Posts Tagged ‘Photography’
My last night in Laos – the 29th – was a lively one by Lao standards. I joined my old friends from last year’s malaria project (Tak, Saen, Seng and Dao) for a night on the town. We started at the expansive waterfront bar Moon the Night (not sure what that means), where a crate of Beer Lao was delivered to the table and there were various things to nibble on. At around 9 or so we decamped to a karaoke bar near That Louang for some crooning. Only one of them (identity protected) had a woman sit with him; I can only imagine the agony of one’s days spent listening to men yowl along to the latest Lao and Thai hits.
I was home by 11, I think. And I’ll be ice in my beer kept me sober (I’m learning to nurse my drinks long enough to get me through an evening without wobbling).
My flight for Hanoi left in the late afternoon, and to be honest I was worried about how I was going to spend the day as I really had drained Vientiane of options. Fortunately Dao was having a party at his house as he lives near a part of the river where there was a boat race festival. Apparently it’s traditional – if you live by the river – to host all of your friends, feeding and beering them under a canopy. Tak picked me up at the hotel and we joined Dao for a few hours of sitting and grazing. Once again I nursed a small amount of beer through the afternoon.
I arrived at the very quiet airport in plenty of time for my 17:50 flight on Vietnam Airlines. The flight was fine although I was disappointed not to be fed even a peanut or cracker in the course of the one hour flight. The time on board was extended by 50% when we sat on the taxiway for half an hour behind some other plane. I worked on reading my book.
I picked up my visa on arrival and was met by a PSI driver. We zipped into town, then got, bogged down in traffic, as expected, but eventually I made it to my hotel. I was very pleased with the Hanoi Elite, a two week-old little gem in quiet alley in the old quarter. I had a very nicely appointed little room in a modern Asian style, and the staff were very pleasant and helpful, running out to get me a SIM card or a moto driver, and providing excellent breakfast.
I was tired and hungry, but it was Saturday night in Hanoi, so I grabbed my camera and spent a couple of hours wandering the streets and photographing the highly-aesthetic chaos. Nothing is quite like Hanoi traffic, and organic mass of scooters with the odd car screwing things up like a clot in an artery. Crossing streets is much the same as it was in 2004 – walk steadily and let everything flow around you; hesitate or run and you’re likely to get in trouble. There is a new dangerous element however – it is not unusual for a rider to be text messaging on the scooter. Danger danger.
I enjoyed a bowl of pho ga at a streetside stall, squatting on a 6′ high stool and watching the world flow by. The chicken broth put a dent in my sore throat (which lasted until today – November 1).
The next day – Sunday and Halloween – was a free day for me in Hanoi, so I woke at 6am, hand breakfast in the hotel, then hit the streets. I crisscrossed, circled and ambled my way around the Old Quarter, savouring its vibrance and looking for spots I remembered. I also noticed the changes. It’s quite likely that I have a selective memory, but it really seems to me that there are a lot more tourists and backpackers than there were, and a lot more restaurants and bars catering to them. And locals responded differently, probably tired of being photographed and being in the constant presence of travellers.
I had a few enjoyable interactions, particularly in one case where I stopped to watch two men and one boy sanding the rust off an old disassembled child’s bike. The boy stood at the ready with a can of blue spray paint. The pulled up a stool and invited me to join them, so I did, communicating what I could and photographing the scene.
I had fantastic Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa) in a cluster of coffee shops on Trong Thanh and a massive and delicious lunch of bún chả hà nội (fried spring rolls, grilled meat, noodles, greens and soup) at Dac Kim on Hàng Mành Street (recommended by Vinh).
I laid down for a rest in the afternoon but didn’t really sleep, and got up around 4pm to catch the better light. A visit to the Temple of Literature turned out to be a bit of a mistake; it was totally mobbed and just moderately interesting. Well, it does have an impressive history and some interesting stellae celebrating ancient professors, but I didn’t feel moved. The moto ride through the Old Quarter, however, was very exciting and warranted shooting lots of video clips.
Three years ago in Luang Prabang while photographing the Luang Prabang Children’s Cultural Centre I met a CUSO Cooperant named Derin. It turns out that she’s now in Hanoi working for Oxfam Canada, so I joined her, her mom and sister for a dinner in an open-air restaurant southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake not far from the railway station. We caught up on what we’ve been up to and enjoyed a variety of Vietnamese dishes, prepared in hawker-like stands around the periphery. The dinner came to $5, or 100,000 Dong each with beer. Yes, Vietnam is still very cheap (and this wasn’t street food).
