Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Oh Cambodia!

It was election time in Cambodia when we were there. These are two of the opposition parties, which hold only a small number of seats in Cambodia's parlaiment.

Phnom Penh

We just returned from a short trip to Cambodia that included a one day symposium in Phnom Penh on community based tourism and visits to the Killing Fields and a Cham village in the Phnom Penh area, a visit to the Khmer Village Homestay (a "community involvement" social enterprise) between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and visits to Angkor Wat and the Tonle Sap out of Siem Reap.  We (the 25 people in our group) had brought donations (school supplies and used clothing) for the Cham village and a Khmer village next to the Khmer Homestay.

Except for my wife and me, all of our group were Malaysians and most were Muslim Malays. So the trip tended to include places of interest to Muslim Malays, including the Cham village (the Cham adopted Islam through Malaysia and many speak Malay, as well, because of visits there for religious education), another Cham community in Siem Reap where we had lunch one day, and restaurants in Phnom Penh that served Halal food to Malaysian (and other Muslim) tourists, though the food also tended to be Malaysian dishes and not Cambodian.

We also had Cambodian food, cooked halal when we were with the group and probably not when we were on our own.  One of the best meals was in a small restaurant a few blocks from the Tonle Sap River, which is where most of the international tourists are located.  The food was fresh, with lots of vegetables -- among the healthier restaurant meals that we have had eating out in Asia.  We also had some durian one evening, which was tasty and not nearly as smelly as Malaysian durian.

We stayed at the Ohana Hotel near Wat Ounalom and next to an interesting local street market.  Having been in Cambodia before, though not to Phnom Penh, I already knew that US currency was used everywhere, though I still felt uneasy about the colonial nature of that.  What struck me even more was the large number of western faces in this part of town -- they were everywhere, of all ages and from many different parts of the world. I heard Australian and US versions of English, French and German.  I also saw quite a few men, either by themselves or with one other man, which might reflect the large number of young women sitting in front of the many bars along the side streets in this area.

The Malaysian aspect of the trip was actually quite interesting.  The Cham, for instance, are the largest minority group in Cambodia (about 5 to 6% of the country's population) and are among the most impoverished (though the Khmer villages looked about the same).  Apparently there are two types of Muslim Cham, one that is close to Malaysia in their practices, and one that still practices traditional animist beliefs and are less tied to the outside world.  I am sure we only saw the former.

A Killing Field

The day visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a former Khmer Rouge prison) was quite haunting.  Because of all the photographs, the museum seemed to have a deeper impact than the Killing Fields, which is actually just one of some 340 around the country! However, it is the nearest to Phnom Penh and has been best developed to memorialize that sad period in Cambodian history.  Adding to the impact was our guide who was about 15 years old at the time (1975-79) and remembers it well!

Photos of victims of the Tuol Slep Prison (click photo for larger view).
The Tuol Slep Prison was originally a school. Holes were broken in the walls to create viewing doors between classrooms (so guards can keep an eye on each other), and prisoners created their own cells from bricks (for men, here) and wood for women.
One of two living survivors of Tuol Slep Prison (out of the seven who survived).
The child killing tree at the Choeung Ek Killing Field near Phnom Penh. A mass grave of over 100 babies and childen, plus some women, is to the right. (click photo for larger view)
In the afternoon of our visit to the Killing Fields sites, we visited a Cham village along the Tonle Sap River just north of the city.  This village occasionally has Malaysian tourists come to visit, because of their interest in things Muslim and because some of the villagers speak Malay. The villagers main income is from fishing in the river. Most have very simple homes on stilts, which are similar to that of many of the Sea Bajau in Sabah, Malaysia (where I have been living).  The children seemed very happy, however, and the village elders expressed an interest in having more tourism as a way to supplement their livelihood.  We did not pay to visit them, though we did bring donations of food stuffs and office-type supplies (I think).

