Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Kompong Kleang

A family of kids watches us walk by. This happened frequently, as they don't see tourists often here in this remote village.
Today a few of us took an excursion to the floating village of Konpong Kleang. It is Cambodia’s biggest floating village, with a population over 10,000. What an awesome time we had! The people there don’t see a lot of tourists, and they were very curious and very friendly.

So what is a floating village? Houses on the “mainland” are connected to a dirt street, which is nothing more than a big pile of clay soil. Other homes, stores, and even schools, float on the water. You see, the water level of Cambodia’s central lake, the Tonle Sap, rises 30 feet in the rainy season. It is just the beginning of the wet season, so the houses are still dry underneath. In a couple of months (September or October), however, the street would be the only dry land in the entire town.
Kids on a ladder outside a house. The amazing thing is that all around town, kids who can barely walk are climbing ladders!

A somewhat below-average house that is common in many areas of the floating village.
There are a fair number of Vietnamese who live in the village, too
We walked for a couple of miles down the road, stopping to take pictures of the kids (who almost all sout “hello”) and artisans. I took lots of pictures, a small fraction of which I share in this entry.

Within minutes, a man who runs a tour boat found us, and we made our way to his boat and out onto the lake.

A glimpse down the main street of the mainland. The plastic contraption on the right is a cricket trap. Cambodians eat crickets.
A house boat

18 email accounts and an English lesson

Yesterday I continued working at Wat Bo, teaching the teachers how to use the Internet. I had 18 students, the most ever. It was exhausting, but they were so engaged it kept me energized. I cut them loose a half hour early, so they could beat the rush that comes at the day’s final bell—some 2,000 kids running into a street that is completely clogged with motorbikes and cars waiting for the students.

I wandered over to Alice’s English class, where she was trying to help the kids through an awkward English lesson while the teacher fussed with a cassette tape. If only his lessons were on a CD, he would be more effective. If Alice and I were not there to fill the dead air, it would have been a real waste of instructional time. It was not the teacher’s fault things were disorganized; he was doing the best he could using a shared classroom. The workbook the kids all had told us to ask them if they had objects. Simple enough. The objects, however, were not intended for this audience. It wanted us to ask them if they had credit cards, cameras, or mobile phones. We both decided that was pointless, and ditched it in favor of a more fun and interactive lesson.

We looked around the room, and called out objects the kids had. For example, I saw one boy had a hat, so I asked, “Who has a hat?” The boy raised his hand, and stood to say, “I have a hat.” I instructed him, “Show us your hat.” He held it up for everyone to see. “Very good,” I said, giving him a wai which he returned and sat. Alice called out, “Who has a watch?” There were lots of children with watches, so hands flew up. One by one, they waited to be recognized and stand to say they had a watch. We got them all involved, and gave lots of praise and The kids were so engaged and they stayed after the day’s final bell!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Good things come to those who...persist

Waking up at 4 a.m. to catch sunrise for the last seven days straight has paid off. Well, almost seven stright days. My driver overslept once and so did I, so I missed two chances. On day 7, the very last day of my temple pass, I was fortunate to have a fantastic sky behind Angkor Wat. How is that for a nail-biting finale?

On this fateful day, there was a massive thunderstorm brewing to the southeast, which is why the right side of the sky is dark but it dissipated as sunrise progressed. Sadly, although there was lightening in the thunderhead cloud, none of it happened near the front of the storm. If I had arrived about 15 minutes earlier, I would have caught some of the lightning in the cloud behind Angkor Wat, but the park does not open until 5 a.m., so I am not sure it would have been possible to get there in time. Oh, well, it is a neat sunrise shot. I am content with it.

Of temples and waterfalls

I have not blogged in a couple of days. I have been busy right up until bedtime, not to mention exhausted. Hauling 45 pounds of camera gear around the temples is no easy task, and combine it with 100-degree heat and air thick enough to take a bite out of, and that’s a recipe for exhaustion. Tiredness aside, these past two days have been brimming with activity.

School in Cambodia runs six days a week. On Saturday I should have gone to the school, but since my temple pass expires on Monday, Ponheary convinced me it made better sense to wait to return to the school until I had seen all the temples I wanted to see. I think that was good advice.

