Cambodia: Misc. Moments

February 27th, 2008

I’m getting a little beat down by the NGO politics, the country politics, the continual fight for access, connections, story leads; I am expanding the story and sub-stories but I have to keep circling back to make sure I’m following up with the earlier pieces.

This is a self portrait down near the Independence Monument on my way from the nearby Java Online to Freebird. Both are popular expat hangouts, both have wi-fi, but Pat and Kath were in Freebird and I’m always afraid of running into the wrong person in Java. I arrived in-country with complications and they’ve only proceeded to blossom. Yet another reason to be tired.

I was keeping a bit of a diagram on my guest house wall in dry-erase pen. One of the desk staff saw it on Allison’s last day–she was keeping stuff in my room before departure–and exclaimed “Oh my god! My boss!” but I assured him it would come off. It became a long-running joke, him threatening to visit my room and “clean” it.


I met a 13 year-old librarian the other day. She catalogs the books by difficulty, both English and Khmer. But the fact that she was once one of the vulnerable, living at the city dump, foraging for recyclables to sell, and is now living communally with other orphans receiving an education speaks volumes for yet another NGO. Even though she doesn’t know the Dewey-Decimal system, she is 13 and it is her library.


I’ve expanded my skill set to video. It’s only a consumer-grade HD camera, but it shoots video. It’s also makes my job that much more expensive to do, not to mention it’s something more to lug around. But sometimes you want a talking head interview. (It does other stuff too, as I’m learning).

Srey Neth (pronounced Sray Nite) is now on staff for Transitions Cambodia and will become a spokesperson for the NGO, not only doing home assessments and outreach, but putting a personal story to the world of trafficking and sex slavery. She was once a victim herself.

Our set up was nothing like the pared-down (a dozen) cases of gear used by the NBC Dateline crew. It consisted of a black cloth taped to the wall, a couple of florescent desk lamps, a piece of synthetic white lace, and the room light. I put a lapel mic on her, asked the other girls to quiet down at the center (and turn off the ever-present TV), killed the room fan and did take after take.

Like my difficulty with some Khmer sounds, Neth finds trouble with “V,” “X'” and the ubiquitous American “R.” But I think we did alright.


I’d never been to the “backpacker” area, the well-known “lakeside” so I went with Phnom Penh local Allie and her visiting younger sister Jessie. Allie works with Build Cambodia and is the person who introduced me to the Andoung Relocation Site. She is currently introducing her sister to Phnom Penh, trying to show a troubled 20 year-old American the depths of Cambodia and in this the possibilities within her.

We admired a beautiful sunset amongst the fisherman-pant wearing, sunburnt, budget travelers. This is the budget crowd, the most temporary in Phnom Penh. However, I’m not so sure the room rates are all that great of a deal.

On an off-color note, this is where (so I’ve been told by a source who shall remain anonymous) NGO women can go trolling for temporary dates. “Unfortunately, you have to take them back to your place and give them a shower, but the great part is they’re gone in a few days.”

Later I got to check out Allie’s well-located and quite nice pad. I was envious of her outdoor kitchen; it has been awhile since I’ve had the opportunity to cook for myself.

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Cambodia: A Ride in the Countryside

February 24th, 2008

This one is just pictures. On a recent Sunday I went with Kath out to Oudong (sp?), a pagoda about 30km North of Phnom Penh. We left in the dark, hoping for some nice sunrise pictures, but found the sky overcast and hazy. The ride there and back was a bit on the thrilling (and ass-numbing) side for me but when I mentioned some of our close calls Kath said “Dahhling, that was nothing. I’ve had much, much closer. We were fine.” Kath, is a brash, outspoken, frank Australian woman who likes men in uniform and to ride a big motorbike. If that gives you an idea.

Oudong is on a random hill poking up out of the surrounding rice paddies. To the east are the lush fields along the Tonle Sap river, to the west are fallow fields, dusty and brown. I believe some of the hilltop structures date from the 15th century and, I was told, it has the largest northward facing Buddha in the country–looking towards China. This could stand to be fact checked.

Anyhow, here are some pics.

