Cambodia – I Loved It and I Hated It.

Last month I posted about stewing; how the culture, language, history and food  in Thailand needed time to mix with my own culture, language, history and culinary appreciation. This past month, I was in Cambodia, as it feels as if the pot holding the stew was placed on a landmine (no pun intended). Two countries, geographically adjacent, yet so very different.

I am writing this post from Australia, and looking at my journal entries from the past month. Even without reading every work – my handwriting tells the story; calm smooth letters represent a calm day, where as bold, angular letters with many unanswered question marks represent a more challenging day.  Since my arrival in Australia, I have felt an overwhelming sense of relaxation – and a return to sort-of normal life. It is the little things that make me feel at home. Although the traffic is on the opposite direction from Cambodia, and the opposite direction from my home country of Canada – the drivers seem more more similar to home. There are rules that motorists follow, they stay in the appropriate lane, and there is no need to look right-left-right and left again before stepping off the curb when crossing the street. Also, in Australia, as a tall, light-haired white male I seem to blend into the crowd, instead of feeling the the odd-ball in the crowd of shorter, darker-skinned, black hair Cambodians.

In Australia, store-front private security do not carry machine guns – in Phnom Penh – they were sporting AK-47 and “Property of U.S. Government” M-16’s.

In short, and in in summary…
After one month – I Loved It and I Hated Cambodia.

Top 10 things I loved about Cambodia

1) My Cambodian friends
2) Making a difference – volunteering at a small school
3) The price of food and accommodation. (I beer for 0.50$ USD).
4) Incredible archaeological sites (Angkor Wat)
5) The country is not over-developed and over-touristed (except for Angkor Wat)
6) Cambodian people have an incredible ‘make it work attitude’.
7) Delicious Food !
8) There is no “Road Rage”. Traffic seems to go in all directions, people get ‘cut-off’; it all seems normal, no one gets upset.
9) Bargaining with vendors – and no tax
10) See how overloaded a vehicle can be….

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This busy – and it isn’t ‘rush-hour’. Traffic is merging from four directions, people getting ‘cut’off’ – though no one gets upset.

 

Top 10 things I Hated about Cambodia

I should say that during our time in Cambodia, nothing went wrong; we were not robbed, assaulted or physically harmed.

1) Hassled by Tuktuk drivers….”Mr – You want tuktuk?”   …leave me alone !
2) Corruption. Government officials have no shame in asking for extra money; Customs officials, Post office, even Police.
3) Politics & Human Rights. The Cambodian Peoples Party has been in power since 1979, and many current government officials had senior positions in the Khmer Rouge (1973-1979). No wonder, that only a few former leaders in the Khmer Rouge have been prosecuted for their crimes.
4) Many International NGOs in Phnom Penh have fancy offices, and drive new model Land cruisers, whereas local many local NGOs (mostly in rural areas) are broke, and don’t even have the cash for an office, let along a car.
5) During the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979) all land records were destroyed. After the war, people moved into ‘new’ homes. Now, in 2014, big companies (with the support of the government) are forcibly removing people from their homes and land – using the excuse that the current tenant does not have a land record.
6) Black Tourism. Who would have imagined that sites of indescribable horror during the era of the Khmer Rouge, are now huge tourist attractions and a huge source of income. It is also disappointing to learn that the Cambodian government has leased the Cheung Ek killing field to a Japanese company to manage for a profit (Seth Mydans/International Herald Tribune,  Published: November 6, 2005).
7) Landmines and UXOs still kill and injure many people each year, and a public education program on the dangers is helping the numbers go down. Unfortunately, the lack of swimming lessons is a significant source of death, with over 2000 children drowned a year (approximately 6 children each day) (http://swimsafe.org/drowning/drowning-data/).

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A crude, home-made artificial leg to replace a leg blown off from stepping on a anti-personnel mine.

8) In Cambodia there is a very wide gap between the very, very rich and the poor. It is hard to watch people diving in sewer ponds for plastic bottles that are worth 3 cents.
9) The lack of garbage pick-up and recycling. Unfortunately, there is garbage everywhere; on city streets, in parks, on rural roads, in farmers fields and in rivers.
10) I call them the ‘Ghosts of Cambodia’; the people that did the head bashing, finger nail pulling, and other forms of torture during the era of the Khmer Rouge. Where are they now ? – could they be the person making coffee at local shop, or the tuktuk driver now making money driving tourists to the killing fields or to Tuol Sleng ’S-21’ the notorious  secret prison where nearly 20,000 people where tortured ?.

Being away…what happens when I come back ?

I am almost three months into a 10 month journey.

Long flights, bus rides and train trips have given me time to think

Sometimes to think about nothing, let my mind decide

Sometimes conscious effort and thought.

I’ve thought about home, friends, where we have been  and where we are going

Also, in a selfish way, I’ve been thinking about me.

