Friday, May 29, 2009

The Mystery of the Late Night Knocker

Every night at about 10pm - the same time that we are treated to an emotional rendition of "Hotel California" - we hear a strange knocking noise. It almost sounds like someone is playing a wooden cowbell. So one night, we ventured out to the terrace to observe the wooden knocking.

It is exactly what it sounds like: a guy walking down the street tapping on a block of wood with a chopstick. Our minds fill with the possible purpose of the wooden knocker. Is he selling drugs? Or women? Or worse? A few minutes later, as we stand and contemplate, another wooden knocker walks by on a perpendicular street.

With piqued curiosity, I asked one of my co-workers the next day. When I explained my concern that the wooden knocker may be involved in illicit activities, he laughed. Apparently the wooden knocker - and his counterparts across the city - sells noodles. He parks his noodle cart on a street corner and walks through the neighborhood, advertising his wares with his wooden knocking. That will teach me to assume the worst when it comes to sketchy goings-on on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Scuba Diving in Cambo

A few months ago Shanti and I were at a party with a group of friends when I overhead one of them mention that she was planning to get scuba certified. Moreover, a group of our friends wa going to Sihanoukville to dive together. I had always wanted to do a scuba course but was inevitably short on time, money, or both.

The day after the party, I went to Scuba Nation’s Phnom Penh branch and signed Shanti and I up for the PADI Open Water Diver course. Once we completed the course, we would be able to dive to eighteen meters (about sixty feet) and would be certified for life. I attacked the course book with relish and watched the complementary DVD over the next few weeks.

With the dive trip fast approaching, Shanti and I scheduled our pool dive for a Saturday morning. We met at the Scuba Nation office and drove up to the Long Beach Hotel in Tuol Kork. It felt a bit funny to be carrying all of the dive equipment – tanks, masks, fins, BCDs – through a hotel to its swimming pool and it felt even stranger when we realized that there was a wedding going on by the pool. Naturally, the wedding guests were intrigued and crowded around us; it was certainly a unique experience to be surrounded by 100 people watching your every move when you’re wearing nothing but a bathing suit (especially so for the ‘scantily’ clad Shanti and Vicky, our instructor). For a good fifteen minutes, an old man, glued to his seat, kept pointing at us and laughing. The large audience put some unneeded added pressure on Shanti and me. Once in (and under) the water, however, our movements warranted less interest and the wedding-goers left us alone.

After setting up our equipment and putting it on, we entered the pool and, over the next several hours, learned how to scuba dive. Within a few minutes of getting in the pool, we were transformed to fish breathing under water. Though it was a bit tricky to get a feel for everything given the conditions of the pool (shallow, small, no current, freshwater), Shanti and I were both surprised at how easy the entire process was. We did a run through of the drills we would have to complete in the open water to receive our certification and excitedly awaited our dives in Sihanoukville.

A few days later we caught the Mekong Express bus down to Sihanoukville. We had a nice seafood dinner on the beach and retired early, eager in anticipation of the next day’s dives.

We were up early in the morning for the drive to the Sihanoukville port where we set off into the Gulf of Thailand. We passed the Japanese navy conducting joint exercises with their Cambodian counterparts as well as the bizarre James Bond-like Mirax Resort. We went past Koh Rong Samloem until we reached Koh Tang, about four hours off the coast. As we approached, we donned our gear and prepared for our first real scuba diving adventure.

Within moments we were off the boat and in the water, descending to forty feet below the surface. There was no current and the visibility was good, so we settled on the seabed to begin practicing the necessary skills – mask clearing and replacement, hovering at the sea floor, controlling our breathing, navigation, etc. It was both amazing and disorienting to look up towards the surface, which appeared within arm’s reach. A multitude of vibrant fish and coral surrounded us on all sides with our divemaster, Klaus, pointing out particular items of interest. It’s hard to describe the sensation we felt when we began to swim around; it was somewhat akin to floating, but with a bit of work involved.

The time that we were underwater – one hour – went incredibly fast; it felt like we had been under for about fifteen minutes. With two dives already under our belts, we did one more quick one at sunset to complete our controlled emergency swimming ascent (CESA), a frightening and counterintuitive maneuver. With a mock CESA, your air is turned off when you're forty feet down and you need to swim to the surface with the one breath you have, exhaling the whole time (because the air in your lungs expands as you rise). After a delicious dinner on board, the novice divers donned snorkeling masks and followed the experts around as they did a night dive.

