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First Days in Cambodia


10th December 2006:

I experienced my first days in Cambodia in a state of constant fatigue.  Upon arriving in Phnom Penh last night, I was greeted by an immigration official (sent by my contacts at Youth for Peace, the organization with which I’ll be working) who whisked me through customs and the visa application process.  I found out later that sending an official to meet visitors is fairly common, and equally common is “tipping” these officials for their help (though I’m convinced I could have done everything myself).  I met a staff member from Youth for Peace (YFP) outside the airport. 

            We took a cab to the YFP offices, where I was deposited, along with my luggage, in the midst of a group of high school and university students intently working on some kind of banner.  Not really sure what to do, I sat there and chatted with the students until late at night, when someone informed me I’d be staying in a hostel that night instead of with a YFP staffer as I had previously thought.  Too tired to really question or object to anything, I took my baggage to the hostel with another student and went to sleep.

            I was awoken at 5.30 the next morning in order to return to the YPF offices.  Unaware of what was going on, I found a large group of students gathered outside.  We all jumped in a bus and headed into the center of town, where a number of tents and booths were being set up near the Independence Monument.  I found someone who wasn’t too busy setting up to explain what was going on.  It turns out that my arrival to Phnom Penh coincided with Youth Gathering Day (actually 3 days), one of the three huge annual events sponsored by YFP.  That first day was just a blur to me, and my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged self wandered around useless to anyone who could have wanted my help. 

            I met Professor Samnang Heng, who serves on YFP’s Board of Directors, earlier this morning, and he offered to take me to lunch and show me around Phnom Penh.  He studied at Yale a few years ago on a Fulbright scholarship, so we had something of an instant connection, or at least something in common to talk about.  He told me that upon his own arrival to New Haven a professor had taken him around the city, pointing out the supermarkets, banks, and restaurants—and now he wanted to do the same for me.  Things like that remind me of how grateful I am for the kindness of others during my travels, and I have come to appreciate how others have been helping me out because, at one point, they received similar help themselves.  After a great noodle lunch (with lots of coffee), he drove around to point out various monuments and museums, ATMs, restaurants, internet cafés, and markets.

            We returned to the YFP event just in time to watch a youth group perform traditional Cambodian dances.  The kids were beautiful, dressed in traditional attire, and so graceful; it was really fun to watch, as tourists, motorbike drivers, and other passersby took a break in their day to watch the dancing and singing as well. 

12 December 2006:

            The Youth Gathering event ended today.  The past couple of days have been tiring, but I appreciate the opportunity to see something like this, even if through a lens of fatigue and jet-lag.  During the lunch break yesterday I walked to the riverfront with Christine, a human rights activist who has been working here for two months with an NGO that helps sex workers in Cambodia.  Christine leaves on Wednesday, which is disappointing for me not only because she was a great source of advice but also because we got along well.  As we walked past the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda down to the touristy waterfront lined with expensive (by Cambodian standards) cafés and restaurants, Christine gave me a few tips that I think will really help me adjust to life here.

            The event ended with more traditional dancing and song, and a speech from the Minister of Education.  Afterward we all headed out for a celebratory dinner.  The dinner seemed chaotic to me, but I’m not sure that would have been my impression if I spoke the Khmer language.  We ate at a restaurant similar to those that I’ve been dining with Marya, the YFP staff member I’ll be staying with until I get my own apartment.  These restaurants are usually large affairs, with a small kitchen at the back of an expansive outdoor dining area.  Most of them serve soup by bringing out a stovetop and pot of water right to the table, where diners pick and choose from an array of vegetables and meats to cook themselves.  They’re all over Phnom Penh, and are probably almost as popular as the restaurants serving traditional Khmer food.  Tonight, instead of soup, we ate from the grill, and waitresses brought out portable grill tops and plate after plate of raw beef, squid, prawn, snails, and tiny little clams.

            Eating with this group was almost like a show, and I learned to discard any notion of traditional table manners.  We ate and talked for hours (though I didn’t understand most of what was being said).  Toward the end of our meal they began toasting almost everything and everyone.  Someone would propose a toast, to which everyone would nod vigorously, raise their glasses, and shout “eeeyyyyyy!!” with enthusiasm.  I didn’t understand what I was toasting to the majority of the time, but was pleased to catch my name during a toast in the middle of some jumbled English and the word “welcome.”

