Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Cambodia--A Promising Future and a Horrifying Past

This blog entry begins with happiness and hope for the future of Cambodia and ends with a remembrance of the sad and tortured history of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.

Some of the students and staff gathered in front of part of the elementary school that has about 300 students---about half are girls.

My site visit to a Room to Read* sponsored elementary school in Prey Veng, Cambodia would be the highlight of my Cambodia Adventures. At 6am just as dawn was breaking, I got a mototaxi ride to the Room to Read (R2R) Cambodia Headquarters. Unfortunately my driver rode me to the south end of town before checking with another driver that he should have taken me north. I barely got there at my meeting time of 6:30am through the busy streets. At least the mototaxi could get through the already congested traffic.

I was the only donor on this site visit some 80 km east of Phnom Penh as the driver and Sonty Tay, the Operations Manager for the Prey Veng R2R office headed to our tour in a nice car with A/C. The last few kms were on narrow dirt roads to the school which was adjacent to to town's Buddhist monastery.

I thoroughly enjoyed my school visit to the Khsam Tboung Primary School near Prey Veng, Cambodia. Sonty Tay was my guide for this visit. When the school year started November 2015, it marked the first time that the R2R tools and techniques were used at this school.

I am in front of the school with the teachers, the principal on my right, and librarian on my left with my sticky rice gifts from the school.

From left to right: R2R mobilizer, teacher, principal, Sonty Tay--R2R Prey Veng Operations Manager, and teacher.

They have a well stocked library chuck full of R2R illustrated Khmer children's books along with several other books including nutrition, construction, farming and fishing books. It is staffed by a trained librarian who indicated that the general public is also allowed to use the library.

The yellow and green pocket files contain new books that can be read in the library, but not checked out for the first month. The pictures on the walls are the book reports and drawings that the students do after reading the books.

I have attached pictures of this library that was filled with kids during their recess period. Children also check these books out and say that they read these books to their family members. We asked how many books they had read since school opened in November, and one girl indicated that she had read over 100 books.


I sat in on a 1st grade class where they were applying the R2R developed methodology using a teacher guide and student workbook. Lots of different learning modes seeing, saying, writing---on individual blackboard and their homework notebook, repeating and using it in sentences. R2R developed and trained these teachers in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. I learned one Khmer syllable in the course of the class.


The sixth grade class came into the library where their teacher read a story and when finished, asked a number of questions to determine their level of comprehension.

After that Sonty, told this class that I was a Room to Read volunteer/donor and he told them to ask me questions to find out who I was, where I was from along with any other questions they had of me. A couple of their questions were in English such as my name, where was I from and how old I was, and the rest were translated for me.

I also got to ask them questions like how many books have they read since November by show of hands at 5, 10, 20....to 100. I asked them what they wanted to do when they grew up and why. Teacher, Doctor, Engineer, but no farmers were identified. Teacher was the most popular with one girl explaining that she wanted to be a teacher so she could improve her family's situation, help her community and country.

They shared some coconut juice and sticky rice treats artfully packaged as boxes and birds that the principal has handed to me.


While in Phnom Penh, the Capitol of Cambodia, I also took in some of the sights of the city.

The night market food court.

Here is the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.
Mango and fish with baked eggplant at a riverside cafe.

I stayed at a riverside hotel near the confluence of Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. Nearby, I had a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club where many journalists gathered during the Vietnam War to swap stories, relax and send out their reports.

The Royal Palace grounds were beautiful and featured a Silver Pagoda that had 5,000 large tiles of silver laid on the floor that weighed 1 kg each and also where the Emerald Buddha resided. No pictures were allowed inside, but here are some exterior photos.
Silver Pagoda on the Royal Palace Grounds.

Here is the Independence Monument patterned after an Angkor Wat tower that designated the time when Cambodia became independent from the French in 1953.

Nearby is the Wat Ounalom which is the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism.


In my last visit 10 years ago, I went to the Tuol Sleng Museum----Security Prison 21, a former high school-- where they first interrogated, tortured and kept people until they convicted them of crimes against the Khmer Rouge. It was filled with pictures of the tortured and torturers along with cages and torture instruments. When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh early 1979, there were only 7 prisoners alive. I was not up to returning to this sad place, but I felt the need to visit the killing fields of Choeung Ek to complete my glimpse of what happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge tore the country and its people apart between 1975 and 1979.

