This post is a bit overdue by now, but hopefully my memory is good enough! I recently spent 5 days in Bangkok with Sarah, and, the city is…

Gigantic. Bangkok is as different than Siem Reap as I could imagine it being. Bangkok is exhausting. Bangkok is a clash of modern technologies and appearances, with pockets of old traditional looks; and a mix of highly developed infrastructure but also areas that seem to have moved through the development and city planning stages a bit too fast without setting the foundation.

We left for Thailand on Friday via a taxi to the Poipet border. The border crossing was relatively simple to navigate, and once we got through customs and immigration it was like a whole little town of its own that was arranged of food stalls, full restaurants, banks, shops and vendors eager to sell their goods to those passing through. English is so prevalent in Cambodia and we even use USD here, so this was also my first real experience on IPSP where the vast majority of folks didn’t speak English, I could not read the signs, and did not have the correct currency. We did not have a spare minute to explore the border settlement much, though, because we first stopped at tourist information to see what time the Bangkok buses ran. We were quickly ushered onto a double-decker bus within minutes, to of course find that the announcements were in Thai and the woman working our section couldn’t communicate with us. And so off we went without much of a clue how long the ride would be, where we should get off, and just hoping we were on dropped onto the right route! Luckily, a Thai passenger, seemingly the only one who spoke English, quickly befriended us. He helped us navigate through one of the bus stops to find food and toilets, and advised us where to get off once we arrive in the city about 5 hours later. His kindness was predictive and telling of the demeanor of several people we would meet throughout the trip, both Thai and Westerns alike.

We fit as much as we could into our stay, some of the highlights being:

  • The Royal Palace
  • Wat Po and the reclining Buddha
  • River taxi rides
  • May Kaidee’s vegetarian cooking school
  • Navigating the 15,000 stalls at the enormous and amazing Chatuchak weekend market – it covers 27 acres!
  • Yoga with a 23rd floor view
  • Enjoying a drink from the top of Thailand’s tallest building
  • Thai massage
  • Street food – pad thai for $1. Can’t beat it, and it was usually so much better than restaurants!
  • Being in Bangkok on the day before, on, and after the election. Was really interesting to get the very different perspectives from locals and expats, and how it may effect Cambodia.

I was happy to be back in the Kingdom after my five days were up, as there were a multiple things I did not like about Bangkok. People constantly try to scam you, and it’s exhausting just trying to figure out if someone is being nice or trying to trick you. Transportation is not like it is in Siem Reap, where there isn’t a destination I can’t just hop on my bicycle to get to. Taxis and tuk-tuks get expensive in such a huge city, and we didn’t have the time or energy most days to try to navigate the bus system. Traffic! I would say only about 15% of people on the road in Siem Reap are cars, so there’s little to no traffic. One night it took us over an hour and a half to drive 6km. There was a smell of sewer all over the city, along with trash. And while my command on the Khmer language is at times (ok, MOST of the time, embarrassing), I felt rather discomforted most of the time not knowing any of the language.

Regardless, I did really enjoy Bangkok and hope to get another opportunity to travel more in Thailand. I must say, though, I think the best feeling of the week came when I was outside the Siem Reap airport after I’d arrived back home. I went to get myself a tuk-tuk home, and the driver told me $5. Two weeks before, I paid $4 for a round trip to the airport and back. I said no no no, I know how much it is and I want to pay $2. After 3 men tried to convince me it is too far where I want to go, I told them I live here. One of the men laughed a bit to himself and inquired “oh, you must speak Khmer then?” When I answered yes, a little, and again said the price I would pay in Khmer, they all laughed and agreed to drive me at the price that I set. It felt good to be home.

Pad thai and peanut sauce that I made!

 

The Royal Palace. This actual building was just a small piece of the entire complex.

The reclining Buddha - it was enormous.

View from the top of Thailand's tallest building. Imagine this all 360 degrees - Bangkok is HUGE!

 

Enjoying some time on the river taxi. The river is still an important part of Bangkok's transporation, economy and way of life.

