July 30, 2002

Genocide, Preah Vihear, Moving and Another Bike Trip


Well, the past few weeks have been fairly eventful here in Cambodia. After I last wrote I spent some time working on the ADRA Cambodia web page. On Tuesday a couple of guys from the GC were here for a quick visit and I acted as the tour guide for the afternoon. We stopped at the Russian Market (where you can buy just about anything for a good price) and then visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was a very sobering visit, since the museum is housed in a former school that served as a prison during Khmer Rouge years. Visiting this site reminded me of concentration camps in Germany and of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The first part of the museum consists of interrogation rooms, followed by prison cells. Pictures of prisoners who passed through the complex hang on many of the walls in these areas. The final section of the museum has some artwork about the period and some of the devices used in interrogation sessions. This museum is a reminder of the atrocities that took place here in the late 70s. Pretty much everyone here has a story to tell about the Khmer Rouge years. One local ADRA employee even recognized a shirt in the museum because it had belonged to one of his parents who were killed by the Khmer Rouge. My visit to Tuol Sleng was very sad, but it made me realize how precious the current state of peace is here in Cambodia.

The following day I got together some computer supplies, helped Ben load up one of the ADRA vehicles with large metal molds used to make cement well rings, and headed towards Preah Vihear Province. On the way we (Ben & Sharon Davis and I) stopped for lunch at the $2 Indian place and then purchased some additional computer supplies. By the time we got everything sorted out it was getting late and we ended up driving to Ben & Sharon's house in Kompong Thmal. This is the same area where the project I normally work on is located, but Ben & Sharon don't actually live there at the moment. After a good nights sleep we piled back in the ADRA truck and continued on towards Preah Vihear province. Along the way we had several stops as Ben & Sharon have been here several years and seem to know people all along the road, many of whom they have business of some sort with. For example, one person we talked to was doing a welding job for Ben, another wanted to give Ben a pet python, and we purchased 4 bicycles (not assembled) for the Preah Vihear project from another man. We also had a stop for lunch along the way, but eventually made it to Preah Vihear. The trip from Phnom Penh takes about a minimum of 6 hours in the dry season, but usually takes a bit more than that, depending on how bad the road is. The last 3 hours (dry season time) is dirt and I think it took us about 4 hours this time as it was in pretty good shape. When the road is in bad shape the trip can extend to 5 or 6 hours.

Upon arrival at the project office I looked around a little bit and tried to answer a few computer questions that the staff asked me. The ADRA project in Preah Vihear is called the WELL (Water Empowerment Learning Livelihoods) project and one of their functions is to dig wells. On the grounds of the project office they have people making the cement rings that are used to line the well so that it does not cave in. The main purpose of my trip was to setup a small network in the project office so that they could share the printer and make backups more easily. Since we arrived fairly late in the day on Thursday I did most of my work on Friday. The network I setup is very small, but they do have nice wall mounted network jacks and cables that are run under the floor now.

This particular project is fairly remote. The only electricity is from a generator and they do not have any telephone, cell phone or email access. I also didn't see any sign of running water, except when it was raining and running off the roof. Currently the only link to the outside world is via radio, but even that has been acting up lately. For emergencies a nearby government organization (I think) has a reliable radio. Ironically, another project in the area has outfitted some of the local schools with satellite based broadband Internet connections, but they are quite strict about only allowing the students to use the connection. I guess they had to get a special permit from the government and they are quite strict about what it is used for.

During my visit I stayed with Ben & Sharon, first in a rented house. On Sunday however I helped them move into their new house which they are in the process of building. They decided that with three walls and a waterproof roof, it was good enough to move in to. Minor details like plumbing, windows, and doors will come later. I must say however, that even in this state the new house is much nicer than the one they were renting. I have pictures of both in my photo album. One of the nicest things about the new house is the location. The nearest neighbor is about 2-3 kilometers away and the house is surrounded by jungle. There is quite a bit of rush hour traffic on their road, but it is made up almost entirely of cows. Apparently there are good grazing grounds a few more kilometers past their house. Another nice feature of the new house is that Ben & Sharon also have a rather large area fenced off where they keep several pets including geese and some other birds. During my stay I was introduced to public showers, where you use a scarf-like piece of cloth called a krama to keep yourself covered while showering. In the rented house the "shower" consisted of a large clay jar under the house filled with rainwater, while in the new house it was a large plastic bucket on the front porch, also filled with rainwater. Here in Cambodia the krama is a multi-purpose device that can be used as a rope, head covering, nose and mouth cover to keep out the dust, shade from the sun, shower outfit, towel, swimsuit, shopping bag, etc and is carried by both men and women.