We woke up early for two more dives. As we gradually fine-tuned our skills, we were able to pay greater attention to our surroundings – the brightly colored tropical fish and corals, the crystal clear aquamarine waters, the landscape of the seabed, and the way the sunlight danced at the water’s surface.

All in all it was a phenomenal experience and a skill I look forward to using throughout the world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Karaoke with His Excellency

I'm now back in the U.S. and starting to catch up on posts. I'll try and post several in the next couple of weeks. Here's the first:

It came about innocently enough. After several breakfasts, a few family lunches and dinners, and an election victory celebration party, His Excellency hinted at his desire to take us to karaoke. Having enjoyed our previous encounters with His Excellency and curious to see what karaoke means to a National Assemblyman, we were eager to accompany him.

Following several failed attempts to set up a mutually agreeable time, we finally managed to pick a Saturday evening that we were free and that worked for His Excellency. In his spotty English, he explained that we should be ready to go at 7:30pm. As we cooked dinner, we called to confirm the time and place. We were instructed to meet in front of the Cambodiana at the agreed upon time, 7:30pm.

At 7:15pm we left the house via tuk-tuk and headed for the Cambodiana. When we arrived, His Excellency's big black Lexus was already idling out front. We hopped out of the tuk-tuk and were greeted by His Excellency, who rolled down the driver window as we approached. As we climbed into the backseat we were introduced to his assistant, sitting shotgun, a round, portly man about the same age as His Excellency. Throughout the night, he didn't say one word to us, in either English or Khmer nor did he sing at all at karaoke.

We drove north along the river and cut west on Russian Boulevard before turning off onto Street 109 where we arrived at a very sketchy karaoke club. The building was several stories high with neon lights - including the telltale red - adorning the outside. A young and attractive hostess (probably also a prostitute) showed us into the elevator and took us to a private karaoke room with a long leather couch, glass tables, and a large television.

We ordered a round of drinks - beer for me and Shanti, tonic and lime for His Excellency and his assistant - as His Excellency started us off with a few songs in Khmer. Unsurprisingly, he was quite a good singer. And although I'd like to think that Shanti and I had a pretty impressive song selection ("Don't Stop Believin'" and "A Whole New World" were among our picks), we couldn't match the singing of His Excellency.

Throughout the evening, His Excellency and his assistant had the "accompaniment" of two much younger Cambodian women. Although they just sang and danced - someone had to make the headbopping and fist-pumping of His Excellency's assistant look better - we had little doubt that they would do far more than that. On the whole it was quite a strange night, but I suppose we should not have expected differently from a Cambodian National Assemblyman.

Friday, April 3, 2009


Faithful Readers -

First, I apologize for the lengthy hiatus since my last entry. Second, let me apologize in advance as it may be some time before my next post. After nearly two years, I will be leaving Phnom Penh and Cambodia to return to the U.S. Fear not, though, I still have plenty to write about and upcoming entries will include:
  • Karaoke with His Excellency
  • PADI Scuba Course and Diving
  • The Mystery of the Late Night Knocker
  • Cambodian Wedding Photoshoot
  • An Aziza Pizza Party
  • Travel entries from upcoming trips to: Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan
While there is still much more to write and reflect upon, I would like to thank you for giving me a venue to share my experiences in Cambodia. I hope you have enjoyed reading the entries as much as I have enjoyed writing them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Cambodian Pajama Pants Dance

I've been in Cambodia for more than a year and a half now and, until yesterday I did not yet own Cambodian pajamas. Cambodian pajamas are thin and soft cotton garments in obscenely bright colors (neon yellow and orange come to mind) and seemingly out of place cartoon patterns. The pajamas often come in a set of pants or shorts and a long-sleeve or short-sleeve shirt and are worn throughout the day. They are particularly popular with women shopping in the local markets or just out and about around their neighborhood although they are most entertaining (and perhaps endearing) on young children. I've often admired the pajamas from afar and nearly as often remarked that it would be fun to have a Cambodian pajama party.

Yet I never acted upon my not-so-secret desires to join the Cambodians unknowingly already at their own pajama party. Yesterday though, Shanti and I were at the overwhelming and maze-like Olympic market fabric shopping. Shanti mentioned that we should, after all this time, get some Cambodian pajamas. I was immediately distracted from looking for material to make dress shirts. We hunted across the sprawling second floor until we found a few pajama vendors.

