Friday, June 19, 2009

Siem Riep to Bangkok: In Trouble with the Law

Very early in the morning, after three glorious days in Siem Riep at our wonderful hotel, we prepared to board a bus to the border. Lonely Planet loves to remind you of "Scam Buses" in the area- since the drive to Bangkok is only around six hours, many buses will take you to a border further South, making the six hour trip a twelve hour trip, dropping you in front of their partner guesthouse and assuming that you will be too tired after the journey to look elsewhere.

OR there's a bus that will offer to take care of your Thai visa, so they will charge you the "visa fee" and run your passport through immigration. There is no visa fee, it's always free to enter Thailand, so some people get tricked that way.

We thought we did pretty well when we booked our bus. We made sure it went through the right border and made sure we got the visas ourselves. The plan was: pay for a ticket directly to Bangkok but switch buses at the border. Foolproof, right?

Well, yes. Sort of.

First of all, this guy comes in his car to pick us up at our hotel. Strange, but we've seen strange and weren't put off by it. Another Japanese couple were already in the car.

Second, when we arrived to the bus... not to sound snobbish, but I was just surprised... it was really run down and dumpy looking. We usually paid ten bucks and got a really nice air con bus, so to pay twelve and get this was an unpleasant surprise... more for Pat than me, who has issues with leg room at the best of times. But still! No problem, we're on our way to Bangkok. Nothing will stop us now!

We got on the bus to find throngs of foreigners- only foreigners- already loaded onto the bus with all of our bags piled in the back. Interesting. One always becomes a bit suspicious when they look around and can't find a local. It makes you think that there are much better ways to get where you're going. But even that didn't bother us and we found a seat.

After the bus was filled (over)capacity, we finally got on the dusty road to the border. LP says the road is full of potholes, but it has been fixed since they printed their last guide so it was one of the smoother rides we had. We continued on, having a nice conversation with the last guy to board the bus, who therefore had to sit on the floor by the bus driver. Among the crowd there were some rowdy Dutch who kept the whole bus laughing, a haughty wannabe hippy who spent most of the time on her cellphone talking (loudly) about the great yoga detox she was going to do when she got to Bali, and two women- one with a videocamera who kept filming the every move of her travel buddy, which we thought was strange.

We made our first stop after about two hours, and the driver immediately got out and started eating with the people who owned the place. The Dutch said "Probably extended family".

We hung out for about 30 minutes as children did their rounds, asking everyone for their foreign coins. I haven't quite figured out why they wanted foreign coins, but I was happy to see that they weren't begging and they were actually quite cute. So yeah, I gave them some Thai Baht. One of the older kids ran over to me and tied a piece of coloured string around my wrist as a thank you. Then we were on our way again.

About 15 minutes later, we stopped again. Huh? Why would we stop after only 15 minutes?

"Lunch time" said the bus driver.

It was 10 AM.

The entire bus of foreigners became mutinous.

"We don't want to eat lunch, we want to get to the border!"

"How much longer until we get to the border?"

"We just #%%^&& stopped!"

"We aren't going to spend any money here."

And so on.

The bus driver said, "I don't care if you think it's too early. In Cambodia, it's lunchtime. We are stopping for 30 minutes".

And that was that.

The bus was in an uproar. The wannabe hippy girl suggested we all stay on the bus as a show of solidarity. That lasted for about 5 minutes, when the smokers decided to go out to smoke and everyone else decided to stretch their legs. Ever the "hippy", the girl stubbornly stayed put the entire time. The only person on the bus.

After a time we did, eventually, get to the border. And the crossing was fine, and we waited on the other side for our new bus, thinking "this is Thailnd, no more crappy buses!".

Then, instead of being loaded on a big, air con bus we were shown to two minibuses. OK, whatever. Air con, at least.

However, they never thought about room. They overloaded the bus in Siem Riep, and now there weren't enough seats for all the passengers. After some fiddling around, Pat and I were wedged tightly next to the luggage. Great. Very comfortable.

We were driving for about 20 minutes when our driver got a call on his cellphone.

"Janine MacLean? Canada?"

"Yes...", I said.

"Ah." The driver said something into his cellphone and turned the minibus around, taking us back towrds the border. I was petrified. The driver couldn't speak any English so he just pointed at a passport and made an X with his arms. Something wrong with my passport? Had I been accused of some crime that I didn't do? Did something happen to my family back home? A million things ran through my mind as I mentally prepared to freak out. Pat was looking extremely concerned, the Dutch guy was cracking jokes about me being a terrorist, and the woman (who we found out was filming a documentary about her friend who is very rich and lives in LA and never travelled anything but first class) was videotaping every second of my agony.

We passed by an Army Base where they had all the soldiers out, marching. The Dutch guy said "My God, what did you do?!"

I was very pale. I was terrified. I thought I was going to jail where I would be beaten and, eventually, executed.

We arrived and the stern looking official who stamped my passport looked in the bus and said "Janine MacLean?"

I timidly said "Yes?"

"I need to talk to you. Step outside, please"

My legs were shaking so badly I could barely walk. I made Pat come with me for support. That man was scary.

