Thursday, June 11, 2009

Weekend in Bangkok

Two weekends ago my roomie and I went to Bangkok for a few days. She was meeting a friend at the airport, and I was going to get some emergency fundage from my bank (still no wallet). Battambang is only two hours from the Thai border, four hours to Bangkok, then sometimes another two hours into the city, depending on traffic. I had never been to Asia before coming to Cambodia, and in a way Cambodia fit my perception of what Southeast Asia was like a lot better than Thailand did. I wasn’t expecting there to be such significant differences between the two countries. Actually, that’s not totally accurate. I wasn’t expecting to be so affected by the differences. I’ll give some examples.

Border crossings and customs offer a nice little paradigm for how the country and government as a whole function. On the Cambodian side, the customs agents sit on dated furniture and seem a little bit sleepy and/or bored with the whole situation. The whole thing seems fairly informal, given that it is a border-crossing. The Thai side of the border is like a completely new world. There were a few differences that caught my eye as soon as I walked into the Thai customs office. It was clean; gone was the thin layer of grime that seems to coat everything in Cambodia. And it was bright; all the lights seemed to be working. As I sat down I suddenly noticed I felt something I hadn’t felt since the moment I arrived in Cambodia… I was cool. A/C! The whole customs process seemed more orderly, though the customs agents still seemed somewhat indifferent to the whole thing.

I had only been in Cambodia for a little cover two weeks, yet I still had worse culture shock going from Cambodia to Thailand than I did coming from Canada into Cambodia. We boarded a Thai minibus that would take us the rest of the way to Bangkok. The first thing I noticed when the driver pulled out: he signaled! You almost never see this in Cambodia. Second thing I noticed: the road has lanes! And what’s more, the driver uses them! When I first got to Cambodia, it took me two days to even figure out what side of the road you are supposed to drive on (it’s the right) and even so, it’s more of a guideline than a strict rule. The third thing I marveled at was the traffic lights. There was nothing special about them; it was the mere fact that they existed that amazed me. I don’t think there is a single set of traffic lights in Battambang. I was actually surprised the other day when I saw a stop sign in Battambang, but not surprised to see that it was totally ignored. In Cambodia when you need to cross a busy street, the typical procedure is as follows. You wait until there is a solid group of other vehicles (three or four motos and a bike is a good general rule of thumb) pulled up beside you. You wait until there is a break in the traffic (or not) then one brave soul takes the plunge and makes the first move to dart in the street, and the rest of the group follows. Oncoming traffic will wait if the group is too dense to get through, or if there is a truck coming through, but if the group is too sparse, the motos will usually just weave around you. Whenever I try to cross the street, I get a picture in my head of a lemming, who will follow his fellow lemmings as they run off a cliff to certain death. Anyways, from the brief glimpse I got of Thailand, it’s a bit different. Though that’s not to say that the driving didn’t get a little hairy at times- our driver made some turns and attempted to pass a few times that left me feeling a little queasy.

One of the first things we did when we got into the city was go to the 7/11 to get a drink. Battambang doesn’t have a 7/11 or equivalent. If you want a drink or bags of chips or something, you go to a tiny, family owned store. There are hundreds of these little shops that line the streets, with pink and red petrol in 1 liter glass Pepsi bottles for sale out front. The shops are usually very small, dimly lit, kind of grimy, and incredibly cluttered. In the morning you see the ice-men standing at their carts outside these shops, sawing huge blocks of ice with rusty old saws. The shop owners buy the ice to put in coolers- this is the only way to have cold drinks. It’s really hard to describe how I felt when I walked into the 7/11 on Khao San road in Bangkok. It was sensory perception overload. It was bright, SO bright, the floors and walls were so white and clean, with everything lined up in neat little rows, and there was so much selection, I could get whatever I wanted! I just wandered around the store, touching all the packages of chips and chocolate bars, picking them up and putting them back down, opening the fridge doors and feeling the cold air, then closing them again. I was in there for probably thirty minutes, and ended up leaving without buying a thing. It was overwhelming to say the least. My roommate put it best: “I feel like a little girl who has never left the village coming to the big city for the first time.” Exactly on point.

Bangkok really is a city unlike any other. It has a funny mix of all the things you’d expect to find in a developing world city- a huge informal economy, slums on the outskirts, bribery and corruption, lax laws- combined with all the things you would normally associate with a developed country- a successful formal economy driven by pure capitalism, many fancy bars and restaurants, and (I know this sounds odd) sidewalks! It creates the perfect conditions for a thriving party/travel city. Bars are open till the early a.m. and you can get pretty much anything you want at any time of the day or night.

