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Michael's 2007 Summer Internship in Cambodia!

When I'm not running (volunteer blog at: in Thailand or going to grad school in DC, I've been able to travel to Vietnam and do an internship in Cambodia. Here are some pics and diary entries...

Diary Entries

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Location: Vietnam

Here are some pics from my trip to Vietnam. I traveled with a medical mission to the hill tribes and scouted out new schools for Volunthai.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Location: Asia - South East

Good news! We just got permission from the Vietnamese government to start sending volunteers! Visit for more info and to contact us.

Tuesday, 03 July 2007

Location: Cambodia

Here are some pictures of the past week in Cambodia. Some are from S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh. Others are from around the city and from a weekend trip to the Vietnamese border. Because of my skewed sense of entertainment, I still haven’t been to the temples of Siem Reap or the beaches of Sihanoukville. Instead, I try to go places that no foreigners would have visited before. After studying the history for twenty years, I finally slept in a town that was bombed by America during the Vietnam War. No one seemed to hold it against me, though, and many of the people my age and younger didn’t even know until the village chief talked about it with me. This eerie phenomenon keeps surfacing in my travels and discussions: people everywhere traumatized by the past, but no one talking about it. It’s also interesting that Buddhism, unlike Christianity, doesn’t have an outlet for asking forgiveness. Instead, people make merit for themselves. The simple acts of apologizing and forgiving has never occurred, and resentment simmers on. Many Khmer Rouge perpetrators feel as bad as their victims, but few would understand their grief (or the basic reasons why they did what they did). A tourist’s fresh graffiti at the genocide museum mirrored many Cambodians’ sentiments: ‘Death to the Khmer Rouge’. The truth is that all commoners were victims of much larger powers, and perhaps the last chance for closure is the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Whether the UN budget will hold out, the Cambodian government will allow the process to continue, or the top figures can even be arrested is yet to be seen. China may be opposing it behind the scenes, backed up by hundreds of millions in ‘no strings attached’ aid money. America supported the Khmer Rouge for a long time, too, but doesn’t seem to be standing in the way of the trials. Right now we’re waiting for the prosecutors to publicly charge the first defendants, whose identities are currently being kept secret (according to French civil code). There are also some pictures of a rural project supported by the Prime Minister. Whether it’s to develop the livelihood of the villagers or his own popularity is another story…you be the judge!

Friday, 22 June 2007

Location: Cambodia

Yet another interesting week working for the Royal Government of Cambodia. There was a very important conference at my office called the First Cambodia Development Forum to coordinate foreign aid with local demands (my office is the hub for all foreign aid and investment entering Cambodia). As you’ll see from the pictures, when the international community and the RGC get together there is a huge divide, both physically and conceptually. My internship is very special in that I can move freely from side to side.
There are a lot of issues at play here. We (the West, the World Bank, the European Community, etc) have been trying to ‘fix’ Cambodia for a long time. It has no doubt been a frustrating process, with a lot of broken promises on both sides. Now we’re demanding less corruption, better governance, human rights, and many other positive things in exchange for our high levels of donor assistance (both grants and loans, but mainly grants).
From the Cambodian government’s point of view (as some of my colleagues have explained to me), things are a heck of a lot better than they’ve been since about 1477, and there needs to be more patience and less demands. When you talk to them, they’ll tell you that compared to twenty years ago, modern Cambodia is paradise. These are people who were all traumatized in some way by decades of war, and don’t necessarily have the sense of urgency that the West has to keep pushing forwards.
I’m not here to judge either side, although I did have reservations during the first day about the whole setup. For five years in Thailand I told my volunteers that we’re not here to show people our way, we’re here to learn theirs. Now I’m in a room full of people telling the locals how to do it better, why they’re wrong, etc. All of which is so contrary to the culture here, where you don’t criticize people to their face, you make subtle implications.
So I sat down with a random Cambodian at lunch to get his opinion. It turned out that he is a human rights lawyer who runs an NGO here. He was forced from Phnom Penh in ’75 and spent some time in a Khmer Rouge prison before escaping to the Thai border and joining the anti-communist resistance. At one point he was sent to a guerrilla training camp in Malaysia they called ‘Camp American Cry’, since the training was so tough both the recruits and their American officers often broke down in tears. When the Vietnamese reclaimed most of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge he, like so many people I meet here of a certain age, came back and tried to rebuild the country. How does he feel about the conference? He said the West is like a father who has to scold his children for their own good. If the donor community doesn’t keep pressure on the RGC, the situation will never improve.
None the less, when the conference resumed that afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the Cambodian ministers wouldn’t rather take the Burma route and not have the West around giving orders all the time… After all, it’s the wealthy people in power who have the most to lose from good governance, and (as one US official told me) even though they nod their heads at the conference doesn’t mean they’ll sign the papers next week.
As for dinner at my neighborhood pub and a mission to photograph the inside of a ‘lady bar’, I’ll let the photos tell the story.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Location: Phnom Penh and elsewhere, Cambodia

