Tag Archives: Khmer

Operation Skateboard: Bringing skateboarding to kids in the remote Cambodian border town of Pailin

My Discovery of Pailin and the Skatepark

In July of 2017 my partner Shalma and I left our apartment in Phnom Penh and set out to explore Cambodia on my newly purchased 1999 Honda xr250. We had just arrived in Cambodia in the middle of June and were eager to go on an adventure, seeing where the road would take us. We visited Angkor Wat and many of the national sites most favoured by tourists and expats, but I wanted to find the roads less taken. As we rode through the countryside and met people, we allowed our trip to unfold organically by talking to those we met about the hidden places where most travelers never go. One of those places was the remote border town of Pailin; this is where I would begin the project I dubbed “Operation Skateboard” through a complete and utter lack of creativity. You can read more about that story here.

Pailin was traditionally part of the larger province of Battambang. During the late 1990s, however, as part of the peace process between the new Cambodian government and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pailin became a province unto itself and old Khmer Rouge bosses were given a place in the governance of the area. Many of the most notorious members of the faction lived out their lives there. Some were brought to justice for their particular crimes against humanity. Many others just went on with life in Pailin. Today, many of the older people in Pailin have a history fighting for the Khmer Rouge.

The Province is unusually clean for Cambodia. The city of Pailin is surrounded by the Cardamom mountains. Although the mountains themselves are quite rugged, they are covered by a lush green canopy that smooths them out and makes them appear deceptively inviting despite the many perils of giant spiders, massive venomous centipedes, and of course, cobras and land mines. Some of the locals even claim they have seen tigers in the hills in spite of strong declarations by international animal welfare organisations that there are none left in Cambodia at all.

Above are some pictures of the beauty of Pailin and the Cardamom mountains from our first trip in July 2017.

When Shalma and I arrived, I found myself incredibly taken by the beauty, mystery, and danger of Pailin. This place was so unlike anywhere we had been in Cambodia. Although there were a few massive (dare I say posh) hotels in the small hamlet, there were no tourists to be seen. We saw no tuk tulks, no European faces, and no motorbike rental places. Everywhere we went we received kind stares and hellos. But there was one thing so weirdly familiar that it stood incredibly out of place: a skate park. As a rule, riding skateboards is not incredibly popular in Cambodia. I attribute most of this to the cost of skateboards, but it is certainly cultural as well. Inline skates are a little more popular, but this was the first time I had seen anything like this.

When we first walked by the skate park I found myself big-eyed with my jaw agape. I mean, this is a rather massive facility. In the front is a collection of concrete ramps—half pipes and quarter pipes—and in the back, is a gently banked roller rink style facility that is covered by a massive roof. In the rear all the concrete is painted in brightly coloured designs. The surface is incredibly slick, so when you skate on it there is little resistance offered. One finds themselves moving at great speed very quickly!

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First time at the skate park in July 2017

Chai Ching

As I stood gazing at the skate park for the very first time, a slightly built man waved for us to come in. He introduced himself as Chai Ching Long. Although I am accustomed to calling him Chai Ching, he recently informed me that he typically goes by Long. Chai Ching is fascinated by X-Games and extreme sports. He loves inline skating, BMX, skateboards, and any of the fast-moving high-flying sports that came to popularity in the late 70s and early 80s. He told me that he built the skate park to promote these kinds of sports in Cambodia. He also built it in homage of his father who had taken it upon himself to take care of the kids in Pailin. There was one other aspect to Chai Ching’s skate park; he sees it as a symbol of economic development, part of a larger movement to connect Cambodia and Pailin to developed western nations. Chai Ching’s park doesn’t exist for profit; it came to be because of ideals.

During that first visit to Chai Ching’s skate park I asked him if he had any skateboards. He said he had only one. He let me ride his board, but it was in a poor state of repair. According to Chai Ching, it was the only skateboard in the village. It was certainly inadequate for the kids of the town. I offered to get him a few skateboards right there on the spot as Shalma sat nudging me in the ribs and whispering “what are you committing yourself to?” Of course, you can read about all of this in the hyperlink above.

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The covered part of the skate park with me spazzing in the distance

A Facebook Post

I made a Facebook post with a picture of the park that fateful eighth day in July as I sat there in front of Chai Ching even though I only knew him for about ten minutes. I asked if anyone might have any spare skateboard bits to get to this guy. Little did I know how eager the response would be. I still thought I would end up buying a few boards on my own, strapping them on the back of my bike and transporting them back to Pailin. I was inspired to really do something with this. Many of the people who originally showed interest weren’t able to help at that time, but their enthusiasm lit a little fire that would help accomplish something really special for the children of Pailin.

I began talking to many friends abroad, mostly in the US. Some people told me that I should contact Skateistan in Phnom Penh, which I did, but they were of no help at all. Others promised to send boards. My dear friend Sus Lew became the patron saint of Operation Skateboard. She immediately went out and not only bought boards and equipment but also helped find other people to donate. My friend Rohini got one of her brothers, Nima, to also donate some boards. Pretty soon Operation Skateboard was in full effect.

Logistics

Over the ensuing months I kept in close contact with Sus. She collected boards, shoes, t-shirts, razor scooters, stickers and countless other bits. Her house no longer belonged to her but was the thorough domain of Operation Skateboard and her cats who enjoyed using the boxes as beds and hideouts. I had some equipment shipped to Shalma’s mom’s house, and Sus was so kind to pick it up and include it in the packaging. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get all this stuff from the US to Cambodia. Believe it or not, this is much easier said than done, especially if you don’t have a fortune you feel like blowing on shipping.

Fortunately, Shalma’s stepdad Willy is in the shipping business and was happy to help us. Willy’s clients do not normally ship to Cambodia, so he didn’t have a connection on this side to help us clear customs. He was extremely gracious, however, and both arranged and paid for the sea shipping costs. A man named Carlo Iaccarino, the export coordinator for ECU Worldwide (the carrier we went through), was inspired by our project and agreed to take all the boxes to the port personally, saving us hundreds of dollars. In the meantime Sus and her partner, surely exhausted, were taking apart any assembled boards, making an extremely detailed packing list, and packing them in boxes with the precision of robots.

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Shalma and me in our Phnom Penh apartment with the cache of skateboards Photo Credit Lee Fox-Smith

On my end, I spent days (was it weeks?) talking to everyone I knew in Cambodia about shipping. It turns out, shipping is a rather nebulous world to most expats here. Nothing is set in stone, and a heck of a lot of it depends on knowing the right guy who knows the right guy who you can eventually pay a bribe to in order to get the goods. After some deal of work, I found a guy called Khemera at a company called Fulwell Logistics. We met with him and he told us stories of his own childhood and explained how he was sympathetic to our cause. He was happy to help us, and even managed to keep us from paying tariffs on the skateboards. Still, the clearance costs came out to a hefty fee, but again, I had a close friend come to the rescue and pay about two-thirds of the customs clearance cost.

On the 24th day of November 2017, after months of waiting, the skateboards finally arrived. Khemera was so kind and picked up the boxes in his own car for a small fee. We got on my motorbike, grabbed some money from the bank (shipping is a cash business) and headed out through the madness of Phnom Penh traffic to Khemera’s office, about a half hour by motorbike from our home. We were there just briefly, thanked him for his help, and then loaded all the boxes into a tuk tuk. After the boxes were in the tuk tuk we just barely managed to squeeze a little Shalma in with them. After that we just had to haul hundreds of pounds of gear up seven flights of stairs.

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Shalma with Khemera when we picked up the boxes

 

Planning the trip to Pailin

After getting the skateboards home and hauling them upstairs with the help of our security guard (who I paid some money to) Shalma suggested that I not open the boxes. Her suggestion was that we leave them be and assemble the skateboards when we got to Pailin. I was tempted to do so, but I was far more tempted to check out the swag! It was a good thing I did as well. Most of the boards had never been built. I had to put the grip tape on, put the bearings in the wheels, and build them from the ground up. I spent all my free time over the next three days assembling the decks. I felt like a kid at my own private Christmas party–oh and I had stickers! Did you think I wasn’t going to put some stickers on this board? If so, you thought wrong. I get to have a little joy from this right? Don’t worry, there were hundreds of stickers left to give to the kids when I was done.

I still had all of the planning to do. We had spoken to our friends Ross and Ariel about coming with us and they seemed super keen on the idea. My original plan was to just hire a car and drive it myself with the four of us. My concern was that it was just too much gear to fit into some dinky rental car. More than that, the Cambodian roads are extremely dangerous and include their own counter-intuitive rules. I can handle all this on a motorbike as an experienced rider, but driving a car in this country actually makes me more nervous. While we were figuring this all out, Shalma and I ran into our local friend Taylor Davis. Taylor seemed really interested in Pailin and told us that he and some friends might want to go. This fortunate turn of events allowed me to narrow the options; I started looking for a bus.

