Recent Entries

February 21, 2005


Today is Tuesday morning, February 22nd and I am back in Bangkok after spending 9 wonderful days on Phuket Island. I could have stayed there much longer, the beaches are so beautiful, the water is as warm as a bath, the sand feels so nice on my feet and between my toes and the weather is always warm with a little breeze. It's a small paradise down there.

As soon as I got back to Bangkok I got sick, big time. I'm pretty sure it is just food poisoning from the fish I ate the first night back here in the city. At least I hope that's what it is, I don't relish any long term illness here in Southeast Asia. I've been laid up in my cell-like guesthouse room for a few days working through this illness form both ends and it sucks. I think I'm better this morning though as I am able to keep breakfast down. I've been sick a few times on this trip but NOTHING like this!!

This blog entry is about Phnom Penh and PARENTAL GUIDANCE IS SUGGESTED based on discussion of prostitution and drugs.

I left Siem Reap early in the morning (got up at 6:00 AM which is WAY TOO EARLY for me!!) to catch a bus to Phnom Penh. It was a pleasant 6 hour trip over decent roads. Roads in Cambodia are generally terrible with potholes and lack of pavement but this road was mostly good. The views of the country side and the people made the trip go by quickly. One quirk was there was a video screen in the bus playing Cambodian karaoke. The music actually grew on me and I started to enjoy listening to the tunes in the Khmer language although I didn't understand a thing. The bus was about 50/50 foreigner to Cambodians.

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh I was struck by the terrible things I'd seen and the misey that was so apparent and right in front of your face. I wrote the following e-mail to my good friend Michelle Smith after being in the city for a day:

I'm in Phnom Penh, Cambodia now and so far this must be the most sad and evil place I can imagine.

The sad: There are countless beggars and poor people living on the streets. The number of amputees I see on the streets caused by land mines is staggering and even worse, the deformities of people born without limbs, or hugely disfigured body parts is absolutely horrible. I really can't describe the sights and the feelings I get when I see these people just struggling to stay alive.

Cambodia is a very poor country with an ineffective government that relies on foreign aid and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) for any sort of social welfare. The poorest of the poor do not have access to any welfare or social services and must rely on the generosity of others just to live.

The evil: Phnom Penh is a paradise for drunks, perverts and pedeophiles. I had no idea what this place was like before I got here but I got a quick education after talking to some folks and witnessing things. The sex trade here is booming with countless instances of slavery and underaged prostitution. The number of western men here just for that purpose is morally reprehensible.

I don't know how to help anyone here except by giving money to many of them, especially the mothers with kids and the people with deformities and by future support of organizations that help the poor. I just think that if I could help just one person in a meaningful way I could make some sort of difference but without knowing the culture or situation I just can't throw money at someone. It's frustrating and sad.

Those were my impressions after a day and frankly I was ready to leave soon, the place was that depressing.

Luckily I stayed at a cool guesthouse called the California 2. This place is owned by a guy named Jim from San Diego in his mid 40's who about 3 years ago decided to move to Cambodia, run a guesthouse and live the life of an ex-pat. Interesting choice and an interesting life especially in a country as volatile as Cambodia. The California 2 has a good location across from a scenic grass boardwalk fronting the Tonle Sap River near where it meets the Mekong River. There are many guesthouses and hotels in this area and there are many, many homeless, beggars and vendors selling things.


There is a patio outside the California 2 which is a great place to sit and drink beer and talk with other guests and the staff. You are right in the middle of Cambodian life out there as it goes past and as the people come up to you for various reasons (mostly because they know you have money). I spent a great deal of time in this patio area and got to know some of the Cambodian staff and a few of the guests really well. It helped me get to know that while my first impressions of Phnom Penh were correct there is a heart and soul to this city that leaves me hope that life has the possibility of improving for many in this country.

Here are a couple of pictures of the view from the patio:
View image
View image
View image

Not to dwell on the negatives but there a few more bad things I didn't include in my e-mail to Michelle. Drugs seem to be popular here and I guess that shouldn't surprise me as the vices of drinking, prostitution and pedophilia probably go hand in hand with drug use. I didn't witness much of it except seeing a bunch of people smoking pot around town. Also, as I mentioned in my Vang Viene (Loas) entry, there are numerous pizza places that serve "happy pizza" with varying levels of mushrooms, pot or hash on your pizza. Right out in the open too from a signage basis, incredible!

Also, the crime level in Phnom Penh is very high with strong arm and armed robbery a common occurrence. I personally witnessed two robberies from my perch in front of the California 2 and came up upon a few more after the fact. Jim, the owner of the California 2, gave good advice on where to avoid and what to do and not to do, especially at night.

In my 10 weeks+ in Asia I haven't felt any real fear but in Phnom Penh I felt strong anxiety because I knew the general lawlessness of Cambodia and that a tourist from America would be an easy target and no one here would really care. I was mostly careful and took smart precautions when I was by myself.

I did walk one of the bad areas at night with a couple of friends to see some of the raw Cambodian life after dark and it wasn't pretty. The time I was the most anxious was on my final two nights in town I stayed at a different guesthouse about 1000 yards from the California 2 (California 2 was pre-booked those nights so I had to move). I still hung out on the patio but when it was time to go to bed (after midnight) the walk was a bit scary.

