What To Do When in Asia

Although we can divide our trip thus far into roughly four parts (Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia), we’ve spent the vast majority of our time in Asia. We’ve had the time of our lives and I think everyone should visit Asia (if not travel it extensively). It truly has something to offer everyone, so I’ve made the following guide and tribute to the great continent.


India: just show up and something exciting WILL happen


Maldives: go sailing and snorkeling on remote atolls


Nepal: go trekking


Thailand: explore the entire country


Laos: travel and live on the Mekong


Cambodia: yes its cliche, but you HAVE to explore Angkor


Malaysia: take in the diverse cultures and food


Brunei: meet characters at the Pusat Belia (not pictured)


Singapore: visit the Botanical Gardens


Indonesia: DIVE!!!


Vietnam: eat!


China: meet the friendliest people on earth


Korea: go to a baseball game


Japan: once again, EAT! (especially the seafood :) )

Phnom Penh to Kanchanaburi

164_6445-4.JPGYesterday was one of our longer days. We departed Phnom Penh on a bus for the border at 6:30am. We spent 2 hours getting from one side of the border to the other, helped in no part by each of our aptitude for picking the slowest line. Then it was another five hours to Bangkok and another one hour on a city bus and trying to find a room in booked-up Banglamphu. For those of you counting at home, that’s 14 hours of sitting on buses and 2 hours of standing in immigration lines. Once again, arriving in Bangkok was a shock after coming from the third world. Even though its only been two months, I’d forgotten that Khao San is an enclave of thousands of white tourists, barely a Thai in sight. Besides that shock, it was nice to eat street food without worrying about getting sick and never be more than a half block away from 7-Eleven (for all our snacking needs). This morning, we ate our favorite breakfast, mango and sticky rice along with some buns from 7-Eleven, at a park overlooking the Chao Phraya. Then it was off to the bus station to WWII-history-rich Kanchanaburi. It took us a long 4 hours to get here, but its nice so far. We checked in to Jolly Frog Backpackers, which seems like a backpacker resort if you can imagine one. The food around town is pretty good. Plus, it’s a mellow place, but its got all the conveniences of modernity. It’s a chill place, but I think it has enough to occupy us until we return to Bangkok.


joylani 130pxLeaving Cambodia I note a different feeling inside. Excited about what lies behead, yet I am feeling more attached [than with the other countries] as we leave. This is most likely attributable to the human side of things and the fact that I’ve connected more here than anywhere else. We’ve had local involvement; and been privileged to hear personal stories of people we met. I’ve been given the gift to be able to have thought about things in a new way as a result of visiting here. And it makes it harder to leave as there is so much more to think about and so many things that could be done.

Hope for the NGO


joylani 130pxComing into this trip, Matt and I both had a generally negative view towards NGOs and government aid programs. (Matt more so than I as he is more business minded.) Sure, they have good intentions, but we’ve seen a fair share of brand new UN Land Cruisers and other nice digs, as well as heard stories and witnessed for ourselves what we consider misused and/or inefficient uses of grant monies both at home and abroad. One of our favorite authors, Paul Theroux’s cynical take on aid in Africa in his book Dark Star Safari didn’t help add any positive feelings towards international aid either. It’s not that we are turned off by the idea of aid, rather, how it is managed and the effects can be disappointing. So it has been refreshing to hear some success stories—such as that new cases of HIV/AIDS has been dropping in recent years due to extensive education campaigns, some funded by the US. This was great to hear in particular as many of the orphans have lost one or more parents to the virus. Meeting individuals (kids who might otherwise have had no place to go) is a reminder that, despite the fact that things could be managed better or that we as Westerners could be more careful and critical when choosing organizations to donate through, aid organizations, domestic and international, do make a difference. Even if it is just making a small dent in a sea of needs, like the starfish story: it made a difference to that one.

On another note, aside from the NGO, what are practical ways regular people can help out abroad? Cynically, perhaps not all “regular” people are qualified to “volunteer” abroad—that is, if you really want to make an impact on someone besides yourself. Bring some skills with you…or at least a chunk of time to get involved. Short visits such as ours seem to be welcomed, but I think longer visits have the potential to bring about lasting benefits to the organization and kids. Long-term volunteers have time to get to know the kids and help with specific things, such as a tough subject at school (or providing supplements to the usual curriculum), personal hygiene, or dealing with grief. Lengthier visits (at least a few months as opposed to a couple weeks) paired with language skills, preparation and materials, professional skills—especially in the medical fields, and administrative experience (for help with office organization, computer skills, and perhaps coordinating an outreach project—like working a deal with a local optician to organize eye checks and buy glasses for people who need them) can help make profound impacts. No doubt, the kids love visitors and attention from people who aren’t their peers, but, if you want to help, give yourself a chance to think beyond a weeklong visit to play with kids.