13 December 2006:

            Following this new tradition of jumping right into things, I started work today at the YFP offices.  I spent last night in the hostel again, and this morning said goodbye to the kids who had come to Phnom Penh from the provinces for the event.  Marya and I headed over to the office, where we jumped right into an Executive Committee meeting.  My overwhelmed feelings have begun to subside, and I think the ExComm meeting helped strengthen my excitement about what I’ll be doing here. 

            We talked at length about the upcoming Review and Planning meeting, which I’ll be facilitating.  The meeting is a weeklong affair at YFP, with three days being held at the offices here in Phnom Penh and two days held at a hotel near Sihanoukville, by the sea.  We’ll be going over almost everything from this past year, focusing on initiatives or revisions that were recommended but not fully implemented.  We’ll also discuss YFP’s plan for the coming year, as well as progress in its 2- and 3-year plans.  The meeting seems like it will be straightforward planning with a few workshop-type elements incorporated, so I’m hoping to bring in a lot of the Effective Communication knowledge and tools that I gained this summer at Insight.  In any case, the meeting/retreat is one of YFP’s biggest internal affairs, and we will be meeting for 7-8 hours each day.  I’m feeling pressure to make sure that everything goes smoothly and that I, as a facilitator, meet and/or exceed everyone’s expectations.  I feel that I have a clear vision of how the meeting with proceed and what I need to do to realize this vision, so with some preparation everything should be fine.

            In addition to this facilitation, it looks like I’ll mostly be helping YFP with its new Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) project, which aims to teach youth (especially in the provinces) about the Khmer Rouge and also about the purpose of the Tribunal.  Most immediately, I’ll be helping to hire two new staff members to head this project.  Long Khet, YFP’s Executive Director, generally seems open to allowing me to assume a role with YFP most suitable to my interests, which at the moment looks to be more of an advisory one.

14 December 2006:

            After work yesterday I went with Marya and her friend to the river to hang out a bit before dinner.  I’ve been going everywhere on the back of Maria’s motorbike, which is how most Cambodians seem to get around.  Cars (and even bikes and pedestrians) are few and far between, and so the roads are crowded with these motos.  The notion of carpooling seems to have transferred to this mode of transportation, as well, since most of the motorbikes I see on the road carry two or three people, sometimes whole families. 

            We had a snack at the market by the river, which is largely a collection of street food-type places with hammocks for lounging and eating.  Heading down to the riverfront, Marya encouraged us to jump on one of the riverboats.  Complete with karaoke machine and a rooftop seating area, these boats depart every hour or so for a quick tour of the river area around Phnom Penh.  The view from the deck was incredible: Phnom Penh lit up at night, surrounded by neighborhoods of houses or food vendors crouched in the darkness.  We passed a massive floating village, where the houses floated on the water, supported only by wooden decks.

Before going home, we walked around for awhile, observing the festivities of a Buddhist prayer celebration set up on the boulevard along the river.  A huge mass of people had come together to celebrate, and a pagoda had been set up for the occasion.  Lighting candles and incense, people prayed and chanted to music, afterward heading to a small temple.  Vendors were selling flowers and tiny birds in wooden cages for the occasion.  From what I observed, I was one of the only foreigners there.  Most people had come to participate in the celebration, and the observers were mainly Cambodians.  I left Marya and her friend to wander through the crowds for awhile, and it felt nice to suddenly become anonymous.  It was the first time, since coming to Cambodia, that I was able to walk around unnoticed, as everyone else was too busy with their own business to take notice of the foreigner amongst them.  

16 December 2006:

            I went with Marya and a friend this morning to visit the Royal Palace.  I felt uncomfortable at how touristy it was (a sensation heightened by the large American, British, and Japanese tour groups visiting the Palace that same afternoon), but I’m glad to have visited and thought it better to go while I still feel a little bit like a tourist anyway. 

            It was almost like another world inside the Palace walls, which I suppose is the intended effect.  The grounds are composed of multiple buildings, as well as a few gardens (one of which used to be a zoo), and everything is meticulously clean and well-manicured.  All the buildings, inside and out, are adorned with gold plating and were formerly decorated with jewels (diamonds, emeralds, rubies) as well.  We latched on to a tour group of elderly Americans, and were, in this way, able to tour the grounds while learning something about the history of the place and its current use.

