Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

From Bears to Tigers to Snakes, Oh My.

7 August 07

Hey, did I forget to tell you I ate a fried scorpion the other day? Well, I did and it tasted like a potato chip. I was having dinner with my students and, although I was totally freaked out (I grew up in a house full of little non-deadly scorpions and I fear and loathe them.), their encouragement bolstered my nerves. I popped it in and… seriously, like a potato chip.

Anyway, that wasn’t supposed to be the point of this post. I wanted to talk about a movie I just watched, Two Brothers (called Two Tigers in Chinese). If you haven’t seen it, it should be available on DVD. Watch it. Do you remember the movie The Bear? I remember seeing that movie in the theater. It was incredibly moving. Two hours of the life of a bear – “bear-ly” any human acting. (haha). Still, the emotions and motives of the bear were clearly visible and anyone who did not empathize with that giant beast and little cubs probably needs to watch it again. Two Brothers is like that. The tigers are actors, too. I don’t want to give too much plot away, but when they meet again after all that time and recognize each other – I bawled!!

The movie was filmed around Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In fact, the temples of the Wat complex feature prominently. The temples and landscape are stunning, and other than the obvious addition of  extra plants and vines inside the temples, that is how they look. (Add in a few hundred package tourists posing in front of everything!) Warning, watching this movie will make you want to visit. And why not? South-east Asia is fast becoming my favorite place and I’d love to go back to Cambodia. We might be in Vietnam soon…

And what are the snakes I refer to in the title?  In the opening scene of the movie, a close up is made of a particularly vile looking snake. Seeing that snake instantly catapulted me back to Monteverde, Costa Rica. Years ago, the DH and I took a weekend trip to the cloud forest and jungles there. (Extremely beautiful, supposed to be full of amazing wildlife. Unfortunately, we clomped through the jungle a bit too loudly and saw nothing! In fact, the highlight of the trip was when we both fell asleep, in the shade of a tree, waiting for the bus back to San Jose, and woke up an hour later only to find the sun had moved slightly and the right sides of our faces had turned bright red!)

One of the features of Monteverde is a small serpentarium – a reptile house with examples of all the slimy, creepy fauna that inhabit the nearby jungle. We spent a good hour or two going through, looking at all the snakes, spiders and lizards. When we reached the Fir de Lance, one of the deadliest snakes in Costa Rica, we couldn’t see the snake. We kept looking and looking, with our faces right up against the glass. Oh well, we thought, he is pretty hidden in that tree branch. That is when we realized that not only was there no padlock on the cage, like many of the other cages, but the whole locking mechanism was wide open.

I cannot confirm that the Fir de Lance was on the loose…nor could I deny it. Once this realization dawned on us, we got the hell out of there. Looks like I am not the only one. When searching google for the name of the snake, I found this: scroll down to the picture of the boulders and read.

Serpentarium in Monteverde – I’d think twice. Cuddly, feel-good movie about two tiger cubs in Cambodia – a better choice!


1965 Cambodia Videos

26 December 06

Thanks to Global Voices Online, (once again! I love that site!), I’ve found a blog with a few videos of 1960s Cambodia – years before the ruin of Khmer Rouge rule & civil war.

You can find the videos here.

Although I have only been to a few places in Cambodia, I could instantly see the irony of the videos. They show Cambodia’s agricultural, educational & industrial development during a time when much of the world was booming with scientific advances. Cambodia was no different and the videos attest to a land with so much promise – industrious people and beautiful vistas.

It is so sad to know in just ten years this blossoming society would be so cruelly cut down. What was prospering would be turned to nothing. The scientists, the leaders, the teachers, the monks – so many of them would simply cease to exist.

It is a lesson we must all learn. A once peaceful and developing society can at any time suddenly turn to one of butchery & savagery. We must always be on guard against fundamentalist elements – of any kind – that preach hatred, intolerance & strict, “their way or the highway” ideals. This kind of thing can happen anywhere, at anytime, as we have seen in the genocide of nazi Germany, Armenia, Rwanda & Sudan and the cultural decimation of the Cultural Revolution in China & Taliban rule in Afghanistan. One small group can turn back the clock by hundreds of years.

