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unexpected cambodia contrast

Friday, December 26th, 2008

by Rachael
Siem Reap, Cambodia

We had expected to cross the border and come face-to-face with poverty. Isn’t it Cambodia we always hear about in the news media? While there were beggars, small dirty children with even smaller babies hanging from their hips, there was also a large freshly-painted casino. And we were totally dazzled by the long avenue of five-star hotels, all decorated with strings of lights, on the drive in to Siem Reap. As we have moved around the city we have been surprised at the large buildings, new buildings – there is certainly evidence that the tourist dollar is pumping the economy…although not for the majority of the population. This morning we saw the other end of the spectrum, the discriminated-against-disabled. We visited a Disability Rehabilitation Centre, where over 80% of the clients have an income of less than a dollar a day. We also walked around the back streets away from the cafes, restaurants and hotels, and saw families living and working in shacks barely larger than a single bed.

Making the probably-inevitable comparison with Laos, it would seem that here there is dire poverty existing alongside immense wealth. There, what wealth we saw was far more modest. We did not see glitz, or *big*, or flashing lights or any sign of *professional* in Laos.

But we did see professional here in this tourist town. At an artisan training school, Artisans d’Angkor, we saw workshops where young people are apprenticed to learn the trades of silk-making and painting, statue-making and carving (all images taken from Angkor Wat)…..their standard of craftsmanship was high and the shop selling finished items was a large-scale upmarket boutique. Despite spending three weeks exploring the comparable tourist town of Luang Prabang, we didn’t experience anything as professional as this there. Unexpected contrast.

I had also expected Cambodia to be as “traditional” as Laos. But it appears more modern western. Instead of most women wearing a straight wrap skirt made from local cloth and hair to at least their waists, short haircuts and a variety of clothing styles are the norm, giving the streets here a far less conservative feel.

Ah yes, the streets. There’s another surprise. I had expected a mixture of sealed roads and hard dusty paths. But this city is one big beach! Actually, we are so far inland we are days away from any coast, but the soil is so sandy that wherever the pavement gives way, it is just like walking at the beach. The paths are not hard dirt, but soft sand. And along each roadside is a two-metre-wide “sandbank”. Unexpected.

Walking along one such street, we spied an array of self-made walking aids, crafted by people who had unknowingly trodden on landmines or unexploded ordnances – and survived to have to live without a limb. They seemed to be inviting inspection and so we entered the gates. A smiling uniformed man, one of over a hundred all Cambodian staff, greeted us, showed us to some enlightening and sobering information and photo boards, and then escorted us on a tour of the facility. Interview/assessment office, casting room with its line-up of different sized prostheses on the wall, a children’s therapy room with fewer resources than in most New Zealand toyboxes, a men’s accommodation block and another for women (in case you think this sounds flash……it is actually just two rooms, each with wooden bed frames sitting side-by-side dormitory-style) and an outdoor covered area full of obstacles, frames and strength-building equipment. Without seeing the steep manmade rocky path, I would never have thought about the fact that most of these people need to learn to walk mountain paths that are far from smooth and swinging bridges made from bamboo. But yes, most “victims” do live in rural areas. Their transport to the centre, accommodation costs, three meals a day, treatment and prosthesis costs are all covered. Even still, and even with over 250 clients being served each month with an average of a week-long stay, it only costs US$12,000 to run the facility. No waste, no excess expenditure. They are doing a fantastic job rehabilitating people suffering from mental disabilities and physical disabilities, both congenital and injury-induced (usually landmine or UXO accidents). We were surprised that even last year on average one person died every day from this cause. Every other day another person is injured. And the most dramatic statistic: four people a day die on the roads. This, however, is not surprising, not when you see the driving. Here in South East Asia we have seen so many road accidents, we have lost count. All have involved motorbikes, but few have involved helmets. This we were expecting, but experiencing the reality has still been a contrast to what we are accustomed to and takes some getting used to.

Have you seen a poster like this at a school near you recently?





