Saturday, November 30, 2013

Krama vs Kroma

The word has a variety of spellings including those above and khramer but more importantly it refers to those mostly checked but sometimes striped cloths that are seen everywhere in Cambodia.

They are a local must have. No-one leaves home without at least one and they are so versatile. They are sold to tourists too and are truly are irresistible. The more you see them used in every day life the more they seem to appeal. Almost every traveller passing through Cambodia has at least one and we are no exception.  In addition we have had to purchase a few as small gift items even though we were not planning to buy gifts.  One hotel even gave us 2 as a parting gift as we had spent more than the usual one or two nights in their establishment.

The biggest surprise is that no monks ever seem to use them, although everything else a monk requires is manufactured in orange for his exclusive use. Yes I do love that.

I guess it comes as no surprise that in the big towns and cities there are hundreds of shops selling them but you almost never see a local wearing one.  Many, many of the outlets are also proud to state that their supply has been produced by women in a co-operative or empowerment to end poverty project, or that their sale is in some other way supporting worthy causes and charities. This of course is even more reason to purchase and may explain why we now seem to possess over a dozen of them!

 So what exactly are they you ask? Perhaps the pictures below will help.

They vary in size, shape and colour but can be used as:

a scarf,

a belt,

a sunhat, 

a sarong, 

a cushion for a head load,

a towel,

a cleaning cloth, 

a blanket,

a shawl,

a sunshade,

a curtain,

a turban,

a hammock for a baby or child,

an apron,

a wrapping cloth for carrying goods,

a strap,

a tablecloth,

a sling for carrying a child,

and doubtless many other things.

I even saw someone tie 2 drinking bottles together in one and then tie it around his waist!  

My only regret is that I didn’t cotton on to their significance sooner and make it my mission to photograph every use I saw them put to: just one more reason to return to Cambodia I suppose.

If you think you really need one yourself put in your request quickly as we are heading to Bangkok on the 8am bus tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Save the children and end poverty …… but how?

There is no doubt that Cambodia is poor: so very poor in so many of the places we have visited, that it is heart wrenching but it is not depressing and we have seen very little begging and a lot of determined, hard work that results in people making enough to eke out a basic existence. There are maimed beggars on the streets of Phnom Penh but very few of them. The street kids, who work and sell trinkets, food, books, toys and mostly “friendship bands”, are the ones that really break my heart. They are a visible force in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I can’t help but wonder if these working street kids ever have time to play and it is obvious that they will never go to school. It strikes me that it is ironic that many are selling toys for other children to play with.

Remembering the Child Safe Travel rules we refuse to buy from them but it is so hard to say no and not even give them food or money. If they are able to earn their keep they will never be taken off the streets. I know that. It is always better to buy from the many charities that sell products made by parents so that their children can go to school. Nice reasoning but seeing those skinny kids with dirty faces and imploring eyes, is a different story.

In Battambang we saw more homeless people and more outright begging than in any other place we have been. It is impossible not to wonder about a communist system that has no safety net for its citizens. At the bus station and around the market place, young women carrying babies stand silently before you and wordlessly beg for handouts. We saw young boys openly sniffing glue and others sleeping in the street and yet there are as many NGOs and aid agencies operating there as anywhere else in the country. Why the greater numbers of people who are vulnerable, and disadvantaged? I cannot explain it.

Although there is wealth in Cambodia, there is also glaring poverty. Still, desperately poor, elderly people smile, sometimes with black lacquered teeth and continue to work and be productive members of their communities. Retirement is not a known concept as far as I can see. I actually don’t think they would even understand why it exists. Instead they sell flowers at the temples, run stalls in the markets, weave bamboo and rattan, man the shops when someone needs to dash out, sell bottled water from roadside ice-chests and are the primary child minders, as is the case in many Asian societies.

Young children wave and shout hello at every available opportunity. A couple of days ago a couple of kids walking home from school as we rode by on bikes shouted "Hello Vietnam! Happy New Year!" I can only assume that they had a Vietnamese delegation visit their school and were taught to say that. Speaking of schools we have seen so many children who do not have the chance to attend school here, even if they are not working. What is their future, if they never get an education? How must they feel watching others attend school and knowing they will not?