Side notes on charity

Ok, I don’t know what genius coined the unfortunate Christian phrase “to love on [someone]” as in to help out in loving and charitable manner, but if you find yourself saying it, have you ever thought about how stupid you sound? Think about it, why the heck do you need to add “on” to the sentence? “Love” is a verb itself and doesn’t need to come with an “on” after it. In the context I’ve heard it used “to love on” isn’t exactly the same as “to get your groove on.” So really, drop the “on.” You sound like an idiot.

A final pet peeve of mine is World Vision’s “Operation Christmas Child.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Shoe boxes are a nice idea, but a poor use of resources. Have you ever done one? How much did it cost to put the box together? How much time did you spend doing so? How much did you have to pay for the fee to have the box sent to the hands of a waiting child. Well let’s see: $10 gifts, at least one hour of you time for shopping and wrapping (assuming you make at least $15/hr, that’s around $20 (post-tax) for an hour of overtime, obviously a lot more for those of you in the $20-50 range), and at least $7 just to get the box to the kid. So for $30-40 you can send a kid a box with some pens, stickers, maybe a shirt or something. Ok. What if instead of digging out an old shoe box (don’t tell me that you’ve justified buying yourself a new pair of shoes so that you’ll have a box…) and spending time and money at Target buying things that we’re made abroad anyways, and then paying a shipping and handling fee so that World Vision can deliver the gift—what if instead of that you take the time you would have spent doing the above and worked overtime (overtime since that’s the same time you will be using to buy the gift, etc.) and then combine your overtime pay with all the funds you would have spent on the gift and combine THAT with the money all 49 other people at your church or work or where ever is doing a “shoebox drive” and put all the money together. Connect with another group doing the same thing. Send a competent person abroad with a contact of people in need. Let that person buy gifts for the children in their own country and distribute them. This eliminates the costs of the middleman (World Vision), generates a little business for local businesses rather than a discount retailer in the US where each item costs more than it would abroad, eliminates the shipping (and resultant pollution), and on top of all that, the most important thing is that (at least in theory) more kids will have been able to benefit from the modified operation shoebox because the same resources would have been used more efficiently and therefore could be stretched further. Thoughts? I know some of you probably have a different opinion on this one. I go back and forth sometimes (going back to the idea at the beginning of the post that something is better than nothing), but it just seems that at a certain point it makes sense to get more efficient and effective. But who knows. Maybe Operation Christmas Child helps out beyond each gift box, maybe it generates publicity and more donations for other projects, and hopefully not too much of that money is going to new SUVs. :)

TV Bugs

joylani 130pxWe’ve spent the last several days in Phnom Penh finishing up our volunteering with New Hope Orphanage. Aside from the actually volunteering, our stay in Phnom Penh has been unique in that we developed a little bit of a routine, visiting the orphanage in the morning, errands, lunch and internet in the afternoon before heading back to the orphanage for a couple more hours, dinner, and usually a little TV before going to bed. The TV has been an added treat for us, particularly with all the recent campaign coverage. There are just a handful of English channels spread amongst dozens of Khmer, Thai, and Chinese language channels. We quickly memorized what channel is where to avoid surfing through all the channels to find what we want. Our most watched stations are: CNBC (of course), CNN, National Geographic, and Discovery. After too many nights at 89 F in our room on the 7th floor of the hotel, Matt and I decided to switch to an AC room for our last night. In addition to the coolness of AC, there’s also less stairs as our room is now on the 4th floor. Apparently, the room switch also came with a change in the TV hook-up. “I don’t like this, all the channels are different,” lamented Matt as he searched for our top stations. After a few more seconds of channel surfing he seemed to have come to terms with the TV change as he exclaimed, “They get Bloomburg in this room??! Where the heck were we all these other nights!”

Parting Words for Cambodia

164_6445-4.JPGOn our walk back from dinner tonight, Joylani commented how she’d like to come back to Cambodia sometime and stay for longer, perhaps to volunteer long-term. She added that Phnom Penh’s not the nicest city in the world- it doesn’t really have any parks and its really hot (at least in February)- but we’ve enjoyed it. And I have to agree. As far as niceness goes, neither Phnom Penh nor Cambodia as a whole wins any beauty pageants, but there’s something about it. It’s not beautiful, its still in that ugly developing stage between undeveloped and modern, and its kind of a crazy place. Yet, the people are friendly, seem genuinely warm, and it’s an easy place to live and get around. I kind of thrive on chaotic environments, so that was nice too. Unlike most countries we’ve visited, in Cambodia we only really stayed in four places for any amount of time. Regardless, I feel like we’ve seen a lot of things, from the lakes and waterfalls of Ban Lung to the indescribable wonders of Angkor to the realities of a rural orphanage, and finally to the capital teeming with life. The good food, great value accommodations, and the Khmer people have made Cambodia my favorite SEA country thus far. It’s been a good time and seems like its gone too fast. Perhaps the best measure of how much one likes a place is how I feel now: there’s nothing left to see or do, but I’m not yet ready to leave. If we weren’t meeting my parents in Bangkok in a few days, perhaps we would stay a while longer. That’s irrelevant though, as we’re heading for the Thai border tomorrow and will try to make it to Bangkok by tomorrow night. Returning to Thailand will be bittersweet though. We’re looking forward to seeing my parents and there’s still plenty for us to see and do in Thailand, but Thailand just isn’t as different (relative to home) and thus not as interesting as Lao and Cambodia have been. The past month and a half in Lao and Cambodia has been fun and I’m going to miss it.

