Posts Tagged ‘Cambodia’
I had two excellent days in Phnom Penh, a city I always enjoy returning to. I spent must of my time eating and drinking in the town’s fun great restaurants, cafes, and bars.
My plane touched down in the late afternoon, and I picked up my visa-on-arrival ($20) and was through customs and in a taxi quickly for the drive to my hotel. Vinh suggested the Amari on s.136, a great place just off the riverfront, centrally-located, new and not too noisy. It’s the sister hotel to the Paragon where I have stayed on other trips. My interior room – which I prefer as these rooms are quiet and dark – was $20/night.
I picked up a SIM card from the front desk and gave Vinh a call. Before long he showed up and we walked down the riverfront to Cantina, the usual spot, for an Anchor (pronounced an-CHor) and a couple of really tasty chicken soft tacos. There was an opening of a photo exhibition on Cambodian performance at the National Museum, so we wandered over. We arrived in time to watch an excellent dance performance by a group called Children of Bassac. They perform every Thursday night, and high-quality cultural events like this is something that Phnom Penh really needs. Now, tourism seems very much based on atrocity tourism – the genocide and visits to S21 and the killing fields; for culture, people head to Siem Reap. Hopefully the city really begins to nourish regular cultural events like dance, music and visual arts.
Unfortunately we couldn’t actually see the photo exhibition (we did meet the photographer), so we went for more food, English this time, at a place nearby called Sunset or something. Vinh has a massive plate of bangers and mash, and I had a cheese and tomato toastie. Rick Valenzuela, a long-time friend who introduced me to Vinh, showed up and we were back to Cantina for another Anchor. Sue, Vinh’s wife (they were married a week before us), joined us. We didn’t stay up too late; I was sleepy from my travels.
I enjoyed an eggs and bacon breakfast at Cadillac where a group – me, Rick, Vinh and two other friends – assembled for an expedition to the RCAF (Royal Cambodian Armed Forces) market out towards the airport. Last year I bought some excellent new Thai-style army pants that I wear constantly; I bought two more pairs this year, but somewhat-different Cambodia-style one which are quick-dry synthetic and ripstop.
You wouldn’t expect to find a good burger place in a gas station, but Mike’s Burger House delivers the good. I had a regular cheeseburger for $2, and Vinh ate a double cheeseburger that was as big as his head. He also paired it with french fries that are deep fried, then batter-dipped and deep fried again. Sweet mercy.
I rested off the burger in the mid-afternoon, then Rick and I joined Sue and Vinh for a sunset cruise on the Mekong. Although we were invited for free, the regular price of a relaxing and scenic cruise on a very nice boat up and down the Phnom Penh waterfront is $5 including a drink. Amazing. It would be the perfect thing to do after work.
Back on shore, Rick headed off to a small house party and went with Vinh and Sue to their apartment by the Independence Monument so Sue could change out of work clothes, then we rolled through town in a tuk tuk and across the bridge and south down the far bank of the river to Snow’s bar, a great, funky little wooden place with a stellar view back across the Mekong towards the city. A little burger stand out front provided my second burger of the day. I had what’s informally called the ‘oxymoron burger’ – a veggie burger with bacon on it. Oh, and it was good, possibly one of the best veggie burger patties I’ve had.
Next stop – back across the river to a party on the top of the Canadia Tower, the tallest building in the city. Not a particularly exciting event, but great views to be had. We circled the roof deck with Vinh taking pictures to stitch into a panorama. Vinh’s full bladder and a dire shortage of bathrooms had us making a hasty exit, however.
An entertaining American+Swede couple, Maria and ??, went with us to Sharkys, a venue that strikes me as a Viagra ad – a classic rock bar full of homely 50 & 60 year old white guys and freelancing Cambodian girls. Rick showed up.
A few drinks later and we decamped to Rock Bar (aka Zeppelin Cafe), a mandatory destination in Phnom Penh. Again, more drinks, plus sweet and sour pork and dumplings, and of course, hard rock dj’d by the owner, a fixture at the back of the bar, always loving what he is doing. I paced myself well throughout the evening and drank lots of water, so I was not in a bad condition; Rick, who I rode back to the the hotel with (his place is right around the corner), was pretty well lying on the floor of the tuk tuk. It was 2am when I made it to bed.