As I got outside, he broke out into a huge smile.

"Ahhh! Sorry, sorry! I made mistake with your passport! I would be given large penalty for mistake! Thank you for understanding!"

I was torn between hugging him and punching him in the face. That was one of the scariest ordeals of my life. And for nothing! Apparently, he had given me a 60 day visa by accident, when I was technically only allowed in the country for 14 days.

He said, "I understand you are leaving in two days, but I needed to make sure to fix my mistake. Thank you for understanding and I hope you visit our country again".

Wow! Hilarious. First of all, how did he know I was leaving? Maybe he called the airport to ask when my departure date was? Who knows. Second of all, he would have been in serious trouble if I had overstayed my 14 day allowance. So ends the terror and so ends my last real adventure on the trip.

We arrived in Bangkok early that evening, and got ourselves a hotel. We did some shopping on Khao San Rd., and the next day we went to the fancy business and shopping centre of the city, where we though Pat might find some shows that actually fit him (nonexistent in Korea).

We arrived at the airport right on schedule, I took some valium to quell my fears, and before we could blink we were back in Korea. Our trip was over. So, so sad.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Siem Riep: Amazing Hotels, Amazing History

So, we almost cried when we discovered that all of our Siem Riep pictures, minus the cooking class, would be forever lost. OK, I cried a little bit. That meant losing our Angkor Wat pictures and the pictures I was planning to use to boast about the awesome hotel we stayed in! Very sad, indeed, but I have a vivid memory of our time in Siem Riep- it was my favourite place that we visited in Cambodia.

We took a very long bus ride from the South in Sihanoukville to Siem Riep, which is more to the Northwest. We hadn't heard great things about the road to Siem Riep, and sure enough, it was bumpy and I got a bit motion sick. No biggie.

So here's the thing about buses in Cambodia: some of them stop every five minutes for bathroom breaks and refreshments, while some... well... drive for eight hours straight with no such stops. In the defense of our bus driver, there was only one place on the entire way that was decent to stop in, and he did stop- for five minutes. I barely got back from the bathroom in time!

The real issue of the day was the fact that Pat and I, being used to the buses that stop every five minutes, failed to bring any snacks with us. We were ravenous when we arrived in Siem Riep eight hours later. Funny enough, when we switched buses in Phnom Penh (all roads lead to the capital) a nice young man who worked for the travel company helped me with my bag and asked me if I wanted his friend to pick us up in a tuk tuk when we arrived. If this had been two months ago I would have told him to leave me alone (please). However, we had been on the road a long time and we were tired. I said sure. Why not. I know he'll just try to take us to a guest house that will give him a cut of the profits, but I would rather that than have to haggle with a non-English speaking tuk tuk driver. So I gave the guy my name.

Sure enough, when we arrived in Siem Riep, there were two young men holding a sign with my name on it. I forgot to tell Pat I had given the guy in Phnom Penh my name, so he was pretty surprised by the royal treatment we were receiving. We asked them to take us to a place we found in the Lonely Planet, but actually, they were able to really convince us- not because we were tired, but because they knew what they were talking about- to go to a locally owned guest house. It's true! All LP ever recommends are foreign owned businesses! Not fair. We decided to go see what the guys had to offer... and ... oh my God is all I can say. What a beautiful guesthouse.

Our room was pretty much poolside, with a nice little patio, air conditioning, cable, hot shower... mini bar... everything you could want for 20 bucks a night. And since it was our last place before going back to Korea, we splurged and were glad. The pool was surrounded by a beautiful, lush tropical garden and the pool itself was just gorgeous. We were a five minute walk away from the famous night market and "Pub Street", and we liked the look of this touristy, but still Cambodian town.

We arranged with the tuk tuk guys to take us around Angkor the next day... at 5:30 AM, to see the sunrise. We went to Pub Street and had Shepard's Pie and Angkor beer for dinner. Very satisfying.

The next morning, we got up early and our tuk tuk dude was already waiting for us. It was 5 AM but it was already hot. It was rainy season in Cambodia but that just means 23 hours of pure, hot sunlight and 1 hour of torrential downpour- if that.

The temples of Angkor are spread over about 15 kilometres (from the most famous to the most remote). The most famous temples are, of course, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (which is really a bunch of temples and was once the capital city of Angkor) and Ta Prohm- which is famous among travellers as the building that trees started growing around and on top of, and famous among everyone else as the temple in Lara Croft: Tombraider (I think- I've never seen it myself...).

We bought a one day pass for 20 bucks and went to Angkor Wat to see the sun rise. Angkor Wat is considered the largest ever religious building... or something like that. Anyway, you need to cross the moat before you even see it. It's huge. The moat itself is huge! We sat and watched the sunrise and then wandered around the temple. Every boy tourist (Patrick included) kept whistling the Indiana Jones theme song. It was amusing and annoying all at the same time.

