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Return to Bangkok

Eventually, we had to say farewell to Kevin, leave Chiang Mai, take the train back to Bangkok and get ready to repatriate.

Train to Bangkok

Women on a motorbike

Train going around a bend

Hand on the train window

Sunset blur

Waking up to palm trees

Waking up on the train

Morning landscape

Lopburi station

Golden monkey statue at Lop Buri

Arriving in Bangkok

Grafitti

It’s a really strange feeling to return to a massive “foreign” city like Bangkok and have it seem familiar.  The same old train station, which by this point we had routed through enough (three times) that we knew which vendor sold the cheapest croissants.  The same skyline and smells, the same busses and taxis and touts.  This time, we stayed near Chinatown and got to explore a different section of the city.

Duck noodle soup street vendor

Wat Traimit

Blessing seekers

Chinatown

Tuk-tuk

Monk gift basket

Buddha near Chinatown

Chili spoon

One afternoon, Alicia heard a familiar-sounding jangle and met Khun Thorn, the banjo player for a Thai bluegrass band called the Blue Mountain Boys.  We already knew that there was a Thai cowboy subculture, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that Thai bluegrass was a thing, too.


Thorn the banjo player

BKK airport

The day came to leave.  We spent a total of two months in Thailand and had come to love it.  But after 11 months away, it was time to go home.  Well, almost.  One more major world city to add to the list…

Tokyo bound

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Jun 2013
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Thai Cooking Class

Here are a few photos of the day we spent at a Thai cooking class north of Chiang Mai.  It included a tour of the market (amusing, since we’d been going to these types of markets for months now); a tour of a garden packed full of ingredients like lemongrass, galengal and tumeric; and an afternoon of chopping, mixing, wok-ing and eating.  No specific measurements, just instructions to pour the oil and fish sauce into a big spoon “with emotion” and add chilis in quantities that were proportionate with whether we felt “a little sexy, medium sexy or suuuper sexyyy.”  Maybe not an intensive learning session, but definitely a lot of fun.

Different types of rice

Garden hats

Garden tour

Rice paddy

Banana blossom

Prep for holy basil stir fry

Mashing the som tam

Red curry paste ingredients

Panaeng curry ingredients

testing the curry

Red curry and coconut cream soup ingredients

Making the sticky rice with coconut cream, palm sugar and salt.

Batter for the deep fried bananas

Cooking together

Dinner is served

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Jun 2013
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Organic Farming in Ban Khun

Cherry tomato vine

While we were staying with Kevin in Chiang Mai (for the second time), we were able to tag along on one of his jobs.  It was burn season in Thailand and the three of us were happy to leave the city where it was so smoky that the big mountain, Doi Suthep, was invisible.  It turned out to be smoky everywhere else too, but at least in the mountains it’s mixed with less exhaust.


Burning the undergrowth

Kevin does filmmaking for non-profits and his friend Sean had a project for him.  Sean is an American who is working to improve the wellbeing and economic stability of his wife’s Karen (“Kuh-RIN”) hill tribe village in the Omkoi district in the southwest part of Chiang Mai Province.  He is experimenting with vegetable growing methods that are kind to the earth and result in organic produce that can be sold at higher prices to local markets and restaurants.  He is shouldering the burdens of trial and error and hopes to pass on the knowledge to local farmers who may be interested in switching from conventional (chemical) farming.

Here is an explanation from Sean’s website:

“Over the past decade or more chemical fertilizer companies have come into many of the local hill tribe communities promoting their product and investing into local farmers to grow many different crops.  This created many jobs for many poor Karen farmers.  Over time farmers have become reliant on this market and the chemicals and have since lost the ability to take care of the land and use natural resources.  They are have no other market and are forced to sell to middle men and make no money almost every year, growing things like tomato’s and chilis.  We aim to make it possible for these farmers to go back to their roots of working with land in a more natural way and help them find a higher price for their produce.”

