Friday, July 29, 2011


Around Tonlé Sap Lake: Floating villages, crocodiles, artisans and Siem Reap nightlife

A “world away from the Cambodia of the countryside” calls the Lonely Planet Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. On Sunday we set about visiting the other part of Cambodia, the people living outside of the main cities in the floating village Kompong Khleang on Tonlé Sap Lake.

On the way there another food specialty was ready for tasting, bamboo sticks filled with sticky rice, beans and coconuts, grilled over open fire. Lecker!

July is when rainy season usually starts, and we #ibmcsc had come to Cambodia prepared for constant heavy rain and occasional flooding, even brought rain coats and umbrellas as advised. Rain hasn’t started pouring down heavily yet so we have been really lucky, and weather conditions have been fine throughout our stay including the weekends out.

Driving through the town on a dust-dry mud road, one can hardly imagine that this will be completely flooded in a just a few weeks. Tonlé Sap Lake serves as a reservoir for the massive amount of water from the Mekong river. For most of the year the Tonlé Sap river drains into the Mekong river in Phnom Penh. During the monsoon, it reverses its flow and pushes water up. The stilts on which the houses are built will serve a purpose, there won’t be any roads, and trees, bushes, everything that is than three or four meters high will be covered with water, a gigantic lake expanding from 2,700 km² to 16,000 km².

Kompong Khleang is not a popular touristic destination. With mostly open houses in town that provide little privacy, we felt a bit uncomfortable about being intruders in this place of tranquility. When we hopped off the van and went for a walk through the town, however, the villagers greeted us with a smile, the children came by asking for our names and gladly accepted the jelly we had brought, an old man proudly waved with his catch and invited us to closer.

Few people come here, and probably rarely such as diverse group from all around the world, so our appearance was probably as special as the experience was for us. The biggest challenge remained communication: In the cities we got around with English pretty well, but here some Khmer language skills would have been helpful to have a meaningful conversation beyond saying “Hello” and “Thank you”.

The village on stilts was already quite impressive, but nowhere near the experience of seeing how people live and work in and around the floating village. The small straw huts offer only basic protection and little more comfort than a battery powered television set. We saw people doing their laundry, washing their dishes, preparing meals over open fire and taking a bath, all in the same brownish Tonlé Sap Lake. We passed the school ship, the local grocery and hardware store and the hairdresser, watched fishermen slowly moving their rowboats through the reeds and young kids maneuvering motor boats with ease.

Back in the village we briefly stopped at a crocodile “farm”, one of the few buildings with stone walls, covered with a few wooden planks that didn’t look highly trustworthy as the “viewing area”.

On the way back to Siem Reap we had lunch, and the fish was certainly the most fresh I had in a long time, pulled alive from a basket in the pond only minutes before it arrived on my plate :-)

In the afternoon we practiced our bargaining skills at Siem Reap’s old market – I got some spices for Fish Amok, now just need to find a supplier for banana leaves in Vienna – and visited Artisans d’Angkor, an independent company that spun off Chantiers-Écoles de formation professionnelle, a professional training school, and now employs over 1,000 artisans producing crafts with various techniques including silk weaving and painting, lacquering and gilding, and wood and stone carving. Visitors are most welcome to the factories and offered free guided tours.

The temple visits in Angkor, where children were desperately trying to sell their goods to tourists, and the tour to the floating village triggered discussions in the evening about poverty tourism, paying poor areas a short visit before hopping back into an air-conditioned vehicle and leaving the place.

What is an appropriate way to learn about the living conditions and be able to share the information with others as we return home? Living with a family for some time would be a much better way to gain the experience than a one day trip, but does that mean you shouldn’t visit at all if you cannot stay for long? What is the right way to help these children, who tearfully claim they need the income so they attend school? There is little doubt that their making money from selling goods on the street will only lower their chances of getting education since their income may actually feed their needy family, but isn’t that a commendable goal and would it wrong to buy something from them?

In Cambodia, with a history of war that damaged buildings, factories, machines and social ties alike, where today volunteers and staff from various non-government and non-profit organizations around the world work on programs to improve education and healthcare, help restoring infrastructure and train tour operators in sustainable tourism and energy conservation, this discussion is necessary, even though there may not be a simple answer. For a comprehensive and balanced summary of pros and cons see the compilation post about the poverty tourism debate.