After Angkor Wat we were supposed to go to Angkor Thom, but we couldn't find our tuk tuk driver. Eventually we found him napping in a corner. Tuk tuks, or at least, bikes, are necessary in order to see the different temples. I think I read somewhere that Angkor was the biggest pre-industrial city ever discovered, so the temples are very spread out. Ankgor Thom was cool. We had to pass through the city gates and then, everywhere you look, there are piles of stones, ruins and well preserved buildings of the old city. We found out that Angkor flourished until the Thais sacked it and whoever was left fled and re-established a new capital in Phnom Penh. No one remembered Angkor until it was discovered in the 1900's by a Frenchman. Then they started trying to put everything back together. Then the Khmer Rouge came into power and destroyed all historical records and documents, so after they fell no one could remember where the stones were supposed to go. Also, they mined the area really heavily, so that had to be taken care of.

After Angkor Thom we went to the famous Ta Prohm temple, which was really a monestary! It's funny, Angkor started out as, I believe, a polytheistic society. Then they turned Hindu, and finally they were Buddhist. The artwork carved into the buildings is a mixture. It tells stories of great wars, of bare breasted dancers (they say the Thais took the dancers with them and that's where Thai dance has it's roots) and then there are Buddha's and Krishnas everywhere. It's great. Ta Prohm was amazing. It's crazy how the trees are holding the building together!

There was much more to see, but we were exhausted and all templed out. It was getting very hot and I could hear the pool calling my name, so we went back happily to our hotel where we swam, relaxed and had lunch. Lovely.

The next day we took a Khmer cooking class at a restaurant on Pub Street. It was fun, as our cooking classes always are! We cooked alongside an American Philippino couple who actually live in Korea and work as nurses on the American base in Yongsan (Seoul). Too wierd! They were really nice and we enjoyed a nice lunch together afterward. The four of us all made different dishes and shared. I made Amok, which is sort of like a curry, but with a different, more Cambodian paste. Sarah made a curry, her boyfriend made a stir fry, and Patrick made LocLac- Cambodian steak (very yummy). We all made salads- I made mango, Pat made banana flower and the couple made a papaya salad and spring rolls. Great lunch!

After lunch I thought I would treat myself to a mani-pedi. My first one, ever. And it cost me 12 bucks (for both). Very relaxing. After that, a swim and a smoothie and some BBC Newsworld, we hit the town!

Back on Pub Street we had a nice dinner and several glasses of wine and beer. Then we hit the night market. I loved it! The stuff wasn't as nice as the night market in Luang Prabang, but there lots of great dresses and we got a hammock and some scarves and some little ornaments. And then we found Dr. Fish! Yet another Korean installment! Of course we had a go, and I asked if the fish came from China (I knew that would be the first question asked by my Korean friends- no dirty Chinese fish, please! For whatever reason...). Of course the man running the pool said no! These are clean fish from Europe! A fish is a fish if you ask me, but I have fun teasing my Korean friends about their inherent racism towards China... and Japan... and almost everywhere else...

We didn't want to leave, and I certainly didn't want to go to Bangkok because I hate flying and the closer we got to Bangkok the closer we got to flying... but we were up bright and early the next day, ready for anything. We would be in Bangkok later that afternoon...

After we cooked our meals they were brought out so we could dine al fresco.

Pat, concentrating on making the perfect LocLac.

Ready to plate it up.

Us, our cooking companions and our teacher with our works of art.

Stirring up my Amok. I made this one with chicken, but it can also be made with fresh water fish.

Pat's banana flower salad in the foreground and my mango salad in the background. Both delicious!
Ingredients for Banana Flower Salad. After shredding the banana flower, Pat had to soak it in lemon for about 15 minutes. On the plate you can see sweet basil and shredded carrot.

Getting ready to pound up my curry paste.

Curry Paste ingredientsL lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, fresh root turmeric, small red chillis, galangal ginger, garlic and shrimp paste.

Mango salad ingredients: sweet basil (ribboned), shredded carrot and shredded mango. Easy!

For my Amok? Onion, oyster mushrooms, chicken and tamarind leaf (I think?).

LocLac ingredients: zucchini, tomato, beef and onion. And chillies.


The first thing we saw when we came in. Glorious!

Fresh produce at the market.

The fishmongers just sat on their tables.

Hard at work.

Of course, we had to try some crickets. They tasted really nutty, and actually yummy, but I gagged when I tried to swallow their legs and my throat got tickled.

Plenty of stuff for sale.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Sick in Sihanoukville

On our last day in Phnom Penh, we spent a bit more time at the orphanage and relaxed around the lake district. We had bus tickets that would leave first thing in the morning for the beach destination of Sihanoukville- like, the only beach destination in all of Cambodia.

Again, I truly wish I had my own pictures to show you, but I found some that will do the trick on google images. I hope I don't get sued.

The plan was: get there as fast as possible, skip the party town and trashy beaches in Sihanoukville town, and head straight for Bamboo Island. We had been told by everyone who had been there previous that, while Sihanoukville was a bit trashy, Bamboo Island was pure paradise. And I wanted a little more paradise before I had to get on a plane once again.