I called Vanney, the young man I hired to be my driver while in Siem Reap, and had him take me to all the remote temples. I saw Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup. I drank about 3 liters of water. I didn't go to the bathroom once, but I was drained from the sun and drenched from head to toe. We were done by Noon, and while I was waiting for my pictures to transfer from my memory card in my room, I laid down. Big mistake. I woke up at 7 p.m.

A photo of the main falls. I used a neutral density filter to reduce the light so that I could turn the water to silk. I like how the people in the photo--especially those in the distance, close to the falls--give a sense of scale to the photo.
Sunday I took a trip to Phnom Kulen waterfall deep in the Cambodian jungle atop a mountain. For those who had temple passes, we stopped at Banteay Srei temple, which is on the way. I went with a group of students from the U.S. who are staying at Ponheary’s guest house and working as English teacher volunteers at another local elementary school in Siem Reap. They are young, but what a great group!

Me photographing the waterfall. I traversed slippery rocks and endured humid temperatures to get to my spot. It took me about 30 minutes to reach 'the spot.'
Phnom Kulen was a glimpse into Cambodian recreational culture. We were the only Westerners who had a pavilion. Phnom Kulen is a popular Sunday destination for middle-income families, who rent bungalows and have a picnic while the kids swim and play. We had a picnic with Ponheary’s family, and got to explore the waterfalls. I made my way along the slippery rocks to a good vantage point where I was more interested in taking pictures than swimming. I managed to snap a couple of good ones, and Ponheary got one of me.

The first photo of Phnom Kulen (at the top of this post) shows some monks visiting the falls. In Cambodia, every family sends the eldest boy to serve as a monk for three months at some point in his life. Some families send them young, and some wait until the boys are older; that is why you can see monks of all ages. Some monks remain in the monastery permanently, but most enjoy the time and go back to their families. I say enjoy the time, because being a monk has some cool perks for an otherwise poor Cambodian boy. Monks in Cambodia are very highly regarded, and get everything for free. They ride for free, they eat for free, and people give them food and money every morning to take back to the monastery and share. Monks also get to travel to other monasteries, the temples, or, in this case, the waterfalls of Phnom Kulen. I saw a busload of monks unload at Preah Khan. They were swarmed by tourists wanting photos, and a couple of photogs stalked them quietly like paparazzi. Out of respect I did not join my compadres in their pursuit of the monks, instead I let the monks be tourists in their own country. They came to visit the shrines, pay homage to the resident monks (if any), and to gaze in awe at the fruits of their ancestors’ labor. I simply could not resist the shot above, however. I justified it because they actually walked in front of my camera, so I assumed that was them giving me permission.

At the mountain’s summit, a reclining Buddha was carved in the 16th century, and a platform temple was constructed around it. It was a lot of steps, but very worth it!

Here is an interesting picture from the walkway to one of the temples I visited. A massive tree--bigger than any tree I have ever seen in my life--had been cut down. To understand just how gargantuan this stump is, consider that I have hung my hat on the left hand edge of it. Yeah, that tiny speck on the edge of the stump near the center of the photo is my hat!

Wish me luck, as I have one more chance with my 7-day temple pass at a sensational Angkor Wat sunrise. So far, there has been only one spectacular one, and I missed it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Preliminary research findings

Part of our purpose here is to learn about life in Cambodia. Ryan and I are researching quality of life, specifically looking at how foreign direct investment and tourism have changed life over the past few years and what Cambodians expect in the near future. Early last week we spent a day interviewing in a remote village. We have spent the past few days interviewing people in Siem Reap — mostly shopkeepers and hotel receptionists.

A trend we’ve noticed among many of our interviewees has been a reluctance to talk about the future. When we ask where they expect or would like to be in five years, people typically respond with a combination of shyness and embarrassment. Frequently, they seem confounded by the question, as if it had never occurred to them. Few of the people we’ve talked to have plans for themselves or their children. Most parents we’ve talked to have been reluctant to talk about their kids’ future beyond the general goal of sending them to school, including English lessons if they can afford it.