As we have bussed around the country we have noticed the many newly built schools often funded by Korean or Japanese agencies and seen hoards of school children going to and from schools in even the most remote of villages. There is a wide variety of different types of schools and at least Khmer, English and Chinese medium schools as far as we have seen, but still some children simply fall through the net and never get there. Those that do attend seem to understand that it is a privilege and they have been proud to speak to us and answer our many questions in their halting English.

73.9 % of the population aged 15 and over can read and write according to The CIA World Fact Book statistics. (Why should I trust that source and what other stats are actually available?) The New Internationalist claims it is officially 85% but more likely 70%. Even that figure is better than some and worse than other countries in the region, with Myanmar at 92.7% according to The World Fact Book, and Laos at 72.7% and Bhutan at 52.8%. I personally see Myanmar and Cambodia to be similar in terms of literacy levels but what do I know.  I have only my subjective observations to rely on. I am forced to doubt that the stats reflect anything of the real situation in most of these countries. They don’t seem to paint an accurate picture and may be based on nebulous data. Regardless it still means those children, who don’t get an education are even more disadvantaged.

Not for the first time in South East Asia we are shocked about the plight of many of the children and wonder just how anyone can change that. How much does it cost to send a child to school? How unattainable is that figure when the lack of the child’s own income is also factored in? I don’t have the answers.

It is obvious that the vulnerability of these children is often exploited and the government agencies are trying to implement policies to provide protection but it just doesn’t seem to be making progress. There are also numerous international agencies working here to bring about lasting social change by empowering the people and providing training and the necessary skills to enable them to improve their lives and earn an income with which they can support their families, but I wonder about how successful they are in the long term and how far reaching their impact is.

We have certainly come to think that there may be a role for us to play in Cambodia at some point in the future.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


We made the right decision to head here to Kratie from Phnom Penh but oh what a journey it was!! The bus took a very circuitous route taking 9 hours not 7 and 20-year old wrestling programs and bad movies played on the screen all the way. Hulk Hogan and The Hitman - with some very nice mullet hair styles!! OMG It was a nightmare.

Outside, rubber plantations, rice paddies and orchards of pomelos, pineapples, dragon fruit and mangos to say nothing of the cashew trees were a much better bet but the volume and the images on the screen keep drawing me back to it even when I had no interest.  I willed them to at least turn the volume down but to no avail!! Eventually we made it and the silence of the sunset on the Mekong on arrival was that much more appealing after that journey.

Yesterday we had the best day yet. We took a boat out into the Mekong from Kampi just 16 kms up the dusty track from Kratie and saw the endangered fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins. I am not sure why the Irrawaddy dolphins actually live in the Mekong but they have for hundreds of years so let’s just ignore the name eh. 

Lots and lots of them were playing in a deep water pool and regularly surfacing to breath. Though they only briefly skim the surface we could see them. Sometimes we glimpsed just the top of their rounded heads and blowholes and tails and their shadows moving through the water. It was magical to be close enough to be able to hear them breathing.

We were suspicious of the tours that stated that you would definitely see them knowing that there are only between 60 an 70 left in the world and a very endangered species, but so very glad to have our suspicions proved wrong.  We knew to ask the boatman to turn off the engine so that we would disturb them a little as possible but he didn’t have to be told he knew too. He also took genuine delight in seeing our reactions and pointing out where they were surfacing despite the fact that he does this everyday. He too loved the experience and wanted us to enjoy it as much as possible.

I never got any great shots but I was so happy to see them I just stopped trying. Sometimes your eyes are the best camera you could ask for and I just didn't want to think that I had missed seeing any of them because I was staring through a lens. I will long remember that one-hour up close with such gentle and shy creatures. They are not at all like the seawater versions that will swim and play with people.

So tomorrow it is back on the buses and onward ho for us. Thanks Kratie but you can keep the wrestling give me the dolphins any day!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Convivial Kampot

Over a week has zoomed by in Cambodia and we are really enjoying the new sights and people. Without having much of a plan we headed off to Kampot in the southwest knowing that we would have to return to Phnom Penh to visit any of the other places we had in mind. We knew that it was a coastal town with a history of pepper plantations and not much else when we selected this as our first stop-off.