So, we woke up early, had a breakfast of meusli and, in Pat's case milk, in my case yoghurt. This was going to work to my benefit later in the day. For all you people planning a trip to Southeast Asia: milk is generally a bad idea if you aren't used to it unpasteurized. In any case, we arrived in Sihanoukville and Pat wasn't feeling the greatest. In fact, he didn't leave our room for the next three days. The downside: we couldn't go to Bamboo Island (I cried a little). The upside? Pat didn't spend his daily budget of 20 bucks on food or fun, so we got to use it on a lovely hotel with a pool. That kept me occupied for our time there. Cable TV kept Pat occupied.

I did get to look around the town, and it wasn't as bad as everyone told me. Ya, ya, there are big parties every night, ya ya, the beach has a bit of a litter problem, but seriously, it was a cute little town full of sweet, friendly and polite Cambodians- quickly becoming one of my favourite nationalities. And, yeah, the food wasn't exactly authentic Cambodian fare, but it was some of the best western fare I found in all of Southeast Asia, so I wasn't exactly complaining. I would return. I hope I get to, someday.

This is Bamboo Island. Le sigh. I was supposed to go here.

This is the lovely little resort where we stayed for 20 dollars a night! A steal, if you ask me. The pool was fun.

And this is the beach we were closest to. It's called Serendipity Beach. I'm wondering how they got the photo sans trash.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tuol Sleng Prison and The Killing Fields: Phnom Penh

Well, it has been awhile and, indeed, I am back in Korea and not even travelling abroad anymore! I still have so much to tell about our trip, though, and should be blogging for another month or so to make sure I have all my memories put into words. After all, this is the first extended backpacking trip of many more to come- and we haven't done The Philippines yet, which still falls under the Southeast Asia blog, so stay tuned for that!

When I last left you, Pat and I had spent a wonderful two days with the kids at SCAO, teaching and learning and playing and generally having a very good time with those wonderful kids. We all know that Cambodia is considered one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, and despite all the investment from other Asian countries, it still has a long way to go to get back to what it was pre-Khmer Rouge, and pre-Vietnam war (because, yes, the Americans bombed the hell out of Cambodia and inadvertently caused the Khmer Rouge to come into power, but we're not going to dwell on that for now).

Something we will dwell on? How about the fact that in Siem Riep we lost our memory card with nearly all of our pictures of Cambodia on it. How about that. Because Patrick and I are very upset that we lost our Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Riep pictures save the orphanage pictures I had already uploaded onto the blog. It's very sad, because Cambodia was one of my favourite countries (my second favourite, to be exact, but more on that later). In any case, I will continue with our stories and hope that my words paint a bright enough picture. So here is our other Phnom Penh story- our history lesson and reality check story concerning Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields.

After spending the morning with the kids at the orphanage, we hired a tuk-tuk driver (15$ for about 5 hours) to take us about 45 minutes away to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, and then to Tuol Sleng Prison- the place where prisoners were held, tortured and questioned before being sent to said Killing Fields. This experience was sobering to say the least, and I am going to try and recount every single thing we learned that day without exception, but that being said, I'm not going to detach my personal experience. I cried. It was horrible. And unfair. And the worst thing that could ever happen to such a beautiful, proud people. I just kept thinking how lucky I was to live in Canada, and how it could have so easily been my mugshot on display. And I felt guilty, too.

When we arrived at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, the first thing we saw was a great pagoda. As we approached the pagoda, we saw that it was full of human skulls. It was quite large, and it was filled to the absolute brim with human skulls, clothing found in the trenches, and jawbones that had no corresponding skull. These skulls were just some of the victims of Pol Pot's regime. Many human bones are still embedded in the trenches. Excavation at the Killing Fields began after the regime collapsed in 1979 and it was discovered that over 8000 executions look place at Choeung Ek alone.

In total, the Khmer Rouge executed about 200,000 Cambodians. They targeted officials from the previous governments, intellectuals (aka, teachers, people who spoke other languages, people with glasses...), Buddhist Monks and ethnic minorities (mostly Chinese Cambodians and Thai Cambodians). While they executed these people, millions more died from exhaustion and starvation over the four year attempt at a perfect, agrarian reformation. Those executed would have been the ones to get the country back on it's feet when the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia in 1979, but instead the UN allowed the Khmer Rouge to represent Cambodia in the UN for many years afterward- many of them uneducated, with no political experience or know how.

I get the feeling that the Khmer people value education now more than anything else because they understand how disastrous it can be to let untrained, uneducated people be the "doctors", the "lawyers" or the "teachers". These are things we take for granted in Canada. Of course we would never let an uneducated person become a doctor, but what about a politician? Who knows where the next Pol Pot will come from, and for this reason, we need to remember the atrocities committed by his regime and never let it happen again. Let's not forget, Pol Pot was originally a school teacher himself (not to mention, from an ethnic Chinese family).

As we walked around the trenches, there were signs explaining exactly how the executions took place. At one tree we were informed that there had been sound effects inserted into the branches so those waiting for execution couldn't hear the screams of their fellow prisoners. At another tree we learned that children were beaten against the trunk- yet another way for the Khmer Rouge to save bullets. They killed the adults with hammers, sharpened bamboo or knives. It was a truly chilling experience. How could this ever happen?

