Friday, January 23, 2009

6 (Christine W.)

Battambang Day 1

Bus Ride to Battambang
The bus ride from Siem Reap to Battambang is not a smooth one. Through classes at MIIS we have learned about the lack of sufficient infrastructure in developing countries, but nothing illustrates the need for better roads than a 5.5 hour journey spent in the back of a cramped bus on an unpaved road that may very well predate Angkor Wat. Having a small bladder and zero stops along the way really drives it all home. During the rainy season, many Cambodian roads take a beating-potholes and construction zones are commonplace, as are wandering cows. In any case, “suboptimal” was the word of the day. However, I did appreciate the bus ride for the fact that it gave us a moving portrait of the Cambodian countryside. I loved seeing the water buffalo and rice paddies, along with occasional strips of road lined with huts on stilts. The economic poverty of the Cambodia is obvious, but the country is rich in beauty.

Dinner was at a local Khmer restaurant called “Cold Night,” a very ironic name. The restaurant was very tropical looking, and had a parrot in a cage that spoke Khmer. There was talk of freeing the parrot, but that never happened. I ordered a spicy green mango salad marinated in garlic dressing with dried salted fish that just made my life better. I was a bit hesitant to try anything too fishy at the beginning of this trip, but fish is really a (delicious) staple here, along with rice, noodles, and fresh fruit. We always eat until we are stuffed to the brim, but the food doesn’t leave you feeling heavy or uncomfortable.

5 (Christine W.)

Siem Reap, Day 2

More Angkor Wat
On our second Day in Siem Reap, we visited four more temple sites of the breathtaking Angkor Wat, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This undertaking sounds benign enough, but the sheer size of this temple complex is enough to exhaust the hardiest of travelers. Each of the temples had its own characteristics and idiosyncrasies. They are giant stone structures devoted to various Hindu gods that date back to the 9-13 centuries. A couple of temples are surrounded by beautiful canals strewn with water lilies, while others have merged with nearby trees whose monstrous roots crawl in and out of the stone walls. I even got to ride to the first temple on an elephant, which took about 20 minutes. I felt like Indiana Jones. There are also vendors galore who line the temple entrances with every kind of souvenir a tourist might want. We stopped in an open coffee stand at one point for a pick-me-up. Nescafe is very popular, and Cambodians like their coffee STRONG. The server brought out condensed milk to pour into the coffee, which is also a common practice. It was at the site of the first temple we visited where I had one of the sweetest, strongest cups of coffee I’ve ever ingested and discovered that a tablespoon of condensed milk goes a long way indeed.

Cambodian Dance Performance
After our day of temple exploration, we went to a traditional Cambodian dance performance, which included a delicious buffet. The costumes for the dance were so colorful and warm, and the music was great, but of course the food stole the show for me. I am rarely in such a frenzied state of culinary ecstasy than I am on this trip. If I had the time I could easily create another blog devoted entirely to Cambodian food. But speaking of time and food, I am starving and there are an infinite number of possibilities calling to me, so this is where I will stop.

To make a long story short.... well kinda

Since this is the first post I have written since the start of this course, I would like to say this trip has far exceeded my expectations. I knew at first that this course would be an amazing experience that I would never forget, but it has also opened my eyes to new thoughts and ideas that I was not expecting. I am extremely appreciative of the hard work and planning that Pushpa has put into this course to make it the incredible experience it has been this far.

Thailand was a great experience, and learning about the Southern Thailand conflict and the border region has been very interesting. I went to Thailand early and visited the island of Phuket which is very diverse. The influx of immigrants into Thailand is huge, and meeting with a local NGO (The Center of the Protection of Child Rights - CPCR) was a great experience. We learned about the problem of Human Trafficking into Thailand from neighboring countries which are not as developed, and the problem of people coming into Thailand to work on the boats to generate a minimal income. I found this problem to be similar to the immigration problem in the United States, and the influx of Hispanics into our country to try and make a better life. While some of these people coming into Thailand are coming to find a better life and a higher income, they are significantly abused and taken advantage of. The regulation of these migrants is difficult, and the harsh working conditions and low wages are a violation of their rights. CPCR is working to teach these people their rights and reintegrate them back into their own society. I was interested to see how effective this program was, and if the migrants have ever been repeated offenders like we see so much in the United States. The CPCR is solely working in Thailand and attempting to reintegrate the workers back into their own country. However, I believe it might be beneficial to increase this organization into the neighboring countries so that these migrants would be able to participate in this organization in their home country which could smooth the process of the reintegration process easier.