One day I was walking around town and passed a elephant cruising through the city led by his keeper. I just thought, "cool elephant" and snapped a few pictures not thinking how extraordinary it is to see something like that. It just feels ordinary here!
View image

I was warned of "beggar fatigue" before I got here and didn't really understand what this meant even after spending time in Siem Reap. But now I understand the term and what it means. In Phnom Penh beggars are everywhere and a part of life. I've discussed previously that I felt giving to beggars just reinforces that behavior and could keep them from finding employment or money in a more value-added way. It is hard to feel that way now.

I needed to have a strategy to deal with the barrage and decided that giving to mothers with little children, children carrying around their siblings, amputees and the deformed were people I would give to. I really have to credit my Mom, Bobbie Michie, with helping open my eyes to the plights of mothers with children and that I needed to help these people. She reminded me in an e-mail how difficult it was to raise a child in poverty but try to imagine raising a child while living on the street where there is no governmental or social fall back to help these people. So, thanks Mom for helping keep my head straight!

I didn't get many pictures of people begging as I didn't think it was appropriate in most cases. Here are a few though:
View image
View image
View image

The saddest part is probably seeing the children living on the street and wondering what their lives are going to become. It is impossible to imagine. I did not know how to effectively help the people. They have so little and, by comparison, I have so much.

I hung out while in Phnom Penh with two guys. One, Frank, who I met at Earthwalkers in Siem Reap, is from England and the other, Thom, is a Californian (one of the few Americans I've met out here).


This picture was taken before the Mekong Whiskey (I think)!

Anyway, these guys were cool and fun to hang out with. We all seemed to have similar takes on life and a caring for the people. We shared many beers together on the patio and talked alot. There were many, many vendors who came by while we were on the patio selling everything from candy, food, guessing your weight (one little girl got mine within 2 kilos thus winning a bet from me!), shoe shines (I had one little kid who cleaned my sandals every day while I was there whether they needed it or not), books, roses and a myriad of other items. We "adopted" a few of them to take care of every day by buying whatever they were selling. It was mostly kids doing this and they all spoke excellent English (one benefit of that lifestyle). They were mostly fun to engage and acted like kids when you talked to them bargained with them or teased them. They smiled and giggled like kids everywhere and it was fun to see.

Here are few pictures of the kids selling stuff:

View image
View image

One night around 9:00 PM Frank, Thom and I decided to feed a bunch of the kids hanging around. There was a street vendor nearby selling chicken and vegetables with some tables and chairs on the sidewalk. We rounded up about 6 kids and bought them food. Somehow the word got out very quickly and we were soon surrounded with over 20 seemingly desperate and aggressive kids wanting to eat. It was simply heartbreaking and honestly impossible for us to control. The lady cooking the chickens helped as we kept ordering more and more food from her. As we fed more, more people kept showing up including adults. I really saw the raw and most basic side of life (survival) while trying get order out of the chaos we created. I think we finally got most of the kids fed and gave money to the adults after about an hour. I know we did a good thing but it was so disorganized and I know some got left out (the smaller ones) and some came around and got seconds and some were very aggressive and mean, it was hard to walk away feeling we did it right.

The next few nights we "prepaid" dozens of dinners with the chicken lady (who was only a few feet from the California 2) and sent kids over there throughout the night where they got fed after a signal from us.

In Cambodia it is the people that make it special. The government is corrupt and inefficient. The social and cultural organizations cannot handle the poverty and destitution of the people. The demographics of the country are working against its future prosperity and the recent history of Cambodia is as sad as any country in the world. But the people can be seen smiling and interacting and living life and it is fun to see and be a part of.

Here are some pictures of people I came across:
View image
View image
View image
View image
View image
View image
View image
View image

One of the cool things about staying at the California 2 was meeting the staff. There were 6 or 7 Cambodian girls who staffed the place. They were very nice, sweet, pretty and friendly (in a non-monkey business way) and it was great to get to know them. One of the girls was having a 24rd birthday party and she invited Frank, Thom and myself. That was great honor to me and I was looking forward to it.

We went birthday present shopping with one of the other girls, Akee, who took us to one of the markets. We then followed her around the womens clothing section looking like dorks as she haggled and looked and touched and felt clothes just like women all over the world. It was fun and we ended up buying the birthday girl some nice outfits. We also bought some clothes for Akee and a few of the other girls at the guesthouse. Stuff was so inexpensive (to us) but was a great treat for them. Their smiles were awesome to see!

The birthday party was on a boat out on the Mekong River and went from about 10:00 PM until 1:00 AM. Jim, the owner of California 2, supplied the booze and there was food for everyone and singing and dancing and more drinking, it was great to interact in a Cambodian way even if everyone drank too much.

Here's a picture of the birthday girl:

Here's a picture of Jim, he's the guy in the middle:

Here are some more birthday party pictures:
View image
View image
View image
View image

One day Frank, Thom and I decided to get out of the city and see some countryside. There are a series of Islands about 40 kilometers (1 KM = .62 miles) outside town called Mekong Islands. This is where much of the silk items are made by hand and it's a real rural, off-the-beaten-path type of place. Frank and I rode out there on the back of motos while Thom rented a 250CC dirt bike as he was planning on cruising through the temples of Cambodia in his bike after leaving Phnom Penh.