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Getting ready to load all the gear up for Pailin Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Several friends were extremely helpful, giving me contacts for charter busses. I got a range of prices, some twice as much as the bus I ended up hiring. In the end I found an awesome bus with a great driver. He was very safe, but spoke no English. It is a very good thing that I have been taking private Khmer lessons over the past couple months. We ended up communicating just fine in his language, and we managed to get every place we wanted to go.

Arriving in Pailin

It is a long bus ride to Pailin from Phnom Penh, about 8 hours in total. After taking a brief break to eat by the riverside at a place I knew in Battambang from my previous trip, we finished the drive to Pailin (about an hour and a half left to go at this point) and arrived at the skate park at about 8:30. The timing was a little unfortunate as we all had to eat when we did. However, Chai Ching’s wife had also made us dinner. We all stuffed ourselves as much as we could with the food she made, and it was amazingly delicious. When she saw that we were not able to eat as much as she expected, she seemed a little insulted. We were all very concerned that we may have hurt her feelings.

We were at the skate park for a short time when we all came to the conclusion that we were knackered and really needed some beds. Chai Ching was enthusiastic (as is his nature) and really didn’t want us to go. I think if it were up to him we would have partied until the wee hours of the morning. We insisted upon sleep and all went to the Happy Garden hotel which is run by Chai Ching’s brother in law, the general in the Cambodian army who controls the entire western border region of the country.

The hotel was completely empty just as it was the last time Shalma and I were there. We all got to choose our own rooms. There are mountains and beautiful nature regardless of which direction you look in the morning. I rose at about 6 AM and started taking a few pictures as I said little prayers that coffee would magically find me.

 

I went downstairs and walked across the street and started taking pictures of goats. Remarkably, one doesn’t see many goats in Cambodia. It turns out that most of us had all actually gotten up early to enjoy the beauty of our new surroundings. Dan and Taylor ended up walking several kilometers to bring us all coffee. Ross woke up early to wander around the mangosteen groves. Eventually we all ended up in the the lobby having coffee and talking about the evils of missionary work, which I see as a form of exploitation wherein a much wealthier group from a powerful country imposes its will on other people in exchange for access to essential goods, thus stratifying a society, often leading to civil war.

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Beautiful Pailin Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Lee and I also spent some time talking about NGOs. There was a time when my dream job would have been to work with an NGO or the UN, but after having been in Cambodia for a while I am completely disenchanted. I mean, if I was an NGO trying to create this skateboard project, I would first petition for a grant, buy a building, hire people to raise funds, and eventually throw a couple kids a skateboards or two, but we’d all have fancy polo shirts that said Operation Skateboard on them. I think Lee agreed that it is far more impactful to do work at the ground level, otherwise it can be rather wasteful. I remember feeling happy to have such interesting companions who would engage in such a conversation with a smile even if our views didn’t match. I think I mentioned the goats right around this time and we all ended up migrating across the street to check them out.

 

Chai Ching Arrives

It was around ten in the morning when Chai Ching arrived at the hotel. He came in like a whirlwind the way one would only expect if they knew him. He was smartly dressed in a navy suit, white starched shirt, and a pink tie. With his hair perfectly parted and combed to one side he had all the trappings of a 1980s American televangelist. When our group saw him and we all knew that Chai Ching was mayor of Pailin for a day.

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Chai Ching in his fancy suit Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

We were all starving but also wanted to get to the park. I was thinking (as were some others) that we could pick up something fast and cheap, especially since the muralist of our group, Shauna, was eager to get started with some painting. Chai Ching had other ideas. He insisted that we ate there at the little restaurant behind the hotel. We all ended up walking behind the hotel where we climbed into a sort of water bungalow on top of a pond.

 

We ordered a bunch of items to share and the food was pretty good. I think everyone was a bit anxious to get the day started, however. We were excited to check out the surroundings and I know that Ariel, Ross, and Shauna were keen to get to work on the murals. After lunch a few of us went to have a few beers with Chai Ching’s brother in law, the general in the Cambodian military who I mentioned above. I reckon he’s a good fellow to know in a pinch.

Afternoon beers with the General

From left to right, me, the general who controls all the border provinces in Cambodia, Taylor, and the provincial tax collector drinking beer and enjoying conversation about the land and history of Pailin.

 

After some nice conversation and quite a bit of dark beer, I complemented Chai Ching’s gold ring with the big sapphire surrounded by little diamonds. He immediately pulled it off his finger and insisted I keep it as a gift from him.  It only fit on my pinky so I slipped it on and sat around drinking with the general and feeling like a gangster. Eventually the sweetness of that moment had to end, so we said our goodbyes and headed over to the skate park to meet up with the others. I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the puppy under the table and then we went on our way.  The park is only a few kilometers away and we were there in a blink of an eye. At this point, Ross, Ariel, and Shauna had made a lot of progress on the murals.

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Me with the bling pinky ring that Chai Ching gave me as a gift Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

We spent a little more time around the skate park. Dominic and I skated a bit while the others painted. Chai Ching was very interested in taking us all to the main market in Pailin. It is actually one of the largest markets I have been to in Cambodia. Pailin is known for its gem mining, and much of the market is dedicated to sales of rubies and sapphires. Buyer beware, much of it is fake or poor quality. Many of the of the gold items you find are just plated tin. But first, Chai Ching wanted to show us the mural he made that included the names of all the donors to operation skateboard.

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After our brief interlude at the skatepark, Dan, Lee, and I agreed to accompany Chai Ching to the market. He drove his car and for some reason we hopped into the van and our hired driver followed him. It will forever be a mystery as to why we didn’t take just one vehicle. Below are some pictures of that excursion.

As we walked through the rows of market stalls I think we all felt a bit paraded around. It was pretty clear that western people were decidedly rare around this market. Chai Ching introduced us to everyone he knew in the market. He had actually told me that there was going to be a big surprise for us there. I am not sure what that surprise was; perhaps it was just seeing his wife’s shop. By the time we were done there I think we were pretty excited to rejoin our companions at the skate park.

Back at the Skate Park

Back at the skate park we rejoined our comrades. They were well into painting, skating, and otherwise having a good time. Brooke, one of our compadres, immediately came up to me and offered a beer. It was the first beer I had since brunching and chatting with the general. I proceeded to drink some beers and skate around.

Kids started showing up. Chai Ching said the bulk of them should be there at 3 or 4 PM because it was their final exam day in school. I told him I wanted to pull out the boards but he asked me to wait. I continued to skate around with my beer, having a jolly time. Unfortunately I lost my footing while going down a ramp. My instinct was to salvage the beer in my left hand while breaking my fall with the right. My instincts served me poorly. Mind you, the beer was mostly intact, but I believe I am still suffering from a slight fracture to the right wrist at the time of this writing.

Once I injured my wrist I decided it was better that I cease skating. When left idle I can be both impatient and averse to taking direction from others. I didn’t see Chai Ching around and decided to get the skateboards out of the van so kids could go skate. Plus, I kind of figured I had some say in the matter. I went to the van and opened up the back door. I began to dread hauling all the boards into the park as my wrist was throbbing. I looked behind me and there stood one boy looking at me, and I could tell he wanted to skate. I handed him a board and as soon as he began heading back the other kids lined up, each taking a board. Problem solved. The kids began skating immediately.

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Kids who had never been on a skateboard in their lives taking to it straight away! Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 

Some of the kids started out on their bums. Others just kind of went for it and started skating like little champs. I miss the fearlessness of youth that allows you to do new and dangerous things. I also miss the flexible bones and the endless energy.  Giving kids the opportunity to take out those energies and learn new things is extremely rewarding.

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Little ones playing it safe Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 

After the kids played with the skateboards for a while I decided to start handing out the stickers. It was actually one of the most frightening decisions I had ever made. My friends who have kids might know this already, but it seems that nothing makes kids go completely nuts more than stickers. I ended up having to throw them over my shoulder while running away. It was truly exhausting!

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The beginning of the sticker-hungry mob Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Meanwhile, our artists were finishing up their work around the park, having created beautiful murals

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One of the murals created. I mostly saw Shauna and Ariel working on this one. Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

The kids skated for hours and there was seemingly constant artwork being made. By nightfall the kids were quite proficient. Some began dropping in on the half pipes and quarter pipes at the park. Periodically Chai Ching would bring us all together for photos.