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Cambodia: Toul Kork Brothel Tour

February 20th, 2008

This is a cursory glance at the front entrances to a variety of brothels in the Toul Kork neighborhood of Phnom Penh. Many of these are wood-shack store fronts or residences where, at night, the red lamp is turned on and the girls gather at the entrance. At some, closer to the heart of town, the pimps stand out front calling to customers while the girls lounge inside.

Doing proper night photography, what with a tripod, bracketing, waiting for the right moment, is not exactly appropriate. So I sat on the back of a moto, driven by a trusted guy, sans-helmet, with the camera ISO jacked to the max (3200), at f2.8, the shutterspeed as fast as possible (around 15/sec), and no strobe. Snap snap snap away.

It’s not my favorite way to make pictures, especially when the girls figure out what you’re doing and turn away, as it’s pretty much against the way I like to build relationships, understanding, and trust. But the avenues I’ve been trying have yet to come through. With time ticking, I went for the moto ride. It’s also a safety thing for the pimps aren’t necessarily the nicest of people.

Brothel raids, particularly for underage and captive prostitutes, have pushed traffickers’ brothels out into the fringes of town, to the provinces, or to the other main tourist hubs of Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. It has also driven them underground into smaller brothels, massage parlors, and karaoke bars. However, for the Khmer men and the sex tourists, bar girls and more traditional brothels still exist.

Welcome to Toul Kork at night.

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Cambodia: Apsara Arts Association

February 17th, 2008

Apsara Performance: A Short Media Clip (1.15min)

There is kind of a long story behind this short little piece; there is something uplifting in it but like much of the experience here, it’s hard to stop at the surface. Look once and your eyes will be opened.

It starts with a girl in her early teens, she lived at Apsara Arts Association with a bunch of other kids ranging from something like 7 years to 22 years. Apsara teaches traditional Khmer music, dance, and singing. Their troupe has performed internationally.

So the girl gets sick; she has AIDS. They put her in the National Pediatric Hospital where her health improves, and then place her about 30 minutes outside the city in an AIDS orphanage run by nuns.

Molly Jester, with Stop Exploitation Now, funded housing improvements at Apsara and pays the salary for one of the teachers. Molly met the girl on one of her previous visits and asked me to do her a favor–take a Lucky burger and a drink for each AIDS-infected kid (48) when I deliver the toys she sent.

I waited for Allison to arrive in Phnom Penh; she has a special interest in AIDS patients, and since it was early in her trip Dan was along. The kids were hungry for love, attention, anything. They fought over the toys, the fought over us, but there were a few who, in their eight or-so years of age, were looking out for the younger or disadvantaged. Like one girl in a worn-out pinkish dress who took my hand and made sure I gave the bedridden kids on IV drips a toy. I looked at the bladders; Ciproflaxin and saline.

Later that same girl came to play with me and another with a neurological disorder contorting her limbs; her knees were calloused from dragging herself around. She would scrunch up her face, pull her working arm back, and throw a hackey sack with all her might. It would drop to the ground 12 inches from her and she would laugh in a gasping fashion.

This went on for several minutes, the disabled girl, the pink-dress girl, and I playing as we fended off the desperate others. Allison and Dan had their hands full as well. In a somewhat scarring memory, Allison and I had watched this same girl pull her pants off on the floor then, half naked, drag herself over the sill into the tiled bathroom to pee in one of the unclean squat toilets. That this debilitated girl had sought me out, on hands and knees, to play catch was one of those moments you can’t turn away from. You just sit down and laugh with her. You give.

Molly’s girl, the one who was at Apsara, desperately wants to go back. The head nun doesn’t think it’s appropriate yet, as far as her health, nor does Apsara it seems. And so Molly’s girl goes to school, sleeps in a dormitory with other attention-starved children, looks forward to Sundays when Apsara teachers come out to work with the children, and watches as her fellow residents succumb to AIDS. They are all on ARV. Curiously, there is a TB ward two buildings away. The nuns seem to make do; they pray for God to provide, pray for donors, and when that fails, they go begging.