A friend told us a revealing story. His brother was working in construction in Cambodia. His firm had several electric concrete mixers yet he still found many of the workers mixing the concrete by hand, only feet from the mixer. When he confronted one of the workers he was told – yes, I know there is a mixer there, but if I use it someone might see and think I am educated. (During Khmer Rouge rule being educated meant he’d be sent to a camp or to his death.) The real tragedy is the many years it will take for the country to heal – for some, there is no healing.

The blog where the videos are posted, Phnomenon, mainly talks about Cambodian food in a light-hearted way.

Slavery is Still With Us

13 December 06

Speaking of being fortunate…

Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote an article about slavery in the world today. He illustrated the idea that slavery is still widespread these days with the story of a young Cambodian girl who was kidnapped in an attempt to sell her into a prostitution ring.

I keep an eye open for news on Cambodia since my trip there last January. The country had a big impact on me and stories of human rights abuses and rising rates of forced prostitution really breaks my heart.

***Here is the article, reprinted here because there is no access to it on the nytimes website:

A Cambodian Girl’s Tragedy – Being Young and Pretty
By Nicholas D. Kristof
Pailin, Cambodia – Slavery seems like a remote part of history, until you see scholarly estimates that the slave trade in the 21st century — forced work in prostitution and some kinds of manual labor — is probably larger than it was in the 18th or 19th centuries.

Or until you take a rutted dirt path in northwestern Cambodia to a hut between a rice paddy and a river, and meet a teenage girl named Noy Han. The girl, nicknamed Kahan, suffered the calamitous misfortune of being pretty.

Kahan’s village is isolated, accessible most of the year only by boat. There is no school, so she never attended a day of class.

One woman in the village, Khort Chan, had left as a girl and then reappeared years later. One day last year, when Kahan was 16 or 17 (ages are fuzzy here), she ate ice cream that Ms. Khort Chan gave her — and passed out.

Ms. Khort Chan took the unconscious girl away in a boat and disappeared. Kahan’s parents sounded the alarm, and the police quickly found Kahan being held upriver in the hut of Ms. Khort Chan’s grandmother. “Chan was planning to traffic her to Pailin,” a brothel center near the Thai border, said Leang Chantha, the police officer who found her.

Typically, a girl like Kahan would be imprisoned in a trafficker’s house, tied up and beaten if she resisted, inspected by a doctor to certify her virginity, and sold for hundreds of dollars to a Cambodian or Thai businessman. Virgins are in particular demand by men with AIDS because of a legend that they can be cured by having sex with a virgin.

Afterward, Kahan would have been locked up in a brothel in Pailin, and sold for $10 a session for the first couple of months. The price eventually would drop to $1.50, and by then she would be given greater freedom.

By being rescued, Kahan was spared all that — but she had suffered an overdose of the drugs. “Kahan seemed like a dead person,” said her mother, Sang Kha. “Her eyes were rolling, she was drooling.”

Even weeks later, Kahan’s face remained partially paralyzed, she could not speak, and she was weak and sickly. Desperate to get medical treatment, Ms. Sang Kha borrowed $200 from usurious money lenders charging 20 percent per month, and the girl’s uncle mortgaged his home to help pay for treatment.

But the family is now broke and heavily indebted, and Kahan still can only mumble. “I’m still very weak,” was all I could coax out of her.

The police had released Ms. Khort Chan after two days, and I was unable to track her down. But neighbors at two of her former houses said she had fled after apparently trafficking her own sister.

Some of the neighbors added a layer of complexity to her story: They believe that Ms. Khort Chan herself had been sold to a brothel as a young woman. She escaped or worked her way out, and then became a slave trader herself.

And slavery is what this is. The real problem isn’t prostitution or trafficking, it’s the enslavement of people.

The Lancet, the British medical journal, once estimated that 10 million children 17 and under may work in prostitution worldwide. Not all are coerced, but in the nastier brothels of Cambodia, Nepal, India, Malaysia and Thailand, the main difference from 19th-century slavery is that the victims are mostly dead of AIDS by their 20’s.