Not really wanting an entire set (it's just too damn hot), I waded through a pile of pajama shorts, finally coming to the perfect pair. Blinding neon yellow and with a cartoon hippopotamus theme, the shorts are emblazoned with the word HIPPOPOTAMUS over and over as well as short statements like "Hippy Boy Club" and "Is My Life My Funny Day" and cartoons of hippos swimming, snorkeling, picking mushrooms, and the odd jack-o-lantern. In short, they bring me to a sunny disposition not entirely dissimilar from their coloring and cartoon pattern.

Naturally, I tried them on as soon as I came home. I'm not sure if the happiness the shorts brought me - and the resulting frolicking - was more entertaining to me or Shanti. Later in the evening I was still sporting my stylish new threads. With a cool breeze blowing from our terrace and into the apartment, we went outside to enjoy it. Or I should say that Shanti went outside and I danced out as gaily as I have danced in recent memory. The breeze was quite refreshing. The call of "Hello" from our neighbor across the street and her commentary on my dancing skills, less so. Much to her entertainment and my embarrassment, she caught my whole jig. Shanti, of course, enjoyed my embarrassment almost as much as my dancing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Swimming with the Aziza Kids

Last week, we decided to take the younger kids from Aziza swimming (we had taken the older kids in December), hoping it would be a nice break from the school itself and a temporary escape from everything that has happened in the last month. On our visits to Aziza in the days ahead of the adventure, we were regaled by a dozen kids asking if they were among the lucky that actually got to go and when we would actually be going. It was clear that they were very excited by the prospect of an hour or so of swimming.

We showed up at Dey Krahorm mid-afternoon on Sunday. A mass of about twenty kids ranging in age from three to twelve waited under the stairway that leads up into the apartment building. As we approached, we were greeted with big smiles and a loud "Hello Steoo [Khmer pronounciation of Steve meaning "gangster"], Hello Shanti!" Each kid had a small bag complete with swimming attire (i.e. another pair of shorts and a t-shirt that they didn't mind getting wet) and a krama or small towel.

Because there were at least thirty kids to take, we arranged to take two groups of about fifteen. To make sure no one was excluded we tried to ensure that there was a list created by one of the teachers indicating who would go each week. The "list" that we acquired, however, was made with red colored pencils and in the scrawling English handwriting of one of the younger students (she and her sister were at the top of the list which included mostly girls and twenty-one as opposed to fifteen kids). Since they were ready, however, we decided to take the unfairly decided group of kids, assuring those that weren't going that they would definitely come the following week.

The twenty-plus kids, Drew, Amanda (an occasional volunteer), and Ruby (Amanda's dog), piled in to two tuk-tuks. We cringed at how tightly packed in the kids were, yet Shanti, Sofia, and I began the short bike ride to Romdeng. Romdeng is a restaurant operated by Friends International, an organization that helps street children with school and practical job training skills in a variety of fields. Within the last few months the restaurant moved to a beautiful colonial villa complete with a small pool.

We arrived at Romdeng at the same time as the tuk-tuks. Though we had arranged the visit with Romdeng in advance, there was near immediate chaos. The kids streamed in towards the pool. A tour group of middle-aged westerners dining on lunch in the formerly tranquil garden looked on with a mix of horror and amazement. A French couple with three small children in the pool had the look of people about to be run over. We rounded up the kids so we could explain who we were. A few of the staff led us and the kids to the tables they had set up for us.

Within a few minutes, chaos returned. The kids had changed into their swimming gear - some wore jeans and longsleeve shirts both because of modesty and a desire to retain lighter skin while others had Cambodian-style pajama shorts (brightly-colored shorts with a random assortment of patterns) - and jumped into the pool, or at least to the steps at the shallow end of the pool and the landing at the deep end. Few of the kids knew how to swim. We - Shanti, Drew, Graham, Sofia and I - jumped in to the pool, which was as shallow as three feet and as deep as almost six feet. Our task for the afternoon quickly became clear; we spent the next hour and a half shuttling kids from one side of the pool to the other, dunking them under water, trying to teach them how to swim, and watching them crawl along the edge of the pool and splash each other. Drew and Graham, each nearly six and a half feet tall, took on the responsibility of shuttling up to four kids each at a time.