Apsara offers public performances on Saturday evenings. I had tried to make it two weekends in a row, but last Saturday I knew I could go. I just had to stop by a wedding first. I’m glad I made it to Apsara because they were considering canceling the performance, thinking that not enough foreigners might show, but Kalyan–who we met when we visited Molly’s girl–said I was showing up. The resident kids watched, as did some of the parents, but the hour-long performance was for me.

I swatted mosquitoes born from the fetid waters Apsara is built over, and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. For you climbers out there–these girls can bend their fingers backwards, creating a perfect “C.” Some can do it without using their other hand. That’s tendon flexibility.

Apsara Performance: A Short Media Clip (1.15min)

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Cambodia: A Christian-Khmer Wedding

February 17th, 2008

It’s wedding season; just about every corner of every block has the tent set up, the loudspeaker going, the non-stop 12 hours of music. (at right: the cake, the cross, the hearts.)

Jaya (pronounced like Zhaya), the director of Transitions Cambodia, invited me to a wedding on Saturday. Jaya has worked in the sex trafficking aftercare industry for quite some time and knows a lot of Khmer staff at some of the other NGO’s. James calls her his big sister and I have found her to be one of the most caring and giving individuals. And she’s a damn good cook.

The wedding was for a driver who works at Agape Restoration Center; James and Athena founded ARC with Don and Bridget Brewster. The two California couples, guided by faith and a desire to make a difference, built a state-of-the-art facility and, after extensive research into pre-existing NGO’s, designed their own aftercare programs. (at left: bride and groom with wedding guests)

Later, James and Athena started another NGO, Transitions Cambodia (TCI), built on a model intended to help 15-19 year old sex trafficking survivors to find their own voice again and recapture their dreams. Some of the older ARC girls went into the TCI program. Jaya, who had worked with James, also joined with TCI.

In some ways, this wedding was a bit of a reunion. The Brewsters and 38 of their ARC girls were there as were some of the TCI staff and girls.

It wasn’t the wedding I was expecting; I’d heard Cambodian weddings are quite the oddity–and a booze fest. (at right: the bride greeting guests)

A friend of mine, Alicia, went to one last year and said “it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. The mother of the bride was crying and hugging us when we left, and we met the most hilarious semi-mute, flamboyant blue silk shirt with rainbow stars wearing individual. I loved the tradition where the parents of the bride and groom exchanged champagne glasses full of Jim Bean Whiskey and drank them down in one gulp. The beer girls circulating in mini skirts to keep our glasses full, and our lazy susans laden with the latest feasting course were also a classy touch.”

This one was quite different.

I toured the neighborhood–a “city” as they call it here. Essentially a gated community, it was row up on row of uniform houses and uniform SUV’s. It felt a little like suburbs in Phoenix or Vegas, except greener, more humid, with more concrete homes, steel gates, and the odd rat or two. Sewer smells escaped from the gutters drains. Eventually some guy on a moto told me to stop taking pictures. Security. (at left: the neighborhood)

I returned to the wedding, watching as the bride and groom changed outfits (at least three times in the two hours I was there), all the while greeting the flood of guests. The ARC girls sat in the back and, having filled the tables, were quickly served. Little did I know, the strategy is to sit at an almost full table if you want to be served. I eventually got the clue, but not until it was too late. I was supposed to be at Apsara Arts but was desperately hungry; I had some appetizers, a coke, and glutinous fishy soup and had to run. (at right: finally sitting down for dinner)

Mixed with all the Khmer traditional styles were prolific displays of Christian accouterments and, I could be wrong, but the recorded Khmer voice in between the songs kept on finishing with “amen.” For me it was different on many levels; for instance, at what wedding have you been asked “don’t take pictures of some of the girls. We’ve got several who are in an on-going court case with an American pedophile.” And, to top it off, there was nary a drop of alcohol. Which might have been a good thing, because it probably wouldn’t be kind to show up half drunk to watch kids perform traditional Khmer dance. (at left: TCI center director Jaya on the left and on right, resident Srey Neth)

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Cambodia: Child Safe

February 13th, 2008

Child Safe did an opening for their new public relations campaign. Some pretty cool imagery, snack ’ems on the buffet table, cold beer, but more importantly, it’s another step forward in a national move to end child exploitation.