“It seems almost certain that the modern global slave trade is larger in absolute terms than the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries was,” notes an important article about trafficking in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. It adds, “Just as the British government (after much prodding by its subjects) once used the Royal Navy to stamp out the problem, today’s great powers must bring their economic and military might to bear on this most crucial of undertakings.”

President Bush has done a much better job than his predecessors in pressing this issue; his State Department office on trafficking is one of his few diplomatic successes. And the issue enjoys bipartisan support, with leadership coming from conservative Republicans like Senator Sam Brownback and liberal Democrats like Representative Carolyn Maloney.

So President Bush, how about using your last two years to make this issue an international priority? A nudge in your State of the Union address could jump-start a new Abolitionist movement, so as to free children now dying slowly from rape and AIDS because they did something as simple as accepting ice cream from a neighbor.

During our journey out of Cambodia we past through Pailin. We stopped there so our driver and the DH could have a bite to eat. I remember the town being dusty and dirty. It was full of motorcycles. Everyone seemed to be going somewhere. My clearest memory is of a young Muslim girl (wearing a headscarf) driving her younger brother and sister on a small motorcycle.

Thirty minutes later we were across the border into Thailand, a beautiful country with its own ugly sex trade secrets.

Heavy Reading…Heavy Questions

10 February 06

I’ve been haunted by the images of Cambodia from the books I have been reading. I suppose that I grew up knowing that something happened there. I didn’t know what exactly, and had no idea the extent of the brutality, but I did know that there was a war, just as there was war in Vietnam. I will admit, however, that the first time I saw “The Killing Fields,” I thought that the story was about Vietnam, not Cambodia. In my young mind, all of Southeast Asia was a little mixed up. “The Killing Fields” came out in 1984, and I was 8 years old. I don’t know for sure when I first saw it, but it wasn’t too long after it came out. And I will never forget it. It’s just one of those movies that reaches deep down inside, grabs hold and rips everything out, leaving you completely empty.

I must give a lot of credit for my political and historical awareness to my parents and not just movies. Although my Dad likes to joke that he doesn’t have a lot of education, I know that is far from true. We certainly were taught about world events and geography. Our house was full of books and National Geographic magazines.

The genocide that occurred in Camboda is just too horrific to be understood or believed. I think that it affects me in a way because it is something that happened during my own lifetime, in fact, for practically the whole duration of my life. If I had been born there, I would have been born into the heart of the Khmer Rouge rule. I probably would have been born into complete and utter poverty in a displaced person’s camp. I would have starved everyday waiting for just a few spoonfuls of rice gruel. To be honest, I probably would have died. What chance did newborn babies have when supposedly strong adults wasted away to nothing or were taken away and never seen again? I know that this topic is far from the light-hearted fare I like to blog about. It’s just that I have been incapable of thinking about anything else this week.

We are truly fortunate people to never have suffered as billions of people have suffered around the world, and continue to do so everyday. Or maybe I should say “I am fortunate” as I never know who is reading this. In an effort to become more informed about landmines and genocide, I came across the Human Rights Watch website. (Which, by the way, is only accessible over my internet connection in China via a website that anonymizes or hides the web address you are visiting from the server, allowing blocked websites to be viewed.) I am more than a little overwhelmed. How do we address these problems? Now that I know what I know and have seen what I have seen, what do I do?

Down the River and Through the Minefields – Our Trek Out of Cambodia

8 February 06

Bear with me, this is long.

After a few days in Siem Reap, we decided to head back to Thailand. We didn’t want to return the same way we had come – the border town of Poipet is not a nice place. So, we opted for a boat ride down the Stung Sangker River. We read that it is a scenic journey and it would get us closer to Southwestern Cambodia, where we could cross back into Thailand.

Well, as I mentioned before, the 4 to 6 hour boat ride lasted almost 11 hours. Although it was torturously long, it was indeed beautiful and intensely interesting to see the changing scenery and the way that the Cambodians live along the river. Let me give you a little description with photos of the journey!

