During this season, rainfall in China, Laos and N Vietnam fills the rivers that move out through the flood plain of Cambodia and down into the sea. This annually brings needed water for rice cultivation, replenishes fish stocks and deposits rich soil, benefiting the roughly 85% of the population of Cambodia who live as rural subsistence rice farmers. The weather in Cambodia fluctuates from not enough water during the drought season to quite a lot of water during the rainy season. This year, there is too much water. The rice crops are drowning and many villages and towns are flooded.

This is what we went home to.

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People are coping with the water level, using boats and wading as we are. Moving in with family, as some of our neighbors have. I am in awe in the face of the grace, good humor and resourcefulness I witness. But our landlord tells us that 25 children have drowned and people are having moto crashes when the water covers the roads at night. Poisonous snakes are biting folks.

These immediate harms will be accompanied by water-borne illness if people don’t have access to clean drinking water. The loss of thousands of hectares of rice crop at a time when world food prices are rising will place hungry rural families at even more risk. The long term consequences of this flooding, should it last more than a few days, will roll out slowly and probably very quietly since it will effect mostly people without access to the international press. The rural poor population of Cambodia goes largely unnoticed even by its own government.

I am struck by the fact that some people can get away when disasters strike and other don’t have the resources to get out of the way. Vulnerable people are stuck in harms way, and as Paul Farmer says we really need to redefine violence and terrorism – the ideas that so frighten and mesmerize us these days. Millions upon millions of poor and vulnerable people face slow moving terrorism constantly. They will not survive a small disaster that causes a food shortage or a sanitation problem that ends in an infection. If something goes wrong for me, I will be put in a taxi and sent to the expensive international standard clinics in Phnom Penh. I’m not invulnerable, there are snakes in the water outside my door, but I certainly have resources.

You should go get Farmer’s book, Pathologies of Power, it’s very helpful.

temples and floods

Chris and Brianna’s visit fits fairly neatly into thirds. The first was at the beach, the second in Prey Veng, with a sobering visit to the Tol Slang Prison memorial in Phnom Penh on the way. The third was our adventures in Seim Reap and Battambang, a trip punctuated by buses, plan changes, and water, water and more water. Water from above, water from below. But in between, there was the beauty of the Angkor Wat complex, Angkor Tom with the Bayon temple, and Ta Phram’s juxtaposition of magnificent trees tangled with the centuries old beautifully carved structures. There were also mad tuk-tuk rides through deep water, relaxing meals and the drama of a city filling with water as the river flooded into it.

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local history

We needed to get back to work after our time on the island, so we left Chris and Brianna to their own adventures in Kampong Saum and headed back to Phnom Penh, then met up a few days later to take them home to Prey Veng. They took up the challenge of a small provincial town, working on learning Khmer words, biking wherever they needed to go, shopping in the market and for the most part, fending for themselves. I will never forget the day we spent at Ba Phnom with Sam Ang, visiting the scenes of his childhood and hearing his very personal history of rural Cambodia over the past 50 years.

We had two memorable dinners. The first at the BBQ down the street, where the kids proved they had nerves of steel. We ate on wooden platforms out over the flooded Mekong River cooking our own food on a flaming iron grill on the table, surrounded by boiling oil. There was thunder and lightening growling and flashing, and then sadly someone looked up and saw that the ceiling of the coconut palm roof was covered with large spiders. It was bracing! Thunder, lightening, fire, water, boiling oil and spiders.

The next night, Chris and Brianna produced the most delicious macaroni and cheese. They had brought the necessary cheeses and other ingredients from Phnom Penh and created a masterpiece using Daphne and Ryan’s oven. We invited the Fowlers, Chantet, Mok and Sayha, and the N American enjoyed the comfort food while the Cambodians enjoyed the exotic flavor of cheese. Chantet told stories about the food he ate during his 3 years in Moscow and how much he missed rice. Our conversation turned to the P’chum Ben holiday and ghost stories. We told N American tales of the strange and mysterious while our Khmer friends filled us in on the unexplainable and creepy stories they knew. And then, Chris and Brianna had to ride home to their hotel in the dark on their bikes. And Prey Veng is really dark after about 7 o’clock at night!

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Chris and Brianna arrive in Cambodia

Chris and Briana flew in to Phnom Penh late on the night before my birthday – our first visitors and a wonderful birthday present! We went straight down to Kampong Saum the next morning, 4 hours on the bus, to introduce these NW-ers to the idea of a warm sea. What we got was a total water-world experience. Warm rain, warm sea, warm humidity – it seemed like we swam, walked, hiked and breathed in water for the next few days. Fortunately, we had dry places to sleep, good food and lots of time to talk together. Chris and Brianna are true adventurers.