We returned to the tuk-tuk and our driver, who looked to be in his sixties, took us to Tuol Sleng prison. I wondered how he survived the war. He was our driver for the two days we spent in Phnom Penh, and he was a sweet man, but obviously spoke no English. It just made me remember that every Cambodian has their story, no matter what side of the regime they were on.

Tuol Sleng prison was originally a high school in Phnom Penh. It is one of the more famous buildings associated with the Khmer Rouge, although there were many places of torture and imprisonment around the country. Tuol Sleng, or S-21 as it is otherwise known, saw nearly 20,000 Cambodian civilians questioned, tortured and sent to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. The former classrooms were turned into cells or torture chambers. As one walks through the complex one can see the instruments used to torture victims and then move on to see the faces of those tortured during their time there.

Often they were questioned as to what their previous life was like- what their profession was, who their father was, whether they supported the former government. Often they would be tortured into giving the names and locations of their extended family members so that they, too would be executed. The prison was turned into a museum after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge and it is-rightly so- shocking and, at times, gruesome. This embodies the Khmer Rouge regime.

The most difficult part was looking at the mugshots taken of the prisoners before they were questioned. While the Khmer Rouge were very good at destroying the historical records of their country before "Year Zero", they were ironically fastidious in keeping their own records. These records are now on display for the world to see. In 1979, mere minutes after the Khmer Rouge officials fled the prison, a Vietnamese soldier ran through the building and took the photos of prisoners who were left in the middle of torture or interrogation.

The pictures were disturbing. The expressions on the faces of these people are etched in my mind forever. Some looked as though they knew they were going to die. They looked frightened, or resigned or defiant. And then there were those who seemed to have no idea of what was about to happen. They were smiling at the camera. The mugshots of the children were the hardest to look at, especially after spending the morning at the orphanage. These kids didn't look scared. Many were not crying. But in their eyes you could see that they were thinking "You're supposed to take care of me. You're not supposed to be doing this. Even I know better than you, and I'm three". It was the saddest exhibit in the museum, and I won't say I didn't choke down my sobs.

As you progress through the museum, you can read the stories of some of the prisoners- why they were captured, when they were killed, etc.

In another area you can read the stories of those who were members of the Khmer Rouge and why they joined the regime. Many were scared of the regime and worked hard to prove they were as ruthless as the regime's leader. Their stories were touching.

Patrick was reading about a Scandanavian journalist who came to Cambodia during the regime and had the wool pulled over his eyes by the Khmer Rouge. He went back to his home country and wrote about the wonderful things the Khmer Rouge were doing for their country. Only after the truth came out did he realize that there were no patients in the brand new hospitals he was being shown and that he had been fed a pack of lies by the regime. Now, one of the exhibits recounts his first impression of the Khmer Rouge and his impression after he found out he had been lied to.

Tuol Sleng really is the best, most heart wrenching museum I've ever been to. It is the best because it transports you back to 1975. It is heart wrenching because, through it all, it shows the resiliance of the Khmer people. I'll never forget it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bored in Phnom Penh? Why not volunteer with SCAO for a few days.

We knew all along that we wanted to do some volunteer work once we got to Cambodia- like I said before, it has many more opportunities than anywhere else in Southeast Asia for the Average Joe to do some good.

We stayed at Simon II Guesthouse in Phnom Penh, and on the wall I noticed a photocopied notice asking for volunteer English Teachers at a local orphanage (well, not local- seven km from Phnom Penh in the dusty village of Boeng Chhouk, but still fairly close). Unlike many orphanages that offer little more than scams to the average backpacker, Pat and I had a good feeling about this one (although we remained skeptical until we arrived- it was definitely a gamble).

The owner of our guesthouse helped us arrange a tuk-tuk for the day and, without making a reservation and without any outsider's knowledge about this place, off we went to buy a bag of rice as a gift and play with the kids.

When I pictured an orphanage in Cambodia, I pictured lots of babies for some reason. I pictured an institution, maybe established long ago by French nuns and now run by Cambodians, with a backyard and a playroom, I pictured kids screeching with happiness upon the arrival of visitors, and I pictured making such a connection with one child that it would be difficult for me to leave it at the orphanage. And I pictured it being a one day thing.

Well, out of all my imaginings, only one was correct. When we arrived at the small building made out of plywood and surrounded by a blue gate, the children ran up screeching happily to greet us. The orphanage houses about 17 children and teenagers and really focuses on their education. The Save Children in Asia Organization had just begun 16 months before we arrived, and Pat and I were not the only foreigners there.

They were housing four English teachers from Europe when we arrived and, by coincidence, our friend Jes who we had met in Laos was also volunteering there for one class a day- very strange to run into her like that! That meant, including Pat and I, the total number of teachers numbered seven.