The ride began on the outskirts of Siem Reap, on the shores of the great lake of Cambodia – the Tonle Sap. We were overwhelmed by tiny little thatched-roof huts crowding the road built on a dike. Each hut contained a family and a bunch of fish that were either freshly-caught or placed out to dry. You can imagine the smell. The closer we got to the shores of the lake, the more intense the smell, and the more crowded the road became – with people, huts and trucks. Tonle Sap’s water level fluctuates dramatically with the dry and rainy seasons. The main community of people living on the shore of the lake live in floating house boats. As the water recedes, their homes float further away from the main road and as it rises, they get closer to the city of Siem Reap. The houses we passed built on the dike are stationary. We had to drive further out into the lake bed to arrive at the floating village where our boat waited for us.

To get to the Stung Sangker river, we had to cross over part of the lake and enter into the mouth of the river. The lake was not interesting – just a big expanse of water. The Stung Sangker is what was fascinating. All the way down the river to the city of Battambang, we passed a series of riverscapes, with different kind of homes and lifestyles. The first kind of scenery we encountered was a wide river with flat river banks, bordered with floating fishing villages. Along the banks were green fields and palm trees. All kinds of homes could be found here, from floating shacks to more proper homes with four walls. At first I thought we were on a tourist boat since most of the passengers were like us, however, very quickly we discovered we were on a local boat used to taxi people down the river. Because it was the Chinese New Year, we stopped often in these little villages to pick up people who wanted to move down the river to their relatives’ homes, sometimes just a few miles away and for others, hours more along the river. Because we stopped frequently at the doors of the homes, we experienced quite an intimate view of the way people live. There were many children, playing inside their houses or sitting on little porches with their feet dangling in the water. They all waved at us like crazy! In many of the villages they even had floating schoolhouses, libraries and activity centers that included a chain-link fenced in floating basketball court. Many of the schools and activity centers sported signs saying they had been donated by UNICEF, which seems to have a pretty big presence in Cambodia, not surprisingly. Most interesting? The floating pig and chicken pens!

As we progressed, there were fewer villages and the riverbanks turned more wild. They were bordered by lush jungle and I shuddered to think of the mines that might have been hidden among the trees. Instead of large villages we would pass just a cluster of more modest floating houses or thatched-roof huts. It is quite humbling to see how people can make do with a one room hut with just a few cooking pots, a hammock and a sarong or two. It was also surprising to see some of these humble huts had large TV antennas on top and a TV and stereo inside.

After a while the scenery changed again, this time to a narrower, more shallow river that snaked among dry rice fields. The homes here were definitely  huts, and you could visibly tell that the area was poorer then the fishing villages. There were children everywhere, mostly naked, running around, waving at us. We also saw several farmers tilling their fields.

After several more hours of farmland, we entered an area where the riverbanks became more steep. They were covered in majestic, tall palm trees and weeping willows, and the homes here were more traditional – on stilts but made of cement or wood with walls and real roofs. The river straightened out and widened a bit as well. This was an area that was more populated and, unfortunately, the riverbanks were covered in the trash and garbage that the locals throw out their back windows. This is a problem that I have seen in Central America, the Middle East and China. I can understand that for developing countries, the environment is not the first priority, but it is a shame.  I know that I have seen public education campaigns to stop littering and the contamination of the rivers, but it is a difficult thing to spend money on when your people need medicine, food and shelter.

The trash got worse and worse until we knew for sure that we were within the city limits of Battambang. Battambang is the second-largest city in Cambodia and home to many ethnic Chinese and muslim Cambodians. We saw several large mosques along the river. The city was gearing up for Chinese New Year, which was kind of welcoming, seeing all the Chinese characters and decorations. We stayed the night at a mediocre guesthouse. I suffered for my stupidity of staying in my seat for 11 hours. I was dehydrated and exhausted and my ankles were swollen. Next time I am on a boat for 11 hours, I am getting up and walking around, no matter how crowded and difficult it is to move around.