Going onto Cambodia was a very different experience. The difference in the development of the country is extreme, and obvious how people could try to go to Thailand for better opportunities. Siem Reap was incredible! The temples of Angkor Wat were so much more than I ever expected. The vast amount of different temples is impossible to see in one day, but the couple that we visited were truly something I will never forget. We woke up early one morning to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat and heard a story from someone who survived the Khmer Rouge. It difficult for this person to explain the story which was extremely touching and I was very grateful to be able to hear it directly from a survivor, who was still fearful that the Khmer Rouge could come back to power. This fear is very troubling to me, and made me wonder if that could be one reason why there is a lack of education about the Khmer Rouge. We learned so much about the great Angkor period and the vastness of this great country during those times. I wonder though if the lack of teaching the children of Cambodia about these experiences is to prevent the spread of this fear that the Khmer Rouge could come back.

The Bus ride to Battambang which is a small province in Cambodia was definitely a bumpy ride. We visited two schools in the outskirts of the city of Battambang which were very different from each other. The first school we visited, which is also an HIV/AIDS refuge called Thean Thor means Acts of Compassion. This school was extremely touching mainly due to the happiness of all the children there. One of the teachers there explained how some of these children will seem incredibly happy, but once you get to know them you see the problems of extreme poverty that they suffer from. I found that the children here, as well as almost all the people of Cambodia are incredibly grateful for what they have, and never take anything for granted. I've seen children play with things as simple as their own flip-flops and how much fun they make of them. It is so different coming from a developed country and seeing children already wanting everything and anything they can get their hands on, while here it seems as though the children make the best of what they have. I found this to be extremely touching and made me think of life differently, and how that sometimes you need to just make the best of what you have or of your situation and just experience life for what it is.

The second school we visited was the Friends Economic Development Association (FEDA) which was much larger than Thean Thor and consisted of about 800+ students. A few volunteers just arrived at this organization the day before to start a program to develop jobs for people living in this rural community and preventing the migration of people from these rural areas into the bigger cities. They are planning on creating a method of transportation from this rural community to the city by kayak. This will help create jobs for the people of this community and hopefully improve their standard of living. I also feel it is important to preserve their culture living in the rural areas of the country and prevent a migration of people into the city. I found this to be a great thing for someone to come and help develop and will hopefully be a great success!

I've obviously gone on forever and there was so much more I haven't included, but I am committed to writing more on a regular basis so things will be shorter and hopefully even sweeter!


