Angkor- Cambodia’s Pride

Posted on January 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia 2006. No Comments

Hello again.  I’m here in Siem Reap, a tourist town designed to house the hordes of travelers headed for the world-famous Angkor Wat.

Usually, I’m a bit blase about immense churches and other religious monuments, but Angkor Wat truly is magnificent and worth the 40 bucks I shelled out for a three-day pass.

The Wat is only one of several important buildings at the Angkor complex, so we rented bicycles and just explored quite casually.  I’ll try and get my act together after I get home and post some photos, just to give you an idea of the size and scope of the monuments.

Tomorrow, I’m goign back to Bangkok.  We decided Laos was too out of the way for us at the moment and are instead going to spend the duration of our holiday in Chiang Mai and other points of interest in Northern Thailand.

I’ll write more from there.  Cheers!…

Phnom Penh

Posted on January 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia 2006. No Comments

Imagine for a moment that everyone in San Francisco, or New York, or Detroit, Dallas, or Seattle, were marched out of the city and sent to the countryside.  Think of doctors, lawyers, teachers, plumbers, and all the others, vanished.  Difficult to imagine, no?

This indeed did happen to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from where I write this post, only thirty years ago.  Now a bustling town of over one million, Phnom Penh was emptied in the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to build an agrarian socialist utopia.  Whatever economy, society, or life in the city that exists today results entirely from Cambodian efforts to rebuild their country over the past twenty-five years.

Phnom Penh is lightyears behind Bangkok or even the most ordinary Chinese city.  There are no McDonalds or foreign businesses of any kind, save Western Union.  There are no ATM machines, few department stores, and very little evidence of any real affluence of any kind.  Little tuk tuks and moto bikes dart around the busy city streets, dodging monks, market peddlers, and all the others who occupy this city.

Along the riverside, evidence of Phnom Penh’s possible grandeur exist.  The city lies on the confluence of three rivers, including Asia’s mightiest: the Mekong.  Alongside the smaller Sap River, there is a grand boulevard with embassies, fancy restaurants, and King Sihanouk’s ornate palace.

The Khmer Rouge may thankfully be gone, but their legacy drives Phnom Penh’s nascent tourist industry.  Today, we took a tuk tuk out to the village of Chang Eok, immortalized in the 1984 film The Killing Fields.  We walked through the actual fields, where fragments of human bone and cloth are still evident amidst the weeds and butterflies.  Some million and a half prisoners were executed at Chang Eok, nearly a third of Cambodia’s mid-70s population.  A tall, narrow building hosts the skulls of thousands of victims, labeled by age and gender.

Yet Phnom Penh lives on, vibrant and active.  This is a city, and country, on the move.  Corruption and violence are still problems, but you get a sense here in this city that Cambodians are ready to put everything behind them and charge full steam ahead.

Next stop: Siem Reap, and Angkor Wat.  Stay tuned…

The Wild Side- Cambodia

Posted on January 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia 2006. No Comments

Blessed with beautiful beaches, warm waters, and friendly people, Sihanoukville has enormous potential as a Southeast Asian tourist destination. Lots of people know this, and as a result Sihanoukville superficially resembles a Thai-style beach resort- hammocks, bungalows, fruit shakes, and cheap noodle dishes served underneath the blistering sun.

What differentiates Cambodia is its (ahem) looser attention to law.  People smoke dope freely in the restaurants