Yoshikazu and Eri – two influential Japanese supporters

Yoshikazu and Eri - two influential Japanese supporters

I took this photo in 2011 and it shows Savong discussing a menu with Eri Tsuji. That’s Yoshikazu in the blue shirt. I’m thinking of them this week because they are now proud parents – but in 2004 Yoshikazu and another Japanese student Makoto were extremely influential in getting Savong’s School off the ground. They were the very first contributors to the project and they encouraged me to get fully involved as well.
To this day their influence is felt in the school. In late 2013 I was reminded of Yoshikazu when the teachers used a video-projector to screen their powerpoint meeting agenda: new technology courtesy of a generous gift by this warm-hearted Japanese couple. They have had more influence on the project than they may realise.

Proud parents Eri and Yoshikazu.

Proud parents Eri and Yoshikazu.

Two more supporters who have had a huge influence on the school. Click here.

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Alex – farewell for now

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Alex Brkljacic is an Australian volunteer who has never been afraid of rolling her sleeves up and getting stuck in. Alas, her bowl didn’t quite make it – but she is an indelible part of the SOC story.

Alex Brkljacic is the model volunteer, and has been pure gold for the last five months in Cambodia.  Don’t ask how to pronounce that surname, it involves consonants mixed liberally with phlegm, so it is no wonder that everyone just calls her Alex. Visitors, staff members in Savong’s organisation and the kids – the children of the SOC who adore Alex for her patience, her engagement, her humour and energy. She is their big sister.

Alex first came to Cambodia a few years back with a Melbourne family, the Palti clan, who arrived in a blizzard of activity and helped really energise the whole project. Their influence is felt to this day, and among other things the Palti family instituted the first day trips and longer for the SOC children – taking them on excursions that have marked their shared stories. Kulen Mountains, a great water fall swimming spot, and further afield.

Alex, who was a teenager at the time, was seduced by Cambodia. She has since returned multiple times. On her recent stay Alex has primarily served as a volunteer co-ordinator for the SOC, though that’s a rather drab title for the sheer value she has given the organisation. Co-ordinator, communicator, facilitator – she has been a kind of social glue who has bonded dozens of visitors with the NGO.

I only met legendary Alex for the first time just a month ago and was struck by her sharp observations, her quiet ‘let’s nudge this forward’ way of operating and her real humility. I have to say this (and this is hard for a Kiwi) but Alex personifies everything that’s great about Australians – the bigness of their hearts, their optimism, their egalitarian outlook and their generous helping of energy.

She is adored by the children, and it is fitting that on her last weekend in Siem Reap (she’s taking a short break in Thailand,) Alex shared her Sunday with the SOC students on a journey to Kulen Mountains. It is a great ritual: the drive, the hike to see the Buddha, the picnic and then the swim in those deliciously cool waterfalls – and this journey was punctuated by a flat tyre on the way home and a long wait in the heat. It was a feast for the tiger mosquitoes.

Alex’s blog remains cheerful as ever. She’s going to be missed for sure, but the Melbourne Cup bookies are already taking bets about how soon she’ll be back.  Alex is studying for a psychology degree – she has a wise head on her shoulders – but Cambodia keeps calling.  Alex is in no unnecessary hurry to finish uni and join the rat race. Not yet.

Follow her blog. LOVE IN CAMBODIA

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Cambodia. The ugly tourists and the prostitute in the internet cafe.

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Night Market, Siem Reap. Cambodia has become better equipped for dealing with a wider variety of tourists

I’ve noticed over 9 years how Cambodia has evolved as a tour destination for an increasing variety of tourists and visitors. On my first flight into Siem Reap the flight was dominated by a group of middle-aged Americans (my age group) and we were all slightly adventurous by nature, but also seekers of comfort. Wewere here primarily to see Angkor, and besides these temples and the big hotels, the local visitor infrastructure was not well developed.

This month my Bangkok Airways flight was populated by backpackers from Spain and Mexico, a pair of Russian honeymooners, a conference of solar energy experts (from as far afield as Germany and Myanmar) and many others. I was quite the eavesdropper! The flight prepared me to expect some changes in Siem Reap.

The biggest single change, as far as tourists are concerned, is the development of the lovely Night Markets which offer god food, good artisan crafts and silks – and, being open at night, shopping at a lovely romantic temperature. Balmy but not sweltering. The walk from Pub Street is colorful and safe.

But what the night markets represent is the way that Cambodia has become more organised for tourists. Instead of being a single-sight destination (Angkor temples) Siem Reap is offering more to do and experience. This is vital because tourist spending is one of the economic lifebloods of Cambodia (cheap garment production is the main export earner) and the battle is not only to encourage tourists to spend more, but to stay more than the average – eight years ago – of just three or four days. Previously tourists would fly in, stay at an expensive hotel (whose profits went back to foreign owners) and apart from some tuktuk rides and some spending at local westernised restuarants, and tour guides – very few other dollars flowed into the economy.  These days there are more places to see and more things to experience.