Over the past few days, our class has traveled from the city to the country and back to the city again. The ride itself provides enough to write several pages on, but while in Battambang, we were able to interact with Cambodian children from the Tean Thon children's clinic and FEDA. This was a very touching experience. Some of my classmates have already elaborated on what we were doing there, so I will add only what touched me the most...
Basically, these children were subsisting on close to nothing, some with HIV or AIDS, and yet they were ten times more grateful and happy than most other children I've met in my life. I've learned through their eyes that poverty, in a conceptual sense, is relative- these children do not see themselves as poor, because everyone around them is in a similar situation. Instead, they count their blessings and stay in the present, focusing on what they can actually do something about (e.g. getting enough food for the day). Coming from a wealthier western society, we partly expected them to be sad, resentful, or at least not as energetic in comparison, but we quickly came to realize they had found more joy in life than most of us who never have to face those worries. They were so excited when we came to help put temporary tattoos on their arm and to talk about how old they were, what their name was, and what sport they like to play, etc. Afterwards, in appreciation for our visit, the children gave us a mini concert, singing Celine Dion's "My heart will go on." This made me laugh and tear-up all at the same time and no words can really describe that.
Additionally, I also noticed a cultural version of HIV treatment, which to any western medical doctor sounds absurd. They have shelves full of roots and other plants, labeled "anti-vomit," "anti-pyretic," etc. Apparently, these are used in conjunction with the AIDS anti-retroviral medication to overcome cultural barriers to administering medicine. I found this to be very interesting, because culture plays a major role in Cambodian HIV/AIDS treatment not only in terms of giving out medication but in overcoming social stigmas as well. The man who was running the clinic told us that most of the time HIV/AIDS victims are severely discriminated against- no one buys their products, hires them, or associates with these individuals. So part of his way of helping these victims has been incorporating the monks (which are highly revered in Cambodian society) in AIDS education and giving the victims skill-sets like sewing.
After lunch, we visited the FEDA facility. After giving out supplies, Adam and I were allowed to help teach english in one of the beginners' class. Even though we were put on the spot, I think we made it fun and interesting for the children- we played Bingo, drew pictures to associate words, and counted. At least I thoroughly enjoyed myself...
Lastly, I will briefly explain a moving experience which took place in Angkor Wat. We had gotten up at the break of dawn that day to see the sunrise over the main temple and it turned into something I will never forget- We were able to hear from a survivor of the Khmer Rouge period and all that he lived through. He never found out what happened to his father, watched infants be thrown into the air and shot, almost starved to death in which his joints became bigger than his limbs, and gave us other gruesome depictions of life in that era. Then after living through all of that, his house burned down and he lost everything once more. This man is an inspiration who does not give himself enough credit because despite all of that, he is still incredibly grateful, humble, and has found inner peace- "Peace comes through forgiveness." If only everyone could be as wise as him...

4 (Christine W.)

Cambodia – Siem Reap, Day 1

We flew to Cambodia from Bangkok, and immediately I was struck by how rural Siem Reap seemed compared to the frenetic city of Bangkok. We checked into our very charming cabana-esque hotel, and then went to an artisan’s guild where blind and deaf people can learn to carve wood, paint silk, and make other silk products. This is a program that lasts 6 months to a year, and after the students have been trained, they sell their wares in markets. It was really neat to see the way they make their pieces, but my favorite part of that experience, by far, was the gift shop.

Temple Sunset
In the evening we climbed up a mountain to watch the sunset at one of the temples in Angkor Wat, a temple complex built by Khmer kings during the time of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 13th century. This temple complex is massive, covering miles of temples devoted to Hindu gods. A combination of animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism influence Cambodian religion, though Buddhism is practiced more widely than Hinduism. I asked our guide whether she knew of any other countries that had this dual influence, but she said she didn't know.
During the period of the Angkor Empire, Cambodia was very powerful and the empire included the majority of Southeast Asia. This glorious history contrasts shockingly with the post-colonial period and the Khmer Rouge genocide, and throughout the history following Angkor Cambodians have revisited its grandeur. The Khmer Rouge gave Cambodians hope that they would achieve a glory similar to that of Angkor, and Angkor history is taught more than the history of Cambodia’s post-colonial period in most schools.

A Khmer Story
Climbing the mountain to the temple was satisfying, as was struggling up its steep narrow steps to get a panorama of the lush Cambodian countryside. However, the most meaningful part of the trip for me was talking to someone that our group met at the temple. It is cliché to say, but he really did have a twinkle in his eye and a kind smile. He told me about his life during the Khmer Rouge era, which he survived through a fluke. He was born in 1958, which made him 17-23 years old during the time of the Khmer Rouge, and was forced to labor in the fields, becoming a human ghost. He said that Cambodia was a “country of girls” due to the emaciation caused by starvation. He shared with me that the Khmer Rouge killed his father and brothers. His father approached him when the Khmer Rouge came, and told him that he would now be the head of the household. His background comprised a family of academics, which the Khmer Rouge especially targeted. We read in one article that after the genocide, only 3 PhD’s were left in all of Cambodia. Currently the lack of educated people greatly affects Cambodian society, and the need for more schooling is exceptional.