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Kid learning to skate. Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

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Little Dudes with Boards Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 Ending the Day in Pailin

It gets dark pretty quickly in the tropics. The kids were having such a good time there seemed no sign of it ever stopping. Chai Ching really wanted us to stay a couple more nights, but most of us had jobs to get back to. We were all very exhausted as well. Chai Ching wanted to honor us all and created a few more photo ops. He wanted to present all the gear that had been donated and take pictures of the swag. He also honored each of us with a Krama, the traditional Khmer scarf, made internationally famous as part of the required uniform of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer people did not let that dark history destroy this tradition. In this case the presentation was a show of gratitude, love, and respect.

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The finished murals included a “Make Cambodia Skate Again” slogan

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Wearing our Kramas in front of the skate gear Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

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All the kids with the gear Photo Credit: Taylor Davis

 

After the above photos were taken we were all completely shagged and anxious to get back to Battambang. A few people in our crew were planning on taking the night bus back to Phnom Penh from Battambang and we all wanted a little time to relax and debrief before we parted ways. Chai Ching really enjoyed having us there and certainly wanted us to stay. His wife had made a delicious meal for us but we had little time to bide. She ended up feeding us on the go. We felt terrible and hoped that we did not disappoint her. She is an absolutely amazing cook and honestly has made me some of the best food I have had in Asia. In truth, I am not the biggest fan of Khmer food, unless the food comes from Chai Ching’s wife, then it is excellent!

Speaking of Chai Ching’s wife, just as we were leaving she saw the ring was on my pinky and seemed a little upset about it. She said something to Chai Ching in Khmer and he turned to me and told me that his wife wanted to change the setting so that it would actually fit my ring finger. I gave the ring back, said my goodbyes, and headed toward the van. And so it was that we departed Pailin in the dark.

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Little dude dropping in

When we got to Battambang we found a little bar and grill called Bar Ang, which is a bit of a play on words. Barang means French in the Khmer language, but among poorer or less educated people all foreigners are basically French. The actual word for foreigner in Khmer is Boroteh. Most expats never know the distinction, and it is far less common to hear Khmer people using the term Barang these days; I think it is far more commonly used among expats. At any rate, we had some food and drinks and went to our hotel, Seng Hout, where I had stayed on a previous visit to Battambang.

The following morning Dan and I went and had breakfast while Ariel and Ross had a romantic brunch and a stroll. I enjoy walking around Battambang as it is a vivid place where the remnants of French Colonialism is ever-present in the architecture.

 

Overall it was a great project and one for which I am thankful to many people. Aside from all the good folks who joined me in the trip to Pailin, I would like to thank all the donors who made this project possible. I want to live a life where I do something when I see something needs to be done. I feel so fortunate to have had so many likeminded people people join me on this quest. My many thanks, and thanks from Chai Ching and the children of Pailin go out to Sus Lew, Afsi and Willy Pena, my lovely girlfriend, Shalma Movassaghi, Raymond Beltran, Alice Salamanca Beltran, Jay Judge, Chrissie Good, Eagle Barber, Nima Moradi, Mark Krisher, Ian and Alexis Briggs, Khemara, and Carlo Iaccarino. I would also like to thank Winston at Berkeley Bike and Skateboards, 1-2-3-4 Go Records,  Project Chimps, 924 Gillman, Green Day, Orbit Skates, OaklandishWhatever Skateboards, Sunset Skateboards, and Bruce Lee. If I forgot anyone, please forgive me. I couldn’t have created this project without the help of everyone involved. The gifts that everyone gave will resonate with these children for a lifetime.

Conclusion

Since our trip to Pailin, I have had the pleasure of getting messages from young people who have been going to the skate park. They often include pictures of the kids with the skateboards. They are telling me how skateboards are their favorite things.

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One of the kids at the skatepark several days after we left Pailin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Tale of Two Kitties: Scruffles and Odin

It started with three

About three weeks ago I was on my way through the alley to head to the local convenience store. As I exited the alley I saw three kittens eating fish out of a flattened basket on top of a 2 meter high stone wall. As I approached a local woman hit the basket with her hand, and one of the kittens flew out of the basket and fell to the ground below. That is the first time I met the little white kitten pictured just below. I call him Kasper.

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The little one called Kasper. He would be dead within a week of this photo being taken.

When I arrived back at our apartment I told Shalma about the kittens. The next day she would get to meet them for the first time.

When we went down into the alley way there were only two kittens there. They chased after us, frantically meowing. It was Kasper and the kitten who we would later bestow with the moniker of Scruffles. We felt bad for the beasts and went to the convienience store and bought them a can of cat food. They began to gorge themselves and Scruffles would not let Kasper near the food. Below are pictures of our meeting with these little ones.

 

After our meeting with Scruffles and Kasper, Shalma and I went around the corner to a Lebanese restaurant and cafe called Aroma and met another kitten living in a plant pot. He had been living at the cafe for several days. He was extremely skinny and unwell. The owner of the cafe later told us that the cat had accepted some food and water the first day he arrived at their business but refused to eat or drink for several days afterward.

 

This little black cat was one of the sweetest things I have come across in this world. So neglected by life, and without a mother, he was magically full of love. He made quiet meows from his resting place in the planter. I peered over the table at him. He wanted so badly to love and be loved (yeah, this is an anthropomorphism and I don’t care) that he jumped onto the table, inspected my beer, then eventually settled, curled up like a furry snail shell, next to Shalma’s hip. We kind of wanted to give him loves, but he was so dirty we feared what kind of diseases he might share with us.

Cambodia: A cruel world for domesticated animals

We had no intention of giving these cats a home. We had already witnessed pretty terrible animal cruelty in this country. We had seen live chickens tied together by their broken legs, pigs in tiny cages on the back of 125cc motor scooters, presumably headed to slaughter. Aside from the more abhorrent things we witnessed, we simply saw neglect. And who could blame people who make less than $120 a month for being neglectful of the world around them that they are powerless to influence?

Shalma and I accepted that this was the life that animals must live in Cambodia; this was their lot. In that acceptance, we decided to help just a little and fed the two cats another time. We figured the restaurant cat would be taken care of, although Shalma had tried to feed him and he had refused food. I think we both put him out of our mind and began to focus on our little alley cats. After all, they were the critters on our front stoop.

Kasper went missing

A few days after we fed the cats Kasper seemed to vanish. He was gone. Baby kittens easily become victims of predation, often from feral dogs, but sometimes from wild animals as well. They also have a great deal of trouble regulating their body heat and frequently die of exposure even in a tropical environment such as this. It was the peak of the rainy season, so it may be that Kasper got drenched in water and died of cold. Shalma  and I wanted to believe that he was somehow rescued, but we have failed to delude ourselves. I really liked that cat, and I am sorry he is dead. Scruffles was now all alone in the alley.

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Scruffles all alone in the alley after losing his brother

 

About a week after our first meeting wth the kittens we walked by the restaurant and saw the little black kitten. He looked dead, like a carcass, a hollow shell that shouldn’t remain living. His eyes were swollen almost shut and appeared to popping out of the sockets in his emaciated head. There was a thick film, and he was essentially blind. He responded neither to sound nor touch. This was one sick animal, a truly pitiful sight. We went home and neither of us were happy about the state of suffering we saw this poor creature in.

Shalma was almost frantic in her sadness and concern. She asked if she could bring him upstairs right then and there and I told her that I thought it would not be a good idea. As much as I would like to lie, I shall refrain; neither of us had a dry eye. We were both profoundly affected by the suffering we saw. Shalma asked if we could take him to an animal hospital in the morning. I agreed. Then, in the most solemn of moments, Shalma exclaimed, “I will go down and get him first thing in the morning!” She wasn’t joking.

Shalma tossed and turned throughout the night. She was absolutely unsettled by the plight of this kitten. I hardly got a wink of sleep due to her restlessness.  Needless to say, Shalma is really special to me largely because of her compassion. True to her word, she was  up at six in the morning. She dragged me out of bed and we went down the seven flights of stairs and around the corner to look for the little black cat. He was nowhere to be found, and I realized that I still had not opened my right eye yet. The left side of my brain must have remained asleep throughout the whole ordeal!

We went back upstairs and had a couple more hours of restless sleep. We went back downstairs at about 9:30 and found him curled up in a little ball on the pavement. He looked even worse than he had the day before. It was almost unbelievable that an animal could look worse and still remain alive. The security guard of the little market next to the restaurant told us that he had taken the cat inside during the night. Shalma picked the cat up and wrapped him in her favorite NASA t-shirt. I called him Odin, for the Nordic god who was once known for healing the sick. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed for the other side of town.

