Sunday, July 5, 2015

Cambodia travel tips

Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of Cambodia (Photo by Zuna Yoga)

Thinking of doing your yoga teacher training somewhere exotic? Many of our students have already spent time in Bali, and want to explore a new country as they immerse themselves in yoga and meditation. Consider Cambodia! A journey to Cambodia offers a new perspective on the history and people of Southeast Asia. This country has a lot going for it: the unforgettable temples of Angkor, the buzzing cities, endless miles of unspoiled tropical beaches, the mighty Mekong River, tasty food, and some of the friendliest people in the region. We spent a week traveling around this fascinating gem of a country, and have compiled a list of helpful tips and must-see places to visit before or after your yoga teacher training.

The Basics

Contemporary Cambodia has its roots in the powerful Khmer empire, which previously ruled vast territories (much of what is now Vietnam, Thailand and Laos). The fairly well-preserved remains of this empire can be seen at the famous temples of Angkor, monuments unrivaled in scale and grandeur in southeast Asia. In fact, Angkor Wat was named the #1 destination in Southeast Asia on a TripAdvisor poll, and the #2 destination worldwide. Heady praise indeed. 

But Cambodia is more than just a land of ancient temples. Its capital city, Phnom Penh, is bustling with a large expat population surrounding all the NGO's operating in the city. Also, Cambodia's southern coastline is beautiful and much less developed than other neighboring countries.

If you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, the best time to go is during December and January when the humidity and rainfall are relatively low. Fortunately, this is also the time frame when Zuna Yoga will be leading 200 and 300 hour yoga teacher trainings in Kep Province, in the Southeast Coastal region.

Getting there

Phnom Penh International airport (PNH) is the country's major hub, with the majority of
Siem Reap street
international flights arriving here. Siem Reap International airport (REP) also seems some traffic within Asia from low-cost carriers. We flew into Siem Reap from Bangkok (DMK) on Air Asia. Our flight out of the country left from PNH, so we got to see both airports. Both had a decent range of services, including ATMs, free wifi and cafes. Siem Reap is much smaller. To get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we flew with Cambodia Angkor Air - a small prop plane that got the job done. The checked baggage limit was 20kg per person, ours was a few kg over, but we were not charged excess baggage fees. Sihanoukville International airport also has links to PNH and REP.

Visas

All visitors, except citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam need a visa to enter Cambodia. Visas are available on arrival at both international airports, all six international border crossings with Thailand, some international border crossings with Vietnam, and at the main border crossing with Laos. The official price for a tourist visa is USD20. It is valid for one stay of up to 30 days. Those issued in advance expire 90 days after issue. In Phnom Penh (or elsewhere via agencies), tourist visas can be extended only once, allowing an additional 30 days at a cost of around USD30. Our retreat center will offer visa extensions to anyone staying for the Zero to 500 hour yoga teacher training.

To apply for a visa on arrival, you will need a passport-size photo, a passport which is valid for at least 6 months and has at least one completely blank visa page remaining, and clean US$ notes with which to pay the fee. You'll receive the application form for your VOA on the plane. At REP we paid $20 plus a $2 fee since we didn't have a passport photo with us. 

At Phnom Penh or Siem Reap airport, head to the Visa on Arrival desk and join the queue with everyone else who just got off your plane. Your application form is reviewed and you'll pay the visa fee. Then move to the right and wait for your name to be called. You then receive your passport with the visa. Once reunited with your passport, join the immigration queue and finally, make your way to baggage claim. 

The immigration officials at the airport are the rudest people you'll meet on your entire Cambodian trip - don't take it personally. Their brusque manner is not representative of the treatment you'll receive elsewhere.

Citizens of most nations can apply for an e-Visa on-line on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website, through a service provided by a private Cambodian company. This is a normal Tourist Visa but costs USD25 instead of the normal USD20. The visa arrives as a PDF file by e-mail within 3 business days. The application requires a digital photograph of yourself (in .jpg or .png format). You can scan your passport photo or have a passport sized photograph taken with a digital camera. You need to print two copies (one for entry and one for exit) of the PDF visa, cut out the visa parts and keep them with your passport.

Visas in advance (either on-line or from an embassy/consulate) save time at the border but are a little more expensive. However, you do get to skip the queues of people applying for the visas arrival. Although you may simply spend the saved time waiting at the luggage belt for your suitcase.