Saturday, December 20th, 2008

thoughts shared by the adults
Bangkok, Thailand

I think there are three factors contributing to the fact that on this trip we feel no sense of isolation, unlike when we were living in Poland in the early nineties. Back then we would race down the seven flights of stairs and peer in our green metal wall-mounted letterbox at exactly the same time each day. If there was no letter, that was it for 24 hours, and after a few weeks of emptiness we would sometimes feel quite alone. Then when mail did arrive, it was weeks old – history!

Yesterday morning as we rode along the road in an over-stuffed tuktuk, heading for the Lao/Thai border, we sent out some texts to use up the last of the Lao sim card. Within minutes Charles was replying from Auckland, where they were counting down their final eight hours before going to the airport to fly to Bangkok – we calculated by then we’d be two hours into our overnight train journey to the same destination. But already it seemed they were just round the corner! (Yes, having someone come to share part of the journey, reduces the isolation for sure….not forgetting we had Grandpa with us for a good few weeks too….factor number one).

Before Rob could put the phone away, Kate was replying from the sunny Bay of Plenty. Back and forth we conversed in the here and now – even quicker than commenting on the blog or sending an email!
The internet (with blogging, emailing, MSNing and the like) definitely diminishes distance. Knowing that someone can see what you’ve been up to within hours or days of it happening, somehow makes *them* seem closer! Factor number two.

And, thirdly, the fact that we are travelling as a rather large group often in somewhat confined spaces means we don’t have room to be alone, let alone LONELY!

Doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games and glitzy glamour though……check out yesterday’s border crossing……we didn’t let the kids use the word, but the wait was BORING. Don’t tell them we said that, OK 😉

we started at the back of that queue…and we’re not yet at the front!!
if you want some idea of how slowly that queue moved,
try downloading this photo album  and looking at every single picture, OK!
at least it would be more interesting 😉
(just for the record,
it’s our pictures from our day at the Plain of Jars in Laos –
you’ll go on a virtual journey through the plain, a silk village and some caves)


Friday, December 19th, 2008
by someone listening to carols on the ipod Vientiane, Laos to Bangkok, Thailand via Nong Khai, Thailand There are signs of Christmas in communist Laos. That is to say, there are Christmas trees and fairy lights and a Santa-at-the-north-pole-scene outside a ... [Continue reading this entry]

back to the city

Thursday, December 18th, 2008
by Rachael Vientiane, Laos We woke and our bamboo bed had not disintegrated, despite being held together by a piece of string. We were in the French capital of South East Asia, Vientiane, but it was none-too-French-romantic! The contact paper floor ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, December 17th, 2008
from Rachael's journal, written on the bus Phonsavanh to Vientiane, Laos We were right! The VIP bus had reclining seats with arm rests, swathes of apple green curtains bordered with yellow tassles and even air-conditioning ducts (not that they worked). The ... [Continue reading this entry]


Tuesday, December 16th, 2008
joint observations, written up by Rach Phonsavanh, Laos On the way to Phonsavan, Rob commented that apart from satellite dishes and mobile phones, Laos seems stuck in a 1970s timewarp. I countered that with dirt-floored huts under thatched roofs, it is more ... [Continue reading this entry]

history in a jar

Monday, December 15th, 2008
by Rach-the-tourist Phonsavanh, Laos


Having seen a few photos of the large stone jars for which this region is famous, I was expecting them to be bigger (6 tonnes is big, right?). But while ... [Continue reading this entry]

If I were Noah….

Sunday, December 14th, 2008
By a very tired Rach Phonsavanh, Laos If I were Noah....there's one animal I'd have refused entry to the ark! Please allow me to explain. One of our readers commented: I'd love to hear stories about teamwork, group problem solving and other ... [Continue reading this entry]

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Saturday, December 13th, 2008
by Rachael Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh, Laos We don't know why - but we did see lots of them trying to on the road from Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh. And I mean dozens, not two or three. We are bouncing down the ... [Continue reading this entry]

pity he doesn’t like papaya (silly boy)

Saturday, December 13th, 2008
by Mama, who adores papaya Luang Prabang, Laos

We're going to miss this family. We've been here just shy of three weeks, but it feels like we really are part of the family. Yesterday ... [Continue reading this entry]