I don’t want to say too much about Bangkok because we stayed in the heart of the main tourist district, and I wasn’t there long enough to get out and really see the rest of the city. In that way my view of Bangkok may be slightly skewed. We pretty much spent two days shopping, eating, and drinking. We didn’t really party (I know, its like blasphemy to go to Bangkok and not party) but after two days I started to get a little claustrophobic, being constantly surrounded by (usually very drunk) people who were just in Bangkok to consume, consume, consume. Two days was enough of the Bangkok scene for me. I got my cash and was happy to get back to Battambang.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cambodia Life- An Introduction

For all the friends and fam that have been wondering, I made it to Cambodia in one piece and have pretty much coasted through my first couple weeks here. I’ll be living in Cambodia for the next three months, interning with a local non-governmental organization, braving the heat and mosquitoes, and soaking up Cambodian lifestyle.

1 Hour at the Phnom Penh Bus Station

When I arrived in Phnom Penh I caught a ride to the bus station so I could hop on a bus to Battambang. Here’s a little taste of my first few hours in Cambodia….
11:25 am – Buy my ticket: Phnom Penh --> Battambang. $6 US. Park myself in a waiting room chair. Big goofy grin on my face (I am such a tourist).
11:32 – Take in my surrounding: dusty concrete floor, various broken chairs, paint peeling from the walls, majority of the people watching the kung fu movie playing on the brand new Sony plasma TV.
11:40 - A man sits down beside me wearing a “Best Mom” tee. I’m sure he is, too.
11:48 – Woman walks by selling something in a black bucket. Can’t tell what it is ‘till Best Mom buys some and I get a better look- fried crickets. Strangely, I’m not hungry.
11:56 – Family drives by on a moto, it must be moving day. Entire family, mom, dad, little baby, desk, boxes, and chairs balance precariously on the two wheeled moving van.
12:02 – Best Mom finishes his crickets and falls asleep on my shoulder. Starts snoring softly…
12:10 – Amidst sandal clad feet, I am slightly ashamed of my brand new Keds. I begin to scuff them a little myself.
12:18 – The guy I bought the ticket from comes out and yells something. I am positive he doesn’t say “Battambang” so I stay in my seat. Turns out he did, and has to come over and get me to make sure I get on the bus. This is a preview of what’s to come; I should not be allowed to travel on my own.
While I may have made it all the way to Battambang, my wallet, sadly, was not so lucky. I didn’t exactly ‘lose’ it; I know exactly where it is: it’s in the bathroom of a very tiny restaurant on the road from Phnom Penh to Battambang. How does one leave their wallet, their source of cash, a veritable lifeline when you are in a foreign country, in some obscure rest station you ask? I wish I could say I was out of my head from exhaustion, or delirious from the heat. But no, I was in a perfectly lucid state of mind. When I got off the plane in Phnom Penh, I downed three bottles of water (very important to hydrate!) and promptly hopped on a bus to Battambang- a trip that typically takes 4-6 hours. I don’t need to tell you how happy I was when we stopped at that rest stop. I made a beeline to the bathroom, burst open the door, and to my dismay, instead of a toilet there was only a ceramic hole. Now, I have had experience with these things before and let me tell you, they can be tricky. Not wanting my wallet to fall out of my pocket and into the hole, I very gingerly placed it on the side of the water tub. I got finished, and was so damn proud I didn’t pee on myself I walked right out of that bathroom, got on the bus, and didn’t think about my wallet again until we were a solid 2 hours away. So there you have it, my own pride leads me to lose my wallet in the most humiliating way. I think they have a word for that……


I’m staying in a town called Battambang, located in North West Cambodia. I call it a town because it has a small town feel (I’ve only been here 3 weeks and I already can’t take a trip to the market without seeing someone I know) but Battambang is actually the second largest city in Cambodia. It’s a really cool little spot, laid back with hardly any tourists. The lack of tourists brings its own set of pros and cons to a town. Pro: everything is cheap and you don’t have to barter over the price of every little thing. Con: The nightlife is severely lacking. If you go out after 9 pm the town is dead. There are a few places that cater to Westerners; Battambang is known to have the highest concentration of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia, so there are lots of Western volunteers, interns, and advisors in addition to the odd tourist that comes through.