Chatting with the leader of the Cham village (in pink) at the village mosque. Our guide is to the right of him. (click photo for larger view)
Two young Cham girls.
Typical house in the Cham village, with the Tonle Sap River behind. Some are much more simple thant this, a few are much better.
The kitchen area inside one of the Cham houses.
Cham kids playing in the water puddles after a rain. (click photo for larger view)

After the Cham village we stopped at another village that specialized in hand crafted silver and other thin metal products.  On the way back to Phnom Penh, several of us opted to take an evening river cruise to watch the sunset which was nice.  It was on the Tonle Sap River.  Phnom Penh is located where the Tonle Sap River connects to the Mekong River.  I say connect because the Tonle Sap River flows into the Mekong River during the dry season (November to May), while the flooded Mekong River flows into the Tonle Sap River during the rainy season (June to October).  In this way, the river changes direction from every six months or so.  I think this is the only place in the world where this happens!

Two young boys copying the adults in the family, who are actually making silver crafts for sale. (click photo for larger view)

Phnom Penh is a fairly pleasant city of about 1.5 million.  The culture and ambience is reminiscent of Hanoi, though the buildings are not nearly as old.  People are friendly, there seems to be a lot of international tourists, prices are high in the most touristed areas, but pretty cheap if you venture further beyond.

Baray District

The next day we drove from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. On the way we stopped at a rest stop that specialized in selling fried spiders and crickets, and at the "Khmer Village Homestay".  The latter was created by a Malaysian Chinese woman who came to Cambodia to do missionary development work in the 1990s, but recently started a a restaurant and dormitory-style accommodations to train and teach entrepreneurial and other skills to the locals.  We ate at her SOLAR restaurant (School of Livelihood and Refuge), and toured here accommodations, which can hold up to 100 in stilt houses.

Khmer Homestay. (click photo for larger view)
One of the dormitory accommodations at the Khmer Homestay. They come in a wide variety of styles.  You can see the mosquito net where the beds are.

Most of her guests are young people from Singapore, where a volunteer experience to a less developed country in Southeast Asia is a required part of their secondary school curriculum.  This is in the Baray District, which used to be a Khmer Rouge stronghold and was, until recently, considered one of the more "wild" part of Cambodia. While there, we visited the Khmer village next door where all the children stood in line to receive gifts of school supplies and used clothing that we had brought.

The Khmer village next to the Khmer Homestay. Note the plastic sheets.  These are lit up at night to attract crickets that are collected in the water below the sheet and then fried for eating.  You see this all over the Baray District.

Children lining up to receive gifts from the tourists at the Khmer village.  (click photo for larger view)

Siem Reap 

That night was spent in Siem Reap and the morning of the next day was spent visiting the three most famous temples of Angkor Wat: Angkor Wat itself, Ta Phrom (famous of the tropical trees that are tearing it apart), and Bayon.  We had lunch as the Cham village that I mentioned above, then after a rest we went to the Tonle Sap Lake.

This was our second visit to Siem Reap. Last time we were here was in 2008 and we spent one day at Angkor and one day at the Tonle Sap. While a somewhat slower pace at Angkor Wat would have been nice, we did see the three most impressive sites there (we saw six sites last time, which may have been too many).

View from the top of Angkor Wat (which was not yet open when I came  here in 2008). (click photo for larger view)

Victims of land mines play music for donations a the Ta Prom Temple. I also gave them some money the last time I was here.
The biggest change was that our tickets (which had our photos on them) were checked at every site we visited. Last time they were never checked! I think that is a good thing. There is also a lot of reconstruction going on, especially at Ta Prom (the Raiders of the Lost Arch movie temple). I hope they do not rebuild too much. To me, leaving a good part in its more "authentic" decay is a good thing.  Other than that, however, the experience of the temples was the same: awe inspiring!

