The Monsoon

May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Though the photo doesn’t really show it, it really began to rain one lunch break.

Like really rain.

Technically we weren’t there in the wet season but it didn’t stop this from rolling in. After about 1 minute of absolute downpour I lost most of my hearing, and after 15 minutes you couldn’t see the ground. After 30 minutes the roads were rivers and after an hour and a half with no break, the water downstairs would have been close to my waist.. Not that the cows cared. And by the it way turns out chickens are great swimmers.

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monsoon1About 20 minutes before class was about to re-start the rain stopped and the sun came back out. Another half an hour and the water abated enough that, if I stayed in the middle of the road on my bike, I could stay half dry. Unfortunately for me I couldn’t see any of the pot holes and so ended up saturated anyway and walking my bike to the orphanage. I’m not going to lie, as the water was so muddy and I couldn’t see my feet, I was having pretty vivid memories of the massive snake we saw in the orphanage driveway a few days ago swimming through the water – the one Sister Borin eloquently told me would ‘make me die’ if I got too close.

Even more unfortunate for Zoe, who was at on the other, lower side of town before the rain started, she was standard at the servo. Even her bike couldn’t get through the flooded town for another hour or so.

I know understand why the kids say they don’t go to school in the wet season.

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As I was attempting to make my way back to the kids I noticed a lot of the locals coming outside, lining the streets and casting massive nets into the water on the road. They looked stoked but I had no idea what they were doing until I finally made it to the orphanage where all the kids were balancing on the fence on the look out for me. Charli Da jumped down and called out to me, ‘Teacher teacher! What’s this?’ Putting his hand straight into a puddle he pulled out a mud crab, no wonder everyone looked so happy.

After this, the word crab featured in nearly every single comprehension question Charli Da wrote.

Battambang

February 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

IMG_4316Weekends were free time and so early Saturday morning we’d make the trek to the Capitol Bus station and head on out. On our first weekend we headed to Battambang, home of the best rice in Cambodia. Our friends Ania and Kim joined us that night after their considerably longer trek. There’s a fair bit to see outside of the city and so Zoe and I booked  a friendly tuk tuk driver after a bit of charades for a local tour.

We bumped along the scenic route for hours seeing farms and fields and lots and lots of tiny villages. One thing that struck me in one particular village was that a lot of the houses had a little pond across the road where they each grew a couple of rows of rice. So resourceful. We stopped at the Village of Pheam Ek where everyone manufactured rice paper. We were allowed to go inside and see one family at work – it was a very labor intensive process. There is a rather complex machine that steams the rice pulp into circles which is then lifted off and placed onto bamboo drying racks to be placed in the sun to dry. There were 2 – 3 women (assuming an aunt, daughter and mother) operating the machine and laying the paper to dry while the son was mending and weaving new bamboo racks. They also had a small farm behind them where the father was working (This is where I gained all my Organic Cambodia insight). The grandmother lay with the baby in a hammock next to her under the shade of the house watching TV. These women produced over 2000 rice paper circles a day at $1 per $100. While $20 a day is a reasonable wage for a family, the process is long and repetitive. All I could think of was how much my wrists would hurt.

IMG_4231This is the rice paper makers in question. The rice is de-husked at the back before becoming slurry. It is then spread thinly under the metal lid the girl is holding for a little steam. Then it is hung over a blue plastic tube until it is laid onto a screen for drying. All the fences of the houses along the road have these screen leaning over them.

Each village seems to have some sort of speciality, one we past had chillies drying on tarps along the road for kms, my nose and eyes wouldn’t stop watering. Another had a factory (wooden shed) where they made pra hok, a local favourite – fermented fish. The smell and mounds of bloody fish as we passed were enough to dissuade myself trying any. Our next stop was Wat Ek Phnom, an 11th century temple. Older and Angkor Wat there was no one around or any paths or fences to stop us climbing all over it. We had to swing through a window to get inside, only to be met by a caretaker. Shrines have been set up in most of the old temples and a caretaker will sit with them, cleaning, purifying and offering blessing to all who pass. Unfortunately a lot of the ornate carving had eroded from the outside but there were still beautiful examples in the roofless halls. There was still remnants of the original mote filled with water lilies.

