Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cambodia Dos and Don'ts

I've been to Cambodia four times now and I am DEFINITELY not an expert but I feel like I've had enough experiences around Siem Reap to at least be knowledgeable enough to share some insight.  It is a very complex country but a fascinating one and there is a lot to learn even for those world travelers who think they've seen it all.

So take this advice  ... or not.  Part of the complexity of Cambodia is that everyone has a different opinion on what to see, how to behave and how to help.

  • Buy a temple pass late in the afternoon (I believe the time is after 5pm).  You will be able to enter that evening for free and enjoy the pass on the subsequent days.  
  • Getting up at dawn to see Angkor Wat is definitely worth the effort.  The crowd is a lot of fun and the people watching is just as entertaining as seeing the sun come up over the iconic building.  Get there early and rent a red chair.
  • The only time to see the Bayon (the temple with the big heads) or Ta Prohm (the temple with the large trees) is either very early in the morning or last thing in the evening.  If you go during the other times, you will be swamped by large collections of Korean tourists who will take pictures of EVERYTHING.  
  • Go see Preah Khan.  This is a huge overlooked temple that is one of my favorites.  If you go when it is raining, you will think that you've entered another world.  
  • Buy a red wool "bracelet" from an old woman.  It will give you protection when you decide to climb up some of the steeper temples such as Ta Keo.  
  • If it's your first time in Cambodia, hire a tour guide.  They will give you some insight into the fascinating history of the temples and also show you the best places to capture that great photo.  
  • Drink from a fresh coconut.  Not only is it cheaper than a coke but it is much, much better for you if you're sweating your ... ahem, extremities off.  
  • Go enjoy pub street.  Yes, I know, it isn't very "Cambodian" but it sure is a lot of fun and there are some good restaurants (Tigre de Papier, Molly Malone's, Grand Cafe, Khmer Kitchen, Picasso's--not all technically on pub street but close enough).  
  • If you can find yourself a local to take you to a karaoke bar, it is well worth it.  These are private rooms and even bad singers can sound remarkably good.  You can have yourself a female escort for a couple of bucks an hour.  Leave with her and it will be more.  (Keep in mind, prostitution in Cambodia is illegal).  
  • Go see Apsara dancing.  Intricate steady movements make this an interesting spectacle to watch.  There are a couple of free shows in town but I saw one combined with a buffet and it was a lot of fun.  
  • Support the tuk-tuk drivers.  For $2 they will take you all over town.  For $10 to $15 you can have a private driver for the whole day.  
  • If you want to take a picture of a monk with their very photogenic orange robes, ask them first.  They are just like regular people and will enjoy practicing their English.  
  • Take your shoes off before you enter someone's home.  
  • If you would like to help Cambodia, support the organizations that are well established and have a good record.  Here's one that you should help out:  The Savong Foundation.  I'm the CEO so perhaps I'm a little biased.  
  • Take the side trips out to Banteay Srei (the incredible "women's temple"), Kbal Spean (with its carved river beds) and especially the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen (the big waterfall is amazing!).
  • Check your money for any rips or tears.  In Cambodia, the main currency is American dollars and they won't take a damaged bill.  No one has ever explained to me why this is so.     
  • Buy yourself a local phone for about $20.  You can call your favorite tuk tuk driver to pick you up wherever you are.  

  • Don't buy trinkets from the children.  Don't even give them money.  You're just turning them into beggars and giving their parent(s) an excuse for the children NOT to go to school. 
  • If a Cambodian shows up unexpectedly while you're trampling around a temple and offers some "tour guide" information, politely decline his company or else he will expect a tip when he decides he has spent enough time with you.  If a policeman does the same thing, don't be shocked; they hardly make any money and kind tourists are a good source of income.  
  • Don't drink the damn tap water.  Or even brush your teeth in it unless you like EBD (explosive butt disease).  
  • Don't play with the stray dogs.  They may look cute but they can also bite unexpectedly and I'll bet you a couple thousand Riel that they aren't vaccinated against rabies.  The same goes for monkeys who can harbour even more dangerous diseases.  
  • Don't be rude to the vendors who are walking around trying to sell you a scarf or a carving.  They are trying to make a living and won't appreciate being barked at like a dog.  
  • Don't go visit an "orphanage" just to see smiling kids and take pictures of them.  If you want to help, make sure the orphan center is legit (keep in mind that even the legit orphan centers don't always have orphans.  Many of them have parents.) and donate money directly to the organization in charge. 
  • Don't let the poverty get you down.  Cambodia is a developing country and needs a lot of help but things are slowly changing for the better.   
  • Don't expect that Cambodians do things the way we do.  They don't.  (This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.)

So that's it.  I'm sure I'll think of more but I've got to go eat.  

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Winding down in Siem Reap

As you may have noticed (if you pay any attention to this blog), I have not posted lately.

There are two reasons for that:  I have been insanely busy trying to make some progress with the Savong Foundation and when I have some downtime, I prefer to sleep but also, I wrote a couple of posts on my phone which were promptly lost due to an app error.  Thank you Blogpress! 

One of my posts was about Cambodian Karaoke and I'll have to go back and re-write it since the experience was so unique.  But not tonight.  Maybe when I get back home which will be in about four days.

Of course the time here has gone by very quickly and quite frankly, it has been a roller coaster.  There are days when I think everything is going well and there are definitely days when I think everything is crashing around me.  Tonight I'm in a good mood because everything went well today.  We started the day early and bought a couple of more things for the student center but most of the day was spent interviewing the eight students (out of ten) who will call the center their home.