From Battambang we arranged to take a taxi to the border because there are no public buses down the road we wanted to take. We had heard that the road was very bad and that it travels through the heart of an old Khmer Rouge stronghold, littered with mines. Turns out that the road is very good, although dirt and gravel, and it only took us a few hours to reach the border. We did pass many signs, in English and Cambodian, saying that the field beyond had been cleared of mines, usually by an organization called CMAC, with Cambodia and US flags. I wondered about all the fields we passed that didn’t have a sign. Had they been cleared yet? There were lots of small huts along the sides of the road and many fields appeared to be under cultivation (or awaiting rice-planting, as this is the dry season.) There were also lots of signs in Cambodian only, with pictures, warning children and adults of unexploded mines and other ordinance. I had read that there was a big education campaign in progress because some people who are new to an area don’t know about the mines.  I really wanted to stop and take pictures of the signs, but our driver didn’t speak any English and he was pretty bent on getting to the border as quickly as possible.

I found these photos of landmine billboards on the internet:

Click on the photos above to go to websites with more photos!

For further reading on landmines in Cambodia, and for some interesting photos of minefields, see these websites:
Cambodian Mine Action Center
Landmines in Cambodia
Cambodia Photo Gallery
Another set of Cambodia photos by a tourist (A really great set of photos, including some of the Tuol Sleng torture museum and Choueng Ek Killing Field, with mass graves and landmine removal.)
Cambodia Landmine Museum – In Siem Reap, but we didn’t get a chance to go.
More info on the musuem

We crossed the border at a place called Pruhm, and what a difference to Poipet. It took us only a few minutes and we were 2 of only 3 foreigners that had come through that day. The place was as sleepy a border crossing as I have ever seen! We practically had to wake the guard up to stamp our passports.  (Poipet was packed with Koreans and Thais crossing the border to go gambling in casinos and was full of people trying to get you to come to their hotel, or use their taxi.)

From Pruhm we continued via taxi for 2 hours to catch a ferry to Koh Chang island.  I was in desperate need of a hammock!

More Photos Within the Temple Complex

8 February 06

Yet more photos!
Here I am in a Tuk Tuk with our driver, and a few photos of some Cambodian people, and a modern Buddhist Wat, or temple.

Now come of some of my favorite photos… Several of the temples within the complex have not been reconstructed as thoroughly as Angkor Wat and Bayon. Here are some examples of how the jungle, if left to its own devices, would swallow all the temples up again… You may recognize some of these photos from the movie, “Tomb Raider.”

Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples were left to the jungle during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It was only in the late 80s and early 90s when some of these temples were hacked back out of the trees and grasses. Many of the sculptures, especially those of Buddha, were mutilated during the war and the whole complex fell into general disrepair, which for temples made of sandstone, is pretty bad for carvings, engravings and sculptures.

Photos from Bayon Temple

8 February 06

The following photos are from Bayon temple, which is within the Angkor Thom complex, just down the road from Angkor Wat.

These are photos revealing the dramatically inclined steps up to the central towers that are found on most all of the temples with the complex. What a climb!

The elephant above is used to carry tourists around Angkor Thom.

Angkor Wat Photos

7 February 06

I wanted to showcase some of the fabulous temples that we saw while at Angkor Wat.

The above photos are all from Angkor Wat. Tomorrow I will post some photos of the other temples within the complex.

Some General Thoughts Post Cambodia

6 February 06

For me, our trip to Cambodia was extremely enlightening and invaluable at reevaluating what is important to you. It is a country in a state of renewal. The year 1975 was declared “year zero” by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, and he pretty much decimated the culture, economy and people during his reign of terror. Since the mid-90’s the country has again started over, this time from the ashes of a brutal dictatorship and a cruel civil war. Much of the country still deals with the remnants of that terrible time in the form of landmines and other unexploded ordinance.

After living in an Asian culture for a few months, I became accustomed to seeing many elderly people, walking or sitting in parks. But not in Cambodia. You will be surprised to know that over 40% of the population is under 16, and I imagine close to the other 60% are under 60. You just don’t see older people there. You do see lots of children! Babies are everywhere!