Discussing politics and social welfare only came to an end when we dived into Seam Reap’s nightlife at the Pyramide, a modern disco with international beats and the occasional interlude of Khmer music.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011


From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: Of crickets, silk worms, and temples

Between two short work weeks comes a long weekend. We left “home” on Friday morning to spend a few days in Siem Reap, 300 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh near Tonle Sap Lake. Once the capital of Cambodia, Siem Reap today is the place where most tourists land to see the dozens of temple ruins of Angkor.

On this trip we were joined by our host’s wife Neang and their boys Peace and Harmony, and fourteen people comfortably fit into a van very similar to last week’s. The road leading north is paved and in reasonable condition. With heavily loaded vehicles of all types connecting the towns and the occasional cow or pig slowly crossing, allow five to six hours for a trip the distance of Vienna – Salzburg.

The countryside looked greener and better developed agriculturally than the south, maybe due to the increasing rainfall as we finally getting into the rainy season. A pit stop along the way was an opportunity for Khim Chamroeun, our tour guide and driver for this trip, who happens to own the hotel in Siem Reap that we would stay at, to get some yummy snacks, crickets! We had tarantulas when we came here, and the kids seemed to enjoy the crickets (or our strange looks watching them), so let’s try!

They are right, crickets taste like chicken, crispy chicken. I couldn’t think of a really good answer to Natali’s question though why we are not simply having chicken then.

Our next stop was the Santuk Silk Farm, which is run by Bud Gibbons, an American Vietnam war veteran who returned to work on social projects, and when the funding for those programs came to end decided to stay and turn a non-profit organization into a socially responsible business, and his Khmer wife Nevin. Bud took us through the whole process of producing silk, starting with the worms enjoying their mulberry bush leave feast, followed by the cocooning which only lasts for about 72 hours, in which time the silk worm produced over 300 meters of fiber. Next, the cocoons are collected and soaked in hot water before multiple fibers are combined to create one silk thread. The last production step is the coloring of the threads. What remains in the pot is an empty cocoon shell and another culinary delight, a cooked silk worm.

The Cambodian silk produced here is stronger and has a yellowish color, most of the silk processed nowadays is Chinese silk though and the thread production here is mostly done for educational purposes. The actual “factory” is an open house with several wooden hand looms, where workers turn the threads into colorful, pretty scarves.

A production facility of different sorts was next on our route, just a few minutes from the silk farm. On both sides of the road stone cutters work on mostly Buddha and a few other statues, from handy palm size to meters high objects. Just standing there watching in the midday heat was cruel, hard to imagine what working here for many hours must be like.

We reached Siem Reap in the afternoon, dropped our stuff in the very spacious rooms at the very special Angkor Spirit Palace hotel, a charming building that gets visitors into the right mood for temple visits right away, and rushed over to the temples to see the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, a Hindu mountain temple ruin on a hill, overlooking Angkor Wat. As the sky darkened with grey clouds, watching the number of tourists climbing up the narrow stairs turned out to be more impressive than the sunset itself, and with my sort of tense relationship with heights I was especially proud that I made it up, and down, the temple hill.

Just as we got back into the van it started pouring with rain; how quickly the weather can change and the amount of water suddenly coming down continues to amaze me. The evening program was a buffet dinner and a colorful Khmer dance performance at Kouley restaurant.

Early Saturday morning (no chance to sleep in on weekends) we started our Angkor tour. In order to understand the temples of Angkor let me share some historic information, shamelessly copied from Wolfgang’s #ibmcsc blog:

From roughly 900–1200 A.D., the Khmer Empire dominated Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos), as well as Thailand and a few other countries down here. It was a highly developed society, with both Buddhist and Hindu roots. Interestingly the religion swapped back and forth as kings came and went, such that one portion of the temples are dominated by Buddha figures, and the others by the Hindu gods. Today Cambodia is mostly a Buddhist country. The two most famous temples are Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, the “Jungle Temple”. Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple and dedicated to the god Vishnu. It is the biggest religious building in the world, and this temple is what every tourist would recognize as the symbol of Cambodia. The walls on all levels feature endless stories carved into the rocks in amazing detail.