Saturday morning found me groggy but functional. I met Vinh at Metro on the Riverfront for another excellent meal. My open-faced egg sandwich was mountain of foccacia, bacon, two poached eggs, hollandaise, salad greens, balsamic and shaved parmesan. The coffee was good too. Rick arrived only moderately the worse for wear. Vinh had to take off, so we said good bye, and I hung out with Rick for the duration. We went by his excellent corner loft apartment on the Riverfront at s.130 (I think) where he gave me a great Phnom Penh Post (his paper) cap and I visited his cat (kind of skittish and clearly doesn’t remember me). We went in vain to try and find a t-shirt he’d had printed at a printer shop (he’d lost the receipt some months ago). Back in our neighbourhood we said goodbye, I packed up my room and took a taxi to the aiport and caught my Air Asia flight back to Bangkok.
I stayed in the familiar Silver Gold Garden Hotel, only about 10 minutes from the airport, which is clean, comfortable and only $20 a night including transfers to and from the airport. What made the experience enjoyable was a street market next to the hotel. I set down my bags and went out to find dinner. I found a stall selling delicious laksa-like rice noodles with fish balls in coconut curry soup, with big bowls of fresh herbs, pickled greens and sprouts to throw on top. This cost about $0.60. I also found a place selling the best mango sticky rice I’ve had, so I picked up two orders, one for dessert, and one for breakfast this morning.
I slept well, one of the better nights I’ve had. A van took me to the airport at 6:30am, and my flight left at 8:25. I’m 30 minutes out of Hong Kong, where I’ll have a 12 hour layover to visit folks there
I’ve had a very enjoyable time in Phnom Penh with Sue, Vinh and Rick. I’ve eaten three excellent meals a day, visited the armed forces market to buy a couple of pairs of new Thai army pants, drunk a river of Anchor Beer at the Rock Bar, rode on the back of Vinh’s Samyang motorbike, napped, and more. It has been a great way to wind down my trip. The weather has been clear and breezy. There have been a few downsides. The first night I barely slept despite being exhausted from the bus ride. Second, the wonderful Kennedy Barbershop has disappeared (but at least I photographed it last year). Finally, my laptop died. The thing simply won’t start up and I fear the hard drive has suffered an epic crash. This isn’t totally dire as all of my photos are backed up externally on two hard drives, plus I sent a third home with Derek. I did lose the November 3rd blog post and had to rewrite it on a hotel computer. The fortunate thing is that my laptop waited until the end of my trip to die rather than somewhere in India or Laos. It’s really nothing to cry about. Worse things happen.
Tonight I’ll be flying to Bangkok, then to Hong Kong tomorrow morning.
We were the hit attraction for the children, who spent much of the day peering at us in the raised open-walled community building. Our only competition was two people from another village selling a collection of clothes – mostly t-shirts – spread out on a large tarp nearby. A cyclone in the region was causing some impressive gusts of wind and creating some great light and the occasional spatter of rain.
It was a successful day for both me and team. I was happy with the shots that I got, both of the team’s work and the village context, and the team tested 230 villagers, none of whom were positive for malaria. It was a positive way for me to finish up my work with the team.
We returned to the guesthouse at 3:30, I showered and packed, then the truck returned to drive me into Pakse. San, Seng, Tak and Dao all wanted to come along to see me off, which was touching. The drive took about 2 1/2 hours; San drove most of the way while the others sat in the back playing cards on a cardboard box. Sang had the luck and was rewarded by a substantial pile of Kip. At the high point of our drive, near Paxsong, we hit thick fog and had to slow to a crawl for about 20 stressful minutes where we could barely see the road. Once through, San joined the others in the back to play cards while Tak took over at the wheel. Soon the pile of money found its way in front of San, which didn’t entirely surprise me.
In the early evening we pulled into Pakse, which after Attapeu seemed expansive and bustling. I picked up a ticket to the bus and the guys found me a quiet, comfortable guest house a short distance away. I learned then that they were heading back to Attapeu that evening; I had assumed that they were staying the night. That made me feel even more appreciative of their gesture of joining me on the journey.
We went for a bowl of noodles near the guest house, then a beer by the (closed) airport at a friend’s place. The guys have friends in every town that they work, and quite possibly girlfriends from what I can tell. We returned to the guest house and said our goodbyes, and I watched them drive away.
I woke just after six, showered and walked the short distance to the bus station. I put my bag on the bus, which was disappointingly not as luxurious as the images on the posters at the ticket office suggested. They have some quite plush large buses in the region that put Greyhounds to shame, but this one was very ordinary. I would soon come to appreciate its quality, however.