Seedling trays

Sean's porch

View from Sean's window

Mosquito net

Sean's dirtbike

Breakfast mango

Sean built his house himself, and it features an open-air kitchen and a porch with a great view of the valley below. (His wife and children were visiting friends back in Chiang Mai, so unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to meet them.) It was fun making dinner together and throwing the scraps to the chickens waiting just outside the window. Sean’s mother-in-law helped chop vegetables and brought over a really big knife to cut the meat.

Garlic pounder

Alicia making dinner with MIL

Alicia's borrowed knife

Potato hash

Plate o' pork

Inlaw's house

Rice mill

Dog

Alicia and MIL

If this were a blog about organic farming, we probably would have taken better notes about the seedling trays, the vermicompost (worm tea), the natural fungicide sprays that cost the same as the chemicals, the greenhouses, the rice paddy irrigation, and the way the roots respond to the placement of drip irrigation lines.  Pictures will have to stand in for actual information.

Vermicompost

Drip irrigation

Sean holding beet seeds

Sean showing how roots respond to the placement of drip irrigation

Kevin shot lots of great footage that will help Sean share organic farming methods with Karen and Thai farmers.

MIL's carrot

Kevin filming MIL

Making furrows for the beets

Fun aunt

Mixing up a carrot fungicide

Wildflower tangle

Pressure sprayer motor and fungicide

Jodi spraying the carrots

Walking out to the rice paddies

Cows grazing in the dry rice paddies

Kevin shooting the workers

Worker throwing soil on the raised tomato beds

New Pi

Workers hitching a ride back to the village

Planting trays of tomatoes

Planting trays of tomatoes

Planting trays of tomatoes

The greenhouse

Soaking the seedlings

On the last day before we made the long drive back to Chiang Mai, Sean’s mother-in-law called us into her house and fried us some sweet sticky rice batter.

Fried sweet sticky rice batter

MIL cooking

Tony asked about the little star tattoos that dotted her hand and wondered if they had any particular meaning or purpose. Sean translated her response:

“When I was young, it was the fashion. There is no meaning, we just thought it looked pretty.”

Big smiles all around.

Hand tattoos

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Jun 2013
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Return to Chiang Mai

We decided we were done with beaches but we weren’t done with Thailand.  We still had a few weeks left before our flight back to the States, and we were really feeling the weight of being away from home for so long.   The next best thing was to go back to our home away from home: Kevin-the-Kiwi-Photographer-with-the-Handlebar-Moustache‘s place all the way back up in Chiang Mai.

Hua Lamphong station

Kevin

So nice to be together again, and much sooner than anyone expected!

And khao soi.  Chiang Mai has khao soi.

Khao soi

Kevin took us to a ceremony for the Impossible Life Photo Contest that he and his fellow Thailand International Photographers Society (TIPS) friends had entered.  Each photographer was asked to create a portrait of a person who struggled with major disabilities or illness.  The both the winning photographers and their subjects would receive a cash prize provided by the owners of Theppadungporn Coconut Company (if you have a can of coconut milk in your pantry, it probably has the TCC logo on it.)

The ceremony was held in the garden of Wat Srisuphan, one of the most beautiful temples in Chiang Mai.  The Governor of Chiang Mai Province, Tanin Subhasaen, the wat’s abbot, Phra Khru Phithak and the owners of TCC were all in attendance, as well as most of the photo subjects who were receiving a cash grant.

Videographer

Wat Sri Suphan

Wat Sri Suphan's abbot, Phra Khru Phithak

A grateful recipient

Kevin’s portrait subject was a young girl with a serious and rare heart defect.

Kevin's photo subject

Chiang Mai Province Governor Tanin Subhasaen

Joe, one of our friends that we met through Kevin and the Chiang Mai Couchsurfing group, was honored with second prize.

Winning photographers

After the long, long ceremony (most of which was in Thai), we were invited to have lunch at the Wat.  Abbot Phra Khru Phithak stopped by to make sure we had enough to eat and checked out Tony and Kevin’s tattoos.  (Kevin’s tattoo is an homage to a Thai rock band, his favorite energy drink and is a reference to his Thai nickname, all at once.  It makes sense, trust us.)

