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Blood or money to Kantha Bopha

16 Feb

There are very few places in Cambodia I would allow someone to stick a needle into me. But, the Kantha Bopha hospitals are not like any other hospitals either.

They are state of the art hospitals in one of the world's poorest countries – providing care for free. No child is ever turned away. If you read my previous post about Cambodia, you might recall that the founder and head of the hospitals holds cello concerts for tourists in Sieam Reap on Thursdays and Saturdays to collect donations. Before Dr. Beat Richner started his cello concert this Thursday, he turned to his audience and asked us for a favour.

“There is a dengue fever epidemic in Cambodia. We have children coming every day to Kantha Bopha in shock. They need blood transfusions in order to live. I therefore ask the young ones in the audience for blood, the old ones for money and the ones in-between for both. So, money or blood”.

The tuktuk driver who drove me to the hospital this afternoon gave me a discount. Hearing I was on my way to donate blood, the price lowered from three to two dollars. He gave blood himself last month, he told me. “On my birthday. I thought it was nice”.

Twelve people came by the hospital in Siem Reap today to donate blood; eight Cambodians and four foreigners. If you are in town, you can pass by any time during normal working hours.


A Cambodian tuktuk driver’s home

16 Feb

“Are homes in your country also like this?” The question will stay with me for a long time.

Today, Touchsokha, who has been our tuk-tuk driver for the past two days, took me to his local market and his home in the village Sothea. Having seen enough temples, I asked if he could take me out into the country side. I left it up to him to figure out where to take me. Wise move.

Before leaving Siem Reap, Touchsokha asked whether I wanted any food when we came to his home. “I can call my brother and he can make a feast for you?” I winced as I turned him down. A home-cooked Cambodian meal would have been a slice of tourist porn most people would cut off their arm to experience. But, with Cambodian statistics of clean water access fresh in mind, I replied that just tea and a chance to say hi to his family would be great.

Thirty minutes later and we were at the local market, our first stop. No other tourists in sight, I grinned inanely and followed in Touchsokha's heels, hoping that would somehow excuse my intrusion and photographing. The only person having to duck under the makeshift roofs, I drew however only curious looks and fits of giggles as we moved on the dirt paths between the women selling their goods.

Flies were everywhere – in, on and around everything. While heads turned to stop and stare at me, I looked in equal puzzlement at the raw meat, intestines and fish heads laid out on display in the torrid heat. I asked whether Touchsokha came here often. “Only for special occasions. Wedding or funeral”.

Outside the market, Touchsokha's step sister waved us over. She comes to the market in the morning and evening to sell fish, I was told. Smiles are understandable in any language, so again I smiled and pointed to my camera to ask for permission. A quick nod, and then a heartily laugh as the women around bemused started shouting suggestions on how she should best pose.

Sothea village
After about 40 minutes on a paved road after the market, we turned onto a dirt-road. We bumped and bounced our way to the beginning of the village.

The first home turned out to also be our first stop.

“It is okay”, I was reassured as we walked into a small space in-between two houses. Both with palm thatched roofs, favoured in the village as “people can make this themselves”. My feeling of intruding disappeared when the owner of the house asked me to take photos so she could see herself. Two small boys however eyed me with suspicion as they followed me around, me still at Touchsokha's heels.

“This family is very poor. The father worked very hard, but the son stole all the money. He was very bad and went to prison. Then his father had to pay to get him out of prison. Now they have no money”. But two pigs, a pump and a vegetable garden. The garden, as many of the wells and pumps in the village, features a plaque with information about its international donor.

Five-hundred metres of more bump and clunk, and the rickety tuktuk turned right for Touchsokha's home. Not married, he lives with his mother he explained. His brother lives in the other house next door with his wife and three children.

Of his family, his mother and two nieces found my visit the most amusing. “My mother is very old. So her head is shaved”. Touchsokha pointed to his mother, “for Buddhism”. I googled it afterwards, and turns out most elderly women in Cambodia shave their head to achieve spiritual cleansing. By the time we had returned from our visit to the nearby rice field, the primary school and temple, his mother had made yet another basket.