I had a simple breakfast of grilled pork and sticky rice at the bus station, then boarded the bus with about a dozen other folks. About 10kms out of town, things went sideways when we hit a motorcyclist (or more accurately, when a motorcyclist hit us). I had long expected disaster on the roads of Laos due to the quite blatant disregard for safety and the mix of different modes and speeds of transportation. As we were passing a motorcyclist, he took a hard left turn without looking over his shoulder or consulting his non-existent mirrors. He bounced off the side of our fast-moving bus and tumbled down the road. Fortunately he was relatively OK – conscious and sitting up; if he had turned one second earlier, he would have ended up under the bus’ wheels, which doesn’t bear thinking about.
We all had to get off the bus with our bags as the bus and crew had to stay and deal with the aftermath. A smaller bus from another company was flagged down and we were put on it. It drove us to the border with a few stops along the way – at Wat Phou and the Thousand Islands. We abandoned the bus at the border cross, an assortment of a few small buildings with a stretch of open road between two traffic gates. The crossing was seen as an economic development opportunity for various personnel. I was asked for an extra $1 by Lao emigration, quarantine and Cambodian control. It’s simply par for the course here.
Another small bus was waiting for us on the far side and drove in a pokey way to Stung Treng, about 75kms from the border. After standing in that muggy town for about 15 minutes, our original bus pulled up and we piled on again. We continued our journey across much of the country, which seemed continuously flat, with fairly lush vegetation and the typical red dirt. The dirt soon turned mucky was we came into rain. It seems that we’d just missed quite a deluge.
The ride was tedious. I listened to music while the crew played a series of movies on the entertainment system: a dubbed Hollywood comedy about three inept men trying to kidnap a baby, one about Khmer bumpkins, some Mr. Bean, and possibly the worst Indian film I’ve seen: a Punjabi production about student councils, misunderstandings, fighting and strife. It was endless, but thoroughly enjoyed by three young Sikh men who had given it to the crew to put on. A funny moment was when one of the young bus crew tied his krama – traditional Cambodian scarf – around his head in a perfect turban and sat watching the film.
The last 100kms from Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh were also endless. The bus was hot and stuffy, the windows were fogged up, the entertainment system blared, and I was sticky, hungry and tired. I learned later that I was lucky, however. We were arriving during the Water Festival in Phnom Penh, a time when an extra two million people pour into town to watch dragon boat racing on the Tonle Sap river. On all other days they had been forcing people off of buses and onto taxis or motos 50kms from town. This had happened to Vinh. For some reason we made it through, and was delighted to get off the bus, hop a moto, and arrive at the Paragon Hotel on the waterfront, which was solidly jammed with people enjoying the last night of festivities.
I had just got into my room when I heard my name being called from the hallway. I opened my door to find Vinh and Sue, and I gave them stinky hugs. After a quick shower, I went with them for a German meal over on St. 130. Shortly we were joined by a friend of their who is a prosecutor in the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal. Amazing! At another watering hole, Rick Valenzuela stopped by with Irwin Loy, a journalist I know from Vancouver who interviewed me when he was writing for 24 Hours. He’s here now, working with Rick at the Phnom Penh Post.
I revived with food and beer and stayed up fairly late, but then retired to my cool, dark, quiet room.
I have a bellyful of Hokkien prawn mee, which means that I am in Singapore Changi airport and have successfully located the staff canteen. Contrary to false rumours and suppositions, it has not closed for renovation or moved to Terminal Three. The old access point has been closed, however, and you now have to enter down a stairwell near the Burger King in Terminal in a ruse carefully concocted to keep joe average traveller out of the place. I, however, infiltrated and enjoyed one of the finest food courts in this city, dining on the mee, iced coffee, black rice pudding with coconut milk and lime juice, all for about $8 SGD. Now I sit and wait about four hours for my flight to leave for Hong Kong.
The rest of my time in Kampong Speu yesterday went very well with the exception that I was incredibly tired. A dog barked all night right next to the guesthouse in the most loud, obnoxious and random way. Earplugs didn’t help – it sounded like it and some of its friends were right in the room with me. So, I spent the rest of the time out in the countryside with a foggy and dopey head. It didn’t help that I slept through my alarm, waking at 7:01, one minute after I was supposed to meet everyone. I was packed and downstairs by 7:10, and Vaesna, the driver and I went for a quick breakfast of grilled pork on rice, and coffee, close by.