It soon became apparent that our tuk tuk driver was from somewhere out in the provinces and had no idea where he was going even though we had showed him on a map. He also spoke very little English, so as Shalma was trying to keep the cat in the bag I was leaned over and giving directions to a place I had never been before. Eventually, we wound up at the vet, and the tuk tuk driver let us out. We soon realized that the office was closed even thought their posted hours said they were open. I opened the security gate and called out for someone. A woman (who also didn’t speak English) came and told us as well as she could to come back later. I really need to learn Khmer; life would be a lot easier! Eventually the woman got the vet (who turned out to be her daughter) on the phone and she told us we could leave Odin for the time being. Shalma and I needed to decompress and decided to walk two hours to get home.

We felt pretty satisfied having hopefully saved Odin’s life. At that point we kind of imagined he would have a 30% chance to live if he was lucky. We sort of resigned ourselves to that. When we arrived home, we walked past little Scruffles. Shalma had awoken to her affection for baby cats and wanted to sit with him for a while.

Shalma and Scruffles

Shalma cuddling Scruffles for the first time, still wearing the backpack we had just used to transport Odin to the vet.

As you can see in the picture above, Shalma is welling up with emotion. However, at this point we felt like we had done enough to save a single cat. Scruffles was still destined (in our minds) to remain an outdoor critter. All we could do is hope that he survived. From what we had seen of him he was a hardy beast that could handle the outdoors better than the competition. However, he was sweet and anxious for attention. He meowed repeatedly and ran toward us every time we saw him. Nonetheless I was anxious to go back upstairs, and Shalma told me she wanted to spend more time with Scruffles but that she would follow me up shortly.

The first thing Shalma told me when she got upstairs was that a woman shooed her off just as I left her with Scruffles. Shalma told me that the woman said, “Take him!” The local people living in modest apartments in the alley below us have suffered from stray cats. They are little more than a nuisance as they keep people awake all night with their incessant meowing through through their thin walls. The cats also create a competition for food. Few Khmer people will take in a cat like Scruffles when caring for the kitten may cost them nearly what they make in a month. The cats are little more than annoying objects and only useful as rat killers.

Shalma was disturbed well into the evening thinking about Scruffles. She told me that she wanted to go downstairs and check on him. I tried to convince her not to do so. I told her that she would annoy the local people by fawning over this animal. Sure, I felt the same way as she did; I was also concerned. That didn’t mean that I wanted to interrupt anyone’s lives. For poor people living in the tiny alleyway apartments, the alley itself acts as a playground, a place to do laundry, a place for business, and a community center. I felt we had no right to invade that as foreigners. In my mind, we should try to create the least amount of fuss possible. Eventually, Shalma went downstairs anyway.

I got a little worried after waiting for more than an hour for her to come back. I tried to call her on my phone, but she wasn’t taking my calls. Eventually she answered and told me that she was coming up shortly. When she did finally come up she brought a surprise with her: Scruffles!!!

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly happy to see that Shalma had brought wild street fauna into our home. My first response was to ask, “Don’t you think this is something we should have discussed?” That is when she told me that she went downstairs to find boys playing catch with the frightened kitten. Shalma had made them stop and took the kitten from them. That is when she met a Khmer woman in the alley who had actually rescued several cats herself and explained to Shalma how most people here don’t care about the cats and would never spend such a large portion of their income on them. The woman explained that her own mother could live off of less than two dollars a day, which is much less than it costs to take care of all the needs of a cat.

Anyway, Shalma gave Scruffles a bath so he was less of a wild animal. In the picture below you can see a Scruffles who (as it turns out) does not enjoy a nice relaxing evening in the bath. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be relaxed by it at all for some reason.

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As you can see Shalma missed his nose, and little Scruffles was pretty annoyed by this bath because nobody told him what a bath is. Admittedly, baths tend not to be particularly warm here in Cambodia, especially for cats. I have yet to be in an apartment that has warm running water in the bathroom sink, and even the showers don’t quite cut it if you’re looking for anything truly hot and steamy. At any rate, Scruffles eventually dried and settled right into being a cute little cuddly thing. You can witness this in the pictures below.

It is difficult to explain why, but Shalma and I were emotionally exhausted at this point. There were a lot of tears over both cats. We didn’t want to take in these cats, and in fact had zero intention of doing so. When we first took in Odin we talked about getting him fixed up just enough to release him back into the wild. We were realizing that this wasn’t sufficient. Our hearts just wouldn’t let us do that. Making matters worse, there is really no place that can take cats at the moment. Resources are limited and it was peak cat season. Making matters worse, there was recently a massive evacuation of a famous local housing project called The White Building that is being razed. This exposed countless feral animals that have left the few shelters at capacity. You can read a little bit about this den of drugs, prostitution, and squalor in the hyperlink.

Taking the Scruff to the vet

It became clear that we had to look after these cats against our will until we could find them a forever home or figure out what the hell we were going to do with them. Shalma and I could not take Scruffles to the same vet that we took Odin to because it just happened to be closed, so we took him to a wonderful place called Animal Mama here in Phnom Penh. There we me the couple who run it, Yulia and Darren, two extremely lovely people who kind of got caught up the way we did, and ended up opening an animal clinic.

Inside their office Darren was telling us about the dogs wandering freely in the lobby. One was rescued from becoming soup, another was a beautiful Belgian Malinois that was once a de-mining dog, saving people’s lives only to eventually be abandoned. One dog really touched my heart; his name was Hercules. I was never sure what kind of dog Hercules was because he was tortured by sociopaths beyond recognition. He had his lips and nose cut off. They cut off his penis and many of his toes as well. The would-be coup de gras was when they threw him into boiling water, which has left him without skin on much of his body. And yet he persisted and survived to be the sweetest and most loving animal to us, humans, who do not deserve his love and affection. Dude, there are a lot of tears, man. This is actually hard to write about.

Getting the kittens back

We left Odin at his vet for six days and Scruffles stayed at Animal Mama for five. When we got them back they were both doing better but Odin was having a lot more trouble. They both have worms pretty badly, but Odin was far sicker and much more infected. We ended up taking Odin back to the vet for an additional three days before getting him back.

We picked Odin back up just a week ago. I started cooking fresh chicken from the market for them. I boil it, strip it off the bone, and then chop it up finely. The fresh chicken still gets them very excited, and they are both putting on weight, Odin a lot slower than Scruffles. Scruffles is really rounding out nicely. Here are a couple pictures taken of him last night:

He’s rounding out and looking like a cartoon cat. Unfortunately, Odin has a scorching case of ringworm and will be back at the vet for the next seven days. On the upside, Odin has been gaining weight too and has began to jump, meow, run, play, eat a bunch, and use the cat box.

Our next course of action

This has been a pretty emotional trail to wander down, and it has been a lot of work. We are still trying to maintain the health of the cats. At the time of this writing Odin is back at the vet. He had a considerable amount of ringworm, and will be treated around the clock for the next seven days. We will have both cats vaccinated and they will receive final doses of deworming medications. Hopefully they will be at the pinnacle of health within the next week or so.

Our next goal is to get the kittens adopted. This is a task far more easily said than done. The chances of adopting the cats out here in Phnom Penh are somewhere close to a million to one. Our hands are kind of tied to the point that we can either take them to the US or release them back into the wild. Our apartment is not equipped to keep them long term. We cannot even open our windows here in the tropics because nobody puts screens on windows in this country. We have already had Scruffles attempt suicide, but Shalma rescued him.

We have one friend in Oakland who would like to take in Odin, and we would like nothing more than to place him with her. As for Scruffles, I am sure that we could easily find him a home because he is so sweet, funny, and incredibly affectionate. Plus, most of the cats here have weirdly short tails (Khmer cats are kind of their own breed) and I am sure someone would enjoy taking in such a special looking cat who really had no other option.

We know there are a lot of animals to be rescued in the US, so I can understand why it seems odd that we would send more animals there. But these animals literally have no chance to have a long healthy life here. I honestly never wanted to do any of this stuff; I feel like it just happened to us, and I am not the type of person things just happen to. We have put a lot of time and money into the care of these cats because we really felt compelled beyond responsibility. Shalma is thinking of setting up a gofundme account to aid in transporting the kittens and assure their medical costs in the near future can be covered. I am really hopeful that we can get them both to the US. It would be kind of a miracle for them.

If anyone would like to take in Scruffles or help out with transportation or anything, please do not hesitate to contact me.

 

Banteay Chmar: Staying in a Stilt Home

Where on earth is Banteay Chmar?

The great thing about being around a ton of tourists and expatriate workers is that if you need something, it becomes exponentially easier to find it. In this case, we were in a bar called “Angkor What?” on Pub Street in Siem Reap when we met a really kind lad from Belgium who was working there as a waiter. He asked us what we were doing next, and I told him that I was picking out places on the map where there were huge swaths of green and few towns. After Angkor Wat, I decided I wanted a little more of a secluded adventure. I asked this young fellow if he heard of this place or that place. He said, no, but his girlfriend had been in country for a long time. She recommended a couple places, including Banteay Chmar, a very secluded northern village with another 12th century wat.

