formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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March 20, 2018 Pub Street (part IX in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 20, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We didn’t travel thirteen time zones in tightly packed aluminum tubing to be shielded from our hosts’ culture. However, happy to be vegan, we passed on the opportunity to eat snake on a stick, crispy scorpion, seasoned tarantula, and assorted fried bugs in favor of a veggie pizza in the lively Pub Street section of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

This place defies the idea of a small dusty bit of a town in an under-developed country. One can explore Pub Street ‘round the clock. Amid the many ornate Buddhist temples are day markets and night markets. Luxury hotels and beautifully aged colonial buildings fill spaces between impeccably clean and well-lit streets. Cross the canal to the Art Market to find great deals on original native art. Many talented artists proudly display their renditions of elephants, monks, temples, jungle, and sunrises in brilliant oils.

 Pub Street only takes up two blocks in two directions but it’s buzzing with people. Excellent restaurants offer traditional Khmer and Thai food, or Chinese, or Indian. Tempting aromas of herbs and spices waft through the crowd. Street vendors sell goodies from their carts (besides those creepy crawly things for a dollar a skewer), like delicious bite-sized fried dessert nuggets made with coconut milk. Along the main drag and down the numerous lanes and alleys, live music and street entertainment fill the air with fun. Spas are popular here, and especially the kind where you can get a pedicure by fish.

We first experienced Pub Street at night. Having passed a few of the party-sized tanks filled with fish dining on dirty feet, we gave it some consideration. One of us had to get up the nerve though.

The next morning, our driver, Alex, took us back to Pub Street for the day markets. By then, we were feeling brave. Well, one of us was. We joined other tourists seated along the wide frame edges of the tank and dunked our feet into the water. Well, one of us did. One of us made several attempts, squealing, shivering, and pulling the feet back out. However, both sets of Ely feet eventually got the treatment. Alex was amused. Feeding the fish tickles terribly at first, but after a few minutes we didn’t feel more than a light sensation touching our tootsies. The bragging rights are worth it, and the result is amazing. These little black fish left our ped paws so much smoother than what any pedicurist pumicing them raw can do.

With freshened feet we stepped into a beautiful restaurant and filled our bellies with five-star veg meals before getting back in Alex’s tuk tuk to go on a boat tour of the floating village.

The houses are on stilts like the ones in Galveston, only built much higher for the wet season. For children growing up on the water there are no lawns to mow, but there’s plenty of fishing and vessel work to do. Catch you next week. There’s plenty more to this story.

March 13, 2018 More Siem Reap (part VIII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 13, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Welcome back to Ely Air Lines. We’re in the middle of a series on our flights throughout Southeast Asia and all the adventures in between. If you missed any of the previous episodes, scroll through to catch up.

We left you last week in Siem Reap, Cambodia as we introduced our private driver, Alex. The bright, young businessman arrived promptly each morning to take us to explore the city. On our first full day we visited a silk farm where every step in the process is present, from mulberry tree groves feeding the worms, to the growing and harvesting of them, to dying, spinning, and weaving, and the final products. The tour is impressive and the entire farm and factory clean and modern, but also includes demonstration areas showing the older ways to spin and weave silk. No tourist attraction would be complete without a museum and gift shop, and this one even had a coffee bar. The colorful silk products are made with amazing talent—scarves, dresses, shirts, handbags, wall hangings, and many other kinds of gifts. We were fascinated watching some ladies work to spin the cocoons into fine threads and others who wove beautiful patterns for assorted items.

To make the most of our time, when we finished the tour we piled back in Alex’s tuk tuk, securing our silk purchases in a secret compartment and went on to see the small village he calls home. Beyond charming tourist places, we relish seeing the real life of a foreign country, and this next stop provided that in full. Away from the city, like living in Hull or Daisetta, we came upon the village entrance. We toured the welcome area with Buddhist temple and park, the village school and its garden, and then came to Alex’s home. Surrounded by gardens, his house is a typical style. The ground floor is open and airy for all those hot, humid days, and sleeping quarters are on the upper story. After meeting his lovely grandmother, we walked along dirt roads through the village and said hello to Alex’s aunt and several other relatives. At a neighbor’s house, coconut palm sugar boiled over a fire in the largest cast iron kettle we’ve ever seen. Our mouths watered from the sweet smell. Down the road in a common area, two teams of young men played a competitive game of volleyball, but stopped to say hello as we passed. Life always moves at a slower, friendlier pace in small towns.

We felt special as recipients of a private tour off the beaten path in rural Cambodia. Enriched, and grateful to Alex for sharing his part of the country, we boarded his tuk tuk and headed back to Siem Reap to explore the touristy Pub Street and markets. Happy to be vegan, we passed up the opportunity to eat snake on a stick, scorpion, seasoned tarantula, and assorted fried bugs in favor of pizza. See you next week for more adventure!