             After leaving the Palace we met up with more of Marya’s friends and spent some time hanging out and relaxing by the riverfront.  After a quick dinner someone suggested we go to karaoke.  I’ve never really been a karaoke enthusiast, but they were all so very excited to go.  Since I was somewhat captive to Marya’s interests, as the back of her moto was my ride home, and since I was curious to see what they were all so excited about, I went along.  Despite not recognizing the songs and thus not being able to sing along, Cambodian karaoke was a blast.  Sitting together in our private room, they phoned in song after song, shouting with excitement as each new one came up on the television screen.  The place did have a few songs in English, but very few that I recognized and almost none to which I knew the words.  I think “Unchained Melody” was featured on almost every CD, but the English songs that my Khmer friends ordered and sang to (which are apparently very popular in Cambodia) were ones I didn’t recognize at all.

17 December 2006:

            Marya and I drove into Phnom Penh this morning to meet up with a few of her friends and do some shopping at Psar Toul Tom Poung, also known as the “Russian Market.”  The market is a maze of stalls sheltered underneath a makeshift roof and, like most of Phnom Penh’s many markets, you can buy almost anything you need here.  From car parts to produce, vendors bargain with the shoppers that crowd the market’s narrow pathways.  Marya and her friends were shopping mostly for clothes—since many clothing lines manufacture their clothes in Cambodia, the markets overflow with surplus items sold for a fraction of the price.  The market is also a great place to buy souvenirs (like scarves and jewelry made from exquisite hand-woven Cambodian silk), and another section houses seamstresses who can tailor-make almost any item of clothing in about a week.

            Later that day, after the girls had loaded their arms with shopping bags and stopped for lunch, someone eagerly suggested that we go see a fortune teller.  One thing I’ve noticed about conversations amongst women here is that they almost always focus on marriage, men, and heartbreak—the desire/need to marry, the difficult search for a “good man” in Cambodia, the pain of heartbreak or of unrequited love.  We headed over to see a fortune teller to find out more about all of these things—which of them would be included in our lives and when. 

            Arriving at the unmarked building, we made our way up the narrow, winding staircase to the top floor, where a woman sat in a small room filled with lighted incense and candles.  I watched as the girls listened earnestly to the woman read their fortune in a deck of cards, telling them about the men they’d meet in their lives, which ones would break their hearts, and which one they would finally marry.  They giggled when the fortune teller hit upon certain aspects of the current lives, or accurately described the men in their lives at the moment.  I didn’t have my own fortune told.  The woman spoke only Khmer, and I still believe that most things in my future are within my control.  But it was fun and interesting to observe, and to listen afterwards as the girls discussed their newly-foretold futures.

18 December 2006:

            The kindness of others has continually amazed me during my travels this year, and these past couple of days did nothing to contradict that sentiment.  Last night I moved in with Mialy, a woman I met on Friday at a meeting of NGO representatives.  Her flatmate had just moved out, and when I mentioned on Friday that I hoped to move into Phnom Penh, she offered her place until I could find one of my own.  She’s here until at least the end of January, and has the apartment until then.  The flat itself is amazing:  it’s located right near the Royal Palace, the riverfront, and Street 240 (a fairly touristy road, but with lots of great cafés and restaurants).  It’s situated in the middle of a gated community that’s also home to a few government officials, so security is (relatively) good and I feel safe walking around.  The apartment itself is four stories high, with one or two rooms on each floor, and a balcony and bathroom on every level.  In general, the place is clean, cool, and absolutely wonderful—by far the nicest apartment I’ve lived in so far. 

            And while I thought for awhile that I’d maybe stay in a one-bedroom apartment to try living alone, I’m more excited now to be living with someone.  Mialy is great—cheerful, fun, and easygoing.  She’s also working for an NGO in Phnom Penh (as are most ex-pats here), and in what feels like a huge stroke of luck, I’ve managed to move in with someone with whom I can really get along.  Mialy’s been here for a little over two months, so she has been telling me about the neighborhood and about life as an ex-pat in Cambodia more generally.   

