Sunday, February 06, 2005

Adventures in Cambodia

Hello again! I thought I would chronicle another one of my adventures especially after all the ego inflation I received from the last email I wrote (quite a few of you said “you are such a good writer”, it was a first and I’m sure the last, so I am treasuring those few emails [and yes, flattery will get you everywhere]).

So you know, I have posted some pictures on my Yahoo Photos account. Just so you know, not all of those pictures are mine., in fact the better they look the less likely they are to be mine. If you want to get an idea of who took what head over to Mama Mera's "Adventures in Phnom Penh" and see the ones she took. She also added alot of details that i neglected to mention (actually it should be known that without her networking savvy I probably wouldn't have seen many of the places that i mentioned/photographed).

Anywho, for those that don’t know, I recently got back from Cambodia; part of my cross country (literally) jaunt was for fun (when isn’t it at least partly for fun?) and part for work. There is quite a bit to say but the amount I write is entirely dependant upon my will to write, we shall see.

I spent about half of my time around Phnom Penh (PP) and the other half around Siem Reap (SR). While in PP I visited the “Russian Market”, I had heard about it before, apparently it is a more touristy version of the regular market but I saw many locals there as well. I couldn’t find anyone that knew why it was called the Russian Market, and didn’t think it was much like any Eastern European market I had ever been to, it was actually more like a bazaar in Turkey, but it was neat all the same.

We also tagged along with a documentary producer/filmer (is that a word?) who wanted to get some footage of local hand made textiles. We went to a little known (by foreigners) place called “Silk Island” and island in the middle of the Mekong river where most people there made a living weaving. A side note, in Phnom Penh I saw tons of foreigners more in one day than I have seen in a month in my area of Bangkok; I didn’t see one foreigner on silk island and the kids there swarmed around us and didn’t ask for a cent (in the areas with more foreigners kids/people are usually begging for money or business). It was kinda fun, at first they were enamored with the producer’s camera which was really making filming really difficult for her but we soon discovered that “Tic Tac Toe” on my PDA was more than enough to keep them occupied.

The “business” part of my trip was to track down some fish farms or at least places that were raising fish. I originally referred to a gentleman in the Cambodian ministry of Agriculture and fisheries but alas he wanted nothing to do with me and came up with every weak-ass excuse to avoid me, grrr. With some help and a bit of luck I did manage to see some caged fish (fish that are raised in cages floating in lakes or rivers) in a floating village. Yes it was actually a whole village of floating houses on a really large lake, truly unlike anything I have seen before. Next I found out our tour guide (in SR) raised crocodiles and fed them fish, so off to the croc farm. It was a small setup (30 head of crocs) but it was interesting none the less with the pond split into two sections, one section to raise the reptiles and the other to raise the fish (tilapia) to feed to the crocs. The last place was RDIC Cambodia, they had trials involving fertilizing with goat and green manures, feeding with duck weed, and dredging/liming the ponds, all quite interesting (to me at least).

We took a bus to get to Siem Reap, a grand $4 for those that know where to go (some places would over charge you others won’t). On the way there the bus made many stops, too many in my opinion but hey. On one of the stops I saw a vendor vending something and some whole (minus the feathers of course) cooked chicks. Upon closer examination I saw that the “something” was a bowl of fried spiders, big juicy tarantula sized ones. Yep folks finger lick’n arachnids Khmer style. I had heard about this before and have heard that they taste kinda like fried soft shell crab but sorry, I didn’t try one (I ate very little “native” food in Cambodia since everyone said that there are too many health problems there, even compared to Laos).

