Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Cambodian Good Water Fund

During my time in Cambodia, I was so impressed by the beauty of the country and its people that I felt like I had to do more than just spend my tourist dollars for some handmade souvenirs. I decided that I would spend some time at an English language school and talk to them about my life in the United States and Canada.

I was invited to spend some time at Savong's school which was established in 2005 when Svay Savong was only 24 years old. Incredibly, the school has 450 students and there are no fees for the classes.

Although I only spent a couple of hours at the school, Savong invited me to visit a remote village on the weekend. I agreed and two days later, I was sitting on the back of a motorcycle driving through thick mud, avoiding cows and wondering where in the heck I was going. I bought a case of noodles with me and the other Cambodian men (there were five of them) took along some books, pens, pencils and a rubber ball.

After an hour, we arrived at the village of Srass Kvaw. The name in Cambodian appears below.

I think I was the first foreigner they had ever seen. The whole village, it seemed, came out to greet me with hands clasped in prayer and bowed heads. The noodles were quickly divided up and some of the children didn't even wait until their meal was cooked before they started chowing down.

Hmmm, just a little dry perhaps?

There are 62 families and about 171 people in this village which is located about 40 km from Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia.

With translation, I told everyone how happy I was to visit them. It felt a little strange, as if I were a missionary back in the 1800s visiting Africa for the first time.

The kids were especially welcoming. They loved having their pictures taken (and I loved taking them) and they nearly went insane with surprise when they saw themselves being played back on my video recorder.

But this village is incredibly poor. And I mean poor. They have nothing to speak of. They don’t even have fresh water.

This pit is their water supply. Yes, this is the water that they drink.

After seeing this village for myself, I couldn't help but be affected by the experience. All the people (except for one older lady) agreed that the village needed water pumps. The older lady told me that she wanted a mosquito net but I’m pretty sure that she wouldn’t complain about a supply of fresh water either.

The cost for a water pump is about $200 and ten are needed for a village of this size. Mosquito nets and water jars would also be of great help but a supply of water is the top priority.

I would like to raise money for them. I HATE HATE asking people for money but this cause is something that is just too important and the dry season is now upon them. I have included a link to a paypal account for any donations and of course, even the smallest amount is going to help.

Click below to donate

My contact for this village is Savong and I know that he will use the money directly for this village and get the pumps built. In Cambodia, the government is no help (corruption exists at all levels) and no social welfare system exists. The only help these people will get are from foreigners such as ourselves.

So far, I have raised about $600. As an added incentive to donate to reach the goal of $2500, I can offer the following options:

With any donation: I will give free veterinary advice via email at If you don't need veterinary advice, then I can offer other advice. Just ask!

With $150 donation: You will get a 2009 calender made with my truly awesome photos taken during my trip to Cambodia. I will pay for the calender so 100% of your funds will go to the pumps.

I also plan on making a hardcover book of my photos but this will take some time to finish. (Hopefully available middle of December 08). All the profits will go to the Good Water Fund.

Here is a link to a story about a family who had a similar adventure to mine. It also has some good pictures of what a pump looks like.

And if you would like, check out Savong's school at

Thank you!


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cambodian Cooking Class

I'll try anything once.

Even cooking.

So with that in mind, I signed up for the Cambodian Cooking Class in Phnom Penh. This one-day course is designed to give tourists some insights into the ancient and unique Khmer cuisine. For $20 per person, it was also a very inexpensive way of eating for the entire day.

The first stop was the local market where our instructor pointed out the various ingredients that we would be using for our courses. Everything was very fresh and we were able to sample a couple of things here and there.

But a Cambodian market is not exactly the place to stimulate an appetite. The smell was overpowering and seeing slabs of animal body parts (or animals waiting to be body parts) wasn't exactly a turn-on.

In more industrialized countries, we are so worried about sanitation and hygiene but it was a different story in Cambodia. They didn't have refrigeration in the market so the meat hung out in the hot weather all day. I made a mental note to make sure all my food was WELL cooked.

Cambodians like to eat some weird things. At Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh, you can order deep fried tarantula. Fortunately, I can't tell you how it tastes.

Here are some water lilies which are supposedly pretty good.
And salted duck eggs. These eggs are covered in a thick salty charcoal. Don't ask me how they tasted. I didn't have the chance to try these either.

One of the most distinctive ingredients in Khmer cuisine is the fermented fish paste or Prahok. It is the grey pasty looking stuff below. Sounds pretty bad and smells worse but Khmer food still tastes damn good with it mixed in.