What do I want to remember about this trip, how will it change me, and will I simply slide back into my past life  after leaving for 10 months ?

Travel and Social Privilege: Inspire others to Do Great Things

By Canadian standards, we are  am not rich – more like middle of middle class. A family with two kids, living in a 1000 square foot house, drive a small car, and a couple of bicycles. In September 2014, my wife and I put our jobs on hold, rented out the house, sold the car and many other possessions, and started a year long travel adventure.  Why ?. We were getting fed-up with the day-to-day routine of going to work/school, and the rat-race of driving the kids to/from activities, tired of endless comparisons to other families  (’they do this, and that, and their kids are super awesome athletes…’), and also we wanted our kids to get a better understanding of the world, and a better appreciation for what they have. Career wise, I need a break. Sitting in front of a computer for 7 hours a day has a way of sucking the life out of me. A year long is what my soul needs to get a new perspective on your life and to see if I want to get back to my  old job or make a career shift.

So – back to the here and now in Cambodia. We are staying in a small village along a rural road. It is really sinking in. As I walk the street, I see how people live. There is garbage along the street, many people wear worn out clothes, the houses look dirty, the air is the smell of sewer and burning household waste, and fresh drinking water is non-existent. There are few cars – nothing more fancy that a beat-up old Honda. Most people have motorcycles and there is enough room for a family of four, or a large pig on the back, several large bags of rice or corn. It seems that no load is too much – if it still runs, than load more bags of rice. Despite all this, people still say ‘Hello’ and wave at me. I politely wave back, though deep in my gut I feel this horrible sickening feeling. Guilt makes my stomach cramp. Why do I have clean clothes, a choice of food (other than rice everyday), a car, municipal garbage pickup, and a decent house with clean water, flush toilets and a septic system; yet they have none of this. In a better frame of mind, I would like to photograph what I see, though pulling out my camera makes me feel like some ignorant tourist looking at them as if they were in a zoo.

The local school does not have any computers (even though one class is called ‘the computer room’), hard wooden benches, no craft materials, no text books, no workbooks, only a well used whiteboard and a couple of very faint markers, no resources for teachers and often no teachers. During this year away, my kids are home schooling (some call it road schooling). They have their school curriculum on their iPads (one for each kid), a pencil case full of markers, pencils, notepads and access to the internet.  For the first time in my life, I feel very rich and privileged. Not simply because I have money to travel here (airfare from Canada), and accommodation is $10-15 USd per day, and food for a family of four another $10-15 USd per day, more importantly, I feel enriched and very privileged to be on this journey and living these experiences. Here rural in Cambodia, the average annual income is a mere $135USd (Farming – Resource Development International www.rdic.org/farming-page.php). They would certainly never have the opportunity to travel as I do. I am indeed privileged — born to middle class parents, got a good education, am endowed with skills, talents and desires unlike anyone else on the planet.

 

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Social Privilege and Guilt…

It is a real privilege to travel like we do and the inequality of this privilege is something I consistently struggle with. I am assuming you are privileged too, with access to a computer and the internet to read this. When it comes down to it, most people in rural Cambodia do not even have computers, approximately 75% can read or write their own language and a tiny percentage can read or write english (Dec 04, 2014: http://www.voacambodia.com/content/cambodia-facing-ongoing-literacy-challenges-128470623/1356695.html).

I know I should not make comparisons with my own lifestyle and should not feel guilty, though is gets to you. Being here and seeing this it gets under your skin. Yes, it is a luxury to be able to have all the comforts that I have at home, and to have sufficient disposable income to visit travel to other countries.  I am not saying that travel is a bad thing. Tourists (like me) traveling to and within other countries are buying airline tickets, staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, traveling by taxi, and taking adventure tours (zipline, elephant rides, white water rafting etc). Each one of these activities means that local people are getting money, money to feed their families and supporting the local economy and improve the quality of life of those people less fortunate than yourself.

But – we all know that most money goes to the company, and only a small percentage of the money filters down to the staff. The folks behind the hotel facade, those that clean the rooms, do the laundry, wash the dishes, get the groceries etc..they are missing out on what they really need. Yes, they have a job, and your money does help them to feed their families and pay their rent. Is this sustainable ?. Yes, sort of.