20 December 2006:

            I met yesterday morning with Robert Petit, the International Co-Prosecutor of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC, or Khmer Rouge Criminal Tribunal), to speak with him about my interest in working with the ECCC during my time in Phnom Penh.  This morning I returned to the Tribunal to review the terms of my internship with the Deputy International Co-Prosecutor, Bill Smith.  After meeting the prosecutorial team with whom I’ll be working, I went through the paperwork process at the Human Resources offices and officially became a UN intern for the next two months.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in the day since my conversation with Prosecutor Petit, my desk had been set up and the project on which I’ll be working (and my role in it) had already been identified.  Working at the ECCC and with YFP means that I’ll have less free time in Cambodia than I anticipated, yet I’m definitely excited about my work with both organizations.  I feel like this arrangement grants me the best of both worlds, with respect to Khmer Rouge Tribunal issues—I’ll be getting exposure to the prosecutorial side of things, while also getting to work with education and outreach efforts through YFP.  I’m also glad to be playing the role of an apprentice at my internship with the UN, while acting more as an advisor and facilitator with YFP. 

            To confirm my suspicions that I might be somewhat of a workaholic during this placement, during my afternoon at the YFP offices I found out that I’ll be working next Monday, which is Christmas Day.  Khet, the Executive Director of YFP, looked a bit confused when I asked if people were going to be coming in on Monday, even after I explained to him that it was Christmas Day.  I assumed this meant that I’d be coming in, too, and when I asked the answer was yes.  I’m not sure what I would have done if I’d had the day off, but I’m still adjusting to the thought of working on Christmas.  I think maybe more than anything else, having to work on Christmas just highlights how far away from everything I feel right now.  It hardly even feels like Christmas-time.  Aside from the decorations adorning the US Embassy here, and the garish Santa Claus hats worn by the cashiers at Lucky Supermarket, signs of the holiday are (for me) conspicuously absent in Cambodia. 

22 December 2006:

            My first official working day at the ECCC went well.  I was only there for a morning, as the Tribunal’s Christmas break began at noon today.  I settled in quickly—checked in with most of the necessary departments, received my briefings, and set up my computer/email.  The more people I meet, the more I think that I am really going to enjoy working there.  Though my position is definitely more of an internship than my advisory role with YFP, the work I’ll be doing at the ECCC falls nicely in line with my interests in international law and human rights. 

            This afternoon I walked down to the Vietnamese Embassy to apply for a visa to Vietnam.  I would normally have waited to do this, since I hadn’t planned on traveling there until after leaving Cambodia, but it looks like I’ll be taking a short trip there sooner than expected.  In order for the UN to extend my Cambodian visa, I have to technically leave the country and come back in with the proper paperwork.  This has to be done before my current business visa runs out, which means that next weekend I’ll most likely take a 4-hour bus ride to the Vietnamese border, stepping over into Vietnam, and coming right back.  This whole ordeal will still be cheaper (and about as much of a hassle) as extending my business visa by going to the immigration department.  The only major inconvenience, I learned after 2 hours at the Vietnamese Embassy, is that they will not issue me a multi-month, multiple-entry Vietnamese visa.  Meaning that spending about 10 minutes in Vietnam before coming back will invalidate my visa, and I will have to apply for another one in order to return in March. 

23 December 2006:

            This morning, I took a moto to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.  The museum is housed in what used to be S-21, an old primary school that was converted into a prison and interrogation center during the Khmer Rouge regime.  The compound, a collection of 4-5 buildings surrounding a courtyard, is enclosed by high, concrete walls.  At any given time, the prison housed about 15,000 prisoners; and when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, only about a dozen prisoners were found alive.

            I wanted to visit Tuol Sleng alone, but now, having gone by myself, I’m not sure that was the best idea.  Almost all of the prison cells and torture chambers are open to the public, and so while I could wander around at my own pace, some of the sights at Toul Sleng were hard to take in on my own.  The compound remains relatively untouched; after 30 years you can still see the original beds, torture instruments, and blood stains on the floors.  The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in documenting the prisoners that passed through Tuol Sleng, and many victims’ photos and biographies now lie on display in the museum.  One room is completely devoted photos of the prisoners that once stayed there.  Row after row of black and white faces fill the room, mug shots taken of men, women, and children of all ages.  Some wear numbers around their necks, others seems to stare at you, wearing pained or frightened expressions.

            Walking through the interrogation rooms and past the tiny cells, I was gripped simultaneously by an urge to leave as quickly as possible and by a desire to learn as much as possible about the events that occurred there.  It was hard to keep walking through the prison, and the silence requested of all visitors made the whole experience even more eerie.  Even now, I’m having a hard time describing the visit, because what I saw was only a small part of all the Khmer Rouge atrocities, and the emotions I experienced are at this moment still difficult for me to express.  As glad as I am to have visited, a large part of me was relieved when I had completed the tour and could leave the compound.