 

 

Last night I went to an inaugural “Nerd Nite Siem Reap” event. Ever heard of such an event? I hadn’t before, but thanks to a very active expat facebook group that I am in, I got the scoop. I learned that Nerd Nite is actually a concept that started in Boston (!), and has spread throughout the world. There’s a group that regularly hosts Nerd Nites in Phnom Penh, and that’s how the idea travelled here to Siem Reap. The basic deal is that someone speaks on a subject of their choice – something they have extensive knowledge about or has a passion for, and does it through a series of 20 powerpoint slides that show for 20 seconds each. It is all prepared ahead of time and the technology guru of the night is in charge of advancing the slides, so the presenter is forced to stay on time. It adds up to 6 minutes and 40 seconds about a random topic, so in one night you hear a lot about a lot of weird stuff.

There is a pretty active expat/long term volunteer presence here, and the organizers of the event decided to start it up after deciding that the basic info of who you are, where you’re from, what organization you work for and other information you share with each other at typical gatherings and parties is getting pretty old. Ideally, Nerd Nite allows you to learn things about folks you would probably never heard about and wouldn’t know to ask otherwise.

The topics last night included “The Clockwork of Coincidence,” LED lights, Food, Creative Dumpster Diving, homo florinses (which I learned are little Timorese person-critters – Andrew Morgan have you had any run-ins with rumoured to still be alive creatures?) and responsible tourism in Siem Reap. With happy hour drinks and free canapes, it was definitely an entertaining night. I would definitely go back next month, but I will be gone by then 😦

I did, however, think it was something that we could definitely do as a Clinton School community! You would have to really think of something that people don’t know about you, and it could be really fun. Spencer and Fernando might be able to guess what my talk could be about!

Thursday is my other night for my regular expat community event. One of the restaurants holds a weekly trivia night to benefit a charity each week (my organization is one of the beneficiaries). I have gone nearly each week since being here, and my team is pretty good, as we are all from different countries which is always a big help. We have had three second-place finishes out of between 8-12 teams each week, and I think this week will finally be our time!

As mentioned in an earlier post, I have had plans to donate blood to the Angkor Hospital for Children. I’ve been really excited to do this, and was waiting until after Sarah’s visit to do it. I’ve never met the weight requirements in the US, but I do in Cambodia because they draw only 350 millilitres, which is about 75% of the typical 1 pint in the US. I scheduled an appointed yesterday, and even had a friend who was going to donate with me! We headed over earlier, and after they took the small amount to verify donor eligibility, I was told that my hemoglobin levels are too low 😦 I haven’t had to go to a doctor for anything specific in years, and don’t typically get blood drawn during regular physicals, so was worried as I didn’t know if this was a bad thing. They told me it is not low enough to cause any concern right now, then asked if I eat much meat. Ah, vegetarianism, you’ve stolen my excitement about finally being able to donate blood.

 

My friend did still donate, so instead I just got to quiz the attendant about all the things I was curious about – asking questions about how far families travel to go to the hospital, how long they have to wait, Dengue Fever this season (predicted to be very high), about his training and experience and so on. I had lots of questions left, when he told me that he really needed to go back to work. I am happy he entertained my questions for the short time, still.

I was so excited I brought my camera!

Hearing the bad news

As I got the first glimpse of the Cambodian landscape today from my Bangkok Air window, I couldn’t help but start smiling. It was a similar feeling to the one I get when I am close to touching down in Boston or Manchester after not being home for many months, and I was somewhat surprised to feel the same way when we neared touchdown in Siem Reap. Needless to say, I am happy to be back. It’s funny how quickly a new place can start to feel like home when you find the right people to have around and are doing something meaningful. It is going to be difficult to leave this place in 5 weeks!

Regardless, I did really enjoyed my 5 days in Bangkok. Pictures and stories soon to follow…

Entering Thailand via the Poipet land border

My supervisor, Pisey, and I

Today I read the transcript from a speech called It ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it: Global education for gender justice given by Kavita Ramdas, the CEO of the Global Fund for Women.  The talk goes much beyond gender issues alone; and touches upon many things I think my Clinton Schooler’s would enjoy –  what does it mean to be a ‘global citizen’ in a world where so many people, organizations and beliefs claim the title, the flaws of working in the binary classifications of ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ countries, the values and assumptions of education, benefits of a liberal arts education, and the danger of the single story.