Standing next to a papaya tree (he was right, I had never seen one), Touchsokha's summed up his home. “Two pigs, two cows that can plough the field, a well, fruit trees. We have everything.” Next to the pride, what struck me was that maybe he had shown me the village's first home to also show me the contrast.

On our way to see the rice paddies, Touchsokha turned around to reassure me that there were no snakes. “What, the people here ate them all?”, I joked. “Yes”, he replied nonchalantly and I felt stupid for having asked the question as a joke.

Before taking me to the local temple, we walked to his old primary school. Again, I felt slightly foolish as I walked towards the building holding a big camera. Children are no tourist attraction. But, Touhsokha insisted and very soon, so did the children who were at break time. The digital camera – and thus immediately seeing yourself photographed – was a hit.

Still having the feeling that I should not be there (how different is to visit a primary school to an orphanage?), I figured some questions in English would solve the situation. At least the teacher was continuously amused. The children, on the other hand, were all cheers and laughter until they found themselves in the spot. Then squirming as they shyly answered how old they were and their name.



Angkor wat?

15 Feb

As two million other people every year, we have travelled to the province of Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat. The temples date back to the 9th to 12th century, feature on the UNESCO World Heritage list and are often compared to Petra and Machu Picchu.

Our guide said he found the massive works hard to imagine. “When I was little, I thought the temples were built by magic. I could not believe something so pretty was human”.

Banteay Srei, a pink sandstone temple and our guide's favourite.

I can see why a child in Cambodia would question it. That a country with a continous history of injustice, misery and death over the past forty years could produce temples supposedly representing the connection between heaven and earth. Corruption is endemic in Cambodia and the political system one of violence and intimidation. (All quotes are therefore from “he”.)

Angkor Wat is why people come to Siem Reap – and most likely also to Cambodia in the first place. While the temples are remarkable, the most remarkable of our stay here have been the people we have met and the stories they have told.

Oh, if you are looking for photos or video (yes – there is one!), you will need to scroll a bit as I have a lot I would like to share with whoever´s keen on reading.

We can start with some basic math and statistics. (If not quoted, the statistics are from 'Cambodia's Curse' by Joel Brinkley). Only Burma is poorer than Cambodia in Southeast Asia. While 98% of Thais have clean drinking water, only 14% of all Cambodians have access to clean water. In Thailand, 95% have a toilet at home. In Cambodia, only one in five. The figure drops to 16% in rural areas.

In Cambodia, 80% of the population earn less than one hundred dollars a month. Half earn less than fifty dollars a month. I was given an example, which I'll also share with you: “A fisherman may catch one kilo fish in one day. He could sell that for one dollar, but his family also needs to eat”. He let the sentence float in the air. And costs are increasing. “Before if you had five dollars, you could live three days. But now one day”.

It is hard to imagine how ingrained corruption is in this country, but if you picture six-year olds lining up in the morning to pay off their teacher you get a fairly vivid and realistic image. Let's go back to our imaginary fisherman and give him two children, or maybe even four which is common in Cambodia. These children all attend primary school. Free, in theory. But, “you have to pay the teacher to take good care of you. 10 cents every day”. A teacher's salary is 50 dollars a month. With 40 to 50 children in a class, the fisherman and the other parents pay the teacher an additional 80 dollars a month. That is, if they are among the parents who can pay and not the tens of thousands of poor families who can not afford the daily bribes. One person nonetheless dryly pointed out that countryside schools have less of a problem with corruption: “Many teachers do not want to work in the countryside, because the people there do not have money to pay”.

Secondary school is however not free. You pay for what you study. “There are five subjects – I chose mathematic and biology.” Asked why he only studied two, the answer was easy: “I only had money for two”. Many work next to their secondary school studies to afford a few hours of private tutoring by the teacher every week, “for better explanations”. Cash is nevertheless not the only valid currency. “My family is poor. We did not have money to pay, but we paid the teacher seven chickens.” He held up seven fingers. “Each a big one. Two kilo chickens!”. Seven chickens for seven months of additional tutoring.