Phra Khru Phithak inspects Kevin's Carabao tattoo

Oh, Chiang Mai.  You are so happy and beautiful and delicious.

Mango shake

Wat Buppharam

Donald Duck

Chiang Mai graffiti

Tony at Wat Buppharam

Cat enjoying Wat Buppharam's carpet

Buddha and chedi at Wat Buppharam

Wat tabby

Performing dogs

80 baht haircut

Tea bag

We spent two more weeks at Kevin’s house this time around.  We posed for more photos and he also took us on one last great Thai adventure…

Kevin's collage portrait of us

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Jun 2013
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Lonely Beach, Lazy Beach

Back to Thailand.  Since we had already spent a few weeks in northern Thailand when we first came to Southeast Asia, and our flight back to the States was leaving from Bangkok, we planned to spend the remainder of our weeks abroad in the south of Thailand along the coast and on some islands.

Ko Chang PO box

We decided to start at Koh Chang, mostly because we were leaving Cambodia via the border crossing west of Siem Reap and we could go there directly without having to go all the way back to Bangkok to connect to other transportation.  From Siem Reap, it was a two hour minibus ride to the border town of Poipet, three hours waiting in line at the border, another six hours in a minibus crammed to the max with bodies and luggage, and an hour ferry ride.  The ferry ride was actually not what we had in mind; we wanted to spend the night in Trat and then take the ferry over to the island in the morning.  But as we approached the outskirts of Trat, our driver announced that he wasn’t stopping because if he did, the rest of the passengers would miss the last ferry to the island.   So on we went.

It was dark by the time we got to Koh Chang, and about 20 of us crammed in the back of a waiting songthaew.  The overloaded truck careened around the steep and winding jungle road that skirted the coast and somehow none bags fell off the top.  Since it was late and we didn’t have reservations, we decided to try to find a place in White Sand Beach, one of the main tourist areas.  We spent an exhausting hour wandering up and down the strip looking for a guesthouse that had rooms we would afford and… well, vacancies.  We walked past bars pumping loud music to solo white male patrons who were flanked by local girls in tight dresses and heavy makeup.

Eventually, we settled for a place a bit out of our price range that was set further back the trees.  We woke up the next morning, paid for an additional night, rented a motorbike and went in search of a cheap little bungalow far away from the lights and vibe of White Sand Beach.

Almost as soon as we took off, it started to rain.  Just a little cloudburst, but enough that the steep hills and hairpin turns might as well have been coated in ice.  After seeing the intense concentration on the local drivers’ faces and witnessing two motorbike accidents happen right in front of us, Tony decided to pull over and wait for the pavement to dry.  As we sat on the side of the road, a Russian couple slid into a slow-mo crash right next to us.  They decided to clean up their bleeding scrapes and wait it out, too.

Biking caution sign

Slick hill

After less than an hour, the roads were dry again and we were on our way.  For the next several days, we ended up trying out a few different bungalows on different beaches and exploring different areas around Koh Chang.  Tony piloted us all over the island and kept us upright at all times, even when we had both of our bags on board.

Sand road through the palms

Bang Bao pier

Lucky charm belt

National park rules

ATM truck

Klong Kloi bungalow

We eventually settled in at Lonely Beach in a row of cheapie bungalows with cold water showers and a bucket-flush toilet.  They weren’t the most picturesque and the bars next door were noisy all night but we liked the Thai staff and the food at the attached cafe.

Shoes parking

And the hammock.  The hammock was good.

Tony in the hammock

Alicia in hammock

Cafe poetry

Cafe dog

Cafe del Sunshine

Kitty

Lonely Beach

Lonely Beach swing

We borrowed a big woven mat from the cafe and spent long afternoons at the beach.  The water was as warm as the air and we were well aware of how lucky we were to be on a beach in the middle of February.  Our biggest problem was that the masks and snorkels we were renting for $1 were a little leaky and the blues bar next door was just as loud in our bungalow as when we visited in person.

