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.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sapa made me Cheat on my Island

After Halong Bay, we didn't want to waste any time in Hanoi before heading straight to the former hill station town of Sapa, which is located in Northern Vietnam (extremely close to the Chinese border). Like the rest of Vietnam, Sapa was under the control of the French for quite a long time and the buildings in the town of Sapa are very French in style. Combine this with the looming mountains that surround the town and the vast sheet of impenetrable fog that rolls in at around noon every day, and you can almost make yourself believe that you aren't in Vietnam at all, but have instead stumbled into some European fairy tale town in the Alps. Needless to say, I enjoyed Sapa immensely.

From Hanoi we took a night bus that would drop us off in the town of Lao Cai early in the morning. From Lao Cai it is a climbing, one lane, winding and very scary 30 kilometres to the top of the mountain and the town of Sapa. The bus was very comfortable- air conditioned, fully reclining seats, blankets and a pillow provided- but it was almost impossible for anyone to sleep because of the booming Vietnamese pop music that the driver refused to turn down for more than five minutes at a time. Not a huge deal for me, I took half a xanax and managed some shut eye. My friends and Patrick were not so lucky, and as soon as we arrived in Sapa we made for the cheapest and most comfortable beds to be found and didn't get up til noon.

The cheapest beds in town, it would turn out, were great value for the price we paid! I'm beginning to see in Vietnam that, as far as guesthouses go, you pay for exactly what you get. For 8 US dollars a night, Patrick and I got a cozy double room with the hottest shower yet (the fog chills you right to the bone in Sapa, making very hot showers necessary), a TV with cable and an amazing view of the terraced fields that line the valleys below. It was wonderful.

At lunchtime we met up with Gen and Scott, famished as we were. Scott wanted to try some special Sapa pho which is just a spiced up chili version of regular pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). We made our way through the market, past the dead carcasses of former animals, past the screamingly fresh produce and with two small hilltribe girls following us the whole way. They weren't annoying. Actually, they were well spoken and quite witty, for the little English their mother's taught them in order to sell trinkets.

"You buy something?", one would ask.

Gen and I would shake our heads and smile at them.

The little girls would smile back brilliantly and give a little laugh, knowing full well that they were already wrapped around our little fingers. It was only a matter of time before Gen or I would break down and buy one of their little silver bracelets.

They took their time, didn't rush us, but never strayed too far away. Whenever we would see them, watching us from afar, we would laugh and they would smile at us and give a knowing little wave.

We made our way to the eating area of the market, saw that all of the stalls sold the same thing, picked one at random and got some pho and fried rice for lunch. The pork was fresh and, like the other pork we would see, the skin was a bright red from whatever spices they cure it with. The woman at our stall made the best pho I have ever tasted. The cilantro was fresh and not overpowering, the rice noodles were perfectly cooked and the pork was all meat- no grit or bones top be found. The rice was delicious as well, with a sprinkling of lime juice and a garnish of cilantro. When the woman handed us the chili sauce that one gets with every Vietnamese meal, however, I misjudged the power of her homemade concoction since I'm used to putting tabasco on everything and use chili sauce instead of ketchup. I put the same amount of her chili sauce that I would normally use with regular bottled chili sauce and ended up breathing fire. But it was all good.

Of course, the little girls were waiting for us while we ate and I finally broke down, buying one bracelet from each little girl, giving them one American dollar each. No problem, since Patrick has two small neices that the bracelets will fit perfectly. The little girls were very grateful and gave Gen and I two little homemade bracelets that look like the friendship bracelets I would make as a kid. I've been wearing mine around my ankle ever since. I don't usually give in to the pressures of street vendors, but these kids were completely professional and it broke my heart a little.

We did a little hike to the top of the hill, then went back for a rest and a hot shower followed by some BBC Newsworld. We met for dinner and, just as we sat down, the power went out. We ate by candlelight and had a yummy meal of "Sapa soup" (beef and cilantro), fresh spring rolls, fried spring rolls with shrimp and apple (delicious), and, of course, a cheeseburger and fries. Gluttons or what?

The next day we woke up bright and early. Pat and I spent a fortune on train tickets to Hoi An for the next day, and Scott arranged for some scooter rentals. We spent the most amazing day driving for 35 kilometres in the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. In the heat of the moment, I even dared to say it was more beautiful than Cape Breton. That's the closest I have ever come to cheating on my island, but Sapa deserves the praise. It definitely rivaled the Cabot Trail, and we had the most awesome picnic with the most gorgeous scenery ever.

OK, Pat is hurrying me along as we have to catch a bus to Phnom Penh. I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves. Bye for now! Next is Hoi An.