A few months prior, a foreigner had helped them build an outdoor schoolhouse and classes were being held four times a day for all the children at the orphanage plus all of the children in the village. Pat and I agreed to take a class for the next day, had a talk with one of the senior teenagers living in the orphanage (who wants to be a teacher) and promised to come back the following day.

The next day we arrived and met with the director of the orphanage, Mr. Samith, who runs the orphanage with his wife. I was amazed at their relationship with the children living at the orphanage. It was more like Mr. and Mrs. Samith adopted these kids instead of putting them up for adoption (they are not really up for adoption; their parents could simply not afford to keep them). The kids behave as if Mr. and Mrs. Samith were their real parents, and indeed, they fought and cried and behaved as if they were all one big family. It was great to see such a stable environment for the kids.

Although they are clearly lacking in adequate housing and docations of food are always needed and appreciated, the kids want for nothing. They have plenty of playtime, they go to school, they all eat together and watch cartoons together, and they're happy.

The orphanage takes in those who want to volunteer for five dollars a night- including three yummy Cambodian meals a day (believe me, with what little they have they can serve up a tasty lunch), so if you're interested in volunteering just follow the link on my blog and you can stay there, too.

I spoke with Mr. Samith about fundraising and got some ideas for when I go home. I know that Pat and I will continue to support the orphanage every year, but if we could raise enough money each year to help put one of the senior kids through university or an apprenticeship it would be even better. And it doesn't cost very much to put a kid through university here- maybe 500$ total?

After meeting with Mr. Samith we taught our class. The kids were really great! We taught two pages from their textbook and got them to understand what a verb, or an "action" is by playing some games and practising. I taught them how to play "Zip, Zap, Zop"and we all had a great time- even Mrs. Samith, who sits in on the lessons to learn English as well.

So if all you can think of doing in Phnom Penh is eat and get (I hate to say it) high... again... why not put the doob down and take some time to play with the kids. You'll be glad you did :)

PS: To my Mom: I don't smoke doobs. That was hypothetical. Phnom Penh is famous for doobs.

Pat and Lee: the only boys.

I kinda love Lee. What a kid. The girls have better English, but I have never seen a seven year old with a brighter attitude!

Mr. Samith and three of his kids.

The youngest child (two) liked hitting Pat with plastic bottles and stealing important documents.

Lee! Best kid ever!

Checking up on assignments.

The brand spanking new bathroom.

The kids and Mrs. Samith, hard at work.

Playing some games during breaktime.

The zip, zap, zop championship finals.

The youngest little girl with her favourite puppy (they have four puppies and several grown dogs that they're trying to find homes for).

Escaping the mid-day heat in the laundry tub. Cute.

Thanks to this map, the kids really know their geography.

Profiles of all the kids at the orphanage- the oldest ones have information on what they want to study and how much it should cost to sponser their education.

Daily and monthly costs of food.

One of their true orphans. The dogs here break my heart!

One of the oldest kids giving Pat the run down.

She took us around and showed us the school on our first visit.

The nicest 13 year old you will ever meet.

And finally, the bag of rice that I couldn't lift. Great experience; highly recommended.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Phnom Penh: Dusty and Hot... and Awesome.

We left Saigon at around 3 PM, and were assured that we would be in Phnom Penh a mere six hours later- border crossing included! That sounded almost too good to be true since we spent about 2 or 3 hours at the Laos/Vietnam border, but still, we went with it.

From Saigon it takes about 2 hours to get to the border. While on the bus (12$ US) one of the attendants asked us for our passports. He took every passport on the bus, filled out our arrival and departure cards, took the 25$ US for our Cambodian Visa and did *absolutely everything* for us. All we had to do was pass through to show the border officials that we were the same person as in the passport. It was the easiest and fastest border crossing. Ever. I totally recommend the bus.

When you arrive in Cambodia you don't see any poverty. You see a lot of casinos. A lot. Right at the border.

Our bus stopped just outside the border and we had our first Khmer meal. It was pretty yummy, actually, considering I had heard mediocre things about Cambodian cooking (same as Thailand, only bland, apparently). Their curries (amok) are quite sweet with pineapple. I didn't like that so much. But they made a delicious pork and egg soup that I enjoyed pouring over my rice, and their meat and stir fries were great, too. I think a lot of the food catered to tourists is mediocre, but this backroads place was pretty great!

We arrived in Phnom Penh at about 9:30 PM. We're getting used to busses dropping us off in the middle of nowhere, outside of the cities or in front of a guesthouse that gives the bus company money, so while we were prepared we still lucked out since we met two Australian girls who were living in Phnom Penh for several weeks, volunteering at a hospital. I've noticed that expats here generally work for an NGO or have drug/sex addictions. And then there are the perfectly normals ones who just love the country and the people.

Anyway, the Australian girls offered to share a tuktuk with us, and we were relieved, because you never know how much it should cost to get somewhere, which means you never know if you're getting ripped off. It was much easier to just follow the girls to their guesthouse.

