I was delusional in Siem Reap. My self-medication story.

The year was 2015 and I had come down with a terrible stomach bug or sickness. Probably triggered by dehydration. I was staying in a small guest house. On the tuesday night I went to bed at 9:00pm and I never woke up until 9:00 am, not 12 hours later: a full 36 hours later.  I still felt groggy, and I needed some kind of suitable medication, so I got dressed, went downstairs on wobbly legs, and found a tuk-tuk to take me to a Pharmacy.

Pharmacy Siem Reap

I didn’t speak Khmer and the staff were having trouble with my Kiwi accent. The answer was to let me make my own selection. I never expected the results.

When I went in the three staff were stocking the shelves and chatting lightly.  One of the young women came to the counter and asked if she could help.  I tried explaining about my upset stomach but also my headaches and the alarming 36 hour blackout.  In my rambling kiwi accent however, I probably sounded drunk, I couldn’t convey what sort of medication might help.  What did she suggest?

The assistant kindly invited me around to her side of the counter and gave me the freedom to find the medication that I needed. There was a whole wall of unfamiliar bottles and creams and boxes.  here’s where my problems multiplied.  I’d forgotten to bring my glasses.  The labels all looked like a blur.  I tried my best to make words from the fuzzy shapes.  I could see from the names that many prescription drugs were made in India, and reasoned that these were probably knock-offs of well proven western medicines.

I looked for anything that might relate to stomach, or head-aches or fever.  If you use Dr Google you’ll know the same feeling.  You start by typing in a brief symptom, a sniffle, and before you know it you’re scrolling through the awful possibility of leprosy or gangrene.

My fuzzy-eyesight obviously took me to these same uncertain places, right here in the pharmacy.  Still, after 20 minutes I felt I’d found two bottles of pills that would do the trick.  I paid the shop assistant and went by tuk-tuk back to the guest house.  I was dying for sleep once more so I took two of each type of tablet and drifted off.

Well 12 hours later I woke feeling very weird.  My stomach was settled but I felt, well, just out of sorts.  I felt – I can’t describe it – but somehow strange. An out-of-body feeling. What were those tablets I’d taken?

This time I put on my glasses. Bingo – one of the bottles contained tablets for the relief of upset stomachs.  Smart choice.  But the other bottle? Well it wasn’t what I expected and may well have caused my disorientation.  It was a bottle of female hormone tablets.

PS. Incidentally in 2017 the Cambodian Ministry of Health placed a ban on selling anti-biotics without a prescription.  It seems I was not the only one rocking up to a pharmacy and buying stuff without a prescription. The concern was raised by doctors that if the population kept using enough antibiotics, then the population would lose their resistance to serious infection: a case where less is better than too much.

For another true story from my Brush with Medicine files: click here.

For a local health issue see a report on Cambodia’s fight against smoking: click here .

 

 

 

 

 

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A rumination on dope in Cambodia

February 2019 - Police Raid

February – Police raid uncovers green harvest. Takeo province.

In my life I’ve visited jails only three times. Each time was to visit one or other friend who was serving time for marijuana possession. The crackdown on ganja continues and since 2017 almost 20,000 mostly young people have been imprisoned on similar charges – most to do with marijuana rather than harder drugs such as heroin. There are many facets to the story of cannabis in Cambodia.

One angle is the historic use of marijuana in Cambodia, mostly as a kind of chewing tobacco – I’ve been told how farmers would place some between their gum and their lip and would benefit from the stimulus. In cooking it was used as a herb.

But, despite one tourist blogger describing marijuana as ‘semi-legal’ for years it hasn’t actually been legal at all since 1961 (in line with an international treaty.) The law was first applied in 1992 when Cambodia was just opening up, but this remained mostly unenforced.  For many years a blind eye was turned to casual usage.

In this context we see the rise of the backpacker trail and the rise of the “Happy Pizza” in Cambodia.  By the early 2000s Happy Pizzas were served from small restaurants, many laced with cannabis, but others merely dining out on the reputation and allure of the real thing.

Backpacker word of mouth about leniency towards dope smoking soon spread. Word of mouth is powerful stuff, and it did not take long for Cambodia’s reputation to reach travellers who wanted a liberal place to visit.

To lift a few lines from the Cannabis Culture website:

Since Cambodia began opening up to tourists and foreign residents in 1992, this unique country has earned a stellar reputation for the availability, affordability and tolerance of marijuana. Grass is enjoyed openly in bars, restaurants and guesthouses all over Phnom Penh.

At a typical guesthouse you will almost always find community marijuana lying on the porch table. Scott, an English teacher living at a guesthouse, explains: “Marijuana is so cheap that it doesn’t make sense to be possessive. We just leave some on the table to save people the trouble of going to their rooms to get their stash.”

This reputation is still being pushed. A story on the fast growing and popular Culture Trip website goes under the headline: Why Phnom Penh, Cambodia is The New Marijuana Hotspot. That was published January 2018 – after the current crackdown had begun.

Or look up Trip Advisor. Says one tourist of a beach in Sihanoukville: “Beautiful beach and a paradise for weed smokers.”

The politics of marijuana are complex. Now it is being traded legally in many States of the USA, and now that possession is decriminalised is many nations, it is interesting that the Cambodian Government is meanwhile dialling up their war on drugs. They’re coming down hard on users, and further up the chain to the suppliers.

Example: recently I heard from a Cambodian, a non-user, who was picked up at a party along with 10 others; all young men. There had been dope smoked at the party, and back at the station, the policeman handling the case liberally used his baton – forcing confessions of usage or supply by cracking the skulls of the detainees.  One guy after another. Even those who confessed got a baton slammed into the side of their skulls. A paradise for these weed smokers.

And in the news this last month – at least as reported by the Cambodia News English, major raids have resulted in significant plantations being destroyed by police.

Takeo province: According to a preliminary report, 1,398 ganja trees were torched on a 979 square meters plantation in Chroeung commune, Bakong commune, Kirivong district, Takeo province on February 17, 2019.

The green fingered horticulturalists had already fled by the time the cops arrived. They are now being hunted by law enforcement.

The Cambodian government, which is working with leaders in the six Mekong countries (Cambodia, China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand) have agreed on a regional drug policy.  So the recent war on drugs is not isolated to Cambodia.

There appears to be a concern amongst SE Asian governments that the real problem is not actually about marijuana, but about organised crime in general. As best as anyone can guess, there’s a link between the supply and distribution of weed in Cambodia and the supply and delivery of harder, more addictive drugs.  Don’t confuse this with the “Gateway Drug” theory that posits that if you smoke dope, then you are more likely to try harder drugs. This has been debunked.

But at the supplier level there’s a nexus between dealing with soft drugs and harder stuff. The tuk tuk driver who offers you ganja is also in a position to offer something harder. Methamphetamine  perhaps.  That’s the bigger problem.

This report from the July 18th 2018 edition of This Week in Asia:

On New Year’s Day, [2018] Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a six-month crackdown on the drug scourge that he said had become an increasing grievance for the country’s people. His announcement came shortly after a state visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who in 2016 launched a violent anti-drugs campaign in his own country that went on to kill 7,000 people in seven months….Perhaps [it is] not surprising that Hun Sen, after the first spike in detentions in February, rushed to assure Cambodians that his campaign would not be bloody.

Doubts about the true effectiveness of the crackdown have been voiced widely.  On the one hand the high number of arrests has placed a strain on the prison system. On the other hand there are fears that the crackdown might potentially facilitate more police corruption.  And who pays for all of this?

Well, there have been serious suggestions that drug suspects should have their possessions sold by the state to fund more rehab centres.  Users pay?  Though remember, you go to jail as a suspect – and have yet to be proven guilty. Human Rights representatives have voiced concern about the plan.

It saddens me that so many young people have been swept up in police raids, and equally it bothers me that non-Cambodians are still talking of Cambodia as a drug paradise.  Those tuk-tuk drivers who offer you ganja, or something harder – are kept in business by tourists – and it is seldom the foreigners who pay the price. That said, in April last year the Australian owner of the Soul Train Reggae Bar was arrested for possession and she faces years in prison.

Personally I’m not interested in cannabis, I tried to inhale once, as a student, but the spliff that got passed to me was too soggy to inhale anything. So I’m a Bill-(But I didn’t inhale)-Clinton-in-reverse on this one.  I tried to inhale.

But it bothers me that perhaps through the interaction with the west, what had once been a simple herb has now become a black market business.  Where there’s money in something illegal then you get corruption, crime, and – ultimately – people who lose everything.

We can argue the merits of decriminalisation, (I’m all for it) rehabilitation (essential!), and whether or not cannabis is actually harmless (I personally think it is harmful to functions such as memory,) but park that to one side.

In the given situation of Cambodia today, I don’t see how cannabis usage by anyone is doing anything other than fuel a problem.  What do you think?

Click here for an account of one of my prison visits. – what was it like? Actually very moving.

Your comments and feedback are welcome.  Write me a note!

Google translate and the miracle baby

Mr Sotha

Mr Sothy and I were a perfect match. We misunderstood each other in perfect balance – thanks to some technological randomness from Google translate.

Most people have one or two tuk-tuk stories and in my case I feel the collective of tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap make a huge and posotive difference to the visitor’s experience of Cambodia. Recently I met a treasure of a tuk-tuk driver, Mr Sothy, who waited for me patiently while I was processed in the arrivals lounge out at the airport. I was late joining a queue and got beaten to the line by a tour party that had just arrived from Korea. My flight was late as it was and outside Mr Sothy must have waited at least two hours for me, and without complaint. If I was him I’d have been fuming.

To make amends I asked him if he’d be my regular driver over the next three weeks, and over that time our friendship grew, and so did our level of organisation. Each evening we planned the excursions for the next day; trying to streamline the pick-ups and deliveries we each needed to make around town.  Just getting things like photos developed, or getting business cards printed involved trips here and there

MR SOTHY AND ME

That’s Mr Sothy and me. Wonderful driver – this day we were sampling mango smoothies at Blue Pumpkin.

My Khmer is hopeless – I can say thank you, and I know several of the food groups such as chicken, fish or pork – but with languages I’m put in the shade by my wife who can speak in English, Finnish, Cantonese and can get around Italy and France with some of the dignity that cloth-eared tourists like me don’t deserve. For his part, Mr Sothy is still learning English, and on many occasions we’d draw maps in the dust – to explain where we were heading.

Though wait. Mr Sothy had Google translate, and phrase by phrase we were able to work most things out. He proved an amazing detective who helped me find lost friends when I had few if any leads. We both enjoyed such quests.  Google translate really was remarkable.

But one day, Mr Sothy was visibly ill.  “What’s the matter?” I asked his smart phone. He waited for the translation and then spoke back into his Samsung mobile. He showed me the translation which reported bluntly: “I am heavily pregnant and I need to go to hospital.”

Sensing the arrival of a miracle child, I urged Mr Sothy to head to the nearest medical centre a block away.  We drove there. He parked the tuk-tuk and in visible pain entered the small medical unit. A number of patients lay in a ward that opened up to the street.  In a consulting room a small child howled and shrieked: she was getting a needle for some infection – and she wasn’t happy. Her stoic parents held her hands but to little avail.

Presently Mr Sothy was examined and found (to our relief) that there was no baby on the way – but there was severe stomach pain.  The medical staff gave him some medication and had him lie down for 15 minutes.  All the while the small child continued to put up a fight against all medical treatment with her piercing, yowling screams.

Still, in that quarter-hour the tuk-tuk driver felt some relief, and when he stood up once more he was given a prescription of various tablets and capsules. He had no money on him, or not enough, and I felt that in view of his patience at the airport it would be only right for me to pay the medical centre. So we paid up, then bumped our plans back 24 hours and agreed to meet next morning if Mr Sothy felt up to it.

He was in fine health from the next day onward and we treated Google translate with a slice of caution after that. I really enjoyed his company.

How did Google developed translation from Khmer to English?  The work goes back to 2012 – when they employed sheer computational horsepower to the task – comparing Khmer text to English version of the same web pages. Actual translators were not employed. see this backgrounder from the Voice of America – how-google-figured-out khmer-translation  

Click here: for a crash course in Cambodian Motorbike safety.

Got a tuk-tuk story or a Google Translate story? I’d love to hear about it it.

Free, free at last.A precious shared moment in Cambodia.

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My friend Pin. I went to visit him in prison and got mixed up in his release.  It was a mighty moment to share – a privilege – but his background, right back to his childhood, is still stacked against him.

Cambodian prisons used to be a horror story of violence and starvation, not to mention corruption.  But they seem to have cleaned up their act – and today the focus is more on rehabilitation. My friend Sopin, or just plain Pin, has been to prison twice on drugs charges – weed – and told me that these places used to be places of fear.  Now, he told me, they’re places of learning and counseling.

On December 28th I went out to visit him with a mutual friend Savong whom I’ve known since 2004 when Pin introduced me to Savong. We subsequently went on to build a school in the countryside. Pin was never central to the school project, but he is the person who connected Savong and me together. He was the key to the story that basically changed my life.

Pin is a handsome guy, with chiseled features and deep, but sparkling eyes. He has a natural charm that belies the fact that he endured a terrible upbriging. He knows no family and was raised at a Buddhist Monastery: Wat Thmey – which is known as the killing fields pagoda in Siem Reap.  On display there are skulls and bones from many hundred who were slaughtered during the genocide of the 1970s. After the years of genocide, when a quarter of the population lost their lives in Cambodia, the nation then endured years of poverty, cut off from world trade or aid.  Cambodia was so poor it could not grow enough rice to feed its own people. Children like Pin became beggars at age 6, and some survived eating insects and the bark off trees. Monasteries took these kids in, and it was at Wat Thmey that Savong grew up with Pin. They have a loyalty that goes way back, though in recent years this has been strained by Savong’s relentless drive to become a businessman and Pin’s loose, somewhat lost lifestyle – dabbling in work and trying out drugs. He served some time as a medic assistant in the army, a time he enjoyed, but three years ago he got arrested for smoking dope and engaging in gambling: in Cambodia you are not allowed to gamble for money – unless you’re a Chinese tourist in which case your Casino dollars are welcome. We’re talking about a weekly poker game.

On that occasion we organised a lawyer and he helped trim 2 years off Pin’s 5 year sentence. Pin resided in Siem Reap Prison where I visited him once.  He had a black eye due to a fight in his cell – where 21 prisoners shared meagre food and a shortage of space.

But he got released after 3 years and photos show that he actually put on weight.  Far from the sallow, hungry image of my imagination, Sopin emerged fit and healthy.

It was not to last.  With a record against his name, in a land where everyone carries around Cambodia ID, and everyone seems to sport a CV in the search for good jobs, Pin couldn’t get work.  A tuk tuk we’d given him 5 years earlier had been lost to drugs and gambling.  Soon he was back with mates who supplied him once more with drugs. It was only a matter of time before he got arrested again. This time he was sent to another prison – one aimed at re-education and rehabilitation.

Savong and I went out to visit on December 28th. The prison consisted of two main buildings set inside a flat dusty spread of farmland. On the left were the kitchens and the classrooms while the building on the right housed the prisoners, just 42 of them.  The gap between the two ground-level buildings was roofed over so that people could take advantage of the shade. We visited in the ‘cool’ season but the sun was already scorching when we came out that afternoon.

The centre is minimum security, with a basic 8ft fence around the grounds, and a guards station at the front gate. This is where we enquired whether we could meet Pin and meet the chief warden. The atmosphere was extremely casual.

As we strode in the 100 metres toward the two buildings we could see at least a dozen prisoners gathering to chat with each other and meeting visitors. Pin saw us and ran up and gave me a mighty hug. He was really happy to see two friends.  He’d not had other visitors in months and while I talked to him, Savong asked a guard whether he could discuss Pin’s case with the chief warden. I didn’t realise the guy he was talking to was a guard: I thought he was one of the prisoners.  Like them he wore a t-shirt, though his was red where everyone else was in blue.

Pin was in good spirits, and he showed me around the prison; the classrooms where they learned cooking and other life skills, as well as the main office in which I could see Savong busy in discussion. A few minutes into our meet up a small boy in blue pants and blue t-shirt came up to Pin and wrapped himself around Pins legs.

“He’s 10,” Pin explained. He was clinging to Pin and sensed something was up.  Our conversation spread out and was shared by other prisoners, all who seemed pretty relaxed though a couple of older guys looked pretty ravaged by drugs.  They stuck to themselves. Pin explained how he’d become the informal leader of the 42 prisoners, and had made sure the small boy – who was inside for glue sniffing (his parents were deemed unable to provide adequate care,) – was getting adequate care. Pin had clearly become a father figure for the boy.

Soon, Savong came out and explained that the prison was at a tipping point with Sopin. He’d made good progress, and the warden had noted our big hug too: an indication that Pin had a support network outside the prison gates. Finally they said that rehab prison was costly to provide and that Pin had been unable to pay anything toward the rehab. Technically he owed the Centre. It wasn’t a bribe, but it is hard to explain the leeway that the Chief Warden had at his disposal. What we did was suggest a few hundred dollars would settle what was owing, as well we could offer the promise to support Pin once on the outside. Would this be enough for the prison to let our friend go?  Suddenly this seemed to be on the cards.

Pin realised that the course of the discussion was about his future – and he could sense the possibility of an early release – and as I tried talking to him he really couldn’t concentrate on our particular conversation. He indicated that his heart was jumping out of his rib cage.  His future was on the line.

Savong said he needed to get back into town to get some cash, and he left me there so we could talk some more. Meanwhile the junior guard, the guy with the red shirt, was summoned to the Chief’s office and told that Pin could be released immediately. Word got around everyone in the shaded area within about 10 seconds. Pin lit up with the news and his mates rushed up to congratulate him. The small boy was crowded out and I nudged the well-wishers to one side so that the boy could snuggle up to Sopin. The boy was in tears.  How many times had he lost the people he’d learned to trust?  Now he was losing again.

I’m told that another chidren’s welfare NGO has good plans to look after the boy, but in the midst of what was proving to be an enjoyable visit the look on the small boy’s face was haunting.

Savong soon returned and signed some papers and, well, that was it.  Pin was free to go. Savong headed back to his car while I helped Pin carry some of his meagre possessions from the dormitory block where, now that visiting time was up, the prisoners had returned.  They were now behind bars, hanging onto these and watching Pin’s exit.

What a mighty feeling that was. As Pin walked the hundred meters back to the guard’s gate the other prisoners stood and gave him a ‘kar teahdai’ which is Khmer for a round of applause. Pin’s chest swelled and he strode in the same way astronauts in the movies stride when they’ve come back to earth – the slow motion walk of heroes. It was a pleasure to share that moment, though I bit my lip at the same time. This was just the beginning for Pin, once more, and I wondered how he’d cope this time, now he was out again. But what got me most was the face of the small boy in blue. He was standing at the barred window and applauding like the others. But when I turned to see him he momentarily stopped applauding and wiped away tears.

PS.  A week or two later I learned that Pin has gone back, as a visitor, to check that the little boy is okay. I hope they stay in contact.

Link:   A joke about Cambodian Prisons that got a little too close for comfort.

By the way – if you find my blogs thoughtful,  interesting or entertaining, don’t forget to hit the follow button! I love to write and I’d love your company.

Shades of Grey. A Before and After in Lolei Village

Lolei Village is very near Savong’s School in terms of distance from Siem Reap, but is located further North; over the road as it were, with Number 6 Highway cutting its dangerous swathe between Lolei and the Rolous temples of Bakong.

In the heart of the village is the home of teacher Sovannarith who now runs a school of his own, dedicated to teaching English and computer skills to the children of his village. He used to teach at Savong’s School, right back in the days when salaries were a competitive $US45 a month and computer education was not even feasible.

Sovannarith and me

The “before” shot. Some 12 years ago – 2007 – we took this photo in a freshly painted classroom at Savong’s School. Sovannarith hasn’t changed, but since then my hair has adopted a Paul Newman silver.

After teaching at Savong’s School for several years, while he studied hard to complete his arts degree from the internationally recognised Pannasastra University of Cambodia, Sovannarith harbored dreams of running his own school. He wanted something for his own community.  I was keen to see what he had achieved since 2011.

Actually since 2005 I had already been familiar with the local school situation in Lolei thanks to the great work of Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC), a registered and well-run charity from the UK that focuses on the rural children of Siem Reap province. Like us, I’m sure they must constantly explain that despite the boom town quality of Siem Reap, the rural areas are still desperately poor.  One of the original schools they supported, back in 2005, was in Lolei Village.

Alas and through no fault of SCC the arrangement didn’t work out, and rather than run the school in their prescribed way the then headmaster had a seriously divergent view of how the school ought to run. SCC walked, and soon put their hard earned funds to better use elsewhere. They continue to excellent work.

But from that story, told to me by members of the SCC, I was always aware that Sovannarith’s village had an educational gap whereby the local State School still provided inadequate teaching of English (and computer skills) to children who need both if they wish to proceed into salaried employment or further tertiary education.

Enter Sovannarith who set up Angkor Legacy Academy in April 2011. It is a vibrant place, with high quality volunteers (the one’s I met were a quantum leap from the gangling gap-year ‘Facebook Volunteers’ who often visit these organisations.) and a well equipped computer lab with late-model laptops.  The vibe was happy, busy and thriving.

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The “After” shot. 2019. I turned up unannounced at Sovannarith’s school in Lolei and Rith strode up to the tuk tuk as I alighted – “Greetings stranger!” he announced. “Long time no see!” Comparing the photos, I wonder if he was referring to our mutual need for glasses.

Sovannarith made me feel very welcome, and during our brief chat (I was on the way to Savong’s School,) we reflected on times past. Sovannarith hasn’t changed one bit.  He is still passionate about educating the children of rural Cambodia. But he was kind enough also to say that his time at Savong’s School was what got him started – we gave him a teaching job and in those years he learned a lot about running a classroom and running a school. “Without that experience I wouldn’t be here today running the Angkor Legacy Academy,” he told me.

That made me feel very gratified. In 2004 when we commenced plans to build a school in Bakong, Savong and I never dreamed that his school would help multiply the number of teachers and schools. I can count 9 schools that began in a similar fashion to Sovannarith’s project and owe their start to Savong’s initial vision. If anything, that is the major achievement of the project. I think SCC and other organisations can also claim similar influence.  As I’ve found in business, losing good staff can be sad – but seeing them succeed is a wonderful thing.

Links:

Schools For Cambodian Children

Angkor Legacy Academy

For more on this theme:

Back to school. 2019.

The Great Divide: Life of a Teacher

 

Back to school. 2019.

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We clattered over the footbridge that was scarcely wide enough to take the tuk tuk. I was two minutes away from seeing the school we built in 2005.

The last time I was in Cambodia was October 2015 and it said a lot about the place that it inspired blogs from me well into 2016.  At night I continue to dream about the countryside especially, with the warm fragrance of tropical plants, red dusty roads and delicious wok-cooked food, sizzling on beds of burning charcoal.

My main ambition for this journey in December/January was to go out and visit the school I helped Savong build in 2005  and to do some teaching and to consider how the school may have benefited the children of Bakong.  The photo above is my tuk tuk driver Sothy Leru navigating a pedestrian bridge near the Bakong village on the way to the school. Alas, we couldn’t take the usual road to the school, the one that goes past Bakong temple – the ruins of which are older than Angkor Wat. These days the area comes under the control of the APSARA authority, the managers of the greater Angkor Wat region: the people who quite fairly charge tourists for a1 Day, 2 Day or 5 Day pass.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share the story and review what the current state of play is with the school.  Right now I can say I really enjoyed teaching there and, yet again, I felt as if Cambodia is my second home.

So welcome back to my blog.  Join me as I revisit the school, help release a prisoner from jail, visit another prisoner and play detective as I catch up with old friends.