Learn more at:
Child Safe Cambodia

And read an interview with Marielle Lindstrom with CTIP at the Asia Foundation:
Lindstrom Interview

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Cambodia: Freebird

February 13th, 2008

Just another night out, a Friday night in fact, with Allison (from Seattle), Kath (local), and what soon became Pat and Mick (more locals), and later Julie and Stuart (Seattle).

Freebird used to be a bit of a go-go bar but since its change in ownership has become more of an expat refuge, a neighborhood bar, a place where you don’t give the girls behind the bar any shit, where you can throw back more than a few and someone will get you home safely. (at right: allison and kath)

Run by a guy who is ex US Army explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) it has an interesting collection of paraphernalia on the wall and people at the bar.

Needless to say with Kath, the ultimate local, we were given the best introduction one could want. And there was dancing, though sadly Kath doesn’t remember ours. But she does remember her dance with Allison.

In the two short weeks Allison was here, she found herself a home; pretty much everyone is sad to see her head home, but she was on a flight with her boyfriend (and my good friend) Dan out of BKK by the 12th, as promised. I lost a travel partner and fellow CTIP investigator. As chief whip-cracker for the FEAR Project, Allison not only was great company, but she kept reminding me of all the things I, for some reason, couldn’t quite keep in my over-packed head.

I’m putting an 80%…no…90% chance that she’ll be back. The red dust works into your skin, the orange light saturates your vision, and the smiles fill your heart.

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Cambodia: Elsewhere, the Scene.

February 3rd, 2008

My impression is the NGO world in Phnom Penh is like high school, only the parties are better. (at left: the riverside, bar stop number four)

Of course, I haven’t collected a sufficient data set but Friday night Dan, Allison, and I tried to keep up with Charis, a lifestyle writer for Asia Life magazine here in Phnom Penh. The two are visiting from Seattle. Dan is a long-time friend and Allison is his girlfriend; she is also *the* key FEAR Project staff person and will be spending an as yet to be determined amount of time with me working on the counter-trafficking story. She’s already cracking the whip, reminding me of meetings, pushing deeper on sensitive subjects, and these NGO people seem to be falling in love with her intelligence and presence. (should I start feeling insecure?)

In a matter of fifteen days or so, I have found a community for myself, people I feel I can call up and decompress to, have a drink with, grab some dinner, or laugh at ourselves. It started with Pat, the woman working on land mine issues, spread to Kath, who works on counter trafficking in persons, Rachel, the ex-radio reporter on an extended holiday, and now several others. Of course there is James, my subject turned confidante, friend, and drinking partner and after my trip to Sihanoukville I’m adding John and Charis to the list. (at right: jockeying for drinks at elsewhere)

I’m learning who’s been sleeping with whom, which ones “prefer Khmer skirt,” who likes coke, what kind of male/female ratios I might find at which bars, and have been given the up-and-down by too many drunk (and sober) women to count but this, this one takes the cake. (at left: the elsewhere dance floor)

Culminating the seven-bar Friday night party-hop with Charis we finally ended up at “the” pretentious party everyone hates to go to (but ends up at anyway) known as “Elsewhere.” It was there, on the dance floor, a dread-locked man gently took Allison’s hand and asked “Do you fuck?”

Apparently everything here operates much faster; there are some long-time locals but often people are only here for a year or two, adding a sense of urgency to things. Or maybe a rawness. It could also be the work the NGO crowd is doing, and where their last tour might have been, for even in the short time I’ve been here I’ve personally seen how hard this life can be on the mind and body. Never mind the pollution or generally high ambient noise. (at left: hanging at the pool at elsewhere)

There’s the heat, dehydration, sickness, the work load, the kind of work; some of this is about human suffering, the rest is about money and development. So maybe that adds to the intensity, accelerating already fast relationships; you could be two ships passing in the night, but on that off-chance you connect, it seems you’ve got an abbreviated time frame to make things work.