Thursday was Valentine's Day. We spent the evening at the cello concert of Dr Beat Richner. The Swiss doctor has raised tens of millions of dollars and now operates five free hospitals in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. All of them provide free health care to any child that comes in. Every Thursday and Saturday in Siem Reap, Richner gives a concert and a speech to tourists to get donations for the hospital. There are two main points in his bi-weekly speech. “The creed of the international community (WHO) is that treatment should correspond to the economic reality of the country. But the economic reality of Cambodia is zero. The second is that patients should pay in order to take responsibility for their health. But how can they pay when they have no money?” Every day, 3500 children come to Richner´s hospitals. Four out of five of them have parents who earn less than one dollar a day.

Ok. This is enough for today. There is simply too much to tell, and too little time to digest and give you a synopsis. Since last time I wrote, we have also been to the landmine museum (5 million unexploded devices still in the countryside), had a Khmer massage (like a mild version of Thai massage, though still lots of prodding according to my fellow traveller) and visited the countryside.

If you have either scrolled or read all the way down here (in case I am definitely buying you a beer at one point if our paths cross), here are finally the promised photos and video. Will add more photos to an album on facebook!

If you miss us or are curious about palm tree sugar sweets or Cambodian watermelons, check out this film:


This morning we got up at five to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

A few other people had the same idea.

Our guide found our 'Asian photos' hilarious. Happy to humour him!

Cambodian breakfast is often noodle or rice soup with vegetables and beef. Beats toast with jam!

At the turn of the 14th century, Angkor was the largest city in the world.

The homes and shops have long since turned to dust, but the close to 100 temples and shrines remain.

'Why not just buy postcard?' As our guide said.

Recognise this place? Locally known now, at least when speaking to tourists, as the 'Lara Croft temple'.

The tree-strangled temple of Ta Phrom.

Posing in doorways seem to be the big hit among Chinese.



Siem Reap market and Khmer cooking course

13 Feb

I have newfound respect for spring rolls. And more broadly Southeast Asian food.

Tonight we joined a Khmer cooking course at the restaurant Le Tigre De Papier in Siem Reap (Cambodia). If you are ever in town, you should definitely consider taking this course. At 13 dollars for five hours superb entertainment, it’s excellent value for money.

You choose your own dishes – starter, main course and dessert – and then head to the market to get the ingredients before you start cooking. As any good restaurant with respect for itself, the cooking part is limited to chopping and stirring. But, given the complexity of some of the dishes, that may be a good thing.

Friends, the most important thing: I now know how to make spring rolls – look forward to them!

….and then the cooking!


Kampong Phluk Floating Village

13 Feb

As I write this, we are just back from our visit to Kampong Phluk Floating Village. Wikitravel said it was both authentic and fascinating, and we didn't have the energy to get up at five this morning to visit Angkor Wat. So this morning at seven we headed for a village on stilts an hour's tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap.

Now, when checking tripadvisor I realise I'm the odd one out. The reviews are overwhelmingly positive, a person from Tel Aviv who calls it 'a must' writes:

Considering I haven't been to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam this is the most interesting visit I have ever made of this trip.

it's a must for anyone staying at Siem Reap.Not a tourist trap.Real people living in the 4 th world.Made 300 pictures in one hour.

If I had any illusion that any of the 24 dollar we paid for the boat trip trickled down to the people we floated past this morning, it might have made me feel better.

Barging through a community in shambles with small homes perched on poles with thatched roofs, camera in hand, while knowing that someone higher up have made them a lucrative tourist attraction simply made the entire thing seem a bit depressing. That feeling intensified whenever our boat interrupted someone going about their daily fishing or banged into another boat.

The local police station and the building of the local CCP party were however spic-and-span.