What happened to the people? Over 2 million people were killed in Cambodia during Khmer Rouge times and many more fled the country. Intellectuals, doctors, educated people and Buddhist monks were targeted as were many of the adult population. If you have seen the movie “The Killing Fields,” then you know many of the atrocities of the war were carried about by children and young adults, in some cases against their own families. Similar to the Cultural Revolution in China, Pol Pot believed that to start a new, non-corrupted society he must begin with the non-corrupted – the children and the peasants who had never been exposed to the cities and to Western ideas.

I couldn’t help but wonder during my stay, how can a country possibly heal after something so terrible? Cambodians seem to be doing it by repopulating their country. By being positive. Really, I never expected to see so many smiles, especially from people not so far out of a period of extreme suffering. I also wonder, what has become of the child soldiers and former Khmer Rouge fighters? How do they reconcile their violent past with Cambodia’s peaceful future?

Cambodia will make you feel many things. First you will feel incredibly wealthy, even if you are far from it on your own standards. Then you will feel ashamed of your own materialism, your quest for goods. (And with the amount of interesting things to buy, it is difficult to resist.) You will feel guilty while haggling over the price of $2 t-shirt with a child who has no shoes. Maybe, if you come from China, like us, you may also temper this guilt with the shock that she is also trying to sell you a bracelet for a whole $1. A dollar? Does she know what she can buy for a dollar in China? (On the other hand, a dollar will feed her whole family for a day or two…) It was not as inexpensive as we expected although, most North Americans and Europeans will find it extremely cheap.

In Cambodia there are three currencies working side by side. Everyone is a math wizard, constantly changing between Riels, the official local currency, practically worthless at 4,000 to 1 USD, the Thai Baht, used a lot in the Western part of the country and a step up from Riels at 38 to 1 USD, and the preferred currency, the unofficial yet most widely sought – the US dollar. (I was pretty surprised by the colorful new bills. When I last lived in the US, they were all just plain green!) Everywhere you go the price is given in dollars first – restaurants, hotels, taxis, even on the cash registers at stores! I’m not really sure what all that means, economics not being my strong point, but wow, those Cambodian kids are sure good with exchange rates!

I encourage you to visit Cambodia. And if you want to feel a mixture of emotions, a view of a rapidly changing country and see history happening before your eyes, get there soon. If you can’t visit, but would like to know more, I recommend a couple of books on the subject. I’ve read “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, which will make you cry, and “The Lost Executioner” by Nic Dunlop, which will make you angry. There are many more good books on Cambodia, just search on amazon, barnes and noble or powells.

I hope that I can return to explore even more of the country. It is a place that I will never forget.

Temple Overload and Tired Feet

26 January 06

Ever heard of temple overload? We’ve just spent the last two days visiting the temples of Angkor Wat – ancient Khmer temples, a mix of Buddhist and Hindu ideologies. I have to say that they are every bit as impressive as I had heard. Very simply, they are something that should not be missed if you visit Asia. I can say that of very few places in the world. Niagara Falls, Angkor Wat and the Pyramids of Giza are perhaps the few famed monuments that I have seen that have not disappointed.

The complex is huge and covers over 40 km. We must have seen about 10 temples, although there are many more still to be seen. We were driven around the complex in a tuk-tuk, which is a little different from Thai Tuk-Tuks, this one was a motorcycle pulling a little rick-shaw like trailer. It was very comfortable and saved our energy for climbing the temples. Some of the steps up the sides of the temples were incredibly steep. I’ll be posting an album of photos when I return to China.

We’ve decided to head south tomorrow, taking a boat down a river to Battambang, in the Southwestern part of the country, and from there on to the Thai border and south to the island of Koh Chang, in the Southeastern part of the Gulf of Thailand. The boat ride is supposed to be one of the most scenic in Southeast Asia. I’m looking forward to it. The area around Battambang was one of the most heavily mined in all of Cambodia, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent civil war that ravaged the country for 30 years. Evidently, the Khmer Rouge had their headquarters in the area as late as 1994, when they pretty much disappeared.

For now, I must head back to the guesthouse, pack and get ready for our journey tomorrow. With any luck, I will be at the beach tomorrow. (The drive from Battambang to the Thai border is supposed to be even worse than the drive we had from Thailand to Siem Reap!!)