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This is an old post that I somehow deleted early on – these things are a mystery to me – I’m planning a trip back down to Sihanoukville to visit a small, artist run NGO that hosts a community center open to kids who have left formal schooling. More on that later when I know more. Scheduling the trip has made me homesick for the beach – nearly 6 months away from salt water is hard on this coastal girl.

(text of old post below: Dec. 2010)
Reflections on being on the beach:
The beaches are lovely here, no surf to speak of, small tides, very clear, warm water and fine, light gold sand, packed hard with long fairly shallow depths – you can walk out a long way, or just float. We bought flippers and snorkel sets with mom and dad’s Christmas money and yesterday went out on a snorkel cruise – three islands and lunch, as I’ve done now in several parts of the world. There are impressive coral reefs and it was awe inspiring but I have to admit that I get a little nervous. I’m too wary – what all is living in those depths below and in between the coral? And I worry about hitting the coral with my feet as the water moves around, up and down. There were fantastic shapes, though. I didn’t see many fish but others did. Getting back in the boat is hard for me now – I must get stronger! It was a wooden boat, like a long almost canoe hull but 20 feet long and wider made of very heavy wood. The hull is pointed and the sides are pretty high out of the water. Our boatman (he owned the boat and offered these tours through a little restaurant) put a swim-ladder off the side of the boat and I could pull myself up and get a foot on it and start to pull myself out of the water, but it would pull the boat over then to the side and make the climb undercut! Then, of course, if someone came over to give me a hand, it weighted the boat even more. I managed to get in and out with as much grace and good humor as I could but I don’t feel that I appreciated my youth the way I should have!

On the boat with us was a man and his son, a sort of free-spirit, the kind of man who has maybe lost touch with reality in a way. Older than me, with a little boy around 9. Also a German man, alone, in his early 30’s, who had been living in Phnom Penh for the past 7 years. We got to talking and comparing how we all came to be here. The man and his son are from Colorado, he had arranged to travel with the boy for 3 months in the winter. He’s homeschooling him (although dad couldn’t remember what a vowel was, the boy was reading at an advanced level so maybe he’ll be fine.) We all agreed that travel is a wonderful education – blah blah blah. I asked him how he managed to swing it financially, he said that he works in construction and has some houses he can rent, there’s not a lot of work right now with the economy as it is so it worked out that they could live cheaper here in Cambodia even with the plane flights. You certainly can live the dream here – $8 beach bungalows are very nice, $3 dinners of fresh grilled fish, 50 cent draft beer, for goodness sake. $6 massages, a little extra for “happy ending” say some signs. Mostly it’s just women (why always women? one doesn’t bother asking) walking up and down the beach offering massages. Michael has had a beach massage several times now – he figures he’s safe from negotiating about “happy ending” as long as he’s out on the beach in plain sight. And I don’t mean to suggest that all the beach masseuses are prostitutes, not at all. Much of the small-vendor business is body services – manicure, pedicure, massage, even plucking the hairs on your legs. It makes sense because there’s little overhead in this type of vending as opposed to buying and reselling. I doubt that the primarily women and teenagers making money this way have enough money to invest in any kind of inventory. It is a culture where open comments about physical appearance is just fine, so there are many hilarious conversations to overhear and participate in. “Your legs are so hairy” “Your skin is so white.”

There’s even what appears to be, and I’ve been told is true, options to have marijuana in dishes you order, again for a little extra. For example, at the Happy Herb Pizza, where we had excellent fish one night, the menu says (in green) that “happy pizza” is an additional 50 cents, extra happy is a bit more. Down the way is a restaurant called Ecstatic Pizza, one can only imagine. Several places offer “happy pizza” and “happy shakes” for extra – always written in green. Seems unbelievable but I’ve been told it’s true. As are the signs outside some guest houses that prohibit heavy drugs and hand grenades.

The restaurants on the beach are provisional shelters with a host of lounge chairs and umbrellas out on the sand. As wealthy people or companies with clout (usually with ties to politicians or from wealthy Asian neighboring countries) claim the land, bulldozers mow them down and move them out of the way for what it is anticipated will be big, high priced resorts that will bring in the rich Asian tourist market. In truth, any provable ownership of the land is rare – most people lived on the land for generations, then the French had their time of taking land and giving land, followed by others and finally the Khmer Rouge erased all records and moved people all over the country to the extent that even in Phnom Penh, very few people ever got their houses back, even if they did eventually find their way back home they would find someone as desperate as them living in their house. Our teacher, Socheat, tells how sometimes people would welcome the owners back, hoping that they would lead them to any wealth they’d hidden in the house before they left. Often, people would find that whatever they’d hidden or buried was long gone.