My tuk tuk ride to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.


From the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, they then put prisoners, including their families, in trucks and sent them out to the killing fields. They usually arrived at night. After they were stripped of their clothes, many of the women were raped as well as further tortured along with the men. At first only there were 10 or so per night, but near the end there were up to 300 per night. Sometimes they did not have enough time to kill all of the so they continued into the morning hours. To save bullets many of the victims were killed with machetes, heavy iron bars or farm tools.

Ragged clothes were found while excavating these killing fields.

The babies and small children were grabbed by the feet and tossed against this tree where their skulls were smashed.

They estimate that most of the 17,000 detainees at S-21 were transported to these killing fields and killed. This memorial stupa displays more than 8,000 skulls, bones and ragged clothes. For the tour, they have audio headsets that described some of what happened here in many different languages. It was a very sad day for me, but it was important for me to witness this terrible part of our history.

*In 1998, John Wood, a former Microsoft executive, created Books for Nepal which was changed to Room to Read in 2000 to broaden its scope to globally focus on "World Change Starts with Educated Children". It envisions "a world in which all children can pursue a quality education that enables them to reach their full potential and contribute to their communities and the world." The R2R Cambodia Office was established in 2002. For more information on Room to Read go to their website: www.roomtoread.org.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

What's at Angkor Wat!

I arrived early in the morning on the night bus from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap just as the sun was rising through the smoke and morning mist. I caught a mototaxi to the Old Market area of Siem Reap to the Triangle Restaurant where I had breakfast before searching for a hotel.

Angkor Wat and me.

View from my sleep bus bunk bed

I was looking forward to getting to the hotel where I could shower and refresh myself before exploring the Old Quarter. After checking out a few places I ended up at the Neth Socheata Hotel. Since I was staying here for 4 nights, I bargained for a discount from $25 per night to $20 per night for a really nice top room floor with a view. It was clean and comfortable with TV---CNN so I could watch the NH primary returns as well as the debates---A/C, hot showers, and beautiful granite floors. It was also located next to Psar Chaa---the public market.

At the nearby local market called Psar Chaa, I had this seamstress repair my ripped Hawaiian shirt---caught it on a branch during my Koh Rong hike---for $1USD.

Since this week is the Chinese New Years holiday many of the tourists here are Chinese who generally are traveling in groups with their tour guides leading them with a flag. Pub Street is lined with bars and restaurants that cater to tourists where the menu choices are double that found in the Psar Chaa area except for the draft beer which is usually just 50 cents at either location.


The Temple Club is a multi story affair with a restaurant and bar on the first floor, a nightly Aspara Traditional dance performance, and a roof top lounge with live entertainment open to the night skies. The Aspara dance is very slow and deliberate with intricate hand, arm and leg movements. I was told one time that this Aspara dance was this slow because when it was performed before the King any fast moves were viewed as an assassination threat to the King. Some performers were killed and that got the survivors to really slow down to avoid that fate.

The main reason for coming to Siem Reap was to view the nearby Angkor Wat monuments. On the second day, I caught a mototaxi ride for $2 to take me out there. Unfortunately this fellow did not realize that he needed to stop on the way in so I could purchase entrance tickets---3 days for $40. Instead he dropped me off at the Bayon monument area which was about 6 kms from the ticket booth. The guard there told me I had to return to get a ticket. I started back and tried to get a ride from a mototaxi for just $1 but none would stop. Then Bill--an Indian merchant, living here for 10 years--gave me a free ride to the ticket booth. After getting the ticket, I again tried to get a short ride to the main temple---Angkor Wat. After about 5 minutes a young Khmer motor bike driver stopped for me and gave me a ride to Angkor Wat. On the way she pointed to where she lived. When she dropped me off, I offered to pay her a $1, but she refused. She got a lot of kidding from the guys there. I really appreciate the unexpected kindness of strangers I meet along the way.

Angkor Wat temple complex was the first one I visited. This is the most popular and most often featured in any travel guide or photograph of this World Heritage site. I walked through it on my way to Ta Prohm, It turned out to be about a 2 hour walk by some of the lesser temples and many small restaurants along the way. I enjoyed the fresh coconut juice along with a cold Angkor Beer.