Sobering Phnom Penh



164_6445-4.JPGSo last week, I wrote a little but about our visit to Toul Sleng. Well, today we visited Choeng Ek, one of the many “killing fields” in Cambodia and the one that the victims of Toul Sleng were brought to to be exterminated. A sign out front explained that truckloads of prisoners were brought to Choeng Ek several times a month, when there would be mass executions. They would walk off the truck and walk to a ditch to be immediately executed. There’s a new memorial at the site, which is a tall wat-style building with glass walls and several stories filled with human skulls. The place isn’t really educational or anything like Toul Sleng, but more of a memorial to the dead. A place to reflect on the evil that was done.



            The grounds were large with several other interesting things, besides the memorial. Many ditches were fenced off with signs indicating the number of people recovered from each mass grave. One tree had a sign saying children were beaten to death against it. Another told that it had once held a speaker that blasted random noise to muffle the screams from beatings and executions. Piles of clothes scattered the area, some just beginning to surface from the earth. Bone chips were still embedded in the ground or laying around, much like loose gravel or pebbles. Larger bone fragments sat in piles, waiting to be moved.


            Boeurn, our friend from New Hope acted as our guide. He was born in 1977 and said his family survived because he had an uncle in the Khmer Rouge that ensured his mother and his safety. He says he remembers finding bodies and skeletons frequently when he was a child. Just playing or walking around in his village, he’d see whole skeletons or bodies on the ground. He said he’d often search the bodies for gold or silver jewelry. Sometimes he remembers finding rings still on the finger bones of skeletons. Perhaps the scariest thing I heard that morning though, was that this history is not taught in schools and its rarely spoken about within families. With one quarter of the population killed, everyone lost multiple family members, and the pain runs extremely deep. Yet the absence of any discourse on the topic has led to younger generation forgetting and doubting what happened. Boeurn said that even his two younger siblings discount much of what happened to imagination and exaggeration. Its terrible that something like the Khmer Rouge genocide happened, but it would seem almost equally terrible if Khmers forgot about it and failed to learn from it.

            I’ll add one paragraph of background here before moving on, since I haven’t really given any historical context to this post or my Toul Sleng post. Like much political history in South East Asia, the Khmer Rouge was the brainchild of Maoist China and came to power through the turbulence of the American Vietnam War. By 1975, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. They immediately ordered everyone out of the city within hours, on the pretext that America would soon bomb the city. This seemed plausible to many people as the US had continually bombed Khmer Rouge forces during its “Secret War” in Lao and Cambodia. Within several days, the metropolis of Phnom Penh was a ghost town. Pol Pot declared it Year Zero and it became apparent that nobody would be returning to the city. Instead, the Khmer Rouge was attempting to evacuate all cities and turn Cambodia into an agrarian society. Anyone with any education or status was imprisoned and executed. Boeurn told us that all the teachers in Cambodia were executed. He added that educated people, people deemed intelligentsia, and even people that simply wore glasses were executed. This madness went on for four years, during which anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million people died. The population was continually tricked, children were made to inform on their families, people accused their own families under torture, and many opportunists accused others for sex, revenge, or outo f jealousy. People were arrested and tortured until they “confessed” to charges of being a CIA or KGB spy, stealing from the Khmer Rouge, disobeying orders, or any number of other trumped up charges. Toul Sleng mentioned several times how the Khmer Rouge destroyed trust in Cambodia. During the 1970’s nobody trusted anybody, not family, not neighbors, not no one. Choeng Ek showed us the horrible consequence of being naïve with the Khmer Rouge or trusting anyone.