We left Siem Reap at about 7 AM to head to Banteay Chmar, which lies about 200 Km to the northwest. The ride was relatively uneventful, but there were a couple highlights, particularly when we saw all the school children on their motorbikes headed to class. Imagine streams of thousands of children between the ages of eight and thirteen taking over the streets, swarming and buzzing like a particularly densely packed and loud swarm of bees! And then, you look a little closer and these little ones are wearing their school uniforms as they ride like bikers going to the big Harley rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Mind you, I take these kids a lot more seriously than so many American “bikers” who truck their bike between towns so they can ride to the bar from the hotel. These little kids, like most Cambodians, really do “live to ride, ride to live.” Little motorbikes are integral to life here. Cars are in the periphery in this country.

I wished so badly to pull over and capture the shot of all the little boys and girls riding in their school uniforms, but sometimes I make choices about safety first in spite of the fact that it pains me to deprive my dear few readers of visual images. Nonetheless, it just wasn’t safe to pull over.  And so we motored on until both Shalma and I decided we were hungry. Cambodia isn’t littered with familiar places to eat, so you are always kind of rolling the dice. As we came into one tiny village I saw a man with a sandwich cart attached to the side of his bicycle. I pulled in front of him, waved him down, and we ordered a couple of the typical Cambodian sandwiches, which seem to include a combination of a uniquely Southeast Asian version of paté and bits of pig snout. the sandwiches cost us about 35 cents each.

Shalma has a lot of trouble with the bits of pig, and to a degree I do too. I don’t like eating the unclean animal, and I certainly hate eating anything as smart as a dog. If I had my way, I would probably be a vegan. I tried it once, and it really didn’t work for me, and so here I am bathing in my own hypocrisy. For Shalma, it is a little different; coming from Iran, pork is haram (unsanctioned, unclean, etc.) under Islam. She isn’t religious, but the culture that she grew up in kept her from developing a taste for pork. Having said that, her mom told me that they have cousins in Iran who hunt and eat the plentiful wild boar there. Anyway, the point I am making is that we are kind of eating what is available to us. A lot of times, it isn’t exactly our first choice, and I think vegetarians would suffer greatly in certain parts of Cambodia. I cannot imagine how a vegan would survive outside of larger cities like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.

After our breakfast sandwich we continued, but I still hadn’t had coffee and it was making me a wee bit grumpy. We stopped in another small village just as the monks were coming around doing prayers and collecting offerings. I had a cup of Khmer coffee with sweet condensed milk, gave the monks some dough, and was ready to hit the road. Shalma pointed out that the locals seemed rather amused that I gave offerings to the monk. I actually didn’t notice their reactions at all. I may have tuned it out. At this point I have been in enough remote villages that I am kind of used to the curiosity. Most tourists are traveling by busses, all of which pretty much stop in the same spots. On a motorbike, we go on roads and stop at places where the busses do not go. Needless to say, I stand out in these places for my size, blond hair, blue eyes, and tattoos. Fortunately, Khmer people are relatively discreet about checking you out. Shalma sees it more than I do.

As we continued north on the last leg of our journey (it was a little over 3 hours), the landscape became incredibly rural. The rice paddies were still in place, but now they were joined by other plants, especially cassava (another staple crop). The land became more rugged and the road rougher, although still paved. Cars and motorbikes gave way to women and men herding cattle and water buffalo down an elevated road. In no time at all, we were the only ones on the road who were neither cow nor master. The people and villages became fewer. And then we turned into this small village, and we were at our destination. To be honest, we actually didn’t know we had arrived because there isn’t much there, but then we began seeing the remains of an ancient temple.

There is a moat with ancient sculpted rail of men or deities pulling some kind of rope. I don’t know what this means, only that it is a common theme in the entrance to ancient Khmer temples.

Shalma and I rode the xr into the temple grounds. The administration of the temple is an informal operation, to say the least. There is  indeed someone there to take money in the odd chance a foreigner comes along, which isn’t incredibly often. I paid two dollars after Shalma and I entered. We were both very excited to see this place and almost had forgotten that we had not secured a place to stay for the night. When we pulled around the temple we saw two young Western-looking fellows who were eyeballing us. They seemed genuinely surprised to see us. They turned out to be volunteers from Spain, and they were helping to clean up the grounds by pulling weeds an such . I asked them if there was any place to stay around there, and they told me there was. They were finishing work for the day and told me that they would lead me somewhere to acquire lodging. Shalma decided to stay and hang out at the temple while I took care of the formalities.

At this point, I thought maybe we would be staying in perhaps the one tiny bed-and-breakfast in that town. It turns out, there is no bed-and-breakfast there. The Spanish lads took me to the village community center. There I learned that all the tourism in Banteay Chmar is community-based. There are no hotels; you stay in traditional Khmer stilt houses with a local family. Most of the homes are down a rough dirt road. They are packed together in almost a random order. The homes are simple, made of very plain wooden slats. There are no glass windows, only open windows with shutters you can close in case of a storm.

Above you can see a couple pictures of our room. In order to maintain community-based tourism they offer mosquito nets, which are are better than gold when you’re a delicious foreigner. I am still waiting to see if I contracted malaria on this trip, but I am hoping the precautions will save me.

After securing our room for $7, plus another $4 per person for our dinners that night, I made my way back to Shalma at the temple. She was sitting there and managing to have a leisurely conversation with the men who were working on the grounds. When left to her own devices, Shalma will charm and make polite conversation with just about anyone, even people who speak almost no English. She has some fantastic qualities, and that is one of my favorites!

There is a small stand within the temple grounds that sells food and beverages. Shalma and I decided to get something to drink before exploring. This was the perfect opportunity to have a beer in the jungle, and I couldn’t resist it. Shalma had a Coca-Cola, and we shared some water. After sitting there for a while, another foreigner arrived. He started talking to the numerous children in Khmer and ordered some satay skewers and hard boiled eggs in the local language as well. We were impressed by his linguistic skills. He struck up a conversation with us, and we discovered he is French and called Paul. He told us that he runs a local silk production place that empowers women and invited us to take a tour the next day. We had a nice conversation with him, and he gave us some tips about local places to explore.

Shalma and I headed into the temple. I turned to take a picture of her, and right then a little guy jumped into the picture with her. I see serious issues with people who go into the Peace Corps (or similar missions) and end up spending the entire time using children as photo ops, props, and tourist attractions. I reluctantly post these pictures as I do not wish to be exploitative. In this case, however, they kind of rushed the photo, so I am including the picture. Otherwise, you would see no pictures of children posted by me.

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These little guys photobombed us, then they became our tour guides

The little kids seemed pretty excited to see Shalma and really wanted to impress her. They, using makeshift sign language, asked us if we wanted to see three big things in the temple. We agreed, and we were off to explore this space. These are the best tour guides you could ever ask for, and probably the best in all of Cambodia. Where is their Trip Advisor page? They reminded me of when I was a little guy; I had explored all the wild spaces around my home and knew the area better than any adult. I am positive these little fellas are the foremost experts on temple topography. They took us through tunnels and through small areas of the collapsed ruins, and they even showed me some kind of giant chameleon lizard. Below is a gallery of pictures from the temple. Note how the jungle has reclaimed so much of this once-civilized space.

The kids did a fantastic job, and they were hilarious with their antics the entire time. They would try to impress Shalma by breaking twigs over their forearms as a show of strength. They seemed very keen on showing her how fast they could run down a mound of giant stones or how far they could jump from one stone to another. Periodically, they would also tackle one another. There was a point when one boy was on standing on another boy’s shoulders to pick a bit of fruit. Then, a third boy kicked the child on the bottom, and they all came tumbling down with a great roar of laughter!

Our little tour guides showed us every nook of this temple complex. Shalma suggested that we buy the four of them a soda for their trouble. I was concerned that maybe it would be against their parents’ wishes, but then remembered I am not in the US. Just as she was saying this, another two boys joined the group, and the roughhousing intensified. Shalma said, “Buy sodas only for our original four boys!” She didn’t mean it in a bad way, she just had developed such an affection, and the new boys were indeed interlopers. But I said, “You cannot do that with boys; I will buy all of them a soda.”

We took the little guys to the food and beverage stand, and they each picked out a soda. The lady who operated the establishment yelled at them to not take advantage by getting the most expensive stuff. All the boys walked away with a can of Sprite and gave us a thank you in Khmer. They climbed up onto a large rock within sight, sat down and enjoyed the familiar ritual that men have after a job well done. Shalma pointed out, “Boys are exactly the same wherever you go. They play, try to impress girls, and then kick back and have a beer, or in this case, soda.” Seeing the boys on the rock was so very familiar to me and filled me with thoughts and memories that harken back to my own childhood. I realized how few children I have had in my life, but also how sweet such similar childhood times were with friends. Being a little boy can be a truly exciting and satisfying experience.