IMG_2192After a quick pose with a the giant Buddha (note the Angry Bird graffiti) and a coconut for the road we were off to the last stop before we headed back to town to pickup the others. The Well of Shaddows is another Khmer Rouge killing field and though smaller then Cheong Ek, just as powerful. The Well of Shadows stands in front of a high school and on the grounds of an old Wat (temple) where people were detained before execution. There is nothing in the small field there now except a one roomed pagoda filled with exhumed bones. But it was the cement carvings around the base of the platform that really got our attention, unfortunately, unlike stone, cement wears pretty quickly so they were crumbling but you could definitely still make out what was going on. The 8 panels each showed an atrocity that the Khmer Rogue committed in graphic detail. There was the expected execution and torture, but also the killing of children in front of parents, forced marriages and women being gang raped and beaten. Not the easiest thing to look at when the kids are calling out to you from the school fence. We asked our driver how old he was during the Khmer Rouge, he said he was 10 and that he was separated from his family and sent to a working farm but he wouldn’t say anymore.

IMG_4278Ania and Kim arrived in just enough time for us to make a late excursion on the bamboo train. The bamboo train is another symbol of the ingenuity of the Cambodians. Needing to get around and government transport not exactly up to scratch led to the creation of a basic track that connects villages and remote areas. The ‘trains’ are made of a flat bamboo palette that rests on what looks like 2 dumbbells and powered by a lawn mower engine that had us speeding along at about 15/20kms an hour. And trust me when you have nothing to hang on to and your being hit in the face by bushes it is fast enough. Journeyman had a good episode on the bamboo train which you can check out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4qttp6nDts

There is a certain etiquette with bamboo trains, and when ever someone is coming the other way it is the train with the least amount of people who have to get off and dismantle their train to let the others by. Leaving at 5 meant we got the see the beautiful sunset over the rice fields before heading back just in time for our peace core buddy’s moment in the spotlight at the Cafe Eden open mic night. A massive expat hangout – good music and the food was amazing, but be warned Kim and Zoe caved and ordered burgers from which they got food poisoning. Always stick with rice.

IMG_4290Day 2 was back in the Tuk Tuk and off to Phnom  Sapeau and Phnom Banan. I have become so skeptical of anything with the work Phnom in its name as it is Khmer for hill or mountain. I was right to be skeptical. Phnom Sapeau turns out to be a massive mountain that has a network of roads and paths between Wats, shrines and a killing cave. Shirking the expensive moto ride up we decided to hike it. I have never been so hot. We had to boys who didn’t speak english but showed us the way, they were considerate enough to wait while we caught out breath for the hundredth time. One of the temples was even being painted while we were there, it was a funny thought that this is what the older Wats once looked like.

IMG_4321A couple more boys joined our tour and took us down into the killing caves. Looking up at the hole in the roof I was shuddering at the thought of being hacked and thrown off the ledge an falling onto everyone else who’d been pushed off before me. Like in all sacred sites there was a caretaker who sat in front of a sleeping Buddha. He blessed me as I passed.

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IMG_4333A couple of hanger-oners.

After making to all the sights of the mountain and we all had a good sit down we were off again to our second stop.. Phnom Banon. Steep? An understatement. This made the trek to the killing cave look like a stroll. Not a lengthy journey but to reach the temple at the top we had to climb up the sheer 358 steps that rose to about mid-calf. There were kids waiting there to follow you up and fan you on the way for a dollar or two but the poor kids were absolutely buggered and I ended up having to help one little boy up, he was exhausted and no wonder.

IMG_4397The view from about a quarter of the way up.

The temple itself is again older then Angkor Wat and there are still evidences of Yonis and Lingas from the time when Cambodia was Hindu. It is said that Angkor Wat was modelled on the 5 towers of this temple, true or not I’m not sure.