It’s a bit lengthy, but a pretty quick and, in my opinion, worthwhile read: http://www.aacu.org/meetings/annualmeeting/AM11/documents/KavitaRamdasSpeechAACUJanuary2011.pdf

Is the tagline of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC). I am just about half way done with my project work, and realized that I haven’t written too much about the actual work I am doing, which.. ya know, is the reason I’m here. So, I want to share some of the details of my organization and my time with them.

As in many developing countries around the world, the status of women is significantly lower than men. The same is true in Cambodia, and in Siem Reap and the village that I am working in. Siem Reap is known as the “Gateway to Angkor” and has overwhelmingly become a tourist hub, but little of the revenues and benefits of having so many tourists coming through each year (approximately 2 million visitors to Angkor each year) trickle down to the local Khmer people. Many hotels, business and restaurants are foreign-owned, and poverty remains high in Siem Reap as in the majority of the rest of the country. Estimates read that about 40% of Khmer families in the district here live below the poverty line of 1,952 Reil – or less than 50 cents a day. So, also as reflected in many parts of the world, Siem Reap definitely exhibits the stark differences of wealth and poverty in what the tourists see as they shuffle through, and what really exists just 10 minutes outside of the city center.

Poverty disproportionately affects women more than men. Primary and secondary school in Cambodia is free, but “free” education does not guarantee access. Families are expected to pay for uniforms and supplies. Teacher salaries are very low (a high end salary might be about 70 USD a month), so many schools charge ancillary fees to increase teacher income. Consequentially, most families cannot afford to send multiple children to school at once. Boys are often given preference over girls to attend school if the family is not able to send all children (other barriers also exist, mainly beyond location and safety for girls to travel to school). As such, female illiteracy exceeds male illiteracy rates.

Economic opportunities are limited for women. There are many shops set up alongside the village roads selling fruits, snacks and other small items that are almost always operated by women; but I’ve been told these are nearly always attached to a home and the woman is likely selling and giving all the profits to the husband to manage. Thus creates a cycle of economic dependency, which is increased when children are involved.

Cambodian culture creates the next piece of the puzzle. Cultural memes say that it is not acceptable for a woman to talk about personal and/or family issues with anyone other than the husband. These issues can be anything from poor health, questions about raising a child, or anything at all. So, if a woman is not married, who can she talk to? Normally, no one. That’s the dilemma that my organization was created to address.

WRC acts primarily as a drop-in center welcoming women to ask any questions about their life. The organization is very new, only establishing the current office in November of this past year. They have focused their first few months on community networking and building a referral network with other community agencies and NGOs that offer health, education, and vocational services to women. WRC follows the mantra of “support, information, and referral.” Women drop in, ask questions, and the staff here provide basic counselling to address their needs. They will use the referral network to provide at least two options for the woman if she is looking to take some concrete action, then WRC will facilitate a referral to the partner agency.

You might be thinking – really? The organization just gives information? Is that even real work? And the answer is yes: in Cambodia it is actually a very innovative concept. Building the referral network, an ongoing task, is a challenge in itself. NGOs here are more suspicious of each other than anything, and there is very little collaboration in the non-profit sector. WRC is more or less trying to develop an asset map of what is available in this and the nearby villages, but most NGOs do not even know who their neighbors are and what they do. And so it is even less likely that local women know what services are available to them. In this way, WRC is trying to change the landscape of the NGO sector to encourage an environment of collaboration over competition, and to discourage the replication of services.

Secondly, WRC wants to end this culture of silence around “women’s issues.” Because women are traditionally told that it is not appropriate to discuss personal issues with others, they typically go to the pagodas to pray when they have a problem. Now while I understand and completely respect the power of religion in many people’s lives, I must say it is probably not going to be the most expeditious way to solve the problems of domestic violence or cervical cancer (two very common things in Cambodia). So, WRC operates with feminist counselling approaches and encourages women to talk openly about their problems, to ask questions, to realize injustices exist, that they are not the only ones with these problems, and realize there are services to help them through challenges. The staff here are women from all different provinces in Cambodia who have often experienced many of the same issues, so they are able to quickly build trust and rapport with clients.

And so you have it: Women Helping Women. Millennium Development Goal #3 is to increase gender equity and empower women, and this is especially being focused on by the UNDP in Cambodia. I really haven’t gone into the specific disparities and injustices that women face in this country, but I will end by saying that I am happy to part of an organization, even for this short time, that tirelessly advocates to advance the status and uphold the rights of women.