For Sabbath we had church at Ben & Sharon's new house (the day before they moved in). There is a small company in the area that normally meets at the pastor's house. I experienced a new form of prayer that I had never encountered before, just after the Sabbath school and church services. The spirit world is very, very real for people here in Cambodia with many wearing special good luck charms and getting tattoos designed to protect them. It is fairly common when a new member joins the church to have a ceremony to remove all of these charms as the new believer comes under God's protection and no longer needs them. Ben & Sharon's house is located near a cemetery and many of the local people are scared of the area, especially after dark. So, perhaps at least partly because of the location, the company of believers decided to conduct a prayer session asking God to drive away any evil spirits and to keep Ben & Sharon safe in their new house. The pastor began the prayer, but after an introduction (I guess, it was all in Khmer) all of the members began praying their own prayers at the same time. This alone was not new to me, except that everyone prayed in a normal talking voice at the same time so the result was a bit of a cacophony. It was an interesting experience that sort of caught me by surprise, but I'm sure God was able to hear each of the individual prayers that were offered.

Sabbath after church we took a walk to the site of an old dam. Apparently this dam was constructed using forced labor during the Khmer Rouge years. They made most of it out of dirt, but created a large concrete section with gates for controlling the water flow. Once the dam was completed they stopped the flow of the river. I guess nobody calculated where the water would back up to however, because a very large area was flooded as a result of the dam. In fact, a much larger area was flooded than the area that was to benefit from being irrigated using the dam, the water was released and the dam sits unused.

On Monday I was planning to catch an early taxi back towards Phnom Penh (one change is involved), but ended up missing the last one (at about 7:30am). Since I was hoping to be back to Phnom Penh that day, I decided to try another mode of travel. I first took a motodope (scooter taxi) about 8-10 km to the main road ($1.50). The moto driver was a church member and was quite aggressive in flagging down a passing truck. He negotiated a seat between the driver and his helper in the truck cab for $1.00 to Kompong Thom where I would be able to catch a taxi to Phnom Penh. This particular truck was carrying rice and since trucks usually don't drive as fast as taxis, the 3 hour dirt road trip turned into around 4.5 hours. The rice truck dropped me off a couple of kilometers outside of town where they stopped to unload the rice, so I took another moto in to town and actually found a taxi fairly quickly even though it was about 6:15 pm by this time and most people travel earlier in the day here. It was a long day, but the taxi made good time since there is less traffic at night. It is rather interesting though that the young people like to hang out on the road at night. They basically sit on the edge of the pavement with their backs to the traffic flying past them. I'm not really sure what the draw is, but the road ends up lined with groups of people who are nearly invisible at night. I'm told that when the floods come people move their animals on to the road as well since it is the only dry area (the roads are the highest ground around usually). This leaves you with a narrow corridor for traffic to make its way through the collection of animals, people to watch the animals, and other more "typical" road hazards.

Back in Phnom Penh things were fairly quiet until Frank returned from a trip and the moving began. Frank (the ADRA Cambodia Country Director) and his family live in a house with a couple of separate rooms at the back for volunteers. The land lady at the old house decided to sell it so we had to find a new one and I was the lucky one in charge of moving all the boxes and furniture to the new place. The two houses are fairly similar in size and configuration, although I think the new one is a little bit nicer. I ended up spending part of Thursday with the three ADRA guards helping, all day Friday with four hired moto drivers (they each got $5 for a full day of heavy lifting), and part of Monday morning moving. The most "fun" part was when we had to lower very heavy wooden furniture over the balcony using ropes since the staircase has a tight corner in it. At least now everything is moved and I'm all settled in to my new room. Frank and his family aren't very settled yet since they are all in Germany at the moment and haven't had a chance to unpack yet.

The weekend was fairly low key with another Saturday night of games and another house warming party on Sunday. I also met another volunteer from PUC who is here doing some video projects for a couple of months.