There was already a crowd of women and their children waiting at the clinic when we arrived (the three team members were already there and setting up). More continued to arrive as well. There was probably about 30-40 women there, many with young kids and a few babies, which is a testament to their interest in birth control. After registering, they all piled into a room and Pen Sopheak, one of the midwives, gave a presentation on different methods of birth control. The next step was one-on-one consultations; the three team members set up in offices and discussed with the women their history and which method they were most interested in. They followed with a quick physical examination (plus an internal one if the woman was requested an IUD) and a pregnancy check, then provision of the birth control. The options were pills, implants (active for three years), IUD, injections or condoms. The three team members are qualified to provide each one on the spot. I documented the initial consultations, plus the insertion of implants into one woman’s arm, which is not a simple procedure and requires local anaesthetic. PSI is also very interested in showing how sterile their practices are, so I documented the sterilization and equipment handling for an IUD insertion (the woman was behind a screen, but I had a clear view of the team member and the medical equipment). There was a sterilizer provided by UNICEF in place in the clinic, a large cannister like a pressure cooker that sat on top of a portable propane stove.
The conditions in the clinic were basic. There was no electricity while we were working there, and an assistant had to hold a flashlight during the IUD insertion. Nor was there hot running water, although there was an over-abundance of running water at one point out of a bathroom that flowed through one of the offices where the team was working. Although all possible precautions were taken, they were challenging conditions to work under although probably no different than what the team is used to.
It was a lively place, too, as a result of all the children around. Women were helping each other out with the babies; one I saw breastfeeding the child of another woman who was in with the team. It did the trick. One very chubby girl was inconsolable without her mother until she saw my camera and decided that playing with the strap was the best thing ever. A few other toddlers found me interesting and distracting as well. The mothers themselves ranged in age from about 20 to probably 40. Some had one child, others had three or four. One woman was crying during her consultation: she had four children and had very recently found out that she was pregnant again. Medical abortions are available, however, and Vaesna was able to provide her with some counselling (and possibly even a bit of money to help her out).
We were there until about 1:30, then drove back to the city. The first part of the drive went by quickly, but once we were past the airport things were painfully slow working our way through Phnom Penh mid-day traffic, which like Hanoi, works on the principle of critical mass. Once enough cars and scooters and tuk tuks and bikes build up, they then start making their way through an intersection until the cross-traffic does the same. Car and trucks take precedence and will force motorbikes and lesser vehicles around them, and driving in the on-coming lane is perfectly acceptable, both in the city and on the highway. It all works because nothing goes very fast, although I am sure that there are accidents.
I was dropped off at the hotel and desperately needed a nap. I tried for a bit, but decided that I had too much to do before dinner, so I headed out on a moto. First I want to Baskets of Cambodia up on Street 86. A couple of years ago, Kristi bought a great tatami-sided handbag made by this Cambodian cooperative (she found the bad in Agassiz of all places). They have a shop in Phnom Penh, so I suggested to her that I could stop by and pick her up something. The shop was more part of a house than anything, and it was run by two young folks who didn’t speak English, but were friendly and happy that I had made the trip. I bought three bags of different sizes, all stylish to my eyes, for the incredible price of $17 total.
Next stop was the Storya mall for a bit of computer software, then back to the hotel where I had enough time to drop my bags, change and head out for dinner at Sharkys with Vinh and Sue (Sharkys had a very different vibe this early in the evening). The owner of Sharkys is a great expat cook, and he put on an amazing spread for American Thanksgiving with everything you can imagine: turkey (deep fried), scalloped potatoes, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauces, biscuits, corn, pumpkin pie, apple cobbler, and much more. Everything was absolutely amazing and was just what I needed. We had a good time, but I was dopey from the lack of sleep, plus I needed to get back and pack, so I headed out at 8:30 and was in bed around 10am, with my now-stuffed bags ready to go.
I was up at 5:30 and Pee/P/Pi the tuk tuk guy was waiting for me out front at 6:00 for the smooth drive to the airport. Check-in and emigration were quick, and the one-and-a-half hour flight easy. Before long I’ll be back in Hong Kong and dad should be meeting me at the airport. I will see if he’s any different looking as a newly-minted grandad.