A Little More Exploring

The gentleman we met, Paul, also informed us of a few other places around the area to check out. There is actually a very small 12th century temple right inside the village. The main temple that I wrote about above was for the king and the monks, but the small one was for the people. It is actually almost difficult to find even though it is right inside the village. You have to take kind of a small diagonal turn to get to it, and it is hidden in some mangroves. Below are a few pictures.

The ancient Khmer were really into moats. I mean, can you blame them? Moats are magnificent! The problem is that they chose the land by its proximity to water. Instead of building on bedrock and creating an aqueduct to move the water in, they just built where the water happened to already be. This is why so many of the ancient sites are crumbling: squishy ground. I would hazard a guess that these aren’t the safest places to explore, but that is kind of where the wonder lies, and Cambodia is The Kingdom of Wonder, after all.

Paul also told us of a Khmer Rouge water project that is just a few kilometers up the road and requires some off-roading skill. I, of course, jumped at the chance. It turns out that the Khmer Rouge did in fact have some effective public works projects, and this reservoir is one of them. It is a fantastic place to watch the sunset. Below are a few pictures we took there right before the storms came.

 

The Food in Banteay Chmar and Punching A Wasp In the Face

We had lunch at the market in Banteay Chmar. It was some kind of Vietnamese dish, a cross between a crepe and an omelette with some kind of mysterious meat folded inside. It was delicious, and I think they cost about 25 cents a piece. After lunch, I had a wasp hovering around me, and I am weirdly afraid of them. You see, I know people who have never been stung by anything in their lives. I, on the other hand, have been stung by just about everything: honey bees, wasps, scorpions, and all kinds of things with stingers. So I freaked out a little bit and started flailing wildly and punched the wasp right in his goddamn wasp eyeball. This got a hearty laugh from half the village. Even Shalma was pointing and laughing.

We took a little walk around the market to see where food comes from. The market is tight and dark with various materials draped across the top. It is hot, and there is an open sewer running trough it with a few boards over the top. Meat is hanging in the heat all day and covered with flies. Every once in a while the woman tending the stalls will take a swipe toward the flies with a leafy twig. Ultimately, this is little more than an exercise in futility. Needless to say, there is more than a few health hazards going on in the market. However, Shalma and I suffered no discomfort from our time there.

That night for dinner, our hosts served us an amazing meal with some type of omelette, a beef stew (with delicious tomatoes, mangoes, and pineapples in it), and fresh steamed rice. They also gave us watermelon, which is actually the most dangerous fruit to eat anywhere. People rarely wash the outsides, and the fruit’s natural lack of acidity and high sugar content make it the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, especially without refrigeration. Still, Shalma and I ate every last bite and had no problem with any of the food. It was incredibly delicious.

Toilets and Mosquitos 

In order to facilitate and promote community-based tourism, some NGOs helped make the home stays more comfortable for Westerners. The local Khmer are not spraying themselves with deet and sleeping under mosquito nets, but as mentioned above, our bed had a totally effective net. In the middle of the night, however, when I had to pee, I was required to leave the relative safety of the net. I can tell you, although I was doused with mosquito repellent, they swarmed me and sunk their little mosquito beaks into me like I was a fine pan-seared foie gras served with a nice Sauternes. I am still totally paranoid about catching malaria, seriously. It is the night mosquitos that carry the parasite.

The toilets were perfectly Western toilets, only without the handle to flush them. This is not uncommon here in Cambodia. In this case, there is a drain pipe that catches rain water and channels it into a tub in the bathroom. One is required to take a wee bucket of water and pour it into the toilet in order to flush. It works but takes a little more time, which allows the local mosquitos to enjoy a delightful feast.

Silk, Empowering Women, and Building A More Fruitful Community

The next morning we decided to take Paul up on his offer to tour the silk factory, Soieries du Mékong. Click the hyperlink to find out more about the program, or just read my simplification. The organization was founded by two NGOs in order to help improve the lives of women in northern Cambodia. Anyone who has read Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or even any Marx (a rare point on which they both agree) knows that the key to societal wealth is skilled production instead of farming. The idea behind this program is to give women self-determination while making the village less dependent on cassava and rice farming, both of which can suffer the perils of bad crops and deflating market values.

Soieries du Mékong is staffed not by workers, but as Paul pointed out, by true artisans with a fine skill. The women work on beautiful grounds that are well-kept and have a huge variety of beautiful tropical fruit trees. The program solves childcare issues by encouraging women to bring their children to work when they are not in school. In essence, the program seeks to make a joyous and happy work space where women have few worries. They also only allow only a maximum of forty hours a week in order to encourage a proper work-life balance. The women are often making more than their husbands now, more than doubling household incomes. Soieries du Mékong also pays 80% of the women’s healthcare costs and has other programs to teach the women about home economics and balancing budgets. This is important in a place where people have always been poor and tend to spend every cent they get. Below I have added some  pictures of the facility.

Programs like this are important for places like rural Cambodia. They are necessary because they give things back that settler-colonialism have taken away. Typically, a society develops their own local products and economy. They make varying amounts of goods for trade and domestic consumption. Under most circumstances, societies develop and establish their own comparative advantage, wherein they figure out what they can produce the most of (at the highest quality) and focus on those products. They then seek out trade partners who have a comparative advantage in other products and establish a fruitful international economy. I am oversimplifying here, but I think you get my point.

Colonialism kills a society’s ability to prosper long after the colonists are gone. The Belgians, British, Dutch, French, etc. have essentially operated the same way all over the world. No place is the result more stark and evident that the continent of Africa, but it works the same way everywhere. When the colonists arrive, they take the people out of their traditional industries and force them into laboring to create a limited number of products that particularly appeal to Europeans. This lowers the aggregate global price for a product and allows France, for example, to acquire cheap rice from Asia or cocoa from Africa, and sell it cheaply to Switzerland or England while still making a profit.

Those people being colonized become devoid of skilled labour; they lose their trades and cannot go back to them in a post-colonial society. Making matters worse, industries have low factor mobility, meaning it is difficult for the people to move from one place to the other or one industry to the other due to lack of general skills. Obviously, the land cannot be moved either. This leaves post-colonial societies stuck making the same products for the same low earnings as they did when the Europeans ruled over them.

Colonialism abandons societies in a precarious marketplace where all the surrounding post-colonial states are laboring for the same products, not allowing for trade between states within the region. In the case of Africa, for example, there is virtually no trade between African nations. The final icing on the cake is that, in a post-colonial society that has not established its own comparative advantage and lacks diversified industry, no import substitution products are created. This means that Cambodians are stuck with cheap surplus Western clothing and goods and a marketplace that does not allow them to develop. Projects such as Soieries du Mékong are giving back something that was long taken from the Khmer people.

The community-based tourism has also been a great financial improvement for Banteay Chmar. In spite of the fact that there are few tourists there, the small amount of tourism that exists has more than tripled the aggregate income within the community. In most cities in Cambodia, it is really just the wealthy elites (including Westerners) who are making all the money from tourism. This keeps the poor nearly as poor as they were before while channeling money into the hands of a few who hoard it. This is not to say that the increased tourism has not improved lives, just that this improvement is mitigated by power structures and greed. In Banteay Chmar, we found an egalitarian system that works for the benefit of all within the community.

Thank you for reading this long blog post. Next time I will have lots of pictures of monkeys!

Motorbikes, Buddhism, The Khmer Rouge, and Odin’s Balls

The Plan

On Friday the 23rd of June I picked up my not-so-brand-new 1999 Honda xr250 from Lyda, the finest motorcycle mechanic in Phnom Penh. The following day, my lady and I had plans to ride the 144 kilometers down to the Southern coast of Cambodia to visit the beach town of Kep and nearby Kampot, home to the famous Kampot peppercorns. No, the peppercorns aren’t a Cambodian rugby team; I mean literal peppercorns. Unfortunately, Shalma and I went out with a few friends here Friday night, and I am not sure how many pints I had, but we both stayed out a little too late for an early Saturday morning departure. Nonetheless, I would not be deterred–I had a new motorbike and I needed to check things out. Ah, sweet freedom to not be at the whims of tuk tuk drivers! And so it was that we set out for a local Saturday excursion to Wat Phnom and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (AKA S21).