When I got to the East Gate of Tha Prohm, I pulled out some photos of a family I had met 10 years before and showed them to some of the vendors there. They told me that Mich and Thy were at the West Gate area. After walking through the now cordoned off Tha Prohm, I came to the West Gate vendor area and quickly had one of the vendors take me to Mich and Thy's shop of clothing and souvenirs. The Mom, Mich, and Dad, Thy, were at the market, but the two children were there. The boy, Buntin, was now 16 and the girl, Panet, was now 14. I had some chicken Amok----meat and vegetables curry--- while waiting for Mich and Thy to return from the market.

When I had met them 10 years ago, I was having lunch at their restaurant when I heard some loud American guy arguing about the lunch bill. He had been sitting near me with about 8 of his traveling friends and had been bragging about how he had got a great cheap meal. It turned out that he had ordered vegetable noodle soup for $1.50 and then later added chicken. Mich had billed him $2 for the meal, and he was telling her that he was not going to pay the extra amount. After a few more of his insults to Mich, I told the guy he was an embarrassment to all other travelers. He still refused to pay, so I gave her a $2 for his meal, and told him he should be ashamed of his behavior. I told his friends and girl friend they should continue traveling without him. He then tried to give me the money, but I refused. As they left, you could tell that this guy had embarrassed them all, especially his girl friend.

I then spent a bit of time with Mich and her family meeting them and taking their pictures. I also arranged for her husband, Thy, to motorbike me around to the other monuments. He would drop me off on one side and meet me on the other of these monument for the next two days as well as pick me up and drop me off at my hotel in Siem Reap. In the intervening 10 years, they discontinued the restaurant, but kept the clothing and souvenir shop and her father who I had met had died at just 65 years old.

This time, they invited me to their home at Angkor Wat which was adjacent to the Sa Srang--once a royal bathing pool. Once we were there, Mich and Thy began lighting the charcoal stoves, drawing well water and preparing dinner. While they had me sit in the only big chair outside their house, they described how most of the surrounding homes were their relatives' homes. Sure enough as they continued preparing the dinner, I met more and more brothers and sisters and children of their extended family joining them for dinner.

They had placed a mat out on their patio where we would be having dinner on this mat. As the honored guest, I was the first one to eat. First came morning glory vines with all of the internal organs of the chicken cooked in it followed by taking a lettuce leaf and stuffing it with the rice pasta, pork--mostly fat, and then dipped it in a sweet rice vinegar, red chilies and peanut sauce. All was delicious although I did take very little of the organs.

Even the community representative joined us for dinner. I also noticed that several platters of food were being delivered to some of the elderly neighbors in the area. They also prepared a platter for an offering that her son and sister took to a nearby Khmer temple as an offering. Mich told me that this family compound had been in the family for so many generations, that they did not know when it began.


The kids enjoyed playing Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds on my mini iPad while we adults continued to eat and drink the cold Anchor beer. After dark, I told Mich and Thy that I should be heading back while Thy could still drive me back on the motorbike or I would end up spending the night there.

After getting back to my hotel, I arranged for Thy to again tour me around by motorbike the following morning at 9AM.

With Thy driving me about, we first stopped at the Bayon with its many clusters of rounded heads decorating all of the temple spires.


It was then on to the Terraces of the Elephants.

Followed by the Terrace of the Leper King.




After lunch we then headed to the distant Banteay Srey some 16 kms away, Although smaller than the other major temples, this one used red stone with intricate Hindu carvings compared to the mostly Buddhist images found throughout the rest of Angkor Wat.

Upon returning to Siem Reap, I enjoyed eating Khmer food at one of the restaurants that bordered the Psar Chaa--public market.

Khmer chicken-eggplant curry with rice.

On my last day at Angkor Wat, I rented an electric bike to see some of the sites I had earlier missed and also some I wanted to see again.


I first stopped at the Phnom Bakheng which is a popular place for capturing sunset pictures of Angkor Wat. This site was under a major renovation.

I revisited the Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Terrace areas and then head back to a last look at Tha Prohm along with some of the lesser temples along the way.




Tha Prohm and the "Tomb Raider" entrance.

When I was here ten years ago, there were no wood walkways nor railings that limited where you could explore.



Next on to Phnom Penh by bus for a site visit to one of the Room to Read----www.roomtoread.org---activities in Cambodia.