The night out with Vinh (Sue was tired and stayed home) didn’t end up getting too sketchy, which is probably a fine thing. We started with a couple of Anchor beers at the Cantina bar, which is a normal, straight-up place, then walked rode over to the Pussycat Bar, right around the corner from my hotel, and as we walked through the door, I was instantly surrounded by working girls like I was the hottest new commodity. Vinh was seen as less-interesting, which was a bit disturbing in itself, but I guess that I fit the typology of the usual customer, although perhaps a decade or two too young. It became obvious that we weren’t that interested in what was on offer, and several were magnetically attracted to the next fellows to walk through the door. It felt creepy, but more because of the clients than the women, who are more easy to relate to than the sex-pats. We didn’t linger, but I did get to chatting with three of the women, not about services (that talk died down pretty quickly), but about them. The three I talked to had kids and were in their late 20s. They even showed me pictures of them on their cell phones, and I felt sorry for the fact that they had to be doing this kind of work in Phnom Penh while their kids were being raised elsewhere. I got the sense husbands weren’t in the picture.
We didn’t linger and went down the road to Sharkys, a bar clearly oriented towards the foreign crowd and Cambodian working girls. To be honest, by this point Vinh and I ended up talking more about cameras and photojournalism, but the old guy-young woman dynamic was evident all around us, and Vinh pointed out a few nuances and details.
There were seedier places to go to, but we called it quits. The flavour of what was available was evident, and I don’t think that I wanted to see anything more. I did get a sense of the kind of environment PSI and similar organizations work in in this part of the world (although the Cambodian scene is different from the sex-pat scene, and relatively much, much larger).
I didn’t sleep well at all, probably because of the four beers in my system, which for me is a lot. I was groggy most of the day. I made it out of bed and was hungry for breakfast, so I called up Rick and we walked over to Chi Cha for a filling Indian grub. He didn’t have time to linger, though, so I took off for the Russian Market, about 10 minutes by moto south of the hotel. I didn’t find much to buy there, but it was pretty photogenic in the food area. Unfortunately I only had my point-and-shoot digital with me.
Back near the hotel I went for a haircut at the Kennedy Barber shop, on the same street as Rick’s place near Norodom. It’s a classic barbershop if there ever was one, and it celebrates its namesake with pictures of JFK throughout, including on the sign. Apparently it has been around for yonks, and looks it. For $2 I got a very meticulous haircut from a serious barber, then a shave, which was very close and good. I don’t think that I’ve had a straight-razor shave since I was in Turkey in 2002. Good stuff. I actually returned there today with my Leica to take some shots of the place. The barber looked very confused and didn’t understand my intentions, but he shrugged and let me snap away. About five minutes in, a light when on in his mind and he recognized me from the day before. I was a little stunned that it took so long (or that it took any time at all), but a big grin appeared on his face and he relaxed a bit.
I like a good thing, and I’ve decided that Chi Cha is one, so I actually had dinner there yesterday as well: chicken fry, vegetable curry, chipati, rice, dahl and a mango lassi. Great.
Last night I was out with PSIs IPC (Inter-personal Communication) outreach teams, who target group is at-risk men who are likely to have encounters with sex workers. They work between 5 and 9pm in male-female pairs, and they approach groups of men in restaurants, BBQ joints and beer gardens. Any later in the evening and men are usually too drunk or preoccupied to pay much attention. The key message is HIV prevention, and the teams interact with quizzes and games. Since June of this year, they have managed to engage 40,000 men in this way.
We visited three sites where teams (about 3 pairs and a leader) were working. The first was a series of dog meat restaurants (poor woofs), which are known for offering pretty cheap eats ($1 a plate), so the men here tend work is less well-paying jobs. Our next stops were more mid-level restaurants, some offering BBQ. In all these places I was very impressed by the skill and energy of the outreach teams and they approached tables of strangers. In the very large percentage of cases they were received openly and actively, suggesting their techniques really do work well.
It wasn’t a late night. Samnang, the outreach coordinator, dropped me off at my hotel at around 9pm, and after an episode of The Wire, I was in bed, listening to music for a few minutes, then having the first long and decent sleep in a while.
I was up at a reasonable hour, maybe 7:30. There is a lively outdoor market a block in from the river, and as the sun was still low and the light good, I wandered over with my Leica and shot close to a roll of film, focusing mainly on the cyclo drivers whe were hoping to pedal people and/or goods home from the market. One cyclo was full of pineapples, one with bananas, another with grandma and her bags of groceries. The light was great and I hope that I got some decent images.