Alicia at SF

Dog on stage

It is done

After much discussion over what island we should go to for the rest of the month, and what was going to be different there than laying in hammocks and drinking coconut shakes and picking up seashells, we decided we were done.  We didn’t need any more beach.  We already had that a few weeks prior in Cambodia, and we had our fill here.  We sent some emails and headed back to the mainland with a plan.  And the oldest, rustiest ferry we had ever seen carried us back.

Alicia on the ferry

Rusty ferry

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Jun 2013
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What We Ate in Cambodia

While it makes us feel a little better to know that Cambodia isn’t really known for its cuisine, we also feel a little guilty.  We didn’t really experience a huge variety of outstanding food in Cambodia. Half of the blame falls on us, because we didn’t get out of tourist areas much. The other half was that we actually had some difficulty finding good local food. Other than in areas directly adjacent to markets or inside the markets themselves, it seemed like most of the places we went had almost no street food (compared to Vietnam and Thailand where you are almost tripping over it).  We know we missed a ton, and we’re not even sure whether everything below is uniquely Cambodian.

But what we did find was delicious.

Chicken heads

 

So here’s a very small taste of Cambodia.  You’ll need some utensils.  They’re all ready for you, waiting in their hot water bath.

 

Clean silverware delivered to your table in a glass of steaming water

Donuts with a toffee-like crunchy glaze.

Candy glazed donuts

Mi Char – Short, worm shaped noodles rolled by hand, fried with sprouts and meat and greens, topped with a fried egg.Khmer noodles with fried egg

Sach Ko Chomkak – Marinated beef skewers grilled over hot coals, dipped in sweet chili sauce, served with a tangy green papaya and carrot salad.  You’re charged by the number of skewers you order but the vegetables are all-you-can-eat and on the house.  One of our favorites.Grilled beef with chili sauce and green papaya salad

Bobor – Rice porridge, a typical breakfast food. This one has chicken, crispy fried garlic and a blood cube.Breakfast: rice porridge

Grilled red snapper with tamarind sauce.Red snapper

Nyoum Trayong Chaek – Banana blossom salad, really similar to the ones we ate in Thailand.
Banana blossom salad

Kuy Teav Phnom Penh – a Phnom Penh specialty featuring meat, blood, liver, intestines and tongue. This particular one is of porcine origin.
Mixed pork noodle soup

Num Pa Chok Kari Sach Ko - Curry beef and noodles.
Curried beef and noodles

Khmer red curry with chicken, potato, pumpkin and vegetables.
Red curry with chicken

Green curry with prawns, potato, onion and green beans. Those things that look like oversized peas are water lotus seeds.
Green curry with prawns

Amok – A thick, turmeric-heavy yellow curry with vegetables, typically with fish but there’s always a meat or prawn option, topped with coconut cream…
Amok with green beans

…sometimes served in a banana leaf if you’re someplace fancy.
Amok in a banana leaf

Our first pizza in five months. So what if it had corn and mayo on it.
Pizza in Phnom Penh

17
Mar 2013
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Ancient Khmer Temples Up Close

The Angkorian temples at Siem Reap are overwhelmingly detailed. Even after nearly a thousand years, you don’t need much imagination to see what they once were. Come in for a closer look.

Approach to Angkor Wat

Fallen column at Ta Prahm

Stone balusters at Angkor

Cracked relief at Angkor

Wildflower at Angkor

Lizard at Ta Prohm

Bas relief at Ta Prohm

Buddha-turned-hermit at Ta Prohm

Fallen balustrades

Broken wheel on bas relief

Doorway carvings

Dancers on columns

Cracked face

Green row of worshippers

Eroded ladies

Bas relief detail at Bayan

Bas relief dancers at Bayan

Flowers at Bayan

Elephant bas relief at Bayan

Roots at Bayan

Bas relief detail, leaves, at Bayan

Buddha's face at Bayan temple

Small green plant at Bayan

Sunrise, Bayan

Sea turtle bas relief at Bayan

Sunrise at Bayan temple

Sunrise at Bayan temple

Sunrise at Bayan temple

Mossy figures, Terrace of the Leper King

Terrace of the Leper King

Khmer writing

Tumbledown walls

Green plant in the rubble

Elephant war bas relief

Spider webs

Stretched ears

Kala

Dusty insect

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Mar 2013
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Secret Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Siem Reap road sign

Everybody goes to the west gate watch the sunrise in front of Angkor Wat.