Money

The Cambodian riel and US dollar are both official currencies, with riel only used for small transactions (i.e. below $5). Change will be given in USD for bills up to $1, and in riel for smaller amounts. Often you'll be given a combo of different notes and currencies as your change, so make a note of the exchange rate (currently 4000 riel per USD) and count your change. US coins are not used in Cambodia. ATMs will generally only dispense US dollars, although some are loaded with both currencies. ATMs are common throughout the country with a surprising penetration even into backwater towns, though if in doubt stock up before a trip into remote areas.

You will not need much cash during the yoga teacher training, as it is all-inclusive. Bring extra for souvenirs and massages. You can exchange foreign cash at banks and local exchange offices. Don't forget to tell your bank and credit card companies the dates that you will be traveling, or they might cut off your funds for fraud protection. Asia prefers Visa or MasterCard.

Internet / SIM cards

SIM cards are easily available and cheap in Cambodia if you want to make local phone calls on your global ready phone. Cambodia uses the GSM mobile system. There are nine operators to choose from, with Metfone, Cellcard and Smart Mobile being the largest. Prepaid SIM cards are widely available (USD1 and up). There are stands selling SIM cards at the airports. Tourists can add 3G/4G mobile Internet to their SIM for as little as $3/month or unlimited data package for $25/month (Metfone). 

WiFi is free at our yoga teacher training venue. Its speed is more suited to email checks and status updates than for video streaming. Sometimes it goes down, and takes a few days to get back up. We recommend getting a SIM card with a data plan if being online is important to you. We used our Smart SIM to help us navigate with Google maps even in remote areas, and were really glad we had it.

Food

Healthy eats at the Backyard Cafe
Cambodian meals typically consist of more than one dish and include a contrast of flavors, textures and temperatures, using plenty of herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces, edible flowers and other garnishes and condiments. Locals tend to favor meat and seafood dishes, but there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options around. Khmer curry is less spicy than the curries of neighboring Thailand - it is also coconut-milk-based but without the overpowering chili. Bakeries are ubiquitous, a remnant of colonial french rule. You'll find great baguettes, cakes and baked goods.

More and more healthy eating options are popping up in the cities, such as the Backyard Cafe in Phnom Penh. 

What to see

For most temple and palace visits, you must wear shorts that reach to the knee or lower, and T-shirts or blouses that reach to the elbow.

Siem Reap - a popular resort town, and the gateway to the Angkor temple complex. This is a growing city with plenty of hotels, restaurants, cafes and nightlife. There's lots of fun shopping at markets and boutiques, and plenty of day spas. It's a laid-back, pleasant place with some interesting French colonial and Chinese architecture. From Siem Reap airport, it's just a 7 km / $7 taxi ride into town. Your hotel may offer airport pick up (for free or at a charge), so ask them ahead of time.

Faces of Angkor Thom
Angkor Wat - the world’s largest religious structure, an architectural representation of the Hindu universe. This is the star of a massive temple city built over the course of six centuries by dozens of rulers who considered themselves to be part god, part king. As religious beliefs in the Khmer empire evolved, the temple was transformed from Hindu to Buddhist. The temples are still active centers of spiritual practice today. It's worth getting up before dawn to visit the temples before the throngs of tourists arrive, and before the heat of the sun really dials up. You can take a tuk-tuk or taxi, or even rent a bicycle to get there. It's recommended to hire a guide to visit this sprawling temple complex. A day pass costs $20USD. 

Angkor Thom (Bayon Temple) - Bayon is one of the most widely recognized temples because of the giant stone faces that adorn its towers. There are 54 towers of four smiling Buddha faces each, totaling 216 faces. The gates to the complex are equally impressive. 

Nature takes over at Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm - a captivating temple that is being reclaimed by the jungle. Scenes from the movie Tomb Raider were filmed here. Strangler figs and silk-cotton trees spill like liquid over dozens of temples in various stages of disrepair, growing out of the stone structures. It is atmospheric, photogenic and peaceful. Inside one temple, an altar of Shiva, replete with gold-foil decorations and offerings of mangoes and Sprite, is tended by a ‘wat granny’ – the term for older women, often widows, who have taken monastic vows and help maintain religious buildings between meditation and prayer.