For us, the Tonle Sap was a little bit of a let down in comparison to our previous visit there in 2008. At that time, the the year-round port facility was under construction. It is now finished and this is now where tourists get on boats to go out to the lake.  The waterway to the port is now wider, but seems to be more shallow, causing more challenges for boats going in both directions.

Close to where the small river enters the Tonle Sap lake. (click photo for larger view)

A tourist boat revs its engine, splashing muddy water on villagers who approach the boats asking for money. (click photo for larger view, not the one boy in a round pan)
The Tonle Sap (usually translated as "Great Lake") triples in size during the Mekong River's rainy season, when the Tonle Sap River flows into the lake, and shrinks in the dry season, when the river flows from the lake and into the Mekong River. In theory, the lake should be higher this time (in May) than it was the last time we came (in March).  However, it seemed like it was lower! (drought? new up river dams?)  Because it was so low, our boat could only take us one of the floating restaurant platforms (same one we visited in 2008), and could not take us through the floating village, itself.

That was a bummer.  The village is really cool, with floating churches, stores, gardens, poultry, and even a basketball court.  It seemed like there were several more restaurant platforms now, compared to before, and even more floating houses.  Perhaps the floating village is experiencing urbanization?!?!

The buildings here will be floating when the lake reaches a higher level, and all of the trees seen here will be covered by water. (click photo for larger view)

"Real photographers" (you can tell by the long lenses!) visiting one the clusters of buildings along the side of the river linking the new harbor with the Tonle Sap lake.

Oh Cambodia!

The trip may have been very different if the original plans had not been thwarted by money issues.  The symposium was supposed to include a dozen or so people and papers by Cambodian academics, in addition to the Malaysians.  Malaysia, a much more wealthy country, was paying for it all, and the Cambodians had requested about US$400 per person to use their university facilities (which is a lot of money!).  The Malaysia side, however, was not able to come up with the money as quickly as the Cambodians said they need it, so the Cambodians canceled the event.

The only problem was that the Malaysians had already bought all of the airline tickets and booked the hotel rooms for the trip.  So they found another venue for the conference, at a fraction of the price, and went ahead organizing it all on their own.  The Cambodians were invited, at no cost to them, but they all had other commitments and could not make it.  Too bad.  The symposium was really good, and would have been better with their input.

Apparently (and this is just a guess), someone on the Cambodian side did not get paid their cut in organizing the event, causing it to be canceled.  From what I understand, bribery is part of the culture of Cambodia.  There are hierarchies of authority throughout the society and money taken at any lower level must include enough to pay off each of the higher levels.  So when a policeman takes a bribe, he keeps part of it and passes on the rest to higher ups.  This is just they way the society works (or so I was told): everyone getting a cut of every bribe and scheme.

Unfortunately, we experienced some of this ourselves, both coming into Cambodia and leaving the country.  (We were fine within the country, itself.)  On arrival we had heard that even though a "Tourist Visa on Arrival" for Americans only costs US$20, they will try and charge you US$25 (the price for a business visa), and you just need to call them on it to get your money back.  Well, they did that to us, as well.  Unfortunately, we were so concerned about getting our passports back, and a bit tired and dissheveled from the flight and trying to figure out what line to stand it that we completely spaced the fact that they gave us US$50 in change instead of US$60.  We did not realize our mistake until we were on the bus to the hotel!!!

On the way back, we flew AirAsia from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur.  On arriving in KL, one of our two checked bags had the lock missing, meaning that someone had opened it to inspect it.  They had opened my computer accessories bag, full of wires, chargers and an external hard drive.  After we got back to KK, we found (1) that they had manhandled the external hard drive, bending the USB 3.0 cable, which now needs to be fiddled with to get it to work; and (2) they had taken three SD memory cards from a pouch that was now empty!  Oh Cambodia!

(All photos are by Alan A. Lew and are release under a creative commons copyright with attribution required, only non-commercial uses allowed, share alike final products. If you do not know what that means, look it up!)