E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y (and their tripods).

But watch the sunrise from Angkor Wat? That requires sneaking around in the dark and paying a small… *cough*… “fee.” Ahem.

East facade at dawn

Our hearts raced with nervous energy as we entered the 900 year old temple alone, in pitch blackness. At one point, we stepped into a courtyard and paused because we thought we heard monks chanting. (Nope… we had just awakened all the mosquitoes in Cambodia.) Alicia wavered, sure that the instructions that a fellow traveler gave us would get us arrested, but Tony kept us on mission.

cobwebs

We made it up to the third, final, most sacred tier, the Bakan, just in time to hear the jungle come alive with the calls of strange birds and to see the bas reliefs illuminated by the red morning sun.

Sun peeking over the jungle canopy

Orange sunrise

Sun peeking over the jungle canopy

Wildflowers

Empty courtyard

We looked down at the hundreds of people gathered at the far end of the pond, grateful that we were not among them.

Hundreds of people gathered for sunrise

Tony waves

As soon as the sun was up, the guards quickly shooed us back down, presumably to avoid the scrutiny of the people who began filtering into the courtyard who might wonder why the posted opening times didn’t apply to us.

Apsaras at Angkor

Steep steps up Angkor

Facade lit by the morning sun

Empty corridor

Chedi along the east wall of Angkor

Us at east gate of Angkor Wat

After that great start, we were not too frustrated with the tour groups clogging the pathways through Ta Prohm (a.k.a. the Tomb Raider temple).

Big tour group at Ta Prohm

Poky straw hats

Goofy selfie

Ta Prohm corridor

Looking up

We experienced another peaceful (albeit more conventionally achieved) sunrise at Bayon Temple the following morning.

Bayon silhouette

Sun coming through the trees

Pink sun

Buddha at Bayon

Spider at Bayon

Bayon tree trunk

Apsaras on columns

Linga at Bayon

Bayon east facade

Buddha altar inside Bayon

Bayon face

Bayon face - vertical

Lens flare

Bayon face with jungle

Apsara at Bayon

Us at Bayon

We visited many other ancient Khmer temples around Siem Reap, but those two sunrise experiences were the best.

Kid sleeping

Tree roots

Interior shot

Colorful banner

One head left on the bridge

Disembodied feet at Preah Khan

Back entrance to Preah Khan

Tree through a hole at Preah Khan

Monkey and baby at Angkor

Terrace of the Leper King

Girls selling souvenirs

Angkor pass

Beard pass

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Mar 2013
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R&R on Otres Beach

King Sihanouk’s funeral was going to bring an estimated 1.5 million visitors, including major foreign dignitaries and security forces, to the capital.  It sounded like it might be really interesting, or maybe just a huge headache.  Since we had already seen the King’s 100 day memorial ceremony, and we were already planning to spend some time down on Cambodia’s coast, we left Phnom Penh and waited it out on a beach near Sihanuokville (a port city named after… guess who).

Everythang's lounge chairs

pink rock

Tony at the office

Welcome mat

 

We waited it out all right.  For 13 days.  Maybe that was a little excessive…

 

Our bungalow

Bed

Bamboo Shack

Red snapper's snappers

…but when you’re in a little hut a few meters from warm blue water, all the days start blending together in a good way.

Between the fish tacos at our place, the amok (Khmer curry) and coconut shakes at the cafe next door and the laid back and friendly people around us, there was really no reason to leave.

We read a lot of books. Tony finally conquered this one. (Hi Pete!)

Zen

We might have turned a few shades browner.