I tried to remain “neutral” while asking this man questions about his life during the era, and ask in such a way that would not elicit a “formula story.” In the two days of class prior to the trip we learned that the Cambodians who survived the genocide now have a structure for understanding and retelling the tragedy in a way that is not so raw and painful as it would be without the formula for their narrative. This man does not have a unique story, however, there was really nothing that seemed formulaic or sterile in the way he told it. When he said that his mother died of a broken heart through barely contained tears, all I could register was the profound sadness in his eyes. I understand that conflict resolution requires thinking more deeply about individual stories, contextualizing them, and using theories to understand how they connect to the bigger picture. I must admit that I was not thinking of a single theory as I stood talking to this man with such a gentle soul tell me about how he rebuilt his life after all of the love that he had previously known was systematically destroyed during the time of the Khmer Rouge.

After pausing to watch the sun disappear behind the horizon, I asked this man whether he had heard of any of the books we had read in our class, particularly First they Killed My Father. I was curious about his reaction to this book because apparently it was deeply criticized in Cambodia. His face grew stony and he said that books, movies, and documentaries fail to cover the immense tragedy that occurred. He said that even The Killing Fields, which I found hard to watch, does not do justice to the genocide. I was surprised at how forthcoming he was about answering any questions I had, because many Cambodians do not openly talk about this time in history. During the Khmer Rouge era, he forgot how to smile and had to relearn this after the Pol Pot regime fell. He said that a general sense of relief did not even begin to occur in Cambodia until 1998, when Pol Pot died. The most awful part for him is not knowing now who were former members of the Khmer Rouge. They blended back into society after they had committed so many atrocities, and a sense of fear pervades the Cambodian psyche. The fact that Khmers killed Khmers during the Pol Pot era adds even more complexity to the conflict, and survivors of the genocide do not know who to be angry with or who to forgive.

Symbolism in Cambodian Culture

This morning we had an incredible briefing at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. So very many questions we have been pondering were aired and so many bridges between concepts were built. Understanding Cambodian culture, history, and politics requires an immense amount of layered and interconnected information. Religious transitions (from Animism to Hinduism to Buddhism to fledgling Christianity), Angkor heritage, cultural identity, regional conflict between nations, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, historic hatred and friendship, and of course clandestine or blatant short-term political support pouring in from the US, UK, China, Russia, Australia, the is imperative to consider all of these factors when simply trying to conceptualize why the average Cambodian feels and thinks the way he/she does.

One very important moment in the briefing was about the importance of symbolism to Cambodian people. We in Western countries defer constantly to the power of honest discussion and the verbal apology in reconciliation efforts, but here this strategy applies less. Cambodians appreciate and recognize the symbols of forgiveness much more readily than they do for the words describing it. We were told of many personal examples in which incredibly sensitive community conflicts were put to rest after never having been discussed or examined, but rather by simple gestures of inclusion or changed behavior. We also learned that our obsession with using "sorry" has no counterpart here in Cambodia. A parent will never apologize to their child and someone of a status greater than somenone else would also never employ the sentiment. They do not have to and are not expected to due to their elevated position in society.

This type of cultural understanding is imperative in our peacebuilding investigations. Being reminded that our perceptions and methodologies are distinctly our own, and not reflected in all or even many cultures, is true to our educational paths. Thank you to the Center for an amazing day!
We visited the dam at Battambang, which was built by the Khmer people during the Khmer Rouge. It was about an hour and half away from our hotel by bus because most of the road was so torn up from carts, tractors and other vehicles. The bridge had an chilling feeling to it. Knowing that thousands of people had died building it and that anyone in the village or near by villages had probably built it if they looked over 30 years old didn't sit well with me.

The children were excited and curious to see us. They would follow us around as we looked at the dam and would whisper and laugh if we looked back to see what they were up to. We learned that they were so far from the city that it was very hard for them to get pens and pencils. We gave all the pens that we had on us to the children and they were so happy. They drew on themselves and when we gave them paper, they drew pictures and wrote in Khmer. It was really awesome to see kids that happy.