Thursday, January 24, 2008

Jungle Journeys and a Special Announcement

Saturday we headed north in 2 cars to see a school Aki Ra had built with the help of a Eugene and Mary from Brisbane, and bring some goods to a family who'd lost their home to a fire.

If you remember my story about travelling to Anlong Veng a couple of years ago you might remember the road conditions: unbelievably bad; pot holes, gullies, and washouts every mile. Not anymore.......

The government is paving the road to Anlong Veng now. While it's still not paved, it is graded. What took us 6 hours 2 years ago, took less than 2 hours Satruday morning.

Eugene and Mary are an Australian couple who've travelled to Cambodia in the past and wanted to do something to help, so they got with Aki Ra and built a school. The original one was build of grass and accomodated dozens of locals who ortherwise would have no school to attend. The new school is wood and infinitely nicer. They youngest kids still use the grass shack and the older kids use the new one. While it's not yet integrated into the Khmer school system it will be, and that's important so the kids can get that certificate allowing them to goon te secondary school.

It was a lot of fun. The kids all came out to greet us. They showed us around and couldn't wait to have their pictures taken. Then we headed to a real trajedy.

The family we visited live right off the main road to Anlong Veng. Someone flipped cigarette out a car window and the brush around their hut caught fire and burned down their home. They lost all they had, and folks, that wasn't much. Before we headed out Becky had purchased some pots and pans, some utensils and the Museum gave them a 50 pound bag of rice. When we got there the whole family, including the father who lost a leg to a landmine, were rebuilding their one-room house. They welcomed us and fed us with the food we brought.

Kind of puts things in perspective.

After spending some time with them, most of the group headed back to Siem Reap and home. Richard, Chris, Aki Ra and I had plans on spending the next couple of days in the area and had brought hammocks and food so we could camp out. Took us a bit longer to find a site than we had thought.

We headed north along the road and Aki Ra found a couple of paths going off into the jungle that he knew about from his days in the army, but every time he checked out the road he said, "no too many bad men around here". He was comfortable sleeping out there but he was reluctant to take three barangs back there.

We wound up heading back to the site of the fire. We drove about a kilometer up the road and hiked a few yards into the jungle, hung our hammocks and settled in for the night. Aki Ra headed back to the families hut and showed up a few minutes later with a big pot of rice. We doused it liberally with spicy canned mackeral and washed it down with water.

Aki Ra said later he would build a fire. He advised us not to wander off into the jungle and mumbled something about tigers and cobras. I thought I heard a giggle too. Nevertheless, even with a full moon, I wasn't wandering around the Cambodian jungle in the dark.

About midnight he did build that fire. Good thing too, it was cold. And when we got up in the morning you could see your breath. I was warned to bring to bring a sweater, but opted for a light jacket instead. I was warm enough.

We'd planned heading north that day and back home on Monday, but Aki Ra called Hourt and she had started having contractions and told him to get his butt home NOW. So we did.

And that brings me to the special announcement. Hourt had a baby girl this moring (Thursday 24 January). Baby and mother are fine. And Aki Ra has a daughter. That will certainly change things.

I head home tomorrow and will be back in March to fininsh up the work I started in January.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bouncin' Around Kampuchea

What a hectic few days I've had.

I promised to tell you all about visiting Asao's village with some of my friends from the states. Asou is a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap. He is originally from Kampong Cham, a town on the Mekong I've visited a couple of times. He survived the wars and headed for Siem Reap to support his family. He founded Tuk Tuk Drivers for Peace, a group of drivers who donate a portion of their revenue to schools in the countryside. Asad met him about 5 years ago and he has been his regular driver whenever he visits.

Asad, Olivia, Brian and Gwen were making a trip out to Asou's village and invited me along. What a trip. The village is about 45 minutes from Siem Reap. Asou has a wonderful family and they and many of the local villagers were visited with us when we arrived. We had fresh coconut juice, and a bit of his home made 'hooch' if you were of the persuasion. Just a whiff of the rice wine he was making in his little 'factory' was enough to give you a buzz. We spent a an hour or two playing with the kids and talking to Asou about the trials of raising a family in Cambodia today. He has no electricity except for what he gets from the car battery from which he runs his fluorescent light a couple of hours a night, and the water comes from a well, unfiltered.

Then we went to the local 'free school' run by the Buddhist monks about a mile from his house. The Khmer (government) school is on temple land, and by Buddhist tradition the land is free for the community to use, so the 'free school' that about 120 kids attend every afternoon is run strictly on donations. It is built under a roof off the side of the dormitory in which many of the monks live. They teach English. They are looking to build a real school building on the property and were telling us (Project Enlighten) about their plans.