I packed up what I’d need for my overnight trip to the countryside, then headed over to Rick’s place where he was working on a video presentation that had been the subject of government censorship for showing touchy subjects. He’ll be working at the Post by the time I roll back into town tomorrow, so it was my last chance to see him. I took a few photos of him in his great apartment, working with the cat overseeing everything. I left him with the bottle of lao lao (hooch) that I brought back from Vientiane and wasn’t able to get into. He’ll enjoy it more than the Mekong Whiskey he is partial to.
From there I took a moto over to PSI’s offices and had lunch at a nearby western coffee shop with Bill from Virginia, the fellow who’s helping coordinate my work with PSI. After that I loaded into a truck with Vaesna, PSI’s Medical Detailing Manager (and a pharmacist by training), and a driver. We drove about an hour or so south to Kampong Speu, out in the country in the rice fields, where we linked up with a skilled outreach team – a doctor and two midwives – who are promoting PSI’s ‘birth spacing’ initiatives. Essentially this revolves around long-term reproductive health for couples: education about and provision of birth control (pills, injections, implants or IUDs).
The objective today was to drive around the villages in a small area north of Kampong Speu and share information about tomorrow’s information session and clinic in the local health centre. We drove around the dirt backroads looking for groups of women and children. When we came across them, the team would get out and tell them about their clinic. People were very receptive and interested, and it was all very novel to have shiny 4wd vehicles and a foreign photographer show up. The kids were particularly excited, although a couple of little ones were driven to tears by my uniqueness. Everything was very worthy of being photographed, and I shot about 250 images over the course of a few hours. There are obviously some duds, but a few photos look promising.
The villages are set among rice fields which look healthy and productive, but lack the vibrance and beauty of those in Bali. The better houses are concrete, the lesser ones wooden and rather flimsy; all are raised well above the ground on posts. The people seem generally healthy and tough, and a visibly darker than folks in Phnom Penh or the outreach team. There are kids-a-plenty, so it is apparent that there is a place for birth spacing here.
We are staying in a guest house in town, and am sitting on one of the twin beds in my room writing this. It’s a new and comfortable family-run place, and with the exception of barking dogs, it’s quieter than my hotel back in the city. We’ve just come back from a meal of traditional food at a restaurant by the river. We ate on the wooden floor on raised platforms surrounded by benches and hammocks. The food was good: dosa-like things filled with ground meat and shrimp, eaten almost like lettuce wrap; roast chicken; and beef in a salty-sweet sauce and potatoes.
We have to be on the road at 7am tomorrow, so I best head to bed.
I’m just drying off after a very wet moto ride back from the PSI office, about 10 minutes away from the hotel. I get the sense that it doesn’t rain for long here, but it rains pretty hard when it does.
I spent a very interesting half-day in Kampong Chnang, a bit over one hour north of Phnom Penh, working with the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a mine action group. Vinh organized the trip for Rick, him and me with the intent of giving Rick (video) and me (photography) the chance to document their work. Golden West is based and run by highly-trained ex-military personnel who partner with national organizations in the countries they work (currently Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua, previously Angola, Mozambique, Iraq and Azerbaijan). They are not a demining organization per se, but rather use their expertise to support initiatives in very creative and sustainable ways, which I will explain.
Our day started very early, at 6am. Rick and I met up in front of his apartment, and a few minutes later Vinh showed up in a white truck driven by Thomas Eisele, the Regional Program Manager for GWF. We drove northwest to Kampong Chnang through pretty thick early morning traffic, with trucks and carts piled high with folks heading into towns for work, plus quite a number of oxen carts. Things change fast in the countryside.
Out at their facility we met Roger Hess, their very articulate and impassioned Director of Field Operations, who led us through their work there. The first major initiative is their explosive harvesting system (EHS) – essentially the recycling of explosive material for re-use in demining and UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance. The explosive charges necessary to destroy mines and munitions are in huge demand in Cambodia because of their decades of war. What GWF does is extract explosives from high-calibre munitions, like old artillery shells, and convert them into explosives to be used by demining organizations. We watched (and documented) the process as GWF-trained and employed technicians cut open 105mm artillery rounds with a bandsaw (we were watching the automated process on video from a hardened location), steamed out the core of explosive material, then cooked and blended into either soft plastic explosive or harder blocks of moulded explosive that can be cut into the necessary sizes. The material they were creating was highly stable and could only be detonated with the addition of a trigger charge. Obviously they demonstrated a high degree of professionalism and care in their work. Additionally, they applied locally relevant technology that could be used as a model for future work with or without them. For example, they had started with a water cutter for the ordnance, but it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy, operate and maintain. They replaced this with a readily available water-cooled bandsaw that has worked flawlessly for thousands of cuts, is locally repairable, and actually works much faster. They did similar with their steamer.