Even red ants were available for eating. I wanted to try some as an act of revenge for all the times that ants have tried to eat me.
Or how about some other crunchy insects?

We returned to the restaurant where we began to make our own food.

Our first challenge was to make spring rolls. They aren't hard to make but the instructor thought I was doing a lousy job of rolling them up. He didn't hesitate to correct me as if I were actually going to make these things in the future. Doesn't he know that I can buy them at Trader Joes for a very reasonable price?

Then we moved on to the Banana Flower Salad. This required a lot of effort. I think it took us over an hour to make. Once again, I was yelled at because I was slicing the banana flower too thickly.

I even made the carrot flower in the picture. You like?

Then it was time to learn how to make Amok.

Amok is a unique Khmer fish curry which is steamed in banana leaves. I think this took 12 hours to make. Actually, I can't remember exactly how long it took but it seemed like a freakin' long time. Everything was done from scratch. We made the curry, the sauces and even the banana leaf bowl.

Ta-dah! This was my own creation. I was so proud, it was almost as if I had given birth to it.

I don't think I have ever made anything that looked and tasted as good as this.

This is our graduation picture. Everyone passed. Nobody died of food poisoning. (Not that I know of). We were all very happy.

As a final course, we made some sticky rice with mangoes and syrup.

This course is highly recommended if you happen to be in that corner of the world. It is offered by the Frizz restaurant, which is where I had my best meal in Phnom Penh.

You can check out the website below.

You meet great people, have a lot of fun and get to eat some amazing food all for $20. What is not to like? Airfare to Phnom Penh not included.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fun Monkey

After those depressing posts, I thought I should lighten the mood with a picture of a cute monkey!


The Terrible Past of Cambodia

Around eight in the morning, we boarded the bus in Saigon for the six hour trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sure, it was a long bus ride but it only cost $12 per person and they assured us there would be no livestock travelling with us.

It was pouring that day. This did not deter the army of motorcycles swarming the city. I was AMAZED that I did not see more accidents.

We arrived in Phnom Penh in the early afternoon and the city was much more charming than what I thought it would be.

I guess I expected an urban toilet but instead, I saw parks, beautiful architecture, and a much more laid back atmosphere than Saigon.

One of the main reasons why I wanted to come to Phnom Penh was to get a glimpse of Cambodia's very dark past. If you're not familiar with their history, let me give you a little bit of background.

In the spring of 1975 as Saigon was falling (or being liberated depending on which side you were on), Cambodia was just beginning a period of intense turmoil. Pol Pot, the leader of the communist movement called the Khmer Rouge, took control of Phnom Penh and started making up his own rules. He changed the name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea, abolished religion and enforced the concept of "Year Zero", which meant that a new civilization was being created. The population was forced into the countryside to do backbreaking labor for no pay. Pol Pot's ideal society was an agrarian one; everyone worked in the fields.

But it got worse.

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army began a reign of paranoid terror. They killed off anyone whom they thought might have an opposition to their new government. They tortured prisoners to get more names. Their biggest fear was the KGB or the CIA, but even religious subjects were targeted. Nobody knows for sure how many people were killed during the four years of madness but I have read numbers from just less than 1 million to three million people. Women, children and babies were not exempt from the killings.

As a memorial to all the lives that were lost, visitors to Phnom Penh are able to visit Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S-21, which was just one of the torture/execution centers for the Khmer Rouge. Strangely enough, Tuol Sleng started out as a high school. It is estimated that 17,000 prisoners were held here but only seven were found alive when the Vietnamese took over Cambodia. The seven survivors had their lives spared because they had talents which the Khmer Rouge found useful.

This is Tuol Sleng. Nice eh?

Inside the building are some very creepy photographs of the victims. The Khmer Rouge was apparently very good at record keeping and they took pictures of all the new arrivals.

What I found most disturbing (in a very disturbing place) were the photos of all the children. A lot of them had very detached expressions as if they weren't fully aware of the tortured death that they were facing.

Tuol Sleng is a very tragic place. Almost overwhelming. It's difficult to believe that someone could have done to this to his own country.

Sadly, Pol Pot died in 1998 of possible natural causes. He was never brought to justice for the genocide.

A cat was sleeping peacefully near one of the exhibits, completely unaware of the horrors that happened there thirty years ago.

As you might expect, some of the Cambodians joined the Khmer Rouge army to save themselves or their families.

In one room, they showed some of these people during the time of the Khmer Rouge regime and in present day. They told their stories and many of them didn't regret the choices that they had made.

Since Tuol Sleng wasn't enough misery for one day, we decided to take the tuk-tuk out to the infamous killing fields which are located about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh.