A few shades darker

A very handsome fellow

Warm water, tasty food, plenty of lounge chairs… did we mention there were puppies?

Black puppy

Here is Alicia’s face when she sees a puppy walking towards her.

Puppy sighting

(This is the puppy.)

Beach pup

The sunsets weren’t too bad either.

Yellow sunset

Fishing boat at sunset

People walking dogs at sunset

So yeah, 13 days on Otres Beach. We finally dragged ourselves away because we knew that the last “big” sightseeing event of our year of traveling was up next.  Otherwise, we might still be there.

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Mar 2013
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A Few Days in Phnom Penh

Goodbye Vietnam, hello Cambodia.  First stop: Phnom Penh.  It’s Cambodia’s capital city of 2.2 million people and is set on the banks of the Mekong River.  Its nickname was “Pearl of Asia.”  Wikipedia is careful to note that that nickname was only applicable prior to the 1960s.

Cambodia arrival card

Basic Khmer

We spent several days wandering around Phnom Penh.  Haven’t we typed that sentence a hundred times already?  ”We spent several days wandering around ___.”  Well, we did.  Here are some photos from our self-guided non-tours.

Residential neighborhood

Central Market hall

Crabs in the Central Market hall

Moto driver naptime

Straw nagas on Wat Pnomh grounds

Wat Pnomh banner

Not a bird

Russian Market chaos

Moto shop

Welding on the sidewalk

Watch repairman

Russian Market food vendor

Fruit juice vendor display

Woman walking down the street

Pink flowers at Ouna Lom Pagoda

Ouna Lom Pagoda

In many places throughout the city, we saw shrines and joss sticks burning to former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October.  Between 1941 to 2004, he was king, sovereign prince (twice each), president and prime minister, all to varying degrees of power and influence throughout Cambodia’s bid for independence from France, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and including two years as a pawn head of state during the Khmer Rouge era.  This guy had seen some things.

One of many memorial altars for former King Sihanouk

One night, we were visiting a wat near the Royal Palace and noticed that the road was blocked off and a huge crowd had gathered.  Many people were taking photos of this building, which we later learned was the crematorium specifically constructed for the King Father’s upcoming funeral (set for three months after his death).

Crematorium

We walked further, to the square in front of the palace, and found an enormous crowd seated there.  News articles we read later said claimed that 20,000 monks were in attendance at this ceremony, which commemorated the 100th day after the King Father’s death.

Monk with phone

Monk with candle

Sea of monks

Security guard

Lights turned on

The ceremony was in Khmer, so we were not able to understand what was happening, but it was very moving to be in that place at sunset along with many thousands of Cambodians who were paying their respects to their much-loved king.

Birds overhead

Few visitors to Phnom Penh leave without having visited the former high school now called Tuol Sleng Prison, which turned into a center of interrogation and torture by the Khmer Rouge.  It is now a museum, although most of the rooms and cells remain bare, a stark and solemn monument that contrasts unnervingly with the cheerful yellow and white tile floors.

Tuol Sleng Prison Museum grounds

Tuol Sleng corridor

Torture bed at Tuol Sleng

Cells at Tuol Sleng

Prisoner mug shots

Key rack?

Lucky few survivors of S-21

We originally intended to visit the Killing Fields outside of the capital, but we learned that the grounds are now owned and operated by a private, for-profit company.  After a solemn afternoon spent staring at mugshots and into the eyes of the victims of Tuol Sleng (which included very young children), we felt that visiting the actual execution and mass burial site would contribute more to vulgar opportunism than to our own education and respect for the dead.

We left the shaded grounds of school-turned-prison-turned-museum and walked back out into the bright, hot sun.

Young monks

 

Building near the palace

Children playing around Garuda statue

[If you don't know much about what happened in Cambodia that caused the death of 1.7 to 3 million people (depending on who's counting) less than four decades ago, you can read A Brief History of the Khmer Rouge (Time Magazine), or if you like your information packaged as entertainment, you can watch Sam Waterston star in 1984 movie The Killing Fields.]

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Mar 2013
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