Kampot is a pleasant surprise on the backpacker trail. It is largely unrestored but has a genuine charm whilst still being not much more than a dusty rundown collection of decaying, colonial buildings and rapidly constructed concrete homes and hotels. There are certainly a few well-restored and beautifully appointed places in town but they are not the norm. It is home to a large number of expats and a wide variety of cafes, many of which sponsor organizations supporting the needy in the community.

Our hotel experience was nothing short of a “Monty Python” episode. It began with a $2 ride from the bus station in a tuk tuk. That seemed like a more than reasonable price until we realized it was less than 400metes! OK, it was our mistake as we were without a map. Google maps had our hotel plum in the middle of the river! With all our luggage we were better safe than sorry in a tuk tuk so it was not so much to pay for the lesson.

At reception there were tables lined up with florescent lights burning brightly and covered with newspaper to direct the maximum light toward the table and not above it. Huddled around the table were 6 young women all with tweezers in hand carefully examining white gelatinous masses floating in water in bowls. Mmmmm … Oh well! One of these women extricated herself from the group and hastily and perfunctorily confirmed we did have a booking, so she had to check us in. Well, she thrust a piece of paper in front of us and glared while we filled it in.

We stromped upstairs and along an endless corridor to arrive in a somewhat dirty triple room, not the double we booked but how can one more bed be such an issue? We could see the pool, which lured us to book this hotel from the window and that too did not bode well. Surrounded by rampant construction with what appeared to be rubble on the bottom and concrete dust floating on the surface, it was not the best look for a pool.

Within minutes, we also ascertained that we couldn’t connect to the internet from this room and without further ado our now somewhat disgruntled staff member instructed us to, “Change room.” Right next-door was a double that was in fact cleaner, so good move! She promptly returned to her table in the reception area leaving both rooms and both keys! Good thing as it turns out as we could now access the pillows and towels and bathroom basin plug (essential for in room laundering…) from the first room so as to supply our new one.

On the way up the stairs (of course there is no lift) we noticed a strange, screeching birdlike sound echoing throughout the hotel. We explored it on the way down and discovered it was coming from room 201, which just happened to have 3 large padlocks on the outside of the door. It sounded like a room full of birds all squawking their beaks off. Pity the neighbours! Avoid the second floor!!We were convinced that it was actually birds in there, but why? The noise was audible throughout the hotel which was quite a feat as both new building as well as much needed renovation work was in progress with its associated crashes, bangs and screeches.

Ian investigated via Google and found out that they were most likely swiftlets.  They produce the edible bird’s nests from which bird’s nest soup and other Asian delicacies are produced. In fact what is going on in the lobby is the cleaning of these “harvested” nests.

The strange noise didn't end once we left the hotel either. Many places in Kampot play loud, recorded bird song to entice the wild birds into enclosures on the roof so they will build their ‘white gold’ nests.  Throughout the town you could hear the chirping cum squawking. The sounds were coming from speakers on this kind of structure on the rooves of many buildings.

We wandered around town decided that despite the eccentricities of this hotel we would stay for few nights and see what is on offer in Kampot. Quite a lot actually! Just wandering the streets it became obvious that this little haven was a magnet for expats and backpackers and that the bird’s nest business is THE local enterprise. As it turned out while we were in town there was a French TV crew filming too. No doubt the authenticity of the place meant not too many alterations were required to recreate the 1940’s set.

Back at the hotel I enquired about the pool at reception and was instructed that we needed to go out of the hotel and turn left at the corner then enter the gate. There is a solid brick wall between the actual hotel and the pool! And well yes it is right in the middle of what will be the new hotel building once they have actually finished building it, probably some time in 2016! In our 3 day stay I did see one foreigner in the water but I simply wasn’t brave enough, what with the arc welding, sawing and hammering going on all around and the lumber piled between the entrance and the pool proper, it didn’t really seem like a very good option.

The only other conversation we had with reception was at checkout when we were told the paltry sum we needed to pay. The bird’s nest business at around a $2,000 a kilo is certainly more lucrative than hospitality and there are no questions asked!

Nonetheless we loved Kampot and the sunsets, the dusty streets, the delicious food, the friendly locals, the small town atmosphere and the eccentricity of the expats.

Next we took ourselves to Sihanoukville where the beach is lovely and the hotel pool was perfect for actually swimming!