He told us that as the Khmer Rouge gathered power, his father slept with his money under his pillow, hoping to save it for the family. The regime developed different criteria for who would be killed all the time – new proofs that you were an intellectual or had been part of the preceding government. Rumors flew, his father carefully listened to a hidden radio with international news. Finally, money became too dangerous so one night his father tied all the family’s money to a rock and asked Socheat to take it out into the river and sink it. We said – to save it? How could he hope to find it again? Socheat said, no, it was too dangerous to have it, it had to be gone. Socheat was about 8. Families were all driven out of Phnom Penh and forcibly separated from each other. Married couples were forced to re-marry others – which brought even more chaos after the regime fell – children had been born, whose were they? Some chose to stay in the new relationships, some tried to find their other spouse – imagine, add that to the question of who owns the land and the houses? (a good film on this is “New Years Baby.” ) Through all these years in the children’s work camp, Socheat was regularly called in and questioned about his father. He would be told that if he would admit that his father had been associated with Lon Nol’s gov’t or had been a teacher he would be given some food. It’s hard to know what to say when told these things – Socheat – how on earth did you survive that as a little boy? Do you have nightmares? Wow, man, what a drag. He has been very generous with us in talking about what he remembers and answering our questions. I am grateful. I am wary of pushing too far – so, did you ever tell them anything because you were so hungry? Did your little brother? I do know that he finally found his way home years later. His house had been taken over by someone else, but he found a brother and his father. One thing he’s told us several times now is – “and I was 12 years old and I couldn’t read or write, can you imagine what that felt like?”
When schools under the Vietnamese occupation started to function again, there was more chaos because older children like Socheat were deemed too old to start school, so what did a smart father do? (and by all accounts, Socheat’s father was a very smart man) He changed Socheat’s birthday – just made him 5 years younger. He was a little big, but it worked. Evidently, many people did this. He says that most people his age have two birth-years, the official one makes them about 5 years younger – and he laughs.
So, the land around these beautiful beaches is being given to the highest bidders. If the dreams of the developers pay off, there will be huge, expensive resorts that own the beaches, like one we drove past in a tuk-tuk last night on our way to dinner. It’s the only one for the time being, it owns what the guidebooks count as the prettiest beach in the area and you can’t use it without being a guest or paying a fee. Right now, the kids serving food in the beach shacks on the still rather anarchic beaches make around $30 per month, with room and board provided at the shack. Will these new, upscale resorts provide better jobs? The small, entrepreneurial lifestyles will not likely fit in – the beach vendors, the man who took us snorkeling in his wooden boat yesterday and took such loving care of his remarkable, possibly hand-made diesel engine. But, times change. What is good development? All is not well in Sihanoukville now with raw sewage going directly into the sea. Will the development be planned in some way?
Our friend from Colorado and his son are living off the fat of a very thin land, but they’re transferring money from a wealthy country directly into the hands of poor people running small businesses in Cambodia. They’re living respectfully with the culture, not exploiting folks as the ongoing sex-tourism does.
The German man with us on the boat is a camera man. He’s chosen to live and work in Phnom Penh for the last 7 years because of the lifestyle, he says. He makes far less money but it’s much cheaper to live. He doesn’t work very often, but makes enough when he does to fund a good life. He shoots films for NGO’s, TV dramas whatever comes his way. The equipment is several generations older than what’s common currency in Europe/N. America, no HD. Any equipment repairs have to go to Thailand or further. He told us of one man he knew who was making a film and ended up purchasing all the film available in the city, finally had to finish the piece in an old format.
People who have chosen to step out of their worlds into an “easier” life? A life where, at any rate, money is available and purchasing and its privileges are theirs in a way they aren’t at home. Possible because of the differences between our economies? Our histories?
People are poor here, many, perhaps most are desperately poor. Some are fabulously rich. It’s a system in which there are few laws to regulate development in any way. If you have the means and the connections, you don’t have to worry about ecological concerns or land rights or any barriers to building your empire. I can’t help but feel that Ayn Rand would heartily approve of this system. If you are poor, things are pretty bleak. Your children can’t get an education, you likely don’t own or control any land, you do what you can find to do to feed yourself and your family. These people can’t go to the countries where there’s money, no one will give them visas and they could never scrape up that kind of airfare. They send their children to Thailand as migrant farm workers as soon as they’re strong enough, their daughters to garment factories or to questionable “job opportunities” in Malaysia. So – my friends from Colorado and Germany come and spend their money here. Why does the inequity make me uncomfortable? Because now it’s right, smack in my face? When I’m in Seattle I know it’s there – all those desperate people are there – but they aren’t crawling toward me over the sand with their missing feet, begging me for money to eat, while I sit and study Khmer – or read my excellent book on comparative ideologies.

UNICEF piece on education and girls in Cambodia



For Cambodian girls, education is antidote to poverty and sexual exploitation

Bung Preah Commune, Prey Veng Province, Cambodia, 9 August 2005 – Fifteen-year-old Seng Srey Mach had to drop out of school for two years to work in the fields when her mother was ill and too weak to work. For a girl who always was first in class, not going to school was devastating. “I used to cry when I saw my friends on their way to school,” Seng Srey says.