Phare, the Cambodian Circus - a non-animal circus, with nightly performances in Siem Reap. Lonely Planet calls it "unmissable." This is Siem Reap's most unique, authentic, home-grown, top-rated (TripAdvisor) evening entertainment. Phare performers use theater, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories. 

Phnom Penh - a gorgeous riverside location, an eclectic restaurant scene, unforgettable landmarks and a noticeable vitality. Sights in or near the capital city include:

Royal Palace - With its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding, the Royal Palace dominates the diminutive skyline of Phnom Penh. It is a striking structure near the riverfront and is still the official residence of King Sihamoni. Visitors are only allowed to visit the throne hall and a handful of buildings surrounding it, including the Silver Pagoda complex. The floor here is covered with 5 tons of silver, and the pagoda contains a Baccarat-crystal Buddha sitting on a golden pedestal, as well as a life-sized solid-gold Buddha, which weighs 90kg and is adorned with 2086 diamonds, the largest weighing in at 25 carats.

The Killing Fields - Pay your respects to the survival spirit of the Cambodian people by visiting this brutal reminder of the darkest side of humanity. Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek. The site is just one of three hundred killing fields scattered around the company during the murderous Pol Pot era.
Admission to the Killing Fields includes an excellent audio tour, which includes stories by those who survived the Khmer Rouge, as well as accounts by a guard and executioner.
Getting around by tuk-tuk
Tuk-tuks are motorbikes with carriages and are the main way of getting around Phnom Penh for tourists. Average fares are about double those of a motorbike taxi (moto) – US$2 for short rides around the center, US$5 for slightly longer trips. If you ask the driver up front how much they'll charge, the answer is often: "Whatever you think is fair." When in doubt, ask your hotel staff about how much a ride from A to B should cost.

Koh Rong Island - 25km off the coast of Sihanoukville. A sleepy island with 43 km of
beaches and just a dozen or so guesthouses. Still very undeveloped. Phosphorescent plankton twinkle in the water and can be seen every night.


That's just a brief introduction to an endlessly fascination country. Just an hour's flight from Bangkok, but a world away. We've chosen a peaceful, undeveloped spot for our Cambodia Yoga teacher trainings and look forward to sharing a journey through this amazing country with you.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Both eyes open

by Sammy Garrett, Zuna Yoga 200 hour yoga teacher training graduate

Something happens post Yoga Teacher Training. Yes, of course there are significant internal shifts with such great growth and learning, but I want to talk about something different. The external shift. It’s as though the person who entered the training on the first day leaves their old eyes behind, and upon completion steps forward with brand new vision. Speaking from experience, this new pair of eyes completely alters how the external world is perceived.  

Alignment? What alignment?
I have no doubt that many people have wished for new eyes or better vision, I feel blessed as that is exactly what my training with Zuna Yoga has given me. I am now the proud owner of fresh, bright, clear eyes which see much deeper and further than before. What I see has altered. There are things I notice that weren’t there before. For example, how can I ever look at a sensational yoga picture without analyzing whether or not the model is in correct alignment or hyper extending? First world problems alright! I will never again be able to look at yoga profiles on Instagram in the same light.

Looking past the superficial, these new eyes can break down layers and barriers in relationships and the surrounding environment, surpassing the ego and instead connecting with the innermost essence. I find myself amazed at the finest details and being drawn to things of significance, only later realizing their importance and meaning. In reality, the eyes are merely a tool of the mind, one of the senses which allow information to be received and deciphered. This is the way our surroundings speak to us. How this process occurs is entirely unique to each individual. Are you the master of your mind or is your mind the master of you? Is it what you see or how you see it? Perception is everything.

Sammy takes in the view
If the eyes are the lens through which we see the world, don’t we want to service our lens and keep it in clean working order? Yoga and meditation are means to do so. Think of it as servicing your car. Just as your car needs a check up to make sure everything is in working order and operating smoothly, so too does your mind. Therefore, for the senses to run optimally as we go about our day, it is vital to regularly service the mind. Yoga and meditation are the daily servicing my mind requires to be thriving and operating at full potential. Both eyes are open and I can see clearly.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Giving back

by Sammy Garrett, Zuna Yoga 200 hour yoga teacher training graduate

Can you recall a time when you gave without expecting anything in return? Nothing beats the joy you have created by giving unconditionally to another. A mentor of mine recently said that one of life’s secrets is to teach what you love. She explained that when sharing that which is most sacred to you, it keeps it alive and at the forefront of your mind. Personally, I love yoga, and since completing my 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training with Zuna Yoga I now have the ability to teach what I love. And that’s exactly what I am doing, sharing my passion and knowledge of yoga in service to my local community. Now is my time to give.

