Monday, 23 November 2015

When the third world gets to second base

Had 12 hours to kill at Bangkok Airport so we decided to jump the Airport-Link train and head for the centre. Simple. Twenty five minute ride to the end of the line (seven stations from the airport). Grabbed a cab with a couple from Germany and got out at the Royal Palace.

Ignored the Royal Palace and went looking for food. Not much by way of street food and finally found a place that looked promising. Went in, came out. Buggered if I was going to be in Bangkok for a day and eat French Fries and burgers. Found a chain that did passable Thai/Chinese - more than passable in fact given that the dish Andrea ate nearly blew her head off with the chilli heat. And she likes chillis (thats my memory of Bangkok 38 years ago. Pointing at what looked like fantastic food in a market and having to run for the water trough and dive in to put out the fire in my mouth).

Anyway to cut a long story short this story is about affluence and traffic. Phnom Penh is 85% motor bikes and tuc tucs and 15% cars - as was Bangkok in 1977. Now it seems the ratios are reversed. Barely a tuc tuc in sight and relatively few motor bikes. The result: gridlock. We hailed a cab at 6pm and asked to be taken to the closest Airport-Link Station. Our flight was boarding at 11pm. At one stage I thought we might not have allowed enough time - you do the maths. We sat in traffic for an hour and a half moving less than a car length every ten minutes. I swear the traffic lights 100 metres ahead changed at least 20 times before we reached them.

We made the station at 7:30 and were at the airport at 8pm. Easy.
It's ridiculous to want people to remain poor but there is a cost to affluence and status and its called gridlock. Poor Phnom Penh doesn't know what's coming.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Cambodia/Laos Day 16 - Social Enterprise

Social Enterprises (not for profits which work to create job opportunities and training for people with limited access to employment).
        Cambodia and Laos are full of them, all unique and often started by outsiders, but not always, and some more pure in intent than others. Let me list a few: Daughters of Cambodia (working with young girls sold into the sex industry), Friends (a network of initiatives across both nations and in multiple places - mainly working with street kids and mainly in the hospitality and restaurant skills areas), Cambodian Creations (ethical/fair trade enterprise selling hand made jewellery, clothing and toys supporting those with few prospects), Made (providing sustainable and viable employment for girls involved in sex trafficking and/or sexual exploitation), the list goes on.
               My estimate would be up around 100. They also include organisations targeting those maimed by land mines, or damaged by their exposure to war and family breakdown (remembering that Pol Pot's   regime killed 1 in 4 of the Cambodian population in the late seventies). When people speak of his reign of terror they speak about it down to the years, months and days and almost hours it lasted. He was welcomed as a liberator but things soon turned bad as he pursued his extreme vision of a socialist agrarian state. He killed the teachers and intellectuals first and ultimately turned on his own supporters having become paranoid and unwilling to accept the most minor of infractions.
            The intention of these Social Enterprises is always good but I worry a little if the enterprise is actually making people dependent rather than independent. To their credit the majority understand the difference and support their groups to study, learn new skills and then help them to gain outside employment or in some cases to become businesses in their own right. Some provide ongoing employment paying living wages and  healthy and fair working conditions.
            The best meals we ate in Laos and Cambodia were from the Social Enterprise restaurants. The best and most interesting craft (traditional and modern) also came out of these places.
           My favourite was the simplest. These two Aussie sisters in their 20s were on a travelling holiday through Asia and landed in Siem Reap intending to stay three days and five years later they're still there. They opened a coffee shop trained local staff and use the profits to pay for the education of their staff and their families. It's a simple win win formula. They don't have any fancy Community Development philosophy - just a grounded common sense approach to an idea with mutually beneficial outcomes.
          The most sophisticated is the 'Friends Group' whose program is layered with training and successful employment outcomes plus beautiful cookbooks and other merchandise made by the participants. It appears to be run by locals at this point in time.
           The most ambitious is 'Daughters of Cambodia' which is attempting to not only liberate young women from the sex trade, but has aspirations to undermine the sex industry across the board - a big stretch given that they only work with small numbers at any one time.
            What, if any, difference was there from similar ventures in Australlia? The philosophy is common but perhaps the desperate nature of the lives of these people makes the ventures seem so much more effective and necessary. The participants appeared extremely willing; they certainly have an enhanced sense of self and self esteem (as would be the aspiration of Australian based programs); they are enthusiastic to work, something which is sometimes a challenge in Oz. There is no other option in these countries. It's a survival story.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Cambodia/Laos Day 15 - Rob Overtoom at FCC (Foreigbn Correspondant's Club)

Day 15. Met a Dutchman at the FCC (Foreign Correspondant's Club). We were having an Ankor beer on the rooftop terrace of this dishevelled old colonial building. The view was impressive. A panorama of the junction of the Mekong and one of its major tributaries, one which flows backwards in the monsoon season as the floodwaters push upstream into the largest lake in the country. A giant expanse of water 150 km north.  For the first time in memory the backflow failed this year. The locals put it down to the new dams the Chinese are building upstream along the Mekong. It could kill the lake - the livelihood for thousands of fishing families surrounding its shores (and living on the lake in floating villages).