March 6, 2018 Owning a Business in a Communist Country (part VII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 6, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

After a great visit to Phnom Penh, we boarded Cambodian Angkor Air for a thirty minute domestic flight to Siem Reap. Such a short hop is most economically served by the popular ATR-72. There’s a training program in Houston for this airplane, a twin-engine turboprop.

We reserved a room in a traditional Khmer wooden house belonging to a local family, a young professional couple with two preschoolers. They arranged for private transportation from the airport so when we arrived we looked around for our sign. A young man who introduced himself as Alex (his American name) escorted us to his tuk tuk. We hopped aboard the romantic carriage and away we went through lovely Siem Reap.

We’ll have more to say about our experiences in Siem Reap, but one thing that got our attention was that despite a communist government, entrepreneurism is alive and well inside the Cambodian people. They have spirit and drive, and hospitality seems to come naturally. So while we can’t wait to tell you about sticking our feet in fish tanks to get a pedicure, exploring Pub Street, the markets and temples, the floating village, and the circus, we must start with Alex. He was, after all, with us for every adventure.

His real name is Sophal Chea. He’s twenty years old and lives in a small village outside Siem Reap with his brother and grandmother. Like most Cambodians, he has significant gardens, growing lemongrass, rice, as well as orange, banana, and coconut trees. And one cow, so far. His English is pretty good, and his people skills are excellent.

When we first met, Alex shook our hands and said, “Welcome. I’ll be your driver during your stay.” We had learned in Phnom Penh how competitive the tuk tuk business is. While Siem Reap is a smaller city, it’s heavily dependent on tourism, where the motorcycle chariots fit in well to serve visitors. By working with a homestay and claiming his clients upon introduction, Alex is ahead of his competitors, and he doesn’t have to park along a busy street asking passers-by if they need a ride. Nothing wrong with those who hustle for their business, but Alex is employing a more sophisticated approach advertising on travel sites and social media. So if you plan a trip to Siem Reap (and you should!), look for Tuk Tuk Okay. You’ll find Alex’s business in hot demand.

On our first full day, he took us to tour five wats (temples). Most of these are ruins, but the biggest, Angkor Wat, is in great shape for its age. Built in the twelfth century, it remains the largest religious monument in the world, the complex occupying about 400 acres. Wall carvings of traditional stories, kings, Hindu gods, and Buddha, are vivid. These humongous stone temples were built with the help of elephant labor to bring rocks from distant mountains.

After climbing through the ruins, Alex brought us back to our homestay to rest up for more escapades, which we’ll tell you about next week.

February 27, 2018 Traditions Alive (part VII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
February 27, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Many years ago, I was moved to pray for Cambodia. I did not know why. I had no personal connection and didn’t know where Cambodia was, but I prayed. In December, we visited that beautiful country.

Last week, we introduced you to Phnom Penh. Now it’s time to discover the strength of this city—its people.

What most of us know of Phnom Penh is the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. From 1974 to 1979, they tortured, starved, and murdered over two million fellow Cambodians. Victims were all ages, and the torture was as horrific as you can imagine—or more so. They turned a high school into a torture camp. Documentation of what happened there and the nearby killing fields is abundant. Next to the temples, these are probably the most visited “attractions.” I’ve been to several countries of genocide, Anne Frank’s hiding place in Amsterdam, and Houston’s Holocaust Museum. I did not want to see the killing fields. It’s important, but it’s also full of pain. We chose instead to support their future—through the arts.

The answer to “why the killing?” is hard to understand. Pol Pot claimed he wanted to make Cambodia an agrarian utopia, but the truth was he was consumed by evil. His vision of “improvement” was to kill those who could disagree—intellectuals, artists, and musicians.

Arn Chorn-Pond was a musician, and his family owned an opera company, making him a target. He escaped the massacre and came to New York a refugee.

When he returned home, 90 percent of his country’s artists were gone. Becoming reacquainted with his city, he happened upon one of his nation’s greatest opera singers begging on the street.

Determined to not let their culture disappear, he asked her to join him to search for other surviving artists. He brought them out of hiding and raised support, first to feed them and then for the arts, as a way to keep Cambodian history alive. Since 1998, when he founded Cambodian Living Arts, he has brought back traditional teachings to new generations, providing scholarships and support for cultural arts.

At a traditional dance show, we were treated to an Apsara dance. Wordlessly, they told a popular folk tale that dates back to the 7th century. In Hindu mythology, Apsaras were “celestial dancers”—beautiful female creatures that descended from heaven to entertain gods and kings, neither of which could resist their charms. In elaborate silk costumes, with complex, intricate movements, the dance troupe enacted the story of a kidnapped princess and the efforts of her prince and his helper monkeys to rescue her.

This endearing fable has lived in the hearts of generations of Cambodians. With unparalleled skill, the dancers bring their plight and hope for healing right to the soul. One cannot help but be absorbed in the beauty and the determination to survive, to live.

Arn declares his goal: “My hope is that someday people will come to Phnom Penh for its arts rather than its killing fields.”