us stories about what it was like to grow up in Cambodia. He said that he stayed in school as a child, even though his parents urged him to quit and work as a fisherman or a farmer. But he persisted in his education, learned English, and joined the burgeoning tourist trade.

Sok went onto say that Cambodians are quite thankful for the tourists, as it has raise the quality of life. This was actually something Marcie and I had talked about at great length—do the tourists like us or dread us? We had seen so many people treating the people poorly (read my post on what I dub the “poverty paparazzi“), but, according to Sok at least, we provide a positive outcome for the people. I hope that’s the truth.

We eventually arrived at the pier and were loaded into a boat. As we wound our way down the waterways, we could see many fishing boats, nets, and houses on stilts. It wasn’t a peaceful ride—our boat, and the many other ones just like it all run on grumpy petrol engines that growl and grunt the entire time.

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Kompong Phluk is a five-hundred-year-old village situated on the Tonle Sap, the major lake and river system in Cambodia. In fact, Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia, and has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere site because of its wide range of endangered flora fauna.

The direction of the water in Tonle Sap changes twice a year, resulting in extreme highs and lows in the water level. During the dry season, the bed of water is completely dry. During the wet season, the water rises immensely. It’s for this reason that the houses are either built on stilts or on rafts of petroleum barrels.

95% of the economy during the wet season is based on fishing, the other 5% on farming. This changes to 50-50 during the dry season.

Once we landed at the village’s main dock, we were swarmed by children, keen to see and talk to all the strangers. Their English was quite strong and they were particularly interested in one girl in our group who was above average height. They kept pestering her to tell them her height and then they went on to wonder what type of job she had. It was quite amusing to watch!

We ventured down the dry and dusty streets, cognizant of the fact that it would be a water way at a different time of year. Right at the dock is a large Buddhist temple. Due to tourism, it’s being refurbished and looks in really great shape. You can see it below, in the distance, as I turned around halfway down the street to photograph it:

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And this is the view that was in front of us:

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All the kids in the village go to school, which is free. The expensive part is procuring supplies, so we made a donation when we came upon the kindergarten.

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We also came upon a few woman sorting, cooking, and preparing shrimp.

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Everyone in the village was really kind, welcoming us into their personals spaces and showing us around. You could even buy the dried shrimp by the bag full, so I suppose this was a little bit like touring the factory, then buying the product afterwards.

After about a half hour, our guide tried to round everyone up and get them back on our boat. Once again, this took some doing. There are many tourists boats and some of our party actually boarded the wrong boat at first, and we had to collect them and head off again.

We continued down the river towards the lake. All of the sudden, we were in a type of mangrove, surrounded by trees . . . and people.

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We wondered what was going on, but all was quickly explained. For $10, we could take a boat through the mangroves for a short excursion and meet up with the main boat again before proceeding to the lake.

Marcie wasn’t sure about this at first, but eventually decided to give it a try—and a good thing, as this turned out to be the favourite part of the tour for both of us. Our guide adeptly paddles us through the trees and, even though there were so many of us, we soon in a long single file and felt quite peaceful. We could hear the jungle birds and, peering up into the tree canopies, I spotted a monkey leaping from branch to branch. That was pretty cool.

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And then what happened? Suddenly, we came upon a slew of boats . . . we had just entered a floating village of corner stores. Seems like the obligatory stop at a halfway point of a tour to buy something happens even out here!

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The interesting part of this situation was that every boat was designated to stop at a specific store. One of the boats ended up doubling up, leaving one of the stores without a customer. We heard about that—the woman at that store began yelling and wailing. I don’t speak Khmer, but I can imagine!

As for us, we didn’t want to buy anything for ourselves, but the woman at our boat-store was very friendly and spoke excellent English. So, in the end, we decided to buy a tea for our guide and that seemed to make everyone happy. One thing we have learned is that it’s a really good idea to have lots of small bills here. You can use American currency (in fact, I think it’s preferred), but you need them in one-dollar notes. Change is often an issue, even for something like a ten-dollar bill.

After we were finished visiting the store, our guide continued paddling . . .

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. . . and eventually we arrived at a large floating restaurant. It was here where we could eat, drink, and watch the first hints of the sunset.

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For some reason, there was a giant snake in a cage in the very middle of the restaurant. I’m not sure if it was for the tourists to gawk at or if it was eventually going to be on the menu (snake and crocodile regularly feature here).

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Whatever the case, the thing was huge and I ended up feeling sorry for it, especially when one of the tourists began antagonizing it by poking it with a plastic straw.

At one point, I had to use the bathroom. That ended up being quite interesting. I had to navigate a narrow wooden walkway, about a foot wide, wall on my left, water on my right. The bathroom itself was rustic, with just a bowl and a nearby barrel with a ladle to scoop up water and do the flushing. That part was fine—it was the treacherous walk that I was worried about. I’m just clumsy enough to have ended up in that lake!

After this break, we were all loaded onto our boats again and trundled out into the lake to watch the sunset.

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Once again, this took some doing—people were getting on the wrong boats and one couple (the same one who had delayed us at the very beginning of the trip) ended up forgetting their belongings on the restaurant, which meant we had to detour back there after the sunset so they could collect them.

As for the sunset itself . . . you can see the pics for yourself!

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We had a great final day in Siem Reap and going on the tour allowed us to meet and connect with lots of people from all over the world (not only the people in the village, but our fellow tourists).

It’s quite humbling to see how so many people eke out an existence. Their homes and living spaces are so small. So many of us in the first world seem to wring our hands over wanting a detached house, or more space to fill with stuff, or this and that . . . and here’s just one tiny cross-section of people who live with so much less than the rest of us.

We’re going to miss Siem Reap, but look forward to our next stop: Phnom Penh!