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom is often referred to as the “monkey temple” by tuk tuk drivers. Evidently, there used to be a lot of monkeys at the temple and there still may be some now. After doing a bit of research, I learned that there were pretty aggressive monkeys there as recently as 2011, and they even had to shoot one at some point. Poor monkey! I am not sure whether there are any macaques lurking about the temple grounds these days, but I can assure you that neither Shalma nor I spotted one.

The temple is not far from our digs by the river. It is a short jaunt by motorbike, maybe five minutes at the most. We headed over there and it is quite a sight to see! It is a relatively large temple compound on a human-made hill in the middle of a roundabout.  It is a massively busy roundabout like most in this city, full of diesel-spewing busses and vehicles of all kinds, tuk tuks, 125cc motorbikes hauling flat beds full of propane tanks, and all the usual chaos of Cambodian roads.

We pulled my bike up right onto the sidewalk in front of the temple and paid our admission of a dollar each. We then proceeded by foot to the top of the hill to the main temple on the mount. There was a man selling candles, incense, and some long stemmed lotus flowers. We slipped our shoes off and stepped inside the temple. I set my five incense sticks alight on a giant candle that was over a meter high and as big around as a 4 inch toilet pipe. I planted my sticks of incense in a vase full of sand or ash and proceeded to light my candle and place it on something that looked a bit like a wooden boat.

As I was about to complete my final task of slipping my flower into the urn where all the actual Buddhists are putting their flowers (I have no idea what is going on, just following queues), I turned and saw Shalma trying to place her candle on the wooden boat thingy. As she was attempting this brave feat, a woman who was incredibly involved in praying knocked over the massive toilet-pipe candle and it nailed Shalma in the back of the foot. Remarkably, although her heel was covered in yellow candle wax that made her look like a 10th century leper, she was unharmed by the hot wax. We surmised that she was protected by her offerings to the Buddha.

From the research I have done, it appears the temple was originally built in the 14th century. It looks very old, but much of it has been rebuilt. I am not sure which parts are old or new.  I would like to also point out how lush and green the compound is. Although you are in the center of a roundabout, you really feel like you are at a temple in the middle of the jungle somewhere. Below is a gallery of photos. I have not captioned any of them because I really don’t know much about Buddhist temples. I hope to learn more as time goes on.

 

 

S21: The school turned prison and torture chamber

We left the temple with a light and airy feeling. The day was bright and sunny, and the clouds were like happy little white cotton balls smiling down on us. We went back to our little apartment by the river and sent a message to Dimitri. Hey, want to go to S21 with us? He replied that he would like to go. He lives right across the street from the former Khmer Rouge complex and yet he had never gone. We headed straight over to his place. Almost immediately the weather and mood became ominous. Fluffy clouds had turned dark and brooding. Needless to say we got drenched on the short ride over to Dimitri’s place. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t gotten lost along the way. By the time we had gotten to Dimitri’s top floor apartment the sky had gone into full-on monsoon mode.

The rain on Dimitri's Balcony

The monsoon rains on Dimitri’s balcony

We waited for the rain to quiet a bit. Dimitri made me his famously delicious Greek frappe ice coffee. We got a little hungry and had some french fries, then it was time to leave to see the prison.

I didn’t take any pictures at S21. You aren’t really supposed to, but I did see people doing it. I don’t even know where to begin with this place. It was the last stop before a paranoid and genocidal regime drove people to the killing fields to murder them. The Khmer Rouge implemented all methods of torture in this place. They would hang people by their feet until they passed out, then lower their heads into giant vats of human waste and water to revive them. Almost every one of them confessed to all manner of things. A New Zealander who was caught by the Khmer Rouge while sailing around the world even admitted to working for the CIA under orders from Colonel Sanders.

S21, a former school with a grand garden, was once the site of children playing and preparing for the excitement of their lives ahead. It is much larger than it appears in pictures or even looking down on it from Dimitri’s roof. Each building is three stories tall. The large classrooms were turned into torture chambers. Some prisoners were in shackles attached to thick rebar. They were crammed like sardines with no room to move. Others were placed into the tiniest makeshift cells that were made of either wood or brick. There was nothing but a can to defecate and piss into. If you missed and made a mess you were forced to lick it up. People were tortured throughout the night and day.

There were only a handful of survivors who made it out. One of them was at the prison the day we were there. I had found myself silenced after what seemed like an eternity inside this pit that still resonated with the evil of its past. My brain seemed to have shut down because I could not process my imagination of the pain and torment that happened at this place. I know I was stone-faced. I felt like the wind was knocked out of me and I could not react. Then we walked by this old man who had survived being tortured and housed in this hell. He was selling a book on his ordeal, and as we passed him he smiled at us. I have to admit, it was his smile that finally broke me down. It was devastating to see a man who had gone through so much turn and flash a kind smile. I could hardly control my emotions. I grabbed Shalma’s hand and practically ran from that place. I never want to go back ever again.

S21

The view of the S21 Prison complex from Dimitri’s balcony

 

My first bribery

On Sunday morning our plan to go south was a go. We should have packed the night before, but we neglected to do so. We meant to leave at 7 AM, but it turned out to be closer to 8 AM, right in the midst of the chaos of Phnom Penh rush hour. When I say chaos, I mean that there are few rules evident, and people seem to believe in a strict system of anarchy on the roads. I hear there is some sort of method, but so far I have seen none. This is not to say that you won’t get pulled over for a little bribery. This particular morning was my turn to pay a bribe for going the wrong way down a one way street. Mind you, it isn’t completely obvious that the street is one way since there is a constant stream of traffic flowing in both directions throughout the day.

We had gotten a little lost. Apple maps isn’t as dependable as one might imagine. I had to go a single block up the wrong way. There were plenty of other people around on scooters who suddenly did an about face. I was too slow to recognize what was happening and a young man in a blue uniform jumped right out in front of my bike with his arms out saying something in Khmer. I imagine it was the word for stop but I did not comprehend much since I was just trying to avoid mowing him over at that point. I managed to stop without hitting him and pulled my motorbike to the side of the street.

What’s up, I asked. He said “wrong way” in somewhat choppy English and motioned for me to go talk to this other guy who was dressed in the same type of uniform. Both looked like teenagers, but I assumed that the guy he motioned toward was the boss. I stepped up to him. He was slight of build and appeared to be a little nervous–not the type of police intimidation I am used to. I asked him what he wanted but he spoke seemingly no English. There was another young man operating a coffee cart and blaring some god-awful pop music out of a small radio. Shalma later informed me that this was all taking place to a Justin Bieber soundtrack, making the situation seem more absurd. The officer motioned over to have the coffee cart Belieber come and translate.

I asked the Bieber fan what the officer wanted. He said that the officer wanted five dollars because I had gone the wrong way. I told him to tell the officer that he was out of his mind and that I would give him two dollars. The officer immediately conceded and said he would take the two. I began to wonder if this was his first bribery experience too. I felt kind of bad for him since he had come down from the five dollar mark so easily. I handed him the two dollars, and then almost reflexively, I handed him another dollar as a tip. He let me go about my business and we were off to the races.

The road to Kep

It was tricky getting out of town, again with all the crazy traffic. I really need to strap my GoPro to my head one of these days and post the experience. When we finally got on the road the monsoon rains began. I had a small poncho that Dimitri gave me, but I bought another from a lady on the side of the road. Real American rain gear would be pretty heavy in this heat and humidity. Having said that, it was cooler than one might have expected and I probably could have used a little more gear. At the very least I should have worn my motocross boots instead of my Converse Chuck Taylors.

All of the roads consist of a single lane in each direction. Cars often drive with the yellow line situated in the middle of their bumper for no apparent reason. When the roads are congested it is a dangerous symphony indeed! There will be mopeds, tractors, very small busses that are loaded with people, and Toyota Hiluxes all going different speeds. All the cars act as though they are in a terrible hurry and tend to go way too fast for the conditions. Cars will pass your motorbike only inches from your shoulder at high speed. When an oncoming car goes to pass the the car in front of them, they completely ignore you if you are on a motorcycle; they simply expect you to go onto the shoulder. At one point there was a car passing a tuk tuk, and then a Toyota truck passed the car while it was in mid-overtake. They were three vehicles deep, taking up the whole road and coming in my direction!

Shalma and I motored on for hours. There was traffic the whole way. It was mentally exhausting since there isn’t a moment to put your mind at ease. It is a constant sensory extravaganza where the participator is constantly looking for the danger that is, and anticipating the danger that is very soon to be! In all of this motoring, we did take some breaks. We had a bahn mi type sandwich made on the side of the road by what was probably an eight-year-old girl, and we took a couple leg-stretching breaks as well.