Then Sunday, Rich, Aki Ra, Chris, Rich's parents and I rented a van and headed for Phnom Penh for some work that could only be done in the capital.

We spent all day Monday running around to various ministries and had dinner with friends Sunday and Monday night. Sunday we ate on the riverside at an absolutely fabulous restaurant called K-West. Best fettuccine I've had since Italy. And Rich found a steak he could actually cut. Last week we went to a local Khmer restaurant and they had steak on the menu. Rich asked if it was Khmer or Australian. The waiter said "Khmer" "Is it tough" Rich asked him. "Yes" he replied. We all ate Khmer and it was indeed quite good.

Then today we headed to Tuol Sleng, S-21, the detention and torture center for the KR in Phnom Penh. I've been there before but have never had the chance to really go through all the buildings. I've always had a tour group, and mostly they couldn't stomach the presentations. It was sobering. Man's inhumanity to man is more than you can bear sometimes. About 14,000 people went to S-21 and I think less than 6 walked out. And they all confessed. There are some interesting pictures of different ways to water board people that I won't attempt to describe. Suffice it say, torture works. Amazing how many of them confessed to being CIA and KGB spies.

On our way back this afternoon we passed through the area of Cambodia where the Cham people live. They are Muslim and there were a couple of mosques off the side of the road. I've visited them a couple of times and it was quite interesting.

We had an uneventful ride if you can discount the honking horn every time we passed a car, a bicycle, a moto, a cow, a water buffalo, a dog or a pedestrian. And passing on a curve is a testosterone test for any Cambodian guy who drives a road. Rich has done it a bunch and it still keeps him awake. Gave me something to watch, that's for sure.

Well, plenty to do before I head back next week.

Babu out

Sunday, January 13, 2008

You Should Have Been There

It was wonderful to see all the people that showed up to help Aki Ra accept the certification for his Museum yesterday (Thursday).

There were officials from Phnom Penh, the Provincial Governor, the Police Chief of the district, and a lot of Aki Ra’s friends and supporters. The kids were all decked in their finest and there were speeches galore.

Thank goodness the weather was good. But then we all, dignitaries and visitors, sat under a tent, in nice comfortable chairs. It was quite formal and really very fitting for all the long hours and effort that the staff, Aki Ra, Hourt, Sanghour, Becky and Richard have put in to make this event happen.

And a photographer from Time Magazine. That was pretty cool. He’s here for a couple of weeks working with Richard.

Then we all headed into Siem Reap for a very nice lunch and a chance to get to know some of the officials who came for the ceremonies. There was an even bigger party at the Museum for the staff and kids.

After that we all took a little time off to decompress before the next big job starts.

So what did I do? I got to sit on stage and meet a few of the dignitaries. Aki Ra was kind enough to thank the LMRF for its help over the years, and I again want to thank everyone who’s contributed to support the work that we so much want to see done.

Then I went to the Funky Monkey for “Quiz Night”.

And just what is “Quiz Night” you want to know? Think of an international version of “Jeopardy” that lasts for 2 hours. And they pass the hat and raise money for a local charity. Last night they raised $225 for a school. Pretty good way to spend the evening. And you need to get there at least an hour early or you’ll never get a seat.

The Funky Monkey ( is a small bar on the riverfront in Siem Reap. Every Thursday night all the NGOs in town show up at 9pm and they play Trivial Pursuit on Steroids. The quizmaster makes up about 50 questions on a range of different subjects and off you go. You get 1-3 points for correct answers. Most of the teams got in the 20s. One group got 53. They had a history prof on the team. Those of you who know me know I usually do pretty good at this stuff. Not last night. Man I just blew. But it really was a lot of fun.

Today I stuck around town and worked on how to get CSHD registered. Can’t do it in Siem Reap. We need to go to Phnom Penh, so I went with Rich to his ‘special’ travel agent and we rented a van to take Rich, Aki Ra, Chris (the photographer), and Mr. And Mrs. Fitoussi and I to PP on Sunday. Richard, Aki and I are going to work on getting the NGO registered with the Ministry of the Interior so we can move ahead with CSHD. We plan on coming back Tuesday.

Weather is starting to get hot again. And when I say hot, I mean humid and hot. Kinda nasty but I still love Cambodia. Next time I’ll bring Jill, and it will be even better.

More tomorrow as I get time and I’ll tell you about a visit to our tuk tuk drivers village, a school they are building, and Cambodian moonshine.