Daily Life

February 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

IMG_2155It really didn’t take long for Zoe and I to get into routine – and revel in it. We became so comfortable we often thought it would be a challenge to go back. Our day began early, usually just before 7 – it was too hot to sleep any longer and we would hop up get dressed and sit at the breakfast table and plan our lesson. Breakfast was always small – usually a piece of fruit, such as the ever popular Dragonfruit (I will be happy never to eat one of those again), after a week we were riding to the servo to pick up yogurt as breakfast supplements, and then we were off on our bikes to the orphanage by 8:30. We were greeted by the 2 cuties and their friends every time we passed their houses (so 4 times a day) they’d run out screaming hello with flowers and leaves they’d pick as presents. Seeing a foreigner is such a novelty for everyone involved and so we’d often be constantly stared at but the families along this path were so friendly, though very poor, and always smile, wave and shout things to us that we didn’t understand. And never once were we asked for anything, it was pure kindness.

Our first class was a small class of only 3 or 4. Sometimes Yu Meng and his little brother Ly Hor would join from next door but not often. The first class ran for 2 and a half hours – till 11:00 so keeping everyone engaged was always a challenge but the intense one on one was a big pay off for the kids.

Like most Cambodians the biggest break happened during the middle of the day – when it was too hot to do anything else. So we’d peddle hard home for our 11:30 lunch absolutely ravenous. Mrs Leung was a great cook and we got a delicious insight into Khmer cooking that you can’t buy, but it was a fast lesson that there is no fussiness when it comes to food and you eat what’s in front of you and your grateful you have that much food. I’m not a fruit fan and Zoe doesn’t like her greens, suck it up. Meat was often in the form of gristle or bones, though looking at the livestock its no wonder and there was always mountains of rice. If you were hungry enough you’d eat it – and we did. I don’t recall ever being so hungry in my entire life despite the heat. And the vegetables were amazing, most of them I couldn’t identify but they were so fresh and flavourful. Mrs Leung made beautiful sauces, soups and curries, I could have eaten it for ever. Another notable thing about Cambodia – which they are very proud of, is that everything is organic. Many people have a plot of land that own or lease to grow some of their own food so as far as food waste and miles go – absolutely minimal. The non-organic produce is imported from Thailand or Vietnam.

We had a decent break and thank god because it was so hot. I love the heat but this was hot – as in 40+ degrees C and 70 – 80% humidity. I didn’t think I sweated that much, I didn’t till I came here, but you dealt with it like everyone else. Cambodians often have 3 showers a day.. often we just let ourselves air out. I know that sounds gross but just wait till your in the situation. We spent our time visiting the internet garage, grabbing a coconut, riding to the servo or in my case picking up an iced coffee. Straight out, Cambodian coffee is amazing. Very strong but almost caramel in taste. The best way to have it is poured over ice with a drizzle of sweet milk, and it is the only thing (trust me) that will cool you down. Every single time. There are coffee houses all in a row in Pursat, on the street we aptly named coffee st. Only thing is it is kinda a mens only club, they sit there drink coffee watch old Kung Fu movies and play draughts. All day every day. The only women are the 2 that serve and me everyday at 1:30. After the first 2 weeks people stopped taking photos of me on their phones and I was a genuine regular.

IMG_2339My preferred coffee house

IMG_2489Take away Cambodian style – in a bag

After our break ended at 2:30 it was back to class for our second lesson – usually a repeat of the first with around 10 – 12 kids. This class only went for an hour and a half before they were jumping around under buckets of water washing up for dinner. For the final hour we took Sister Borin and a few of the older kids for a more in depth session. Then it was on our bikes and home ready for dinner – starving again – at 5:30. It gets dark at exactly 6pm every night in Cambodia so we’d usually have a bit of light to write our diaries by before we were hopping under cold water and into bed at ashamedly around 8:30. Sometimes we stretched it to 9 but tiredness usually always won out.

 

 