I’m renting a room in a house in a village just outside town, about a five minute bike ride from my organization, 10 minutes from town. The house is owned by a Khmer woman named Maly. Currently residing in the 3 bedroom house is Maly, her 3 grown children, 2 other German volunteer workers, a cat, a dog that comes and goes, myself, and lots of terrifyingly large bugs that keep mostly to the bathroom, right by the light switch, ready to jump me when I go to the bathroom at 3 am. Apparently I moved in at a good time because Maly just finished some renovations, so now we get to enjoy running (but not hot) water. There is even a flush toilet, a serious rarity in Battambang/Cambodia in general. Maly, like many Khmer people, is incredibly warm and welcoming. I already feel like one of her kids. She makes the most amazing meals and always makes sure I get seconds (a.k.a I’m in heaven). It’s the perfect place to spend three months.

Ek Phnom

Yet another thing Battambang, and Cambodia in general, is known for are the wats. The first weekend I was here one of my co-workers took me to Ek Phnom, about a 20 minute moto ride from Battambang. On the way there we stopped at a roadside stand selling sticky rice mixed with coconut milk and cooked inside bamboo over an open flame. Totally delicious. To get to Ek Phnom you take a road that is so picturesque it’s almost cliché that runs beside the river lined by tiny little villages. The wooden stilted houses are set just far enough back from the road and veiled by enough jungle vegetation you can only just glimpse the houses- with rice paper for spring rolls drying out front- once you are directly in front of them. As we were driving along I just kept thinking, “This is rural Cambodian suburbia!” It’s a really beautiful drive.

There are two temples at Ek Phnom; one is a Hindu temple built in the 11th c. and just beside it is a Buddhist temple built in the last few years. I found this to be very representative of Khmer and Cambodian culture, where Hinduism and Buddhism have existed side by side for hundreds of years. Elements of each religion are practiced by the people, while melding in traditional and modern ways of life. Ek Phnom (which means first mountain) is surrounded by 11 huge Bodhi trees, said to be the tree Siddhartha was sitting under when he became enlightened. It’s noticeably cooler in the shade of the trees, a welcome change from the 30 degree humid air outside. There is a nice breeze that rolls through and seems to bring with it a sense of tranquility; the whole place exudes serenity, and has a more spiritual aura about it than any church I’ve ever been in.

For locals, entrance to the site is free, and there are many Cambodians walking around or picnicking. For foreigners, entrance cost $2. I was told by the “Tourist Police” (a guy lying in a hammock) that I was the first foreigner of the day to come to the temple. Soon after we arrived a small boy, who I thought was maybe 7 or 8, began walking with us. I knew he would stay by our side until I gave him some money, but, not wanting to encourage begging, I promised myself I wouldn’t give him anything. When we got down to the moat that surrounds the site, I pointed to an open lotus flower. The boy immediately trekked down to the moat and broke me off two flowers and a lily pad. Now, I was a little worried because I was sure this would be bad karma or something, but apparently if you offer a lotus flower to Buddha in the pagoda, you’ll come back beautiful in your next life. My co-worker suggested I do it. Anyways, we started talking to the boy, and it turns out he is actually 15. When I asked why he wasn’t in school he told me he had finished up to grade 6, but had dropped out after that in order to earn an income to support his family. As tourists we are constantly told not to encourage begging, but this boy who had been “following us around,” running to get me lotus flowers, was only trying to earn some money. He wasn’t begging, he was working at the only job a 15 year old boy in Cambodia has available to him. It presented me with quite the dilemma. I didn’t want to encourage begging, but this boy gave up school to earn money from tourists, and I, being the only tourist of the day, was going to deny him that? I ended up giving him a few hundred riels- I didn’t want his lost opportunity at education to be for naught. He accompanied us until we left, when I was glad to see another couple foreigners pull up on a moto.

**NGO worker mandatory side note: This boy who looks eight but is actually 15 provides a pretty good example of the prevalence of malnutrition in kids in rural Cambodia. It also highlights another sad reality in Cambodia; often a small income is valued by parents more than a formal education. It was surprising and encouraging that he had even made it to sixth grade; most rural schools in Cambodia don’t even go up to grade six. In a very poignant way, this undersized boy with a grade six education had actually ‘beaten the odds’ and fared much better than many Cambodian children.