One by one, we talked to the students about their families, their experiences at the orphan center (where they previously lived), their school lives and their dreams for the future.  All of them want to go to university (three of them are there already) and they have big plans.  The opportunities that they have been given are so enormously appreciated.  If it weren't for the work of Savong (and his very extended network of donors), most of these kids would be leading very dead-end lives in very menial jobs.  I  am thrilled and excited to be a part of their journey.

But OH MY GOD, it has been challenging.  The Cambodian culture is very different from the one in which I grew up and it takes a complete mind bend to understand how they do some of the things they do.  This trip was all about getting information and really looking at things from a different perspective because to help a culture, you really need to understand it.  For example, in Western Society there would be no way that teenage boys would sleep together in one bed and so a dormitory in the United States would provide a bed for each teenager.  Over here, it's okay (and preferable?) for a couple of boys to sleep together so there is no need to buy extra beds because they will be wasted.   And getting the right answer over here depends on how you ask the question.  You WON'T get the information you need unless you phrase the question very carefully and even then, don't expect to find out everything.

But Cambodia is not the US and we can't expect them to do things OUR way.  Americans are in love with efficiency and organization and structure but Cambodia --well, they're not but that's okay.  We just have to bend with the wind if we want to continue working over here because banging our head against the wall is very bloody and really not at all productive.

So tonight, I'm sitting here listening to the sound of the tuk-tuks and the general hum of a very busy street outside my guesthouse.  Eddie and I don't have a lot of plans for tonight.  We may go to Picasso's which is a very American (or possibly British) style tapas bar down in the busy area of town known as Pub street.  For lunch, we had macerated chicken "porridge" from a street vendor (which may haunt me tomorrow when I see what comes out of my ass) so I don't feel too bad about having a little slice of home this evening. 

Cambodia--what a strange, wonderful, frustrating, sad and happy place.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday night in Siem Reap

It's not all about the temples and improving people's lives ...

YouTube Video

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Samdech Tep Vong,Siem Reap,Cambodia

Lunch in Cambodia

When you order chicken in Cambodia, you get all the chicken including the damn feet.

We had lunch today in a hut overlooking a muddy river. I always take the safest route and I ordered noodles which are usually fail-safe. Eddie ordered roasted chicken so he shouldn't have been surprised when the amputated appendages arrived. They are apparently quite delicious but I wouldn't know--I'm just not that adventurous.

Of course I'm not going to miss out on a good photo-op!

I also refuse to eat tarantulas and other assorted insects which are also eaten in this country.

Eating pizza on pubstreet is sometimes as risky as I want to get.

Posted using BlogPress from
my iPhone

The crazy chaos of Siem Reap, Cambodia

Today, I'm celebrating three days of solid bowel movements.  That's quite an accomplishment considering some of the crap that I've eaten since I first stepped on Cambodian soil a couple of days ago.

The flight from Los Angeles to Siem Reap went by much better than expected.  Korean Air has really great service and I feel far more comfortable flying half way across the world in one of their planes than flying in a cramped seat on one of our domestic airlines.  And Korean Air has really hot fly attendants--I think it is a job requirement to look really pretty in a tight fitting size O dress.  Safety is my biggest priority, of course, and I made it into Cambodia in one piece.  Very tired after 18 hours of flying but very safe.

The day doesn't begin slowly and easily in Siem Reap, it gets ripped wide open.  I woke up the first morning to the sound of honking cars, screaming kids and barking dogs.  My friend and I are staying at the Seven Candles Guesthouse (where we have stayed for the past three visits) and it's always a treat to stay with Ponheary Ly and her gracious family.  There are plenty of places to stay in this town but my vote goes to this guesthouse where you feel like you're a relative visiting from out of town.  Four generations of Ponheary's family live in this house and you will not be disappointed by the warm and friendly ambience.  The location is on Wat Bo road providing easy access to the downtown area.  Give a tuktuk driver a buck or so and you'll be there in a couple of minutes.  As an added bonus, if you stay at the Seven Candles, you are helping to support a very worthwhile charity called the Ponheary Ly Foundation (organized by Lori Carlson, an American) which provides clothes and supplies to children so that they can attend school.  And school is the answer--at least that is what their tshirt says.

But did I mention that there is another charity that needs support?  The Savong Foundation???

The main reason why I'm here is to do work for my charity, the aforementioned Savong Foundation (  Today, we met with our fearless leader, Savong, and discussed some of the plan for the coming two weeks.  There is sooooo much I would like to accomplish that I worry that I won't get everything done .... but I'm optimistic at this point.  The main focus will be to see what is needed to get the Savong Student Center up and running.  This is a home for the older children so that they can attend a better school in Siem Reap.  Unfortunately, we are short on the funds needed to get this project completed (the building is there but the students aren't) so a lot of our discussions will be about the cost of ongoing support and how we can raise the necessary funds.  Savong has accomplished an incredible amount so far so I have no doubt our collaborative efforts will eventually result in success.

And now, the sun is getting lower in the sky.  It's a beautiful sunset once again (similar to the one I witnessed on top of the Pre Rup temple last evening) and I'm already thinking about what's on the dinner menu for tonight.  I'm listening to the hum of the trucks and the cars outside--the noise hasn't really died down yet--and the air is cool and comfortable.  It's going to be a good night.