On the other hand, if the rumors are true about the 4 a.m. nude and drunk swimmers at Elsewhere, it might be that ex-pats, especially NGO ex-pats, just like to party. Hard. (at right: a couple near the bathroom line up)

I feel old.

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Cambodia: Trabant Trek

January 31st, 2008

He likes to say we met on the internet. At the time he and Trabant Trek were somewhere around the Caspian Sea, I think; they were eight people, three Trabants, and a cantankerous Mercedes attempting to drive from Germany to Cambodia. I can’t remember how I came across the trek but I made attempts to join them somewhere in Russia for their Mongolian segment. At the time, no one was interested.

A Trabant, if you don’t know, is a fiber-reinforced plastic shell powered by a 26 hp two-cycle engine. It’s a glorified lawnmower mass produced by East Germany that has finally achieved cult status.

John Lovejoy and party actually made it, about three months late, with some 320 break downs, an abandoned Mercedes, a ravaged and parted-up Trabant also jettisoned, and several people short. Only the core group managed to cross into Cambodia, in the two remaining Trabants, to a grand welcoming by Mith Samlan (Friends International) and M’Lop Tapang. The trip was intended as a fundraiser for the two Cambodian NGO’s serving at-risk youth in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

John was hanging out in Sihanoukville with a writer from AsiaLife Magazine, Charis Schafer, and after all this time I couldn’t miss out on the chance–on the same continent, same country, and even same city–to get to know my internet pen-pal.

And so a rather odd evening began.

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Cambodia: Dateline NBC and Transitions Cambodia

January 25th, 2008

What I love about TV is light. They bring a lot of it and they control it incredibly well. Dateline NBC made the florescent glow of Transitions Cambodia into a comfortable studio environment. With their “small” kit of only a dozen cases of gear. (at left: James on the monitor)

In a follow up from their 2004 story on sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, correspondent Chris Hansen worked with a team of freelancers–based in Singapore, Bangkok, and the producer, Cindy Babski in France–to revisit the same places and people but also added James Pond, who with his wife founded Transitions Cambodia.

The Ponds saw that 2004 Dateline story, watched it again with their kids, and decided as a family to move to Cambodia and do something about the problem. Three years later, they run a unique non-governmental organization in Cambodia and its fund raising 501(c)3 out of Portland. (at right: correspondent Chris Hansen)

What is special about Transitions is that while most victim aftercare shelters work with girls 15 and younger, Transitions takes teenagers and helps them “transition” to adulthood by showing them dignity and respect and helping them find their voice. It is the micro model for what the entire country needs; victims of trauma often lose the ability to speak for themselves, to understand they have a choice in life. Transitions seeks to empower the young women by giving them a chance to learn marketable skills and live a “normal” teenage life. The hope is these teenage women will recapture their dreams and then try to follow them. (at left: Dave and Cindy discuss the setup)

James says the two and-a-half years the entire family spent in Cambodia was “a trip of humility.” There were multiple cases of E Coli, one of Dengue Fever, and one of Hepatitis E. They had left suburban Sacramento, leaving behind a six-figure job as a regional sales rep in the plastics industry, BMW’s in the driveway, and a “Christmas that didn’t mean anything anymore because we were just handing out checks to the kids. We couldn’t buy them anything they didn’t already have.”

What struck the Ponds in that 2004 Dateline special were the interviews with the victims and seeing their eyes as they spoke of their experiences. But even his son, who was in 8th grade at the time, said “If it’s just for you and mom then I don’t want to do it, but if it’s for all of us then I’ll go.”

And so, home and possessions sold, they arrived at the airport with three children and 15 bags, ready to go to Cambodia to start a new life, one of purpose. It was, James said, “a giant breath of fresh air.” (at right: one of the TCI girls goes to school)

The Dateline crew was great and I think James did a wonderful job in the interview. Next week I’ll be with Transitions heading to Sihanoukville for a reintegration and later to the no-man’s land between Cambodia and Vietnam for a repatriation. Two of the girls from Transitions are ‘graduating’ and moving on to a new life. (at left: the Dateline crew with James, Zaira, the center director, and the four social workers)

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