Popular options aside from Angkor, include Quad Bike tours (these go out through Bakong where our school is) though I wish the owners would tell their young tourists not to drive so dangerously. Slow down around blind corners – don’t put kids lives at risk! They also include specialist visits to potteries and to the silk farm out past West Baray.

Today’s visitors fall into three basic types.

  • The wealthy Zen Experience. Temples. Spa treatments. An Apsara dance show over dinner. Some shopping.
  • The Backpacker. Guest house, wifi hot spots, photos and haggling over prices.
  • The middle-aged adventurers. Liberal, careful, observant – a world view but enjoy comforts too.

In the latter group I’d include an Oregon couple (he’s an attorney) with whom I shared a very entertaining conversation that ranged from the sad Trayvon Martin case to the development challenges facing Cambodia in the future. On my last visit one told me how he’d been approached at an internet cafe by a male student, soliciting sex so he could  continue at university. The man, an American was just so saddened by this.

“The boy had been reduced to the point where he felt prostitution was the only way out.”

I sense, when I meet these people  that there is a burgeoning desire by the 45+ to do something constructive in Cambodia. But what?  I feel there is a big gap for the development of organised ethical tourism. Over time I’ll add some links for this group.

The “Wealthy Zen” people don’t bother me. Cambodia is just another backdrop to their well-heeled life adventure. Next stop: the Maldives. In some way they are invisible as tourists.

The sector that worries me the most is the backpackers. Perhaps, to be fair, I should split this group into:

  1. The true eco-adventurers.
  2. The party animals.
  3. The emotionally ill-prepared.

The party animals and the ill-prepared threaten to ruin Cambodia’s tourist scene in part because it’s all about THEM. The young and in love backpackers on my plane were kissing and cuddling like there was nobody else on board.  She was already dressed inappropriately for Cambodia in her skimpy camouflage-chic tank-top and the two clearly had never spared a thought for the culture they’d be “immersing themselves” in.

These people whine about wifi (at the Blue Pumpkin the upstairs wifi lounge was populated by young facebookers who spent hours glued to their iPhones and tablets) and moan about prices. They play a role (on the surface they look like adventurers) but beneath the backpack beats the heart of what we used to call the Ugly American – only they’re from Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore as well.

Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy: but every time I see a Cambodian pandering to the needs or wants of these self-centered people I think of the boy in the Internet Cafe, resolving to sell himself so he can continue as a student.

Holiday in Cambodia – 2014

Many visitors to Cambodia are caught out by unexpected holidays.  Not many westerners expect New Year to be celebrated in…er…mid April, and the Khmer calendar is peppered with a number of traditional Buddhist holidays, days that mark the turning of seasons (wet season to dry season) as well as days of political significance.

When you plan to go to Cambodia don’t be surprised if you come across an unexpected holiday or two. Cambodians love their holidays, and Siem Reap locals enjoy three versions of New Years day:  January 1st, then Chinese New Year, then in April Khmer New Year. Western festivals are not really observed, though don’t be surprised if you see Santa motifs in December.

List of Public Holidays in Cambodia for year 2014

Public holidays in Cambodia are mostly made of traditional festivals and Buddhist holidays. Most festivals and holidays are based on lunar calendar, thus the dates of Cambodia holidays change from year to year in Gregorian calendar.

International New Year’s Day
First day of the year in Western/Gregorian Calendar
not a public holiday, yet many businesses and offices are closed.
New Year’s Day 2014

  • Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Victory over Genocide Day
Commemorates the end of Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia after their defeat to Vietnam troops in 1979.

Meak Bochea Day Commemorates Buddha’s preaching to gathering monks.

  • Friday, 14 February 2014

International Women’s Day Commemorates women’s bravery and achievement all over the world.

  • Saturday, 8 March 2014

Cambodian Khmer New Year / Chaul Chnam Thmey. Commonly referred as the most important holiday in Cambodia. The holidays may last for 3 days.

  • Monday, 14 April 2014
  • Tuesday, 15 April 2014
  • Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Labor Day / May Day. Celebrates workers’ economic and social achievement in Cambodia.

  • Thursday, 1 May 2014

Royal Plowing Ceremony. Also known as Pithi Chrat Preah Neangkol, correspond to the start of planting season.

  • Monday, 5 May 2014

HM King Sihamoni’s Birthday. Celebrates the birth of His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni. It is usually celebrated for 3 days.