24 December 2006:

            It’s Christmas Eve, but there’s little indication of it here in Phnom Penh, aside from the date.  My day was decidedly unexciting.  I grabbed a leisurely lunch at the Pavilion Hotel near my apartment, taking advantage of the wireless connection there.  The afternoon was filled with errands, including a lengthy trip to Psar Olympic to buy fabric for some clothes I’m having made.  Running around town under the sun and in the heat did little to remind me that it’s the holiday season now, though I did notice that the Santa hat-wearing cashiers at Lucky Supermarket have now been joined by a Cambodian man in a Santa costume. 

            Christmas finally hit me when I went for dinner this evening with my friend Celina and a group of people she knows.  We headed over to Le Royal, one of Phnom Penh’s nicest hotels, for their fancy (and expensive!…at least when you’re used to paying a few dollars or less per meal) Christmas Eve buffet.  It was almost as if we had left Cambodia for the night.  It was nice to be able to dress up, and to have dinner plans beyond a crowded restaurant sans air conditioning.  The restaurant was filled with Christmas music, and most of the diners there were ex-pats.  The food was absolutely delicious (everything I’ve been craving since I came to Cambodia), and to be honest, it was refreshing to eat at a place where the waiters spoke English and I knew I would always get what I asked for.  Aside from the humorous and slightly bizarre sight of the hotel’s Cambodian staff walking around a bit uncomfortably in their Santa Claus hats, the evening was the taste of familiarity that I’ve been craving for a little while now.

But aside from indulging in comforts that I probably won’t get much of while I’m here in Cambodia, it was also fun to meet some of Celina’s friends, a great group of people.  We were able to commiserate about celebrating holidays abroad in unconventional ways, and about the ins and outs of living and working in Cambodia generally. Above all, it was just really nice to have company on Christmas Eve, especially since I’m so far away from home and since I’ll be working tomorrow on Christmas Day. 

27 December 2006:

            Mialy is with her family in Hong Kong for the holiday, and while she’s gone I’ve been borrowing her bicycle.  Riding around Phnom Penh on a bike is quite an experience.  Even after a week of it, I still feel like I’m taking my own life in my hands every time I get on my bike.

            As an initial obstacle to a smooth and safe ride anywhere, bikes are not really seen as a legitimate mode of transport here.  The majority of Cambodians in this city get around on their motorbikes, with a privileged few riding in cars.  It’s unclear where exactly bicycles fit into the “transportation equation,” but it appears that they’re generally looked down upon or totally disregarded.  Even pedestrians seem to get more respect than bicyclists. 

            Bicycling down side roads in Phnom Penh is not a problem, but once you hit the main roads you must be aware of everything going on around your at all times.  Though cars and motos generally follow the flow of traffic and drive on the right side of the road, it’s not unusual to look up and see a moto, bicycle, or pedestrian coming at you in the wrong direction.  Even as I timidly clung to the side of the road, I was constantly looking left, right, before, and behind me, dodging the motorcycles that would weave in and out of traffic. 

            Intersections are the scariest—as much as I hate roundabouts when I’m driving a car, I’m always relieved to find one when I’m on the bike.  Traffic lights are few and far between in Phnom Penh, leaving motorists to find their own way through congested and dangerous intersections.  Motos speed into any opening they see; cars plow on through almost arrogantly, knowing that others will make concerted efforts to get out of their way.  As a bicyclist, this leaves me to make my way slowly through, deferring to motos and cars alike, wobbling back and forth, trying to remain both in motion and ready to speed up should an opening present itself.  I definitely suffer from the lack of rear-view mirrors on my bike, and my heart still skips a beat every time a moto speeds up from behind, passing me by only a few inches.  I also suffer from the lack of a working bell on Mialy’s bike, though it’s very unclear whether the ‘ping’ of a bicycle bell would be a more effective deterrent to would-be sources of accidents than the scared/angry expression etched onto my face.  

I become increasingly relieved (and thankful to be alive) every time I approach my destination, and my respect for everyone riding bicycles in Phnom Penh—a group that includes old men and women as well as young children—grows steadily each day.