Ankor Wat, before I came to South East Asia I am not even sure I had heard of Ankor Wat (I am not the most cultured person out there) but now that I have been there I don’t think I will ever forget it. For those that don’t know, it is actually one temple but most people just refer to the whole collection of temples in the area as “Ankor Wat”. The history is amazing and long, the sheer age involved is amazing enough but to see the architecture takes the “amazingness” to a whole new level. Our tour guide, Mr. Ouk, was the brother of a friend and apparently was a Jack-of-many-trades (including raising crocodiles, which I had the privilege of seeing later). His English was not great (but most of the guides I heard weren’t particularly well versed in spoken English either [and I was told that the guides leading the Japanese tours were even worse]) but what he lacked in English he more than made up for in knowledge. Time after time we (the 2 of us) would come in before or after other guides and Mr. Ouk would tell us all the other guides did plus much more, I only managed to stump him a very few times and usually the questions weren’t necessarily directly related to the tour. We rode in his air conditioned car and he took us to places during times that were prime for photographing (I have learned that morning and dusk provide the best lighting for taking pictures) and took us to areas where the crowds weren’t; he took us to a family that made “palm candy” as well. There were many places along side the road that sold the candy but he knew where a family that showed the whole process was. We bought some, not bad; the collection, processing and even the taste was similar to tapping maples, pretty interesting. If you ever think about coming to Cambodia and seeing Ankor Wat please consider using Mr. Ouk (a “grand” $20/day). Anyway, we saw many monks and nuns in and around the temples; it was a bit twisted to me but most of the monks stood around and practiced English with the tourist while all the nuns I saw were either tending shrines or cleaning…

At lunch time he asked us where we wanted to eat and we told him our only requirements was that it was relatively clean and Khmer. He took us to some very tasty places but the first time he and his son (his son drove) headed to another section of the restaurant until we chased them down and asked them to sit with us. We later noticed that all the drivers/guides sat in a dowdy part of the restaurants away from the tourist. I still do not know if this was because they chose to sit somewhere else or to keep them out of sight. Thinking back to a situation in Moldova I would guess that it is probably the later. Really you can’t compare Moldova to Cambodia, Moldovans are rich and doing well by comparison but there was one situation in Moldova where it became clear that foreigners (especially westerners) were treated differently than locals (though not always in a positive way). A Moldovan friend of mine that was trying to start a children’s NGO and needed to meet with another organization, he begged me to come with him but I couldn’t understand why because I had *no* background dealing with children. He said he had tried to see the head of the organization 4 times before with no luck so he had me go with him, make an appointment as myself and viola! the organization official had some time. When we saw the person my friend would ask questions and the official would respond to the questions as if I had asked them, amazing. Anyway some interesting tidbits, Cambodia once encompassed a large part of South East Asia stretching from Thailand to Vietnam. The Cambodian kingdom was invaded by Indians which introduced Hinduism to SE Asia whose influence can be seen in many parts of Cambodia (and might possibly explain why many Khmer are darker than many other SE Asians). I found that many SE Asian alphabets are based on Sanskrit. I *think* the Khmer Rouge control was about 5 years (I had thought it was a lot longer).

I believe I started my last email, or my last comment about Laos was something like “…this was the poorest country I have ever been to…”, but I can now say that Laos is not the poorest country I have ever been to. Cambodia is inexplicably poor, and in some ways makes Laos seem like a “nice place to live”. Here are a few short things I saw/heard/observed that lead me to think this:

  • Revenge is quite common there. One of the more graphic examples I can remember hearing is how wives have been known to throw acid on mistresses to disfigure them.
  • Almost all sewage goes directly into the lakes, rivers, and creeks; the example that really struck me was seeing a person pee in one of the creeks while a few yards down stream another person was bathing.
  • Khmer don’t like to see trash around the table or in the house (so I have been told), and on more than one occasion I saw people throw trash (like chicken bones, cans, paper, etc) on the floor or out the door/window while eating.
  • After having lived in one or two poorer countries in a large city and small village I can truthfully say that I have heard about more violent crimes (mostly against women [foreign and Khmer]) in Cambodia than anywhere else so far.
  • At least 1/4th of the streets I saw in the capital city were dirt, and littered with trash (Vientiane had its fair share of dirt roads but was much cleaner)
  • Almost all non-locals are extra weary of the food (unless people they trust say otherwise). I was in Laos for over a week, eating “native” at least once a day, no problems. I eat “native” almost every meal in Bangkok and at worst have gotten a case of the trots lasting a day. In Cambodia I hardly ate native and but still got sick for over 4 days.
  • Instead of political opposition merely being incarcerated they are routinely threatened with death and assassinated. A (non government owned) newspaper reported that an opposition leader said that the prime minister had threatened to have the Khmer Rouge go after him; when asked the prime minister emphatically denied that he had said such things and said “If he keeps spreading such lies I *will* have the Khmer Rouge go after him..”
  • And a few more things that aren’t coming to mind…