I finally had a chance to relax on my first weekend alone in Cambodia. Friday night I went on a sunset cruise with new friends from the NGO community. Saturday morning I went to the big Central Market to get some dress pants and a Khmer phrasebook, but also to people watch and practice speaking. It wasn’t much different from a Thai market, except cheaper-quality goods and more people missing limbs. You also get a sense that shopping for fun is something new here, as is having a little extra money to do it.
Then I took my laundry to reception at my hotel and they promptly told me that their prices were too high and I should go down the alley and have it done there. I negotiated the price down to $2 for 2 pounds, at the same time wondering how laundry done in such a dirty alley could possibly come out clean (it did).
Saturday night I had dinner at the pub by my hotel, where I eat almost every night. The Irish owner serves meat pies and chips (French fries) for $5, and two cans of Beer Lao for $1.25. Met some friends for drinks at Metro Bar, a chic air-con place with wireless internet and espresso martinis, but realized I must be getting old when they went out dancing and I went home to bed. There’s definitely a difference between being 24, fresh out of University, and single in Southeast Asia (as I was in 1999) and being 31, in grad school (read: in debt), and married. Lucky me, though: when my friends were sleeping late, I woke up Sunday morning and decided to get out of the city.
I opened the guide book and chose the farthest city I could go to and return from in one day: Kompong Chhnang. The 3-hour bus ride was no surprise after rural Thailand, except more naked toddlers running down the aisles (in Thailand they’d have some cute outfit and gold bangles on in public, even if their parents were poor). As soon as I got off the bus, a friendly motorcycle driver approached and offered to be my guide/driver/translator for the afternoon for $5. Sometimes you have to recognize a good price and not bother to bargain. I’ll let the pictures tell the story…

Thursday, 07 June 2007

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

My fist week at the Council for the Development of Cambodia is almost over. It’s the office that oversees all foreign investment between 2 and 50 million dollars, and also the hundreds of millions in foreign aid. The big projects right now are the Special Economic Zones that are being set up along the border with Vietnam and Thailand and the upcoming donor conference where the big orgs will pledge aid for the upcoming year. Cambodia is in a tough spot right now, on the one hand it needs aid desperately, on the other it is frustrated by donors breaking promises and staying in 5 star hotels (at least that’s what P.M. Hun Sen was saying at a conference this morning at the Intercontinental Hotel). Also, the country is ready for investment in factories (there’s a surplus of cheap labor), but no one has confidence in the corrupt government. ‘Corrupt’ is a relative term over here, by the way.
I’ve been asked to update the CDC website, on which I collaborate with an IT guy in Japan. I’m also researching the SEZs, and hope to visit some of them soon and talk to investors who are already there. I talked to two Korean businessmen yesterday about a $50 million hotel project. This morning I heard Hun Sen give one of his famous diatribes (he was accused this past week of personally profiting from the destruction of Cambodia’s forests by Global Witness) against Western hypocrites. And I also got to go to a Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) meeting with my boss, the Secretary General of CDC.
Phnom Penh is an interesting city. I stay at a hotel by my office and facing the Mekong. There are lots of great restaurants around, both Khmer and European. There’s no public transport in the city, if you want to go somewhere you flag down a motorcycle (they’re the guys wearing old baseball caps). There’s a lot of extreme poverty, homelessness, drugs, prostitution, and crime. Walking after dark isn’t recommended. The other night I saw a crowd of people and asked what was going on. They said a young drug addict had stabbed a foreigner and robbed him.
But it’s still Southeast Asia, and last night’s trash is dutifully cleaned by this morning’s street sweepers. Streets that were dirt a year ago are now paved. Traffic jams attest to the economic progress. People are happy to help me learn the language, which is about 20% the same as Thai. I’m probably the first foreigner ever who can say ‘I’m employed by the Cambodian government’ but can’t count to 10. My office is in a nice old colonial building. I asked a coworker if it was dangerous to carry my briefcase home with me, and she said ‘It’s up to your luck, I guess. Just don’t keep any valuables in it.’ A man sitting next to me at lunch today had a prosthetic foot, a reminder of a past that few people are talking about. But who can blame them? The country seems to be improving steadily, and CDC is a perfect place to watch it happening.