I recently had the opportunity to take part in a charity event, offering yoga as a way to fundraise money for a branch of the Cancer Society. Of course I said YES! Never mind the fact that I had only recently completed my yoga teacher training and would be teaching to a group of over 70 people. Talk about diving in head first. The fear I felt was nothing compared to those who battle terminal illnesses such as cancer. I reminded myself I have all the skills I needed to instruct a large group into a series of basic postures. It was only my mind, operating out of fear and ego, which was telling me otherwise. The whole event was a huge success and the money raised was such a wonderful collective achievement.

The experience of giving is glorious. If I could, I would give, give, and give all day every day. I love making a difference in people’s lives and nothing lights up my day more than seeing people smile. It’s not so much the act of giving, its rather the outcome of giving. Seeing the reaction and the change I can make in others by offering random acts of generosity. For me there is no need for gratification, it is enough to know that my cup is so full that I can spare some to those in need. Ideally, we should all have the ability to fill our own cups to the brim with goodness. However, sad but true, this is not always the case. Look out for those who may need a top up and reach out to them today. Be it a stranger or a good friend, you may surprise them and yourself with the precious act of giving.


Those who follow the path of personal integrity are able to clearly understand themselves and share their learnings with the world. Yoga teachers are key examples of this. Our teachers before us gave their wisdom and I believe it is our responsibility to honor this by continuing to share the message and gift of yoga. I put myself first and foremost because I know that when I am operating from a place of peace and happiness, I am in a state to give selflessly to others. Next time you are in doubt, I invite you to share, teach, give, offer service. Take note of what follows and how it makes you feel. It’s our time to give. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Balancing faith

by Sammy Garrett, Zuna Yoga 200 hour yoga teacher training graduate

How I miss the tranquility of Indonesia’s islands. It’s not very often that distractions are as limited as they were during the stay on the silent sanctuary of Gili Meno. I’ll be completely honest; I’ve been struggling to find balance since returning from my 200 hour yoga teacher training at maoMeno, a place dedicated to nurturing the practices of yoga day in day out. It all seems but a distant dream …

The yoga teacher training runs for three intensive weeks, whereby nothing else matters other than getting the absolute most out of the training. It’s all about YOU, your practice, your growth, your learning. Afterwards, the real world sure provides a rude awakening. Although all of us Zuna Yogis had a lovely break and switched off for a short while, there’s no doubt each of us holds varying forms of responsibility and commitment upon returning to ‘everyday life’. The secret is juggling these daily demands with a dedicated lifestyle of yoga and meditation, thus finding the sweet spot we call balance. 

Peaceful Gili Meno
Incorporating the learnings from the 200 hour yoga teacher training into daily life is happening with slow and steady progress. With plenty of bumps along the way, persistence has been the key. When life hands you a challenge, you learn from it, right? It’s easy to find excuses as to why our best intentions aren’t being lived up to, or punish and guilt ourselves until we lose motivation completely. Treating myself with kindness and patience, I think of my goals. Stay focused. Breathe. I’m not trying to run a marathon, but I do know which direction I’m facing, and the focus is to simply put one foot in front of the other. For now, this is enough. 

Balance requires constant work and assessment. Just as we must be aware of every cell in the body to find strength, stillness and stability in asanas, we must also remain soundly alert throughout everyday life. Constant awareness helps in staying grounded and strong in our true selves. Acting as my own test dummy, I have been exploring by tipping the scales each way, precariously finding a stable middle ground. I am determined to stay true to myself. It hasn’t been easy and at times I have felt lost and alone, discovering that a strong support network is fundamental to success. The key is to surround myself with those who respect and honor my passions, gently reminding me of my purpose should I lose my way.

yoga teacher training Bali
Zuna Tribe
Oh how wonderful it would be to let my hair down, break free from all obligations and roam this world as a carefree, spirited yogi. Alas, society does not operate this way. We are social beings, we form relationships and participate in communities. So why not make that community a loving, yogic one? As a self confessed travel junkie, I have realized I no longer need to search the globe to find my tribe. If I shine my light brightly enough, I will attract those who share the same values and beliefs. I have faith.