After the Khmer empire fell apart, almost all of the temples here were abandoned and swallowed by the jungles. They were re-discovered around 1860, and only de-jungled fairly recently.

The Buddhist temple Angkor Thum was our first stop, and our tour guide Socheat patiently explained the various scenes depicted in the reliefs.

Next was Ta Prohm, which was left in its wild state and is partially covered by huge trees, a truly amazing place where you cannot but take lots of pictures, and so we did.

Angkor Wat, the largest temple of the world, was our last sight for the day, and thanks to Baskar we learned a lot about Hindu gods and their appearances in different forms. Parts of the temple were closed in preparation for a ceremony, but even without getting to the top we got a good idea of the dimensions of this monument.

A description of a day at Angkor would not be complete without mentioning the sellers at each meeting point who offer hats, bags, wristbands, musical instruments, guidebooks, postcards, you name it and will entice visitors with anything from fishing for sympathy to irresistible special offers (“Only one dollar, Sir! Two for one dollar, Sir! Five for one dollar, Sir!”)

The day ended with a fantastic meal and a few beers at our host’s place, and I will save my floating village report for later.

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Friday, July 22, 2011


Kep, Rabbit Island and a short work week in Cambodia

Friday morning it is and the weekend has already started for the Corporate Service Corps team in Cambodia. Our friends at ABV will show us Siem Reap and the famous Angkor temples, and since the road trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap takes some time we ended the week early, and will only be back at work next Tuesday.

But first things first: I have yet to tell about our fabulous trip last weekend. We had decided to spend some time on the beach and rented a van with driver to get us to Kep, 150 km south of Phnom Penh and once a fashionable seaside town for the rich and famous. During the Khmer Rouge regime many buildings were badly damaged, and Kep’s unique architecture was largely destroyed. Nowadays Kep is famous for the crab market, and becoming popular mostly with locals again, but the ruins remain.

We left Phnom Penh early after breakfast and headed south, alongside fields where farmers were planting rice or plowing with oxen teams, through the small villages where the residents were offering their products for sale, gathering on the local markets or sipping coffee at the restaurant. Everyone seems to be selling something, from agricultural products to hardware and construction material to telephones, from dusk till dawn, seven days a week. The small stores usually house the owner’s home in the back of the store, and the garage for the motorcycle too. Many of the housings offer little more than a bed and a television set, so not surprisingly the community life mostly happens on the streets.

One reason for the popularity of mobile phones in the rural areas – even the smallest agglomeration of houses has a phone shop – is a mobile payment service provided by Wing that works over the phone, so rather than transferring money through a “classic” bank people now transfer funds between mobile phones.

By now we are used to seeing complete families on a motorcycle, children squeezed between the parents or hand-held on the side, but we couldn’t have imagined what cargo can go on a motorcycle, or how many people fit in a car. People are quite creative and brave when it comes to transportation.

The Central Market in Kampot offers a variety of goods, from textiles to household articles and all kinds of food. The air is filled with a mix of scents, and the grilled meat and spices smelled quite tempting.

We continued our trip to Kep, where we had lunch with plenty of shrimps and seafood and a skinny chicken before transferring to our hotel for the night. The Raingsey Bungalow had five comfortable bungalows for us and a swimming pool, just what we needed. Later Bertrand, Patricia, Wolfgang and I went for the scenic 8 km trail through the Kep National Park. We saw squirrels, butterflies and a huge millipede of some sort, but no monkeys although there should be some in the park, and other wildlife too. Our dinner was seafood again at one of the restaurants near the crab market, in a very basic setting but close to the sea and with good food at reasonable prices.

Sunday was another beautiful day. Two boats brought us over to Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, an uncrowded island with sea, sandy beaches, palm trees and sunbeds, what more could you ask for! We spent the entire day here, swimming, playing frisbee and “organic bocce” with a coconut and fruits we collected, and some folks had massages on the beach also. Much to our surprise, the tiny little restaurant in the area where we had settled not only offered the heavily promoted pancakes with bananas but had a full menu card with beef, chicken, pork, fish, shrimp and vegetarian curries, desserts, and cocktails, quite remarkable for a place with one room, with water coming from a tank and with an open fire place in the annex for cooking. The boat ride back was somewhat bumpier than in the morning, and we had to go in one boat this time together with some local passengers, all after walking across the island because the winds had become too heavy on the other side of the island. We made it back to Kep safely and wet and were fortunate that the nice staff at Raingsey Bungalow would let us use their showers and the pool again. We concluded the day with another dinner at the crab market, seafood and fish and pizza in two adjacent restaurants, and returned to Phnom Penh around 10 p.m.