Off to PP on Sunday morning and then back to Siem Reap on Tuesday.

Babu out for tonight.

Ps: Sorry for all the delays in posting. Internet connections here have been horrible with all the tourists logging on at the same time.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Defusing His Past

I got a phone call at 10:30 last night from Boston.

The Christian Science Monitor was letting me know that an article was being published in the Tuesday edition about Aki Ra. Here's the link:

The title is "A Former Cambodian Boy Soldier Defuses His Past".

To those of you to whom I have spoken you may have heard much of what the reporter, Annie Linskey, writes. But you've never heard it in Aki Ra's words.

As Annie wrote, Aki Ra has "...resigned himself to get certified." Not just resigned, he's anxious to get certified, excited to be certified, and more than understanding of what CMAA wants of him.

I asked him once what he thought of all the other groups doing demining in Cambodia and he said "anyone clearing landmines is doing good work. Every mine they clear saves someone."

Let's hope he can return to the field and continue making his country safe for his people.

Bill (Babu) from Siem Reap

Monday, January 7, 2008

Siem Reap in Season

Boy is itcrowded!

I’ve been here many times but I’ve always arrived in the fall, before the real tourista season starts. I’ve never been here in the height of the ‘season’. Tourists everywhere.

First of all, if you remember my blogs from my last trip it was hot hot hot in September: 80 degrees and about 90% humidity. Well, it’s a whole bunch nicer here now. I got off the plane in Phnom Penh (PP) and it was in the mid 70s. The humidity was still high, about 60%, but it didn’t hit you like a stone wall.

This will be a very busy week. The Museum gets its ‘official’ certification on Thursday, and we are expecting 100 guests. VIPs in attendance will include the Secretary General of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, Mr. Sam Sotha. This is quite an honor. Mr. Sam Sotha is the author of remarkable book detailing his family’s experiences during the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge. In the Shade of A Quiet Killing Place is a book that will give you true insight into the horrors the people of Cambodia endured during this terrible time in their recent past. Find it and read it.

We have a big contingent of Americans and Canadians here also for the ceremonies this week. Project Enlighten is well represented, as is the Cambodia Landmine Museum Relief Fund. I’m here representing our group.

My main mission during this trip, as you all know, is getting Cambodian Self Help Demining registered and Aki Ra certified as a Cambodian deminer so he can get back to his passion: making his country safe for his people.

The folks at the Museum have made a lot of improvements since I was here in September. They’ve upgraded the solar system, added a 7,000-liter water tank, planted a garden, finished the fencing around the area, and you should see the uniforms. They are outstanding. Aki Ra and Richard got all the defused landmines inspected by CMAA, and encased in plexiglass so no one can pilfer or touch them. And the Cambodian and Canadian flag are flying out front big as can be.

I’m staying at the Ta Prohm hotel again. It is a wonderful place, right on the river; next to the market and a short walk into the middle of downtown. It is nicer than most of the hotels I’ve stayed at as a tour guide and the staff knew me by name when I showed up. That was very nice.

You may not know that Aki Ra and Hourt are expecting their third child, a baby boy, on the 25th of January. Hourt is a tiny young lady and is as excited as can be, and every time you ask Aki Ra about the baby he gets a big grin on his face.

There are 20 kids at the Museum right now. And most are not victims of landmines. That is a wonderful testament to the work that is being done in the country. But don’t think that the work is over. There are still millions of mines left, and because of that farmers can’t plant fields. So the move to the overcrowded cities and the cycle of poverty is perpetuated. Not until these horrible tools of terror are eradicated can the people of Cambodia truly enjoy the freedom they so want.

That’s what we’re trying to help do…with your help.

Well, enough for now.

More as it develops.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A BIG Thanks

It just dawned on me that I haven't posted the results of our Landmine Event.

We had a fundraiser at Peabody's Restaurant in Palm Springs. We had no idea how many would show up. We were a little worried.
Well - more than a little.

We needn't have been concerned. It was standing room only.

We raised over $8,000.

Thank you.


Back to Cambodia

Well, it's time to head back to Siem Reap.

They are pretty busy there right now.

The new Museum get its official certification next week and everyone is going to be there.

Richard Fitoussi (who got the whole thing rolling) will be there with his parents, who've never been to Cambodai. Asad and Olivia from Project Enlightenment are already there. Lisa McCoy who raises funds for the Museum is coming in from Canada and I'm headed out tonite.

As soon as I get in and get a sim card, I'll post my mobile number on the blog. Feel free to call. I love to hear from home.

More to come.