At one point we found ourselves gazing over rice paddies as we motored along. They are the most beautiful shades of green and the aromatic scent is reminiscent of opium incense. The green of the rice paddies is punctuated with emaciated cows and rather well-fed water buffalos. It caused me to wonder, how do the buffalos eat so well while the cows appear to be starving? The whole time I kept thinking about how much the scenery looked the way Vietnam looks in photographs and all those war movies I grew up with. Shalma later confirmed she had been thinking the same thing. After a while the road stopped and we found that we could go no farther. We had taken a wrong turn and ended up at the Vietnam border crossing. No wonder it looked so familiar…

We headed back the way we came and found our way onto the correct road. It took us five and a half hours to go on a trip that should have only been 150km. I should again stress, it is relatively difficult to go fast on these roads if you want to live, especially if it is raining. We were both ready to get off the bike and get some food and rest–me especially since my forearms were burnt to a crisp from the sun. We found our way to Kep and got into a room in a guesthouse for $15 per night. And then we tried to eat tacos, which wasn’t the best idea we had ever come up with.

After we got into the room we just kind of headed over to the first food place within sight, and that place was a taco stand. We ordered a three tacos each and I ordered a Cambodia beer. There was nothing really taco-ish about the tacos except for the shape. The worst part was the taco shell, which was really whatever fried spring rolls are wrapped in instead of a tortilla. Don’t get me wrong, I have no complaint about rice-based wrapped goods, but it sort of defies the beauty that is a taco. Needless to say, we both walked away hungry. We managed to forage some sliced mangos from a street vender and I bought some squid on a stick from another.

We were still hungry and needed a place to go. We collected ourselves and figured out that the good stuff to eat was down the road at the crab market. A friend of ours suggested going to a place called Mr. Mab’s down there. We took a tuk tuk over there and had a pretty romantic perch that sat just above the water on Mr. Mab’s back deck. The sea was in tumult due to high tides and the monsoons, so once in a while we would get hit in the face with a bit of sea water. You could hear the water rushing under the deck just inches away from our feet. The water (or whatever it carried) would hit the deck below our feet periodically. Shalma, who does not swim, found this unnerving. I, on the other hand, thought it to be utterly delightful. I asked her if she would like to sit inside anyway and she declined.

This all brings me to the Kampot peppered crab. When our plates arrived Shalma was so excited that she completely lost her fear of the sea. The dish is made up of a couple of crabs covered in a red chili sauce with green bell peppers and sprigs of green Kampot peppercorns. I have never had anything like it, and it is amazing but very messy. The peppercorns are very special. They have so much flavor. Sure, it tastes like pepper, but there is also a strong and almost astringent quality and flavor that is more similar to cloves than typical pepper. Below are some pictures of our walk around Kep. These pictures include this unique and delicious crab dish, and the squid on a stick too!

 

Kampot, Odin’s balls, and the Khmer Rouge–oh, and some Buddhist stuff too!

The road from Kep to Kampot is not a long one, nor is it particularly fraught with danger. However, not long after leaving I Kep I realized I wasn’t going to make it unless I covered my sunburnt arms. I didn’t have a long sleeved shirt with me so I told Shalma to keep an eye out to see what is being sold on the side of the road. She eventually tapped me to get me to pull over. Shalma said she found a yellow shirt for me. I circled back with Shalma and we found a thin yellow ladies cardigan. And of course, Shalma tried to talk me into buying it in order to save my arms from the damage. I refused, as she would have expected. Fortunately, a few kilometers down the road I found a suitable linen shirt for only $2.50. I think this shirt is going to be my friend for a long time.

When we pulled into Kampot I realized for the first time that it isn’t a beach town but a river town. It is one of those places that is a lot sleepier during the day than at night. It wasn’t immediately obvious where the best place to stay would be. As we rode my trusty xr down the riverfront road, I saw a giant Swedish flag hanging in front of a driveway. The place was called Kool Kampot and it really looked nice enough. I wanted to give Shalma a nicer place to stay than our digs from the night before, and we found a nice room there for $20 per night.

Kool Kampot is a fantastic place to stay. The rooms are spacious and clean with pleasing decor. They are also well air conditioned except for one that goes for $15 per night. There is a lovely upstairs bar that overlooks the river, and it is a fantastic place to catch the sunset. The staff is friendly and the owner Jeff is a truly kind Australian gent who goes out of his way to make sure his guests are comfortable. If you’re in Kampot it is a great place to stay.

After a relatively uneventful first few hours in Kampot, we found ourselves on the roof bar at 4PM waiting for the bar tender to show up. The beers are a bit more expensive but cheap enough that I lost count of how many I had. Shalma was drinking soda pop until she switched to a bloody mary. We had a marvelous time and made friends with two young ladies, one American and the other Dutch. Eventually, Shalma and I both got a little hungry and set off down the road to acquire food.

We stumbled across a place called Pépé & the Viking. Evidently it is owned by two people, one French and the other Danish. One of the dishes on the menu that caught my eye was called Odin’s Balls, and it was described as frikadeller with mashed potatoes. For those who aren’t in the know, frikadeller are magical traditional Danish meat balls. They are made of a 50/50 mixture of ground pork and ground veal. They are simple to make with just a bit of egg, super finely diced onion, and some salt and pepper. In my slightly inebriated state, Odin’s balls it is!

We went in and sat at a lovely table out front. Unfortunately we sat near two American douchebags who were bragging about money and cars, but it was a lovely table nonetheless. Our food came out relatively quickly and came with a wee side of yogurt. This excited my Persian girlfriend who is keen to put yogurt on just about anything. I had never seen this dish served with yogurt and tried to tell Shalma, baby, this isn’t a bloody Kefta kebab! Mind you, it wasn’t really a true frikadeller either. They were far too small, like an Ikea meatball, and didn’t seem to have veal in them. Unfortunately, Odin doesn’t like having his balls dipped in yogurt.

Shalma and I had been eating the exact same foods over the entire day. The only time we diverged from this is when she dipped Odin’s balls in yogurt. This unsettled the gods of my ancestors and she was cursed with a foul stomach that ended up turning into something far worse. The next day we were meant to ride the motorcycle into Preah Monivong National Park together, but Shalma was not well enough to do so. Shalma told me she just had a bit of an upset stomach. She said she was fine but just really couldn’t go. Being the kind girlfriend she is, she asked me to go and promised she would be okay. I got onto my trusty steed and headed for the mountains, and what a beautiful place it is!

I headed toward the park, also called Bokor for the mountain that essentially is the park. It was about twenty minutes by motorbike from our guest house to the park’s entrance. Entrance costs a dollar and is well worth it. The minute you pull into the park you can tell you are someplace special. You take a long road in and begin climbing the hill. The roads are beautiful; the area hadn’t been paved until five or six years ago, a fact that had previously made it difficult to access.

The inaccessibility of the mountain made it a desirable place for both French colonists and the Khmer Rouge alike. Upon this mountain, which rises over 1000 meters above sea level, the French colonists built a holiday area in the 1920s called Bokor Hill Station. Many of the buildings still remain, although some have crumbled or been demolished. One can easily see why the French chose this area with its spectacular views and moderate climate compared to the rest of Cambodia. This area would later be the last holdout for the Khmer Rouge until the early 1990s. It holds a strategic military tactical position being on top of a hill with roads that are easy to protect from enemies. Two of the most important remaining structures are the Bokor Palace hotel and an old abandoned French church. The hotel was actually used as the the final headquarters for the Khmer Rouge. Long abandoned, when I was there I saw people working atop the structure, and it appears that there are plans to bring it back to life. In the gallery below I have included pictures of both the church and the hotel.

The roads going up the mountain are twisty, and the greenery is quite impressive. For a seasoned motorcyclist like myself, it was an extremely pleasant ride. They took care to bank each turn to perfection. However, one must proceed with caution. Locals driving on these roads cross far over the yellow line in turns. Some of the corners have mirrors, which is helpful, but not all of them do. Another danger is the gaggles of European and American tourists on scooters. They will rent a scooter to anyone in Cambodia. In Kampot, the going rate is $5 for 24 hours. People with no motorcycle experience often think they will be fine on a scooter because they can ride a bicycle. This is simply not the case. Tourists all over the world are regularly killed or injured from this line of thinking.

As you ascend the mountain, you come across this massive Loc Yeay Mao statue. Evidently she is an important goddess figure in Cambodian Buddhism. Near the highest point in the mountain, there is a roundabout and in one direction is Bokor Hill Station. To the right is the incredible and picturesque meditation waterfalls. Below are all the pictures from this section of my blog. I hope you enjoy them!

If you are still reading this blog post I am grateful for your attention span. Shalma is feeling better. The ride back home to Phnom Penh was much easier, and it took us only 3.5 hours. We may be going to Siem Reap for our next trip to see the famed ancient temples of Angkor Wat. It is twice as far, at about 340km. I will keep you posted!