  • Tuesday, 13 May 2014
  • Wednesday, 14 May 2014
  • Thursday, 15 May 2014

Visakha Bochea / Visaka Buja Day. Commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and passing to the nirvana of the Buddha.

  • Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Children’s Day. Celebrates childhood and wishes the children happiness and a good life.

  • Sunday, 1 June 2014

HM the Queen Mother’s Birthday. Celebrates the birth of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk.

  • Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Pchum Ben Day. A festival to respect the ancestors by cooking food and giving offerings to the monks.

  • Tuesday, 14 October 2014
  • Wednesday, 15 October 2014
  • Thursday, 16 October 2014

Commemoration Day of King’s Father Norodom Sihanouk. A homage to the late King’s Father Norodom Sihanouk. Public holiday since 2013. Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Paris Peace Agreement Day. Commemorates the signing of peace treaty in Paris on October 23, 1991.
Thursday, 23 October 2014

Cambodia Coronation Day. Celebrates the anniversary of the coronation of current King Norodom Sihamoni.

  • Saturday, 25 October 2014

Cambodia Independence Day. Celebrates the country’s independence from France in 1953.

  • Sunday, 9 November 2014

Water Festival / Bon Om Thook. Celebrate the end of monsoon season in Cambodia. It marks the changing course of Mekong river and Tonle sap river.

  • Thursday, 27 November 2014
  • Friday, 28 November 2014
  • Saturday, 29 November 2014

Human Rights Day. Commemorates the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

  • Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Credit to PublicHoliday.Org for these notes. PublicHoliday.Org is a great website for anyone planning travel to foreign places and we’ve borrowed our notes for this page from them.

If you are thinking of visiting Cambodia and are wondering about volunteering – here are some useful guidelines.

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Cambodia touches my heart.

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What did I have to be depressed about – really? Cambodia shone a new light on my state of mind.

 

When I first went to Cambodia in 2004 I had been suffering a horrible bout of depression, and I describe that year as the year I fell off the rock-face of my own existence. When I was at my deepest moment, every night I’d get home from work and curl up in a foetal position on the sofa, my wife suggested I go on a journey to somewhere really different – somewhere that would shake my head around. “You need a break,” she told me. “Do something different.”  Of all the advice I’d received that year (from doctors and from a psychologist) that was the single best that had been offered.

For a few reasons I chose Cambodia which, back then was just emerging from its dark years. I don’t know what I expected – but most travel books seemed to focus on Pol Pot and the existence of landmines. Maybe it appealed to me because I saw a suitable metaphor for my own condition. How ego-centric I was.

I travelled via Bangkok and as I got in the plane to Siem Reap I felt nervous; as if somehow I would be facing my destiny.  I was looking for something in Cambodia, and I didn’t know what it was. Inside I had a feeling that could almost be described as stage fright.

We took off. A strange experience occurred just as our propeller plane flew over the border to Cambodia and Thailand’s smart rectangular agriculture gave way to the random villages and small rice fields of Cambodia. Around us at 28,000 feet were small puffy clouds. Dozens of them.

On my flight was a tour party of large mid-western Americans, and as they shared a loud conversation about the pros and cons of comprehensive house and contents insurance, I contented myself to look out the window.

And there it was. A cloud that looked like an elephant. We’ve all played “making shapes out of clouds” before – squint your eyes and you can make out a rabbit – but this cloud was better than that. It was a perfect baby elephant running with its ears pricked back, a smile on its face, little trunk thrust forward, legs running and little tail flying. An elephant.

Was I seeing things? I turned to the Amercian lady in the seat behind me and told her to look at the cloud. My cloud.

“Oh my stars!” she exclaimed. “Would you look at the baby elephant!” her friends all surged to the starboard windows and the aircraft tilted.  They’d seen it too. It wasn’t just me.

I settled back in my seat, for the first time in three years feeling a surge of contentment coursing through me. I’m not superstitious, but this – this was special. It felt like a sign and when I stepped off the aircraft I already felt as if my journey to Cambodia had healed me.

It was an extraordinary feeling; seeing the elephant. I wonder if my heart would have been closed if I hadn’t seen that little cloud. Within 48 hours I met strangers beyond my hotel and my tour guide – and in truth I felt that I had somehow stepped home.  I cannot account for this, but everything over the previous three years had felt stressed and unwelcoming, yet here was the sense that my heart could find peace.

I don’t understand the psychology behind this feeling, and I have difficulty explaining it to friends, but Cambodia touches my heart just as surely as if I were revisiting my childhood home.

We can discover quite wonderful things in our lives when we open things up to randomness. That cloud, my depression, the people I happened to meet – all these conspired to take my life on a much more interesting journey than I ever could have imagined.

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