Saturday, 02 June 2007

It has been a fascinating week in Cambodia. I'll let the pictures tell the story, but suffice to say my internship will be a rare glimpse into the land that time forgot...

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Location: Malaysia

Our study group is leaving Malaysia tomorrow for another week of meetings in Cambodia. The latest pics from these past few days are posted below. Enjoy!

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Location: Malaysia

There are some new photos here for you. I have to rush, we're attanding the afternoon taping of Al Jazeera.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Location: Malaysia

Our group of ten first year students from SAIS’ SE Asia dept is in Kuala Lumpur now on a study trip. Next week we’ll go to Phnom Penh together, then begin our internships around the region. We arrived on Saturday and spent the first day getting adjusted. We have a nice hotel downtown, and Professor Welsh will be here to help us get around. She’s spent a lot of time in the region, and has set up an amazing week of meetings for us.
Breakfast at the Corus Hotel is an endless spread of food that epitomizes the cultural diversity of Malaysia. Indian curry and nan bread, Thai rice porridge, coffee from the mountains of Borneo (I romantically presume), fresh papaya and pineapple, and Great Britain’s wonderful contribution: baked beans! People from Africa, India, China, Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia all queue up together, try new dishes, and wonder what bread pudding is made of.
Our first day we had a van and driver to take us to a Pondok (literally ‘little house’, it’s a traditional Islamic school). We drove up into the mountains for about an hour to their commune, and were greeted by ten Muslims in full dress. They welcomed us inside (with very good English), and the boys in our group sat with them and the girls sat across the room with their wives. After pleasantries we engaged in a q+a session about their lifestyle and religion (a branch of Sufism). While they did tend to preach a bit too much for my liking (Allah is closer to us all than our jugular veins, by the way), I couldn’t help but note how amazing it was that we sat there, near pictures of Bin Laden, and cordially told them that we came from Washington and New York. They also have schools in southern Thailand, and presumably know more about the insurgency there than most people in Bangkok or the State Dept… After seeing them pray and eating lunch together, I had a case of Mohammed’s Revenge and ran inside while my friends got a tour of their farm.
That night a few of us went out to a Malaysian club, which was not very cool compared to my sorties in Bangkok. No one even told me I looked like Brad Pitt!

On our second day we had meetings in KL. First we went to the office of Al-Jazeera, which just opened up on the 60th floor of the Petronas Twin Towers and broadcasts to TV stations worldwide. AJ is funded by a Middle Eastern sheik and got a bad rap during the Gulf War, but is actually a very progressive and liberal news agency. There’s very little bureaucracy and the reporters can air stories on just about anything they want. One we met had just returned from Cambodia, and another asked if any of us wanted to come intern with them…
After that we had lunch with Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister and finance minister of Malaysia and current opposition party leader. He told us about running for office in a country where your opponents control the media, and about his six years in jail on trumped up charges. Our conversation was constantly interrupted by well-wishers coming over to shake his hand.
After that we went to the US Embassy to meet with their political officer (who was jealous of our schedule of meetings with many people he has no access to) and the Deputy Chief of Mission, who is a SAIS grad. They explained how Malaysia is surrounded by US partners (Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia), but prefers to keep its distance from the US politically (except in trade, in which it’s our 10th largest partner worldwide). To learn more about that, we went next to the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce to talk to their Executive Director and also a regional VP for Boeing. They both love the country but don’t think it’s a good place for young Americans to look for jobs. Vietnam and Indonesia have equally vibrant economies and are more welcoming to foreign workers.
After that our group went out for some well-deserved beer and seventy sticks of chicken and lamb satay. We reviewed our budget (mostly a grant from the same foundation that provides scholastic scholarships to our department) and talked about our upcoming internships. I’m looking forward to working for the Cambodian government’s foreign trade office, and will keep you posted on how it goes.