I enjoyed my last evening scooter ride through the city and slept nearly a full night.
Today it was back to work with PSI, but it was a very enjoyable and full day. My guide, Ms Ngoc, and a driver showed up at 8am for a long, slow drive to Hải Phòng (100kms in two hours). Ms Ngoc is like many of the PSI local staff I’ve worked with – very bright and helpful. Prior to work with PSI she was with Save the Children, and she spent time studying in Switzerland. She fell asleep in the car.
We passed straight through Hải Phòng, continuing another 20kms to Đồ Sơn, a resort town on the coast. It was actually pleasant, with a cool breeze, shady trees and a reasonable waterfront. We spent our time with Mr Thu, the local distributor for PSI’s Number 1 condoms. I learned a great deal from the experience. Here, hotels and guesthouses are largely responsible for providing condoms for their sex workers, but they are also seemingly the central organizing element in the sex trade. Quite often, women were based in the guesthouses and sent around the town to clients on the back of motorbikes. It was a surreal scene as the place was actually quite deserted-seeming, but there was a steady buzz of women in tight pants and heels being delivered here and there. Condoms also seem to be quite a commodity. PSI is interested in encouraging as much use of their high-quality condoms as possible, but they face competition from cheaper Chinese ones. When guesthouses run through 10 shoebox-sized boxes of them in a week, I guess economies of scale come into play. So Mr. Thu has to actively promote his product.
He drove around town with a big box of Number 1s on the back of his scooter and we followed in our car. He chatted up and made sales of varying sizes to street stall vendors and guesthouse operators, and pitched the condoms to the sex workers directly. I documented it all.
Late in day we rolled back to Hải Phòng and spent a couple of hours with the female sex worker outreach team – Sống đẹp (“Clean Living) – first in their office where they mocked up a series of 1-on-1 education sessions with sex workers, then in the field. We didn’t have any success getting into any entertainment establishments, which we expected, but I was able to photograph outreach to a couple of street workers. Much of what I’m doing is carefully shot to preserve the identity of the sex worker.
Hải Phòng is bustling and dusty, but not ugly (for the most part), and I got to see a lot of it as we drove around after the outreach teams. PSI has put my up in the decent Bach Dang Hotel in the centre of town on Dien Bien Phu Street. Ms Ngoc led us to a decent and filling dinner of pork cake and rice noodles dipped in sour-saltly-sweet-spicy soup. I was back in the hotel in plenty of time to write this and backup all of the 300 images I took today.
It has been a slow-paced four days in Vientiane which kind of suits the nature of the city. On Tuesday we set up a list of photo subjects for my time here. It seemed impressive, but I managed to get through it all quite easily. Generally my days have begun with a fairly early rise and a quite-tasty buffet breakfast (mixed Asian and western food) at the hotel. The PSI driver arrives in his truck and we crawl through the chaotic yet slow traffic to the office where my days were arranged. I covered a whole range of subjects including:
- Visits to pharmacies to document birth control options (including Chinese abortion pills) and to private clinics with Tick, the team leader from last-year’s malaria project in Attapeu;
- The PSI warehouse plus the facilities of Diethelm, their new distributor;
- The “New Friends” MSM (men who have sex with men) drop-in centre, including their new branding plus information and counselling sessions;
- A new text messaging program encouraging people to get free HIV testing;
- Wandering the Morning Market looking for moms with kids to photograph for the reproductive health program;
- TB training for staff;
- A primitive clinic that provides exams and treatment for female sex workers;
- Outreach to female sex workers in the Ramayana Hotel karaoke bar; and
- PSI staff group photos.
I am happy to have accomplished all that was laid out for me. I’ve had plenty of time to wander the streets of the central city between shoots or after my day’s work. I’ve had some tasty food, particularly phe (or pho noodles) and café lao, the best of both I’ve decided are on Heng Boun Road, west of the Lao Cultural Hall. I also found really good pad thai at a stall where Heng Boun meets Chao Anou Road.
I’ve enjoyed finding a good spot to have a café lao or Beer Lao and sit watching street life or reading a book on my ebook reader.
There’s really not a whole lot else to write about. I haven’t found much personal photographic inspiration here which is probably partly a function of having spent quite a bit of time here before, of Vientiane not being that inspiring, and of the fact that my last two trips – to India and to the Arctic – were incredibly inspiring.
First day out with my new used Nikon D40. With the Voigtlander 20mm f/3.5, it makes a great little kit. Thanks, Nate, for sending it from Japan.
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.