Of course it is not all “bad”…

I have been told and saw that Khmer value customer relationships quite a bit. While people we didn’t know seemed to have no problems with trying to take us for all we were worth (not hard when one is a student), the people we knew seemed to go out of their way to be helpful. The cost of many things is quite cheap there. I think the cost of living (for a foreigner) is still higher than Bangkok (One of the things I love about Bangkok is it is cheaper to live than anywhere else I have been before, yet has more amenities than many other places) but other things such as DVDs ($2.50/DVD but the vendor my friend frequents gave me a discount so $2.10/DVD), cloth, clothing (I had a nice summer sports coat made for $30; and bought some Columbia pants [they have a manufacturing facility here so yeah they are real] for $4.50 a pair), and trinkets.

But then again, the “bad” is what people tend to remember…

I saw the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, which was rather sobering. I overheard one tourist, who apparently was familiar with Holocaust atrocities, say that it was like the Khmer Rouge had taken notes from (and built upon) what the Nazis had done. The Holocaust can not be down played and I do not know the numbers involved but to me the idea of individuals willingly commit unspeakable crimes against their own people just boggles the mind. There were pictures and stories of people being fed to crocodiles, mines being planted that were specifically designed not to kill but to blow off limbs, all to people that were too educated/spoke of love/sang songs, any “acts of inspiration”. An insane but less gruesome example was the Khmer cutting down fruit orchards because the songs of the birds that the fruit attracted would inspire thoughts that were “unpatriotic”.

I met numerous people who had one or multiple family members killed by the Khmer Rouge (our tour guide had lost at least one family member, and a 30 year old guy I met had lost his father. Constantly seeing people that were missing limbs due to land mines ensured that I would not have the luxury of turning a blind eye to the underlying horrors that are still lingering.

In Siem Reap (the town beside where Ankor Wat is located) I visited a “mine museum”, whose maintainer had been repeatedly imprisoned by the government for “various reasons” but it is widely believed that the real reason is because they think it “competes” with the government museum, one of the many many examples of government corruption (worse than just about any other I have seen thus far). Admission was free because the museum was not allowed to charge admission lest it be shut down again, so there was a donations box. They had defused mines, grenades, air drop bombs, that were made in places like China, Russia, Czech Republic, and a few from the USA (though “at least” not a fraction as many as from China and Russia). The maintainer is a Khmer who de-mines un-detonated explosives and simultaneously runs an orphanage for orphans that have lost limbs due to mine blasts. Their houses are made of woven grass walls and roofs, some of the floors were dirt, and no one was particularly well dressed; while I saw *many* privileged orphans in well funded orphanages in Cambodia (“Cambodian orphans” is somewhat of a fad right now, kind of like “AIDS” or “Tsunami” at the moment) this was not one of them. A friend of mine (while in Moldova) once said that “Altruism is a luxury of the rich”, that phrase has stayed with me, and I find that it holds true quite often so the sacrifice like what this guy does should be enough to humble even the most righteous “developed-country-person”.

I heard that many Khmer are tired of the past, especially tired of all the emphasis foreigners put on their past, they seem to want to move on; I guess this could be a good thing. The only problem is that the combination of the museums, pictures, and people that have obviously been affected being at every turn, are about rawest things I have ever experienced, and I am not convinced that the acts committed can truly be forgotten anytime soon.