The Foundation also develops new ways of demolishing ordnance in place using less-expensive charges made from recycled RPGs and PVC pipe packed with shaped charges designed to safely destroy explosive material in mines and bombs. One of the more exciting things I got to experience was triggering the detonator to destroy two landmines (in a brick pit a very safe distance away). This is obviously something one can’t do everyday.
The final element that we looked at was their work with explosive detection. What they are developing is inexpensive means to quickly determine the extent of UXO in areas suspected of being contaminated. To do this, they have looked at ways of attaching looped wire arrays, essentially large detectors, onto vehicles. The idea is that this array can be driven in swaths across an area thought to contain UXOs, and audio and visual signals indicate with high accuracy where metal of all kinds is in the ground. These are marked. In this way, it can be quickly determined where UXO exists and, more importantly, where it doesn’t, in a process called area reduction. Clear areas are safe to use, and contaminated areas can be cleared through UXO-clearing action.
The technology isn’t unique to GWF, but what they are doing is creating simple, effective and cheap way to attach the arrays to vehicles. Their prototype is a John Deere Gator to which they mounted a simple hinged PVC pipe frame that could be raised and lowered by a hand crank. The pipe framed strong and inexpensive trucker’s tarp onto which the two arrays were attached. This same system can and has been mounted on a basic hand tractor, ubiquitous in the country, with very limited modification. They have done the same with a full-sized tractor, mounting eight arrays on it which allows for very rapid area reduction.
It was a fascinating morning, and I have about 250 images to process and share with Golden West. With luck I can use my connections with them to do more similar work next time I’m in-country.
Thomas drove us back into town and treated us to a tasty (and unhealthy) lunch at the Cadillac Bar next to my hotel. I had grilled cheese and tomato with fries, but Vinh’s dinner hardened my arteries looking at it and was far more dangerous than any of the munitions we’d seen earlier in the day. He had chicken fried steak – two massive pieces of deep-fried beef – plus he substituted the mashed potatoes for fries and the steamed veggies for an omelette. Somehow he made it through, but his eyes were pretty glassy by the end of it.
Rick went to work at the Post, Vinh probably went to bed and I grabbed a moto over to the PSI offices (south of the Independence Monument on s.334). There I met up with staff, American and local, and arranged things for my days there. They will keep me busy with outreach locally tomorrow night, then an overnight trip into the countryside to the south on Wednesday, which should prove an amazing experience.
Tonight – a night out with Vinh and Sue, and hopefully Rick, to see Phnom Penh’s seamy underbelly, which should help me understand some of what PSI’s work here is all about.
It’s a lot of fun to be back in Phnom Penh, and it’s certainly several rungs up the energy ladder from Vientiane. After Laos, it’s noisy (lots of honking), the streets are dusty and crowded with scooters and tuk tuks and cyclos and trucks and cars, the sidewalks are jammed full of stalls and scooters and people sitting around, and there’s simply a lot more city than in Vientiane. It’s hotter, too, about 28 or 30 degrees, and fairly humid, so it’s easy to get sweaty walking around the streets.
Rob, Meriem and I had a good night out on friday. Our meal at Le Centrale was great. I had onion soup and tilapia served on a round of mashed potatoes and smothered in creamy sauce, and we all shared a bottle of French wine. For dessert we walked to a place near the fountain called Ty Na or something like that, and had a pair of very good crepes – one flaming one with bananas and rum, and one full of ice cream and chocolate sauce. I was very pleasantly stuffed after that. Rob and Meriem walked me the ten minutes to my hotel and we said our goodbyes.
Getting to Phnom Penh was very straightforward – a short van ride to Wattay airport, quick check-in, a bottle of lao lao hooch in the duty free, then I boarded my Vietnam Airlines flight for the one hour flight south. I sat next to a very young-seeming backpacker from Atlanta, working her way through Southeast Asia and Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. She seemed to be enjoying her adventures. I provide what tips I could about Phnom Penh.