On Monday after all of the moving was finished I went to a hotel where they have a hot tub, sauna, steam room and cold pool. They also have a movie room where you can watch DVDs with the AC blasting cold air. Entrance is $6 but for an extra $5 you also get a massage. Since I was feeling some new muscles I decided to spring for the $11 and get the one hour massage, which was wonderful. The cold pool was also great; it was cold enough that I started feeling faint in less than a minute.

On Tuesday I went up to the Child Survival project in Kompong Thmal, but ended up coming back on Wednesday to deal with some computer problems in Phnom Penh. There also weren't really enough staff in the office to have English classes since several were on leave and others were busy in the villages during class time.

Thursday night I went to a brand new Japanese restaurant located in a brand new hotel. I went with Ryan, a contractor who is here from the states for a short time. He has worked with ADRA at least two times before this trip. A couple of his friends who work for another NGO here in Cambodia also came along. The restaurant experience was quite interesting because we were the only customers (they haven't started advertising the place at all yet). There was a staff of around 10 people who spent the whole time watching our table and making sure everything was just right. I had some cucumber sushi rolls and some miso soup with tofu that was really nice.

Friday afternoon Ryan and I each rented a motorbike and we headed down to Kep, which is near the city of Kampot (I visited both of these places on my first bike trip over Khmer New Year). This time we rented bigger bikes than what I used on my previous trips. They are just bigger in that they are taller and have more clearance, the engines are still 250s. Upon arrival in Kep we found a nice guesthouse located right on the ocean and rented the "expensive" $7 room. Normal rooms are $5 but the one we got was on the second (top) floor with a balcony and window overlooking the water. It was pretty much dark when we got there, but we decided to go for a swim anyway, and it was really nice with all the stars out. There was enough breeze that there were even some semi-decent waves, although body surfing wasn't really possible.

Sabbath morning after breakfast we set out to explore a road near Kampot that we had both heard might lead to a proper waterfall. Ryan had even heard that it might be a back road to Bokor Mountain. Well, the first part of the road is nice and paved and leads to some rapids that the Khmers refer to as a waterfall. I think I mentioned this spot in an earlier email. After the picnic areas the road deteriorates considerably. We kept following it for a couple of hours, and a while after a fun stream crossing we decided that the "road" was getting a bit too overgrown since we were constantly riding in a hunched position to avoid low branches. We parked the bikes and stashed some of our stuff, then hiked on up the trail for another hour or so before stopping for a picnic lunch by the river. Crossing the stream was probably the most fun part of the motorbike trip, although the least fun part was trying to get the bikes kick started afterwards (and other times). I wound up with several scrapes and bruises from failed kick start attempts, and I think I'll stick to electric starters next time. Along the trail we saw one rather impressive set of rapids that would make for some very exciting rafting (which we're guessing is the rumored "waterfall"), several groups of Khmers harvesting bamboo from the forest and transporting it back out along the road/trail to town on their bicycles, and a few pits by the side of the road which I suspect were gem mines, although I'm not sure. We also saw several areas that had obviously been used for camping at some point and one large hawk. Not long after we parked the bikes and started hiking we came to overgrown areas where the branches were low enough that we had to hunch over (nearly crawling) to get under them, and other spots where fallen trees would have made motorbike passage very difficult. Needless to say, we were glad to be on foot. On the way back to town we stopped at the picnic area, rented some inner tubes, walked a little ways up stream and then rode down the rapids. It was a nice bumpy ride and the cool water felt really good after a day of hiking and riding. By the time we stopped swimming in the river it was well after dark so we drove back to Kampot and got a $5 hotel room. I pretty much just took a shower and went right to sleep.

In the morning we got up fairly early and headed back to Phnom Penh since Ryan wanted to get some work done in the office. The ride back was fairly uneventful although it was quite nice to get off the bikes by the time we pulled in to the rental shop.

The last two days I've been here in the Phnom Penh office working on a few computer problems. I've also been trying to get a replacement part for one of the Child Survival Project computers. It looks like I'll be heading up to Kompong Thmal tomorrow.

Well, this update has gotten to be a bit long. I guess I shouldn't have waited so long to write. Anyway, that's the news from Cambodia!

Until next time,


Posted by andrew on July 30, 2002