Most of the good guesthouses in Phnom Penh are located in a place called the "Lake District". It is full of backpackers, full of restaurants, and full of people trying to sell you stuff. It's a bit hard to find, so again we were lucky to have the girls show us around. The guesthouse we wanted to stay in was full, so we stayed at a very cheap and slightly sketchy guesthouse until the next morning, when we moved into the air conditioned, cable TV room that we've gotten so used to renting since Vietnam. We ate breakfast and then hired a tuktuk driver for the day.

The city was once known as the "Pearl of Asia" and since the Khmer Rouge days it has started to fall apart, piece by piece. The French colonial buildings still stand, and they are beautiful, but most are in desperate need of paint and plaster. I remembered from the books I read by Khmer Rouge survivors that some of the best memories the authors had as small children included sitting with their Dads in the evening on their apartment's balcony, watching the world go by.

Driving through the wide boulevards of Phnom Penh, I could almost see what the city was like in her glory days, which families out socializing, sitting out on their balconies and eating in the restaurants. Today the people still smile and they continue to make a living, but you can see the remnants of war sketched on everyone's face. I think it will still take a few generations to heal the wounds of the Khmer Rouge. Forget the current trials- most of the people involved are corrupt government officials and, many, former Khmer Rouge, but the people of Cambodia are so resiliant and I really love their country.

As someone recently told me, Cambodia's economy is growing thanks to the investments of other Asian countries- namely, Korea! You see Korean busses and businesses everywhere here, and plenty of signs are translated into Korean as well. Who knows what Korea's motive really is, but I like to think that they, more than most countries, understand what it's like to strengthen your economy after war, so I think it's cool that they've taken an interest in Cambodia.

Indeed, there are lots of ways to get involved in community projects here, moreso than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. NGO's, volunteer projects, orphanages, fair trade- the possibilities of doing some good are endless in this country, but you should do your homework before you think about volunteering. Lots of "projects"and "organizations"here are really just tourist traps- you spend money on something you think is worthwhile, but your money just goes into some businessman's pocket. We really lucked out when we volunteered at our orphanage... more on that later!

Of course, no visit to Phnom Penh is complete without witnessing the atrocities the Khmer Rouge commited during their regime of terror in the 1970's. It''s difficult to see, but I think it's one's duty as a human being to see what can happen when the wrong person comes into power and always remember. I often wonder where the governments of our great countries of the West were while the Khmer Rouge were killing millions of their own people. I mean, I know they were secretive about it, but wouldn't you start to wonder what was going on when an entire capital city is cleared of people, all foriegners are expelled and the currency is obliterated? I suppose there's a lot about this time that I don't understand, but walking down the streets of Phnom Penh and seeing seeing people in Cambodian villages you can tell that the war is still affecting them, and the form the war has taken today is poverty.

That being said, so far Cambodia has been a great country and everywhere you look there are new businesses, developments and wonderful people. Those living in rural or poverty stricken areas no longer want your charity; they want their children to have an education and have the same chance in life as other children. Giving in to children begging on the street or trying to sell you trinkets in frowned upon, and Cambodians now ask you not to support this kind of thing. There are other, better ways you can help.

I think everyone should come to Cambodia. This country is amazing! The kids are wonderful, the food is wonderful, the hospitality is top notch and the stories people have will melt your heart and bring tears to your eyes. You'll never forget this place once you visit.

Pictures coming soon!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hoi An and Saigon

After Sapa, Pat and I prepared ourselves for a long train ride and a much warmer climate than we had been experiencing in the south. We were taking one train to Hanoi from the border town of Lao Cai *an hour away by bus from Sapa) and from Hanoi we were catching another train allllll the way below the old DMZ line to the small city of Hoi An. Why go to Hoi An? For the culture, sure, but mostly we were going for some tailor made- cheaper than you can get in Canada-custom fit clothes. Like every other foreigner in Hoi An.

So our first task was to hop the bus from Sapa to Lao Cai. There are busses everywhere in Sapa so it should be easy, right? No.

We got on a bus, no problem there. And the bus driver knew we had a train to catch, he did. And we proceeded to drive in a circle around the town of Sapa until we picked up more passengers. I went from nervous to frightful to furious in a mere forty minutes. Finally, after the ten thousandth loop around the small town, we raised our voices a smidgen. Then we got one more passenger and the bus driver made us get out and get on another bus which had more people. I nervously checked the clock: it read 7:40 AM. Our train was due to leave at 9. And it was still an hour to drive to the train station. Ugh.

So we were finally on our way, packed tightly in a slightly falling apart mini bus, and I cursed the fact that there were no guard rails down the winding, one lane road. When we arrived in Lao Cai, we ran to the train station, scared to death that we had missed our train, and were met by three people: one girl behind the counter who had no idea what I was going on about, an older woman who kept saying "It's ok, it's ok" and a frowning younger man who kept replying "NOT ok, NOT ok". Apparently they didn't recognise the ticket I had. The man phoned the number on our ticket and remained frowning. The older woman kept reassuring us that everything was ok and we had not missed our train, and the girl behind the counter continued to chew her gum sullenly.

Finally the man said "Ok, ok" and exchanged our first ticket for a proper train ticket. The woman told us their wasn't any food on the train and took Pat to a place where he could get a baguette. While Pat was gone, I profusely thanked the man, who I assumed worked for the train station, for helping us.