The following week at work was fairly busy: I completed my web security assessment and held two training sessions for the staff, one about web security and one about productivity and getting things done, roughly following the methodology outlined in David Allen’s book by the same name. Working on my community project, I struggled to find an electronic payment service provider which supports merchants, or in this case charities, located in Cambodia. The big ones like PayPal, Amazon Payment Services and Google Checkout are not available for Cambodian organizations, so our list is now narrowed down to SBC Bank, which has a solid and well-documented payment gateway interface but the fees are more suitable for business customers, and Ammado, a payment service targeted at non-profit organizations. At least we have some options to go forward with, and the team agreed with the goals and timelines for the project at the kickoff meeting. Stay tuned!

On Thursday evening the IBM Vietnam General Manager, Mr. Vo Tan Long, invited our team to a dinner meeting at Boddhi Tree’s Umma restaurant. Bertrand and Natali had worked with the restaurant staff and created a fine dinner, and we enjoyed a nice selection of appetizers, main courses and desserts from the buffet and a good glass of wine. Apart from the official dinner, the group of people eating out at night got smaller and smaller. We tried some restaurants on 240 Street this week, including the Sugar Palm, the Tamarind with its nice rooftop terrace, and the stylish corner wine bar. Some folks even explored all the “forbidden places”.

We had no spiders nor any other culinary surprises this week, so let’s see what we can find on our way to Siem Reap!

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Saturday, July 16, 2011


One week in Cambodia. Over and out.

Last Friday the Atlantis space shuttle took off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center for the last time. When the first orbiters launched, the world was watching the takeoffs and listening to the crackling sounds of astronauts describing how beautiful our planet looked from outer space.

The recent conversations with my family often reminded me of conversations with a spaceship. Not that Phnom Pehn wouldn’t have decent connectivity: there are 3G networks everywhere, and even in more remote parts of the city the mobile coverage is great, unlike in rural areas where electricity and communication lines are often poor, if available at all. Calling from mobile phones is fairly expensive though when there is so much to recount, even though a call to Cambodia costs much less than what a national call used to cost two decades ago, when we were used to brief facts only telephone conversations.

Voice over IP to the rescue! The Boddhi Tree hotel not only offers great hospitality and friendly service but also reasonably fast, reliable and free wireless connectivity, so talking over Skype or Y! Voice should be as easy as 1-2-3. Unless the computer refuses to recognize the built-in microphone, that is. Several reboots and desperate attempts to change the audio settings later I found a discussion thread about failing ThinkPad audio drivers on the Lenovo forum, downloaded and installed the simple Conexant driver and had a working microphone again.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, we can have a good chat with clear quality and minimal delays one day, sound like spaceship commanders in orbit the next day or suffer from long delays (“Hallo hallo hallo hallo hallo?”) and bad echo. At some point we even reverted to CB radio voice procedure, passing control and muting the line in-between, much to the fun of the kids, who then limited their conversation to shouting “Over”. They don’t seem to miss me too much but did send kisses over the wire(less) and commented unfavorably about our food.

The first week has been incredibly busy and gone by so quickly. I cannot believe that we have been in Cambodia for a week already. On Monday we had an introductory coffee meeting with our #ibmcsc clients at the hotel. “Coffee meeting” is an understatement, as the coffee was accompanied by a nice buffet of fresh fruit, sweet and spicy snacks, pancakes filled with fruit, more like a brunch.

During my assignment I will work with a local organization that provides HR recruitment, outsourcing and consulting services, training, and IT services, as well as on a social project for the elderly, about which I will write more shortly. Others on our team support socially responsible small businesses in the tourism and IT services industries and a company that created jobs for land mine accident survivors in the food industry and produces delicious dried fruit, of which we get daily samples through Wolfgang and Patricia.