            Not quite as horrific, but equally sobering was a drive to the local garbage dump. Boeurn asked us if we wanted to see, so we of course agreed. Driving towards it, we could see mountains of trash, with spires of smoke rising. As we got closer, more and more people began to appear, collecting bottles and cardboard, filling bags with rubbish. We were soon in a valley of trash and dozens of people were all around the car. Little kids, the elderly, and everyone in between collecting, recycling, and burning trash. Worst of all, was the fact that these people lived there. Working at a dump would be bad enough, but living on trash? What could be worse? I think photos will tell the story better than I can.


the black smoke of burning trash fills the air


dozens, probably hundreds of people working on literally hills of garbage


not sure if that’s this guys shelter or drink stall


what a life…

Some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror.
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Volunteering in Phnom Penh

164_6445-4.JPGVolunteering in Phnom Penh has been an entirely different experience from our village experience. Comfort-wise its been infinitely easier; we have a wide-range of eating options (versus being limited to the orphanage’s cooking lady), we have a nice room and bed to go back to (versus sleeping on a beach mat on a tile floor with no electricity), and we only helped out about five hours a day (versus 14 hours). Our work has been considerably different, as these city kids lead completely different lives than their rural counterparts.

            Even in an orphanage, the differences between urban and rural life are clear. The city kids are much better educated, as even the tiny ones in the Phnom Penh orphanage had better English than the village teenagers. Besides English, it was clear that they knew quite a bit more about hygiene and cleanliness. They dressed more what we would consider “normal” and spent time watching tv, helping fix motorcycles, or hanging out and listening to music. The downside to all this is that the kids were a lot more restless because they didn’t have a big yard to run around and burn off energy. That was more Joylani’s problem than mine though, as we taught two groups in PP. Joylani got the little ones and I got the older teenagers, which was fine with me. Teaching the older kids was much easier than teaching little kids, urban or rural. The older ones spoke pretty good English, so we mainly just concentrated on expanding the vocabulary. One day, we did internal anatomy; respiratory, circulatory, nervous, and digestive systems, along with bones, joints, and random things like how blood works. I think I got too carried away on space, although my world geography lesson went pretty well. Despite how much easier it was too teach these kids, I didn’t feel as if I was really needed at the PP orphanage. These kids had plenty of education and international volunteers constantly visited to help. The village kids barely ever got foreign volunteers, much less Khmer staff. Actually, we learned that Kompong Chnang orphanage had its entire staff replaced recently due to some shady things that went down and the kids had only first seen foreigners about a year ago; apparently they’d seen a few since then, which is why they didn’t inspect our big Caucasian noses and white skin. The kids in Kompong Chnang weren’t very educated, but they always wanted to learn and study. Although anyone could teach the basic English we did, if we weren’t there, this curiosity to learn would’ve been wasted. In Phnom Penh, the kids were plenty educated and weren’t nearly as enthusiastic. Plus, the Phnom Penh orphanage had a full time teacher already. Not feeling very useful, Joylani and I helped a bit in the office on our final day. We helped them with basic things like networking the printers, showing them how to share files on the network, and use Excel more effectively. Not as altruistic as teaching orphans, but at least we felt that we were doing something of value.

            As Joylani mentioned in her post, it was nice to have a routine. Usually a quick breakfast, before catching a moto to the orphanage. Teach a couple hours and then break for lunch, internet and rest. Then another couple hours of teaching, before heading out for some dinner and a night at our nice hotel. Staying in the same place for awhile and not doing anything but working, it has been nice to indulge in some creature comforts like tv and good bed. Like Joylani mentioned we splurged on an AC room our last night, which was glorious. I guess I don’t have to much to write about PP, because there’s not much to explain. It’s a city and most cities are the same in many respects. We volunteered, but I covered details of that in my Kompong Chnang post. It was nice to have some routine, but it wasn’t a great routine.

Our Chariot

joylani 130pxThe orphanage is about four miles from our hotel.  It’s just too hot and too far to walk there and back twice a day.  Instead, we take a moto.  Motos are everywhere in Cambodia, filling the streets, parked in rows along the sidewalks, in a pack at the front of the line waiting for a green light.  Gas stations appear to have been invaded by the swift vehicles, and they materialize from surprising routes through alleys and sidewalks.  The moto taxis wait in clumps on street corners, waiting for passengers.  Some drive along the road, letting out a friendly honk as they pass you, just in case you need a ride.  “Beep.  Beep.”  Translation: moto coming up behind you, need a lift?  It never takes us long to find a lift.  The hard part is describing where we want to go.  (New Hope Orphanage isn’t exactly one of the top five tourist destinations in the city.)  Luckily the same drivers lay claim to the territory outside of our hotel, and we’ve been able to hire the same guy three times—nice considering the city is full of hundred of drivers.

It seems that even the average Cambodian driver has both the ingenuity and skill to load and transport an astonishing assortment and amount of items on a moto: pigs, a stack of foam-rubber mattresses, a family (the older kid stands in front of dad, who’s driving, mom sits on back holding the baby), lots of chickens (say 30 or 40), a small cow, enough Styrofoam boxes to fill a small bathroom from floor to ceiling, even wheel axels (tires attached).  And four times a day there’s a moto in Phnom Penh carrying two Shibatas clinging to the back of the driver. 

It’s pleasant to walk out of our hotel in the morning to the calls of, “Lady!  Moto?”  Our chariot awaits…