Using Social Privilege to Inspire others to do Great Things…

Think back to those families in rural Cambodia. I could give them money to buy some new clothes, or money to buy clean drinking water.  Would this solve the problem ? For one, I would also be poor, and my money could only help a small number of the needy people. There has to be a better way. What can WE – the privileged world travelers do?. Being privileged is not my fault. We can sit on our rear ends and do nothing (and feel guilt about it), or find a way to help others.  I like to believe that if we, the privileged, travel with a purpose that we can make a difference in people’s lives. One way, is to find ways and means to expand freedom and opportunities for others by volunteering. Some folks call this ‘volunteer tourism’. Volunteering in a school, and passing on your skills accomplishes so much more than simply giving money. Back to the here and now; I am in a small village in rural Cambodia teaching English to children ages 5 to 12.  It is an amazing way to soak up the local culture while also providing a benefit that is better than renting a room in a hotel. One day, these children will be able to read and write english and have the opportunity to get well paying jobs, instead of simply making enough money to provide for their families. That being said, we are not teachers, although we have both taught children (including our own) on a add-hoc basis. We are both fluent in English so there is nothing extra to learn or research before class. The children are keen, and motivated, and in many ways more enthusiastic to learn than kids in my own hometown. Here, there are no computers, no text books, reading books, a chronic shortage of whiteboard markers and a seat-of-your pants curriculum. Despite this, this is by far one of the most rewarding experiences, particularly when the kids still want to be your friend, and actually thank you for teaching them.

Like many people we are traveling to foreign destinations to better understand and appreciate other cultures, and gain a better appreciation for what we have. We are privileged to be able to travel to foreign destinations, though what we see, and smell may bring on a feeling of guilt – why can we travel, whereas these citizens in those lands may hardly have enough money to buy enough food, or clothing. The feeling of guilt can be erased by providing opportunities for the people (and not simply making a donation). Take the time to make a difference in their lives by teaching them a skill so they they can be inspired to do great things. Before your next trip, consider ‘volunteer tourism’ as a way of using your privilege in a in positive and meaningful way, so that one day, those people can have the opportunity to get well paying jobs, instead of simply making enough money to provide for their families.

 

 

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Do What Makes You Happy

Do What Makes You happy

 

 

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These kids – they are doing something that makes them Happy. Bicycling through the puddles in the rain. Getting soaked, or even falling over in the mid was no problem. They went biking it the rain for no other reason – Simply they did it because it made them happy.

Think back to your childhood, and doing things that made you happy. Doing some of those things, unfortunately, probably got you in trouble. Yes, you got in trouble for not rearing a rain coat, not wearing rubber boots, getting your clothes covered with mud, and probably for getting your bicycle wet too.
We adults still do things that make us happy, but it isn’t the same. Adult would probably fuss about what to wear, would the splashed mud wash out of their clothes, wear a hat to keep their hair dry ?.
So – what are you waiting for ?

 

Go out – and — Do What Makes You Happy
Don’t question why, don’t over think, don’t worry what others would think, or what others would say.
Just do it.

more “Do What Makes You Happy”

Angkor – One of the Architectural Wonders of the World

Angkor is a region of Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from approximately the 9th to 15th centuries. During this time, a series of state capitals and temples were built by successive Kings, abandoning the previous capital in favour of a new location with its state temple.  Each new state temple was larger and more grandiose that its predecessor. Some Kings also built large irrigation systems and water reservoirs, which provided the economic infrastructure for the successive Khmer capitals and their rulers.

The history of city of Angor can be traced back to the rein of the Khmer Hindu monarch King Jayavarman II, who chose the location for the royal court. Half a century later his son, Yashovarman, established Yashodapura (later called Angkor), the permanent capital of the Khmer Empire until the 15th century. A Khmer rebellion resulted in the 1431 sacking of Angkor by Ayutthaya, causing its population to migrate south to Longvek.

The ruins of ancient Angkor are near modern-day Siem Reap city, in Siem Reap Province, and the area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and is one of the most important archaeological sites in Angkor.

 

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Angkor Thom  is a 3km2 walled and moated royal city and was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII.

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Bayon Temple is a well-known and richly decorated Khmer temple, and was the last state temple to be built at Angkor. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon shrine is dedicated to the Buddha. Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified by later Hindu and Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences.

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Architecturally, Ta Prohm Temple is similar to other Jayavarman VII temples. It was built about mid-12th century to early 13th century (1186) and is dedicated to his mother.

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East Mebon and Pre Rup are often referred to as the Twin Temples. Similar in style, they were built by King Rajendravarman, but have some interesting contrasts. They are earlier Angkor temples, or rather temple mountains, and Hindu in style (dedicated to Shiva) with a crowning quincunx of towers (similar to the pattern of dots on a number 5 dice).
Of all the temples in Angkor, Pre Rup and East Mebon are among the most architecturally and appealing temples. Both temples are constructed with brick, laterite and sandstone – reflect warm red hues in the early morning or from late afternoon to sunset.

 

East Mebon

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Pre Rup

 

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Banteay Srei

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Final – I hope you like the photos. Given more time, I would have gone to some of the more remote and less main-stream temples. With a family and being a teacher for the kids for the next 7 months – there is not enough time to visit all the temples, or enough time to dedicate to photography. That said, traveling with the family for 10 months is a pretty awesome experience.