Photos - Click Below

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Recent Messages

From Erland
Very good set of pictures, Mike. Conditions seem pretty much early ISI or even pre-ISI?
Response: Definitely pre-ISI, Professor. (For those who don't understand this economics exchange, consider yourselves lucky!)
From Dad
Very nice, Michael.
Response: Thanks, Dad.
From Joe Goulden
Mike, what a fascinating look at a country. Many thanks for sharing your experiences --and giving us a bit of education along the way. Best to Ae.

Joe Goulden
From dao
sawaddee michael, long time no hear. i got the link to this blog from p'gaew. nice work, bro. i am done with grad school and now working in nicaragua..if you are done with your work in cambodia and want to stop by grindolandia's backyard village let me know. i am going back to thailand mid-august and will go to make a documentary with Chula's center of peace and conflict resolution in cambodia, let me know if you will still be there?
Response: Let's meet up in Bangkok. I'll be there in mid-August.
From Erland
Hi Michael. Great new pictures and journal. They remind me of our honeymoon in Liberia -- things there seem to be on about the same plane. You're smart to get to places off the beaten path first. Don't fail to get to Anchor eventually -- it is truely one of the most amazing trips we've made. One of the smaller temples in the complex was also memorable. Bantei Srei -- a small rose-colored jewel. Keep up the good reporting. Best to Ai. EH
From Erland Heginbotham
Michael -- greetings. I've finally caught up on my e-mail after several weeks away. I saved all your messages for one reading. Thanks so much for sharing your journal and photo. What a fascinating experience. Real life at its most basic level. I'll be most interested in the extent to which you find new job opportunities developing -- or not -- spillover from growth in the region (or not), and any evidence for your term paper.

Best wishes

Response: Thanks, professor. I'll give you a full report this fall.
From Mids
Hi mate, I'm really enjoying your tales. It brings back the memories; diplomatically, it wouldn't appear there has been much change in the past 5 years. Now you can see what I used to blabber about. Take care, and don't go wandering off the trails in the countryside.
From Oom
Your bloc is very entertaining as well as educational na ka. Well done! Keep up all the good work and good luck in Cambodia.
From Rachel
Dear Michael, Love the blog. If you are in Sien Reap and meat a lovely man - Sam - who is a guide for Abercrombie and Ket, tell him hello. He studies English - very well spoken and attractive - He was our guide when we were there last year. You might try to locate him through the travel company. We really liked getting to know him.
Response: Thanks! I'll look for him.
From ae : )
I wish i were there!
Great stories and beautiful pictures! It's must be amazing experience for you.
Take care and try to avoid go back to the hotel to late na.
Response: Miss you hon!
From Camillo
I'm really enjoying reading your travelog and your thoughts about the place! It sounds like you are meeting a lot of interesting people over there. Keep it up.
Response: Thanks, Cam. How's the weather in Berlin this year?
hi michael, thanks for including me in, on this very interesting journey. Did you get marie's email and Browns if not I'll be on it today. Love to you and Ae, today is one of va's best after a heavy rain yesterday, loving it. jill
Response: Still need the Morton's and Anderson's emails please...
From Jane
Good journal! So jealous of where/what you are doing!!!

Thai Emb. DC
Response: Thanks Khun Jane. Being the president of the SAIS Thai Club really impresses Thai people over here!
From ae
Great stories and fantastic photos. You look so handsome in every shot!!
Response: Well I only choose the good ones!!!
From Elena Mikalis
Thanks for sharing your stories with me. I loved reading your journal. Can't wait for the next entry. Best regards,
Response: Thanks Elena. I'm learning a lot over here that will be relevant to the DoC.
From Dom
Mike, I heard the internal security agency made a file on you after our lunch. Be careful what you write - it may land you in that prison with the porcupines ;)
Response: (This is an inside joke about our study trip in Malaysia)