It was a grueling and bumpy ride first through the city and then over the dirt roads. We took a river ferry to the Islands and it was calm but I was reminded of the numerous ferry accidents that happen all over Asia as they are often overloaded, go in rough water and/or get hit by other boats (see the recent accidents in Bangladesh).


Here's me on the ferry:

Here are a few pictures of life on the Island and some of the weaves they use to make their silk products. It is amazing the color and the quality of their silk stuff and that they do it all by hand. An age-old skill I know but I had never seen anything like this back home!
View image
View image
View image
View image
View image

But, once again, it's the people that make it special!
View image
View image
View image
View image

That's it for Phnom Penh. It was a fun, interesting and enlightening 7 days and after the initial shock I came to better understand the city and its people and I am a better person for the experience. Prostitution and sex tourism are very obvious here but they do not define the city, the people do and the vast majority of people are trying to live and survive for themselves and their families.

Here are a couple of food pictures that I liked:


That's it for this blog entry. I miss you all and miss the good ole United States and Southeast Indiana. Take care!

Thank you for reading this. I hope to make this blog both interesting and entertaining. Please post a comment and let me know your thoughts, observations or counsel. Hearing from readers and knowing I have an audience is a great motivator and will be a great morale booster during down times on the road. Don’t forget to bookmark this site and tell a friend! Please feel free to e-mail me at “JeffMichie at Yahoo Dot Com”

Posted by Jeff on February 21, 2005 10:22 PM
Category: Cambodia

I don't know how you do it - you know me - stray animals, stray people - I would be dead broke as I would be handing out to everyone. It is great that there are people like you that help out - it must be overwhelming. Very interesting - but depressing!! Hope you are feeling better. Stay safe. I know there are many people reading about your trip and enjoying it - even if they are not communicating with you.


Posted by: Karen on February 22, 2005 09:05 AM

Very entertaining (as always), I thought I grew up in the "bad part of town" but reading your entries makes me think in reality how lucky I am. By the way, you know I would probably be "one of those idiot Americans" in a place with so many vices. Hell, I can not even stay out of trouble in Rising Sun. By the way, Bob is coming in town on Wed night so it should be a fun evening. Take Care.

Posted by: Jason on February 22, 2005 10:04 AM

WOW, Jeff - I am just so impressed with everything that you are taking in and am loving every second of what you are able to share! - I'm with Karen - I just don't know how you do it! The little kids would just break my heart! I would want to just scoop up about a dozen of them and head home and keep them forever!

So glad that you are feeling better - kind of scary! Take Care of yourself and travel safely!


Posted by: ynez on February 22, 2005 10:21 AM

I am so glad that you are feeling better. I was wondering if I would have to send Cookie out to see you. She loves Hawaii and Mexico so as long as you are away from the big waves I could probably talk her into it. Well maybe ....she is a Mother of a graduating senior.. life may just be a bit busy now.
Do take care and do you know what causes that bright red color in those birds that were at the end of your blog? I don't and I have seen a lot of things.

Posted by: Bobbie on February 23, 2005 09:55 PM

Jeff, I am so glad you are feeling better, I guess there is no way to know what is "good to eat" ?
As always, I am loving to read your thoughts and travels, it really does put a new perspective on just how "bad" we think something is,until this! I am going to show this one to Amanda. You are a remarkable guy Jeff. Please stay Safe!

P.S. What would be a safe charity over there to give too? I feel the need to try and help make a difference for all those children ya know?

Posted by: Phyllis on February 24, 2005 02:12 PM

Now that was a bunch of booze for y'all on that boat! Must have been one heck of a birthday party. Glad you're feeling better brother!!


Posted by: Andy on February 24, 2005 03:49 PM

Great to pick up on your travels again. With the various food pictures you've shared, it's no wonder you've been feeling poorly! I'm so glad you are a talented and descriptive writer. Your gift in sharing all that you're experiencing certainly brings everything to life for us. I think everyone who follows your blog has greater appreciation for what we do have and for you helping to open our eyes to what others don't have. As you frequently mention, the children have something that only children have - no matter what corner of the world they live in. Have you realized that you are no longer the same Jeff, and never will be?
Miss you!
Linda Perin

Posted by: Linda Perin on February 24, 2005 08:52 PM

Jeff you are in a position to find some group, person or organization That is making a difference for the children. We can not fix the whole problem but like the chicken dinners we can do something. Keep your eyes and ears open

Posted by: Bobbie on February 24, 2005 10:37 PM

Been catching up aon your blog. Sounds like youv'e been a busy guy. More than a few adventures .... Glad to see you made it through your first bout of travelers illness fine. Haven't taken those yoga classes yet have you?? Remember our thoughts and well sihes are with you. Hugs, Cooky

Posted by: Cooky on February 28, 2005 06:40 PM
Email this page
Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Designed & Hosted by the BootsnAll Travel Network