I had a good laugh when I arrived at the airport and made my way out of the terminal. My friend Vinh Dao, a journalist who has worked with the Cambodia Daily and is now freelancing, sent a tuk tuk driver friend to meet me, and there he was holding up a big red Anchor beer box with my name written on it, much to the amusement of all the other drivers around him. Piy (Pee? Pi?) was his name, and he drove me to the Paragon Hotel on the riverfront. It was a lively, hot and dusty trip; very stimulating.
Vinh booked me into the Paragon. It’s a decent place to stay with a good bed, hot water, fridge, and more. It’s clean and very central. Initially I was in a riverfront room, but today have moved to the back of the hotel because of the incessant honking.
I made some phone calls and got settled, and wandered the great streets around the hotel. There are several markets close by, and no shortage of stimulation (and “moto-dops” and tuk tuk drivers offering rides, often to unsavoury locations). In fact, the ubiquitous moto-dops are very useful: for a dollar they will drive you almost anywhere in the central city. I’ve already used them a number of times.
Speaking of dollars, I’d forgotten that the USD is the de facto currency here, at least for folks like me. In fact, bank machines dispense dollars. The only time that I’ve got Riel is when I’ve been given change for amount less than a dollar (there are 4,000 Riel to the USD right now).
I got out on one PSI Cambodia project last night – an MSM drop-in centre about 5-10 minutes by car from the hotel. It was karaoke night, so the folks sat on the floor and crooned along with Cambodian pop songs. There was also a group game, although I’m not sure what was being taught through it, and a quiz with prizes. I’m pretty sure that the object of that was male sexual health. Green mango with chili and salt was being passed around as a snack and I helped myself to a fair whack as it’s delicious stuff.
I was there for about an hour, then returned to the hotel and called another friend, Rick Valenzuela, who is from New Jersey and is here working for the Phnom Penh Post. I’ve known Rick for about four years, though internet photo groups, but last night was the first time that I’ve met him in person. Since 2004, he has lived in the US, Chiang Mai and Dakar, Senegal, and has now returned here (he used to work for the Daily).
He has a great second-storey corner loft just a block from the hotel and also on the riverfront. It’s a classic Phnom Penh concrete building, and we sat on the curved corner balcony surrounded by a huge number of plants, and drank Mekong Whiskey with the tabby cat who came with the apartment. We were joined by one and then another staffer from the Post who happened to walk by and was beckoned up from the balcony. Both lived very close by.
At around 11pm, we heard from Vinh and walked the 15 minutes to the Rock Bar (which is actually called the Zeppelin Café). It is one of my favourite spots in Phnom Penh. The owner loves his classic rock and has a great vinyl library. He spends his time behind a couple of turntables and spins tracks all night. He doesn’t play the usual classic rock dreck you hear on the radio, but a great mix of hard rock, heavy metal, early punk and more. Rick and I had a few drinks ($1 Ricard on ice for me), then Vinh and Sue showed up. We chatted and drank there until after 1am, and ordered some great Chinese-style dumplings. They were up for going out some more, but I hit my sleepy wall, so we hopped on respective motos and were driven home.
Another favourite spot of mine here is the Chi Cha Indian restaurant, about four short blocks northwest of my hotel. I had breakfast there this morning at about 10am – an omelette, dahl, chapati and chai for $2.50. I had dinner there last night as well. I can imagine myself going to Chi Cha quite a few more times before I head home.
Today is sunday so there wasn’t a ton to do shooting-wise, so I mostly just walked the streets after breakfast. I strolled over to the Central Market, then to the new Sorya mall, where I bought a pile of DVDs to talk home to folks for Xmas presents. I moto’d back to the hotel just after noon and switch rooms, then wandered out again. I decided to walk down Street 63, which runs south from the Central Market. It is apparently where many brothels are found, so I figured that it would be relevant for my PSI work to see where they are and what they are like, but I didn’t spot one. They have to be there – the street is infamous for them – but I guess that I don’t know what to look for. There were no red lights, no legions of women sitting out front, no pimps dragging you in. Oh well. I’ll ask Sue about it tonight.
I went back into Sorya mall, partly to cool down and have a drink, but also to pick up a few more DVDs (at $1.50 each, it’s kind of addictive). The light was getting nice, so I returned to the hotel to get my Leica and wandered for about an hour and hopefully got a few decent street shots. Excellent material here to work with, regardless.
I’ll be meeting Vinh and Sue in about 20 minutes for dinner down at Le Cedre for Lebanese food, so I’d better get ready.