The welcome at our client’s side was fantastic. We were greeted by a big decorated sign on the entrance door, and then introduced to the teams. My week was split between meetings with the managing director and staff to get an understanding of the organization and where I can help, preparing my work plan for the month, putting together workshop materials, running the workshop with an active and enthusiastic group, doing security testing, and preparing more workshop materials for the following week. On Wednesday Marisol and I took the opportunity to visit a small training factory for garment workers and a large school run by the French charity
Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), which provides education, healthcare and three meals every day to the students in Phnom Penh.

Speaking of meals, we had no more spiders this week but explored other culinary delights of the city together in the evenings and tasted Cambodian, French (well, at least before the onion soup was enhanced with spices :-)) and Vietnamese food.

That’s all for this week, and now it’s time for a relaxing weekend in the seaside city of Kep. Over and out!

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Monday, July 11, 2011


Weekend in Cambodia: Of history and spiders

The Boddhi Tree Aram in the heart of historic Phnom Penh should become our home for the next 30 days. The friendly staff welcomed us with home-made bread and rules and a selection of fresh fruit. Almost everyone had made it to the hotel already and we stood a good chance of having the full team together for the first official meeting in the afternoon. Boddhi Tree is more than just a hotel. The goal of the team is to improve the living conditions of people in Cambodia through running a successful social enterprise. The organization has grown to 80 staff members, including some who work part time to allow time for their studies, and supports local and international NGO projects.

A few of us decided to go on a sightseeing tour. Since our first destination, the Royal Palace, was closed until 2 p.m., as we learned many, many times from the Tuk Tuk drivers who insisted that we should go on a tour with them instead, we walked(!) around. Walking is not very common in Phnom Penh, which is understandable given the temperature and the high humidity during the rainy season, but a perfect way to explore an unknown city. After a visit to the temple, a good discussion with a young monk about rituals, monastic life and education, and the history of the country and watching a Buddhist ceremony performed for Marisol we continued to the local market

The Kandal market hall with its narrow corridors, where tailors and artisans create and sell their products, is surrounded by stands selling fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and seafood, others offering various cooked foods, and the variety of scents and colors dazzles the senses. We weren’t brave enough to try food from the stands, not on day 1, so we settled for the nearby Riverside Bistro, which serves Khmer, Thai and other Asian food as well as international dishes. The Fish Amok was delicious, and so was the coconut drink served in its natural container.

The National Museum was next on our route. Surrounding an inviting courtyard with fish ponds, it houses a collection of Khmer sculptures including a statue of eight-armed Vishnu, and a collection of Buddhas.

We concluded the day with the first official #ibmcsc meeting with a freshly made variation of Caipirinha (cachaça replaced by vodka) and an introduction to Phnom Penh by ABV staff, followed by a delicious buffet dinner at the hotel. Everyone had made it to the hotel by now, and we were relieved to hear that one colleague’s visa problems had been sorted out at the very last moment (the story he told was almost too good to be true).

Sunday started with another scrumptious breakfast, followed by an orientation tour through Phnom Penh. We visited the Psar Thmai central market, which was recently renovated and offered mostly jewelery, garments, household articles, and managed to get back to our van unharmed by the busy traffic.

An exploration of Cambodian history would not be complete without looking at the 1970 revolution, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime that cost millions of lives and left the country devastated. We spent some time together at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where about 17,000 victims were executed and buried in mass graves. Excavations have not been completed, and occasionally bones surface on the walkways. A stupa and a museum commemorate the thousands of deaths and remind people of the cruelties merely 40 years ago.

A visit to the Royal Palace, the pavilions and gardens with the silver pagoda, statues and shrines, in the afternoon concluded our sightseeing tour for the day. We had caught a glimpse of Cambodia’s history in two days.

The only thing that was left for the weekend was a new culinary experience at the Romdeng restaurant, a very nice training restaurant run by former street youth and their teachers and designed to promote Cambodian culture and food, including the infamous fried tarantulas.

Bon appétit!

PS. The staff will also gladly show tarantulas which are alive and happy to walk around on guests’ hands. My favorite quote of the day came from Natali: “Baskar, stop playing with the food!”

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