One of the younger girls, with floaties, noisily kicked her way across the small pool, cautiously avoiding the outstretched arms of kids who wanted to give her floaties a try for themselves. The youngest girl, only about three and normally very shy, gleefully splashed around at the deep end landing. She took a liking to Shanti and, after a bit of tutelage, she quickly became one of the better swimmers in the group. One of the boys who is incredibly gentle but had shown some troubling signs since the eviction, came back out of his shell to be the happiest that we had ever seen him.

After over an hour of swimming, splashing, shouting, and shuttling, the kids were starting to get cold. It was late afternoon and the pool was no longer in the hot sun. The kids wrapped themselves in their towels and kramas and slipped into the pump room to change out of their swimming clothes. One of the boys acted as the guard, ensuring no one tried to get into the room while another kid was changing. A separate group of children went to the bathroom to change, leaving their flip flops on the welcome mat outside the door. Another few kids took the fresh coconuts we had gotten them to drink and smashed them open on the tiles by the pool. I couldn't help but smile thinking that few of Romdeng's other patrons put the fresh coconuts to as full a use as they did.

The following weekend, we returned with the other half of the kids. Though a more subdued group, they were very interested to learn how to swim and, of course, they thoroughly enjoyed being shttuled from one end of the pool to the other.

After both trips to Romdeng, an exhausted group of kids and volunteers shuffled out of Romdeng and piled back into the two tuk-tuks. In the year that we've been volunteering at Aziza, these were among the best afternoons we had with the kids. More importantly though, it seemed to be a good and much-needed escape for the kids, many of whose lives have been thrown upside-down in the past month and who rarely have the opportunity to step outside of the cycle between school, home, and Aziza and into an oasis like Romdeng.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentine's Day in Cambodia

It is amusing how seemingly western holidays are adapted in countries like Cambodia. I have noted this phenomenon previously around Christmas, but Valentine's Day is another example.

Several weeks ago, Shanti got me an early Valentine's Day present from Russian Market. While she went inside to pick the gift up, I waited outside with our bicycles. A friendly and curious tuk-tuk driver struck up a conversation with me in a mix of Khmer and English. Thinking that he would have no concept of Valentine's Day, I told him that I was waiting for my girlfriend, who was getting me a Christmas present. He smiled and nodded and then said - again in a mix of Khmer and English - "Well it's almost Valentine's Day. You better get her a nice present."

More recently, a few days ago, while I was at Aziza, one of the older students asked me what my plans were for Valentine's Day. I told him that I wasn't sure yet, but asked if he had any suggestions. He said that I "should buy at least one rose" and that if I "put two candles on the table while you are eating dinner, it is very good." I replied that these were solid recommendations and that it sounded like he'd put some thought into them, though when I asked what he was doing, he only smiled and blushed and said he had no plans.

Valentine's Day was even on the mind of one of the girls that watches His Excellencies grandchildren. She asked us all about traditions in the U.S., if I had bought Shanti flowers, and what our plans were for the day, saying it was a good day to share with "your special". She was at least as embarrassed as the Aziza student when we asked her what her plans were.

Valentine's Day, or Tungai Bon Sangsaa (literally Day of the Sweetheart Festival), is taken to the extreme in Cambodia. If Hallmark executives could dream up the ideal Valentine's Day, from a marketing sense, Cambodia would be perfect aside from the fact that greeting cards are not very popular. In the days ahead of Valentine's Day, little street stalls spring up on every corner, selling roses, chocolates, balloons, and stuffed animals. This culminated in a climax on the day itself in which hordes of teenagers gathered around the street stalls, which were now every few meters on major thoroughfares (Shanti and I counted at least eighteen such stalls on Sihanouk Blvd. between Norodom and Sothearos, a distance of no more than a few hundred meters).

Sometimes though, the concept of the holiday is not very well understood. Outside of Lucky Market, the western-style supermarket, a tent was set up selling cake and, for some reason, candy canes (clearly left over from Christmas). Inside, chocolates were on sale with seemingly misplaced messages, like "Recover Well." Perhaps in anticipation of the Valentine's Day break-up? Or, perhaps more realistically, a recognition of the need to "recover well" from an over-the-top Valentine's Day.