The Centre for Orphans and Poor Children

February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The Centre for Orphans and Poor Children is sandwiched between the road and a housing area. A long and narrow strip of land, there is a driveway, an open shelter that was to function as our classroom and a building with a large communal area for eating and prayer, one room for the small boys, one room for the big boys, one room for all the girls and one room for the director and her husband. And that’s it. Around the back is an open kitchen where everyone washes and the older girls take turns to cook. There is also a ute that is taken to the small bit of land they have on a farm to grow food. Contrary to popular belief orphanages aren’t just for orphans. Today there aren’t  a lot of orphans in Cambodia as there were 20 years ago after the Khmer Rouge – though there are still too many, the majority of the children in orphanages are poor children and their stories are no less tragic. For example among our small orphanage there are 2 brothers – Ly Heng and Ly How. There parents left them at the orphanage 3 years ago so they could go to Thailand in search of work. They have not returned and the boys haven’t heard from them since. Unfortunately this tends to be a typical case. In many cases parents believe, as hard as it is, that their children would be better off in an orphanage where they have regular meals and are able to go to school. CVF believes this is wrong and try to discourage it as they say nothing can replace the love of a family. It’s a fine line between what is right and wrong. There are a lot of orphanages in Cambodia, many are run by international benefactors or religious groups with rather deep pockets, some are faux-orphanages that rent children from local poor families on a daily basis to extort money from visiting foreigners, and some are like our orphanage are local and independent with no external funding only a meagre amount of funding from the government. There is no website campaigning or asking for donations, only a small sign above driveway. There is no large grass areas or play equipment here, the orphanage is run simply and provides the best they can for the children, simple meals three times a day, a school uniform and maybe 2 changes of clothes. Not everyone has a bed, most sleep on the floor – some of the older boys sleep on a plank of wood and everyone shares what they have – including beds.And before everything sounds too bleak and hard done for, I would just like to say that these are some of the happiest children I have ever come across.

IMG_2258Chun Lykhana (11) and Chun Rothana (8) – brother and sister with the biggest smiles I have ever seen.

IMGP3227This is Sister Borin. She is 61 and the director of the orphanage. She began learning english 2 years ago and sits in every class with the children to learn, and is always the most enthusiastic with the craft. She and her 53 year old husband run the orphanage independently. Sister Borin’s story is amazing and she’s not shy to tell it in her own special way, which is fantastically dramatic. Sister Borin was a mid-wife before the Khmer Rouge, when they came to power she was sent to a working farm. She said she worked hard all day everyday with only a spoon full of rice to eat and she cried everyday. She said she would birth babies in secret because if the mother went to the hospital then the child would have its throat slit. Not to mention if she was caught she would have had her throat slit.  She started the orphanage with only a few children on her own 9 years ago, and now has 24 kids that range between the ages of 7 and 19. They are all Christians – hence the sister – but not because of an external missionary benefactor, it’s because they want to be. I am not a particularly christian person at all and am sometimes suspect of its presence in developing countries, however in this case religion gave them so much happiness and strength that it was obvious that it was such a positive thing. Sister Borin is tough on the kids and brushes off a lot of affection but it is clear she loves these kids more than  anything and clearly she lives for them.

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IMGP3234This is our classroom, a volunteer before donated extra whiteboards. Zoe and I ran 3 classes a day, as education funding rather stretched and there are more children than schools, here children only go to school in the morning or afternoon. And as we were not teaching in a school we working with the children who were not at school. Most children take English in a private class as its not taught at regular school and is particularly important now as it is a prerequisite for most jobs. The orphanage already has a deal with the school for the children to learn with consideration and they cannot afford English lessons and so that is where we step in. IVHQ volunteers had only been coming to the orphanage for 3 months by the time we got there so not long at all. Sister Borin is determined to give them the best start in life despite their Orphanage status.

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Van Nigh – the youngest of the orphanage and yet she had the most vivacious character of them all.

IMG_2484As the children were of different ages and levels teaching was hard. All but 2 of the kids couldn’t read and as in all classrooms some hard more of an aptitude than others. Unlike others working with IVHQ we had no supervising teacher, no syllabus and no resources. In fact sometimes we didn’t even have paper. Neither of us being trained teachers it started out challenging but Zoe and I found the best method for us would be to pick a topic a day and just totally exhaust it. We stared with vocab, played matching games, copied sentences, filled in the blanks, songs, labelling games, dances and then always ended with a craft – after we’d made a trip to Battambang for supplies. Usually we were hard pressed to find a lack of enthusiasm which helped enormously. Our goal was just to make it as fun as possible and if anything I gave them 2 new favourite words – submarine and helicopter.