A Day in the Life

Typically I am awake by 6 or 6:30 am, when there is a surprising amount going on seemingly right outside my window (which isn’t actually a window; it’s a hole in the boards that make up the wall). I am usually pulled out of sleep by one or a combination of the following noises: the sound of roosters, dog and cat fights, babies crying, people yelling to (or at) each other. My personal favorite wake up call is the music our neighbors turn on as soon as they get up. This is really not unusual in Cambodia, there is hardly a time when you don’t hear music playing, and playing loudly. Music emanates from everywhere: restaurants, houses, stores, cars speakers as they drive by, and the endless celebrations going on in the street. It’s not waking up to music that I love; it’s the kind of music that I wake up to. Entrepreneurial Khmer pop stars and producers take beats from popular songs in America and Europe (and Asia too I assume), write their own verses in Khmer, but sing the original English verses. For example, this morning I woke up to the Khmer version of Get Low. Awwww skeet skeet…. how can that not put a smile on your face?! I cannot tell you how wonderfully homesick it makes me to hear Lil’ Wayne or Akon with a Cambodian twist. The videos for the songs are something else entirely. No words can explain, they must be watched first hand. I don’t know if you’ll find anything, but next time you are on youtube do a search for the Khmer/Cambodian version of your favorite top 40 song and let me know your thoughts.

By 730 I am on the road to work. I ride my one speed bike to the town, saying hello to the kids that run out and yell, “HIHOWYOU;” past monks collecting the day’s alms, and narrowly avoiding getting hit by various other vehicles. I go get breakfast in the market, and sit and watch the chaos that is Psar Nat (Central Market) in the morning. All the goods to be sold that day get delivered in the morning, and it really is organized chaos in the purest sense. Motos and bikes everywhere, people unloading pineapples from the trunk of their car, huge piles of corn husks and debris from various vegetables all over the place, mountains of pumpkins in the middle of the street, meat and fish arranged in neat red fleshy rows, children and dogs (and me) just trying to stay out of the way. All you can really do is stand to the side staring, trying to take it all in.
I work until 5, and then go back to the market to buy dinner. Maly doesn’t have a fridge so we shop everyday for dinner. I don’t know what half the vegetables are in the market, so I just stick to buying vegetables and fruits I can easily identify, which usually ends up in a pretty boring dinner (and yes, it always includes rice). Luckily Maly is an amazing cook and always makes sure there is some tasty something for me to eat. Mostly when I ask, “What is this?!” You can guarantee that it has rice in it in some form or another. I get home, sit and read, cook dinner, and go to bed. If I am up past 11 it’s a miracle. Then the next day I get up and do it all over again :)

Cambodian Vision in Development

I am interning with an organization called Cambodian Vision in Development (CVD). It’s been around since 1999, so it’s well-established in the NGO scene around Battambang. They have a number of different projects, but all are focused on helping the most vulnerable sectors of Cambodian society. For example, in the last 10 years CVD has set up more than 14 temporary schools in the rural area of Samlot to provide children with formal primary education. The organization teaches children about democracy, child rights, and the dangers of human trafficking. CVD also provides training, agricultural tools, and credit to farmers in the area as well. In Battambang, CVD has set up a garment factory to provide girls from rural Cambodia with fair wages and technical training, as well as an English school that offers free English lessons. CVD is a very dynamic, well organized company with incredibly committed staff. Before I started my internship, lots of people asked me what I would be doing here and I had to tell them I had no idea. Now I can tell you all :) So far I have been very busy. Last week I finished writing a project proposal to ask one of our donors for funding to have a permanent school built in Samlot district, and it looks like its going to get approved. I am working on developing strategies and social enterprise projects that will earn CVD additional income for the organization to become financial sustainable, so it doesn’t have to rely solely on donor funding to maintain the projects it has on the go. I also often spend time talking to the students in the English school, who are always really eager to learn English and speak to foreigners. It’s a really great way to learn about Cambodian culture, and it helps the students too.

CVD is one of those (increasingly rare) NGOs that is fully committed to their mission statement and improving the lives of poor Cambodians. Anyone who has any knowledge about social enterprises (i.e. - micro credit schemes, recycling programs) in developing countries, let me know! Ideas and suggestions are always welcome.

Annnnnd If anyone is feeling particularly generous, go to the CVD website and show some love ;) I KNOW all you tech-savvy people have paypal accounts, a donation of just FIVE dollars will get a kid school supplies for the year!
If you want to donate, go to CVD's website at: