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.

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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.

Cambodian Pop -celebrates a rural idyll

YouTube is a great place to explore the musical cultures of different countries. And the music videos tell a lot about the Zeitgeist of the nation. I remain fascinated at the way Cambodian music continues to balance the urban glam against the romantic version of the rural idyll – a simpler wholesome life for which Cambodia pines.

In its dreams.

Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda

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Praying for a harmonious, righteous future.

In late 2004, I was working in my New Zealand office when a startling email arrived. It was sent from an internet cafe near Pub Street, Siem Reap where half an hour online cost poor students two dollars.  Back then internet access was not common.

The startling thing about the email was the headline: Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda.

An incident had occurred at Wat Thmey which is on the northern edge of Siem Reap. This is the general scene of the local killing fields; though an international hotel now occupies some of that tragic land. Wat Thmey, because of its location and history has, since the late 1990s, seen a lot of tourist buses.  It is a reflective place to visit I feel, with the stupa containing skulls and bones collected by my friend Savong’s father – pictured above.

But what was the Big Trouble? It turns out a couple of the senior monks were pocketing most of the donations from visiting groups – mostly Japanese and Koreans – and were doing this at the expense of the wider work of the monastery which ran a school, gave homes to homeless children, and trained young monks.

Savong described how a big group of locals had gathered, how angry words were exchanged and how the ‘bad monks’ had been sent packing. A case of village justice I think.

That account quickly unravelled my beautifully stitched together impression of all monks as being very holy people. As with any faith we might care to name; there are bound to be a few bad apples.

Here the lead paragraph from a 2010 story:

Two Cambodian Buddhist monks have been arrested in the popular tourist city of Siem Reap for smoking crystal methamphetamine along with two women in their pagoda.

Or from the Phnom Penh Post, again in 2010.

Phnom Penh – Following the turmoil surrounding the distribution by Bluetooth phone of videos showing several naked women taking their holy bath, the police uncovered more than 300 other pictures in the phone memory of a former monk. The pictures were recovered during a search and arrest made on 26 June 2010. Some of pictures were videos while others were still photos.

In that case the monk was defrocked, (he changed into civilian clothes,) before his arrest.

In 2015 in Phnom Penh six monks were arrested after beating up a mot driver, but charges were dropped. The story is complicated, but the Cambodia Daily account suggests that the driver is the one who started the fracas. He was compensated a million riel.

In 2016 there have been at least three news stories: two very serious cases of rape by individual monks, and just recently a case of 19 young Cambodian monks arrested in Phuket, Thailand for failing to have visas into Thailand, and for soliciting – begging for cash.

Stories like these occur from time to time and rightfully shock the Cambodian community, but unless I’m badly mistaken, the Buddhist church does not cover things up or further victimise victims.

I should end on a note of warning. Not all monks are legitimate. Read this excerpt from the helpful website MoveToCambodia.com

The fake monk scam. Fake monks are usually Chinese and are often (but not always) dressed in brown or mustard-colored robes, unlike the bright orange garb of their authentic Khmer counterpart, and will wear pants underneath their robes. They are usually middle-aged, while most Cambodian monks are in their twenties or even younger. Fake monks don’t usually speak any Khmer and very little English, other than to demand more money. They often wear wooden prayer beads and offer people bracelets or amulets. Fake monks will often collect money well into the night, unlike real monks who only collect in the morning. Perhaps most importantly, it’s reported that they don’t seem to know anything about Buddhism.

Love that last telltale detail!

Another characteristic of fake monks is that they argue and insist you give more than the few riel or dollars you may have donated. They’re big trouble.

For more: Another case of village justice.