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IMG_2480The kids often elaborated on our lessons

IMG_2463Nhhiang (9) the first child Sister Borin took into her care

IMG_2479Zoe and one of her favourite men, Sok Vy (9)

Pursat

February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

IMG_2491After a day or so orientation in Phnom Penh, my posting was revealed and I (and my soon to be other half named Zoe) were sent out by bus to Pursat. Pursat is a mostly agricultural province in western Cambodia between Thailand and the Tonle Sap lake. Pursat (the town) is closer to the lake side and an hour or so south of Battambang. As a largely agricultural provence the town is small, though a couple of the roads are paved and there’s a central market and schools; however no tourist would really have cause to visit. Absolutely perfect. Serei from the Cambodian Volunteer Foundation (the on the ground NGO that IVHQ operates through in Cambodia – 100% locally operated and run by such passionate, fantastic people) escorted us to the town and after settling us in with our host family – the Leungs, he took us on a moto ride around town to get orientated. A bit of a fail but I enjoyed the ride. After a brief stop to visit the Orphanage we would be working at we were treated to the finest Pursat had to offer – Mini Club, the only  club in town. Owned by the brother in law of Serei’s friend and our second moto driver, and home to the greatest dish I have ever tasted: Khmer Sweet and Sour Whole Fish. Freshly caught from the river, Zoe and I picked it clean.

IMG_2369This was our new home – absolutely luxurious by all standards, particularly Cambodians. Upstairs is the living area and includes a huge open tiled varandah which is the only place to be in the middle of the day – either lying in a hammock or straight on the tiles. Downstairs would usually be open and just a dirt floor with hammocks for the family to relax in and maybe a cooking area, however Mr Leung was a doctor (though he preferred the term nurse) and had his practice downstairs. There were always people staying there swinging in hammocks cradling their IV drips, if one person was sick then the entire family stayed sometimes for days and days. I saw him once help and elderly man walk shakily out to be taken home on the back of a scooter. His entire family were on the moto, wife and children. He sat of the very back while one of his daughters clutched the IV bottle.

IMG_2151Mrs Leung worked too, she and her helper sewed robes for the monks. There were bolts and bolts of different hued fabrics for all the different monks. The girl who came to help her was very sweet and though she spoke no english (*note: no one in Pursat speaks english) she was always smiley and friendly. Her mother had died a little while before we arrived and she had shaved off her hair as a sign of mourning. She was always sewing even before we got up at 7 with the fan and the radio playing. So plus Charlie the mysterious Peace Core guy who took us almost a week to meet, Zoe and I had our new family.

IMG_4548Not a great photo but this is the main room of the house, family portraits and behind me the shrine.

IMG_2122The backyard and view from our bedroom window.

IMG_2388The morning food market, where everybody stops what they are doing to stare at you.. for a long time.

IMG_2393A typical residential road

IMG_2128View from the Golden Ship (top photo) at sunset. This is where all the cool kids come to hang out. Everyone is here, partaking in the 5:30 aerobics, walking laps or playing the latest craze – I’m not sure of the exact name but it’s like playing hacky sac with a shuttlecock and it is ridiculously impressive. One thing I have noticed (all over the country) is that it is mostly those over 40s exercising and they aren’t slowing down. The secret to eternal youth – never stop moving.

Phnom Penh

February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

IMG_4223As I said in an earlier post, Cambodia tends to either draw fans or haters, and the majority of that opinion rests on Phnom Penh. PP is the capital of Cambodia and is a bit of an assault (particularly on the nose) when you first arrive, but give it a few hours and you won’t even notice it. In case you haven’t picked it up yet I am on the lover side. PP is great and now is an even greater time to visit. It is the only place in the world where people gather to literally dance in the streets. They aren’t busking, just dancing.

So here are my top Picks for Phnom Penh:

1. Sisowath Quay at Sunset: The plaza in front of the Foreign Correspondents Club comes alive with groups and groups of people at around 5/5:30 ready for their nightly jazzercise lead by the guy with the boom box. And even better, anyone can join! Though I also love the kids who are Gangam stylin’ all the way up the river.

