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.
Location: Asia - South East
Good news! We just got permission from the Vietnamese government to start sending volunteers! Visit volunthai.com for more info and to contact us.
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 havent 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 didnt 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. Its also interesting that Buddhism, unlike Christianity, doesnt 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 tourists 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 doesnt seem to be standing in the way of the trials. Right now were 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 its to develop the livelihood of the villagers or his own popularity is another story
you be the judge!
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 youll 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 were 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 governments point of view (as some of my colleagues have explained to me), things are a heck of a lot better than theyve been since about 1477, and there needs to be more patience and less demands. When you talk to them, theyll 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 dont necessarily have the sense of urgency that the West has to keep pushing forwards.
Im 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 were not here to show people our way, were here to learn theirs. Now Im in a room full of people telling the locals how to do it better, why theyre wrong, etc. All of which is so contrary to the culture here, where you dont 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 doesnt keep pressure on the RGC, the situation will never improve.
None the less, when the conference resumed that afternoon, I couldnt help but wonder if some of the Cambodian ministers wouldnt rather take the Burma route and not have the West around giving orders all the time
After all, its 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 doesnt mean theyll sign the papers next week.
As for dinner at my neighborhood pub and a mission to photograph the inside of a lady bar, Ill let the photos tell the story.
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 wasnt 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. Theres 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 theyd 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. Ill let the pictures tell the story
Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
My fist week at the Council for the Development of Cambodia is almost over. Its 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 thats 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 (theres a surplus of cheap labor), but no one has confidence in the corrupt government. Corrupt is a relative term over here, by the way.
Ive been asked to update the CDC website, on which I collaborate with an IT guy in Japan. Im 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 Cambodias 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. Theres no public transport in the city, if you want to go somewhere you flag down a motorcycle (theyre the guys wearing old baseball caps). Theres a lot of extreme poverty, homelessness, drugs, prostitution, and crime. Walking after dark isnt 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 its still Southeast Asia, and last nights trash is dutifully cleaned by this mornings 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. Im probably the first foreigner ever who can say Im employed by the Cambodian government but cant 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 Its up to your luck, I guess. Just dont 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.
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...
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!
There are some new photos here for you. I have to rush, we're attanding the afternoon taping of Al Jazeera.
Our group of ten first year students from SAIS SE Asia dept is in Kuala Lumpur now on a study trip. Next week well 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. Shes 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 Britains 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, its 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 couldnt 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 Mohammeds 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. Theres 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 its 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 dont think its 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. Im looking forward to working for the Cambodian governments foreign trade office, and will keep you posted on how it goes.