"Ah, no problem", he frowned.

Then he said: "Are you going to give me something for my trouble?"

I was taken aback. I said "What?"

He said, "You know, I don't work here, I am just working for myself. Give me some money for what I did".

Not knowing what else to say, I replied "My boyfriend has all the money".

When Patrick got back, I whispered that the guy wanted money from us. Pat, who was hurrying me to the train, told me to forget about it, he was a jerk and he scared us when he shouldn't have. We started to run for the train and the guy trailed after us:

"Hey! What about me?!"

I replied that he never informed us about his "business" beforehand and he wasn't getting a cent. And my faith in humanity was shaken.

I told Pat that at least the older woman was kind to us. Patrick replied sarcastically, "Yeah. She made me go to her store to buy food. She didn't work for the train station either".

How depressing.

The train ride was very uncomfortable. Apparently when the Vietnamese say you booked a "hard seat" they literally mean a wooden bench. For about 11 hours. My bum's faith in humanity was shaken that day, as well. But the locals on the bus were great fun. They would just take our stuff without asking, looking through our books, playing with our playing cards, looking at the pictures on our postcards and laughing. It's like we were all old friends. A man who sold tea would sit down next to us and say we were like his children. That was sweet.

When we finally arrived in Hanoi we had a few hours to kill. I suggested that, if the hard seats were really that hard, then the hard sleepers would probably be absolute hell, as that is what we planned to sleep on en route to Hoi An (our train left at 11 and was due to arrive the next day around noon). We tried to get some soft sleepers but to no avail, and we ate a fattening meal at Lotteria (Korea's version of McDonald's, spread all around Asia) and had a beer at what appeared to be an upscale brothel. Finally we boarded our train and discovered, to our delight, that the hard sleepers actually have cushioning. Excellent. I fell asleep immediately.

The next day, after training through some beautiful seaside landscapes, we arrived in the city of Danang (a bus ride away from Hoi An). We forgot what the weather in the rest of Southeast Asia was like: unbearably hot! We didn't want to pay 10 American dollars to get to Hoi An by car, so we opted for the public bus, which we were told was only 10,000 dong (75 cents) per person. When we got on the bus, the ticket man demanded 50,000 dong from us. We said no, and he kicked us off at the following stop. We waited for the next bus, and they didn't try to overcharge us (although I handed her 10,000 dong extra, just in case).

We arrived in Hoi An and Pat found a great place with a pool and cable for just 12 bucks a night. Yay. We spent the next two days having fitting after fitting, picking out fabrics and eating clay pot pork with rice. Then we took the train once again on our way to Saigon!

Note: the dude on our bus back to Danang tried to overcharge us as well, but luckily I still had our tickets from the last bus that clearly said "10,000 dong from Hoi An to Danang". The ticket guy knew he was had, and to make him appear that he had not lost face we stayed quiet and simply handed him our fare. It's important for Asians never to lose face.

On the train to Saigon, I got cheated twice more by a guy that a) tried to show us to our car (which was clearly number four. I can count.) and then demanded money for helping us and b) a guy who served us a meal on the train and never gave me back my change, shaking his head and smiling and then quickly walking away. I mean, none of this would have cost us much, but it was the principle of the whole thing that made me very angry!

We arrived in Saigon at around 6 AM. We found a taxi that was honest and he took us to the backpacker district where we found some good accomodation. Pat wanted to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Vietnamese hid from the Americans during the "American War", as they call it, but I was tired and found that we had Discovery Travel and Living included in our cable. Hmmm, tunnels, or all of my favourite cooking shows that I haven't seen in ages? Easy!

Pat went to tht tunnels and had a great time, while I ate a great breakfast and watched Anthony Bourdain... and had a great time. When he got back we went to the War Museum, which was a sobering experience with very graphic images (but was surpisingly neutral in it's content! They talked about how both sides were affected by the war, not just the Vietnamese) and then proceeded to have some of the best ice cream I've had in three months before heading back. We left the next day on a bus bound for Phnom Penh, which is a mere six hour drive from Saigon. Goodbye, Vietnam! You're a wonderful country with some people that infuriate me, but I have no hard feelings.

The mean streets of Saigon.

Pat in his new suit, a la Toto Tailors in Hoi An.

Me, trying to sleep on the sleeper train to Danang. The view was too nice to nap, though.

The sandwich stand that dreams are made of... Pate Baguettes! Thank God they have them in Cambodia, too!

Outside the War Museum in Saigon.

Peace paintings by the children of Saigon: The War Museum

Clearly the Cu Chi Tunnels were not made with Patrick in mind.

Who keeps these darn bombs lying around?!

A typical Cu Chi Tunnel room. Uncle Ho: you the man.

Pat is like a kid in a candy store.

Images of victims of the "American War".

I wouldn't want to be a victim of these guy. Would you?

I got softhearted on some kid that looked like my brother Rory and bought this dragonfly that defies gravity. See how it rests on my glasses?

My new winter coat.