2. Tuol Sleng and Cheong EK:  Since you are in the groove with PP after a night of dancing these 2 stops are musts, and probably the most important stops in the city. These 2 sites are very real reminders of the atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge. For future reference probably don’t eat just before you go in. Tuol Sleng – also known as S. 21 (as in security prison 21) was once a high school, a fact that makes the goings on within its walls all the more worse (that blackboard above the cell with bloodstains doesn’t seem quite real). Enemies of the Khmer Rouge and their entire families were bought here for detainment. The term enemies here refers to politicians, academics, dancers, artists, teachers, entertainers and indiscriminate randoms. There were catalogued, photographed and tortured – or killed outright if they were a child. There is no real hiding or glossing over the truth here, it all laid out in front of you – the aforementioned bloodstains, cells, torture equipment, graphic depiction of them being used (which I will not go into), human remains and thousands of photos. The Cambodians hope that if people truly believe if people see exactly how horrible it was it will help to prevent it happening again. To me the photos were the were the worst. In some of the lowers rooms boards have been set up with the catalogue photos of prisoners upon entry. There are people of all ages and sexes and even a handful of foreigners. They all have the same position and a catalogued number pinned to their shirt (or in the case of a poor few to their neck). There are also staff photos, young boys who were forcibly taken and faced with the choice to do or be done. I have visited Tuol Seng twice and both times there was one photo of a girl who looked about my age and so scared, that has stayed with me ever since. Feeling dizzy yet? Have a sit down, grab a water and talk to one of the 2 remaining survivors (of the original 7, of an estimated 17 – 20,000 prisoners in total). Next stop is Cheong Ek. Also know as the killing fields, this is were the prisoners of S. 21 were bought to be executed. It is a bit of Tuk Tuk ride out of town which is nice as you can see how people live a little way out of the city. Cheong Ek has a $5 entry fee whichc includes a audio tour and map which is really great it gives you lots of details, people’s stories and even a symphony. As you walk around the field the story of Cheong Ek comes to light, of how the prisoners came here in truck, were unloaded and killed on the edges of shallow graves using pianful and not always quick methods. As bullets were expensive the guards used a variety of farm tools, shovels and fronds from the Saw Plametto Palm. As you walk around the field you can see the rises and dips of what were the graves and there are places where pieces of bones and clothing are coming up through the dirt beneath your feet. There are particular graves that deserve a particular mention such as the graves for headless soldiers and the baby killing tree – exactly as they sound. In the centre of the site there is a large pagoda that is filled with the skulls of those who died there, where possible they have been grouped in sex and age. Don’t let the gore turn you off, it truly is worth visiting and is in a way very calming or in the least the best reality check you will ever receive.

3. Relax a bit and have a Seeing Hands Massage (next to the FCC and above a giftware shop). $7 and hour – not only great value but you are giving a livelyhood to the blind. ‘Friends’ also gets an honourable mention as does their shop and restaurant – and don’t worry everyone knows Friends no address needed.

4. Back on the site seeing track don’t miss the Royal Palace but make sure shoulders and knees are covered for entry. The palatial grounds are huge and include the stunning Silver Pagoda next door. On this visit (as seen in top photo) the palace was closed for 3 months of mourning as the King Father had recently passed. Luckily I had been before but it was interesting to see everyone pay their respects every night, there was incense and flowers everywhere.

5. While still on the Quay try the restaurants that line it. Food may be a tad cheaper a few blocks back but the food scene here is fantastic – as is their 2 for 1 happy hour cocktails. Amok and Loc Lak are the national dishes and not to be missed.

6. Finally shopping – you cannot go past the Russian Markets; and don’t forget to haggle – even better if you can work a little Khmer into your deals. It does get steamy so maybe take a coconut for sustenance. There are also a lot of local markets through out the city – you can by from them the fruit is amazing, but its more for the spectacle. My favourite is the one in the streets behind Wat Ounalom (coincidentally one of my favourite temples).

IMG_4228Roadside on the outskirts of PP en route to way to Cheong Ek. Cambodians usually burn their rubbish, hence the piles

IMG_4172A child selling King Father memorial souvenirs out the front of the Royal Palace. No matter how cute they look its best to never buy from the children – if they aren’t making any money their parents will send them back to school where they belong

IMG_4209To offer a cigarette over incense is a symbol of wealth.

Flying Out

February 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

IMG_2119Flying out on a very spur of the moment stint in Cambodia with IVHQ.

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