For a great movie which dramatizes the horrors of this location, check out The Killing Fields, directed by Roland Joffe. Haing S. Ngor won the academy award for Best Supporting Actor and he was also a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. In a strange but sad twist, he was shot to death in Los Angeles in 1996.

At the entrance to the killing fields is a monument to all the people who lost their lives. It is filled with skulls and other assorted bones.

Many of the victims were stabbed or bludgeoned to death. The Khmer Rouge did not want to waste their precious bullets.

Many of the mass graves still need to be excavated.

Are you depressed yet?

Cambodia seems to be a country that is missing an entire generation of older people and so even the killing fields had their share of children running around.

Of course, they all want money and we were told by many people that we should NEVER give money to the children if they are begging. The children are often being pimped out by their parents to get the money and they'll never see their share of it. The other reason is that begging can set them up for a life of dependency.

These three kids followed me around while I was taking photos. They had their English lines memorized, "One, two, three, SMILE!" which they followed up with hands clasped in prayer and a very odd, mechanical (almost creepy) song. They wanted a dollar for their efforts. It was really hard to tell them no.

Their smiles seemed very out of place for this somber location.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Cu Chi Tunnels

As a side trip just outside of Saigon, tourists can visit the Cu Chi tunnels which played a big part in how the North Vietnamese fought the war in South Vietnam.

The Cu Chi tunnels are a very large network of tunnels covering 75 miles according to wikipedia, if you believe that website. The most impressive part about these tunnels is how small they were. Despite their size, the Viet Cong were able to live in them for sometimes days at a time.

Malaria was rampant. So were parasites, mosquitoes, spiders and scorpions. Along with the scorching heat and high humidity, it must have been like living in hell.

To show you just how small they were, brave tourists can try and slip into one of the entrances. This guy couldn't get back out and had to be extracted with the help of two other tourists.

Since most tourists can't fit in this small of an opening, the government expanded a section of the tunnels so that fat sweaty Westerners could enter them and experience the stifling claustrophobia for themselves.

Here is the expanded opening. It still isn't all that big.

This is me at the exit with a big cheesy and very inappropriate smile on my face.

Why am I smiling? Because this photo is completely fake and I just couldn't bring myself to go down into the very cramped tunnels. Keep in mind that it was unbearably hot that day, the tunnels were very dark and I'm claustrophobic. I had to listen to everyone else who said that the experience was not very pleasant.

As an added bonus, there were various exhibits around the grounds showing the deadly traps that the Viet Cong used to kill their enemies.

This lovely little trap was meant to look like a patch of grass until someone stepped on it and plunged into a pit filled with sharpened spikes. Youch!

Just like an American theme park, there was a gift shop where you could buy souvenirs. The hottest item was the Snake and Scorpion wine which is apparently good for rheumatism, lumbago and sweaty limbs!

The wine came with either a snake or scorpion inside and I'm still not sure whether you're supposed to eat them when you drink the wine or whether you're supposed to put them aside. The bottles didn't come with instructions so I assume you just have to chug down everything. Thankfully, I don't have any of the above ailments so I don't have to worry about what is the preferred method of imbibing this strange beverage.

If all this war stuff has got you turned on, then you can take your turn and fire off a few rounds.

Here is the price list. It amounts to about a buck a bullet. The fun you can have in Vietnam is truly endless.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace is a great place to escape the Saigon traffic for a couple of hours. The admission is outrageously priced at $1 per person. I'm pretty sure I could have bought a lunch off the street for that amount of money.

Historically, the palace was very important. This is where the tanks crashed through the gates and signalled the end of the Vietnam War. The surrender papers were signed here and North Vietnam was officially reunified with South Vietnam, thereby giving the palace, formerly known as Independence Palace, a new name.

There were many interesting photos. The one below shows the tanks breaking through the gates and making a mess of the front lawn.

This is a picture I took from the roof of the palace showing approximately the same view. The gates (now intact) are just missing from the front of the photo.

This is how the palace looks today. Architecturally, it may appear quite bland but the facade contains a lot of symbolism. The lines of the building actually represent chinese characters which mean good, master, prosperity, mouth, three (for humanity, intelligence and strength) and prosperity.

For a better explanation, you can check out this web page.

The rooms are, as expected, quite formal but unfortunately many of them looked like they suffered from the styles of the late 60s and early 70s.

Outside, there were replicas of the tanks that broke through the gates in late April of 1975.

You know what this means!


Okay, okay, I promise I won't pose beside any more tanks trying to look like I'm in the military.