'Are you local?' I asked. He looked it. Dark tanned skin, a face that had seen a lot of life and an easy manner. 'I've been in Cambodia since 1991' he told me. 'I came here by accident. A medical colleague called me in Holland and said "we need you out here." He was in a Thai border refugee camp where thousands of Cambodians were stuck fleeing the war being waged by the National Liberation Army against the Vietnamese.' I learnt that the Vietnamese, hot on the heels of their success against the Americans had, in 1979, driven Pol Pot and his regime from the country at the same time installing their own clique in power. Ironically Pol Pot's forces then reinvented themselves as the Liberation Army and were again waging a war for the independence of the country.

Rob was 66, had worked as a medico in Cambodia for the ensuing 25 years and had recently retired - not to a quiet life but to begin a new life as a father ((1 year old twins and a 3 year old). He had married a Cambodian woman twenty years ago and hard as they tried had never been able to conceive. And now she, at 47, and he at 66, were beginning a family. He was meeting a few old mates from the Development Community (doctors, engineers, project managers) for a reunion, some of whom he hadn't seen for ten  years. Later I googled him and found he was also a fine photographer having been the man behind the camera of a publication documenting, for the first time, the exhaustive pictorial representation of Cambodian bird life.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Cambodia/Laos Day 14 - tuc tuc tuc tuc t...

Day 14. Phnom  Penh.  A  city of motor bikes. Five  abreast, three up, meandering,  dashing, slicing, on the wrong side of the  road, weaving through oncoming traffic, daring cars to run them down, on the footpaths, across vacant lots, deftly avoiding pedestrians; pulling carts loaded with building materials, people, rubbish;  side cars designed as ice cream vans, as night market  food stalls,  for delivering produce, fish, ice, rice. Tens of thousands of them playing a giant game of 'chicken'.

Pedestrian crossings exist but are  totally ignored. Only once did a  car stop for us as we crossed a road. He took pity on us - we had made it  to the centre (half way point) but were stranded, frozen at  the prospect of taking  on the next tsunami of bikes and cars. Didn't  see a single accident - remarkable.

Oh, I  forgot  to mention the swarms of tuc tucs and their drivers, each  intent on outdoing the others with their decor and design.-

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Cambodia Day 11 - 13 Suk Veasna - Temple Guide, The Blacksmith and others

Day 11. Flew fro Vientiane to Siem Reap.Got abused by immigration for not getting my departure card stamped on arrival - go figure?

Day 12. Day of Temples. Second 4am start in row. Spent 7 hours with Sok Veasna, our 22 y old guide with an obsession with pretty girls and the havoc they wreak on the world. His 20 word take on the Hindu epic, the Ramayana,  was priceless. Many years ago I saw Peter Brook's theatre version of the Mahabharata, the sister story to the Ramayana. It ran over three nights, a total of ten hours. Vesnae's took less than a minute  (there may  be more to it as  it's an epic poem  which runs over several hundred pages).

"A big fight between two gods over the Goddess Lakshmi  aka  Sita  which involved  all their forces. So God  versus God, man versus man,  animal vs animal  (the Ramayana is full of mythic animals  - monkeys as minor gods  (Hanuman), giant birds (Garuda) which carry the gods into battle, seven headed cobras etc etc)  all to win the favour of the beautiful girl. Pretty girls always cause too much trouble!"

I said I couldn't comment as I had avoided that problem. Andrea  glared  and stored it away for the future.

Veasna had apologised at the outset for his poor English and then proceeded to talk and play the comic for the remainder of the day. We fell in love with hi and his quest to understand women. He was concerne3d that he  would never be attractive to the  pale skinned Cambodian girls as he was too dark. If that were  to happen he said it's called: "Frog eat Goose" (their frogs are big brown monsters similar in appearance to our toads).

Beautiful temples, Great Hindu/Buddhist history.  You  had to be there. (Some photos on this blog)

Day 13. Became a blacksmith  for a  day. Made kitchen knife using a sledge hammer and an angle grinder- with a  little help from a master blacksmith and his three assistants.He was 69 and as fit as a malley bull. The knife began life as a length of steel reinforcing rod. I wielded one of the hammers and the sound of metal on metal rang through the  streEt as we changed the shape of that thing until the magic happened. I did bit of angle grinding to remove  the black coke from the surface and he did the  final shaping and sharpening. Luckily I had an interpreter as no one  spoke a word of English.  His  workshop was a ramshackle patchwork of corrugated iron thrown together to protect the space from  the sun, no walls, set up  in front of his humble house.fro there he produces scythes, hoes, cutting impleents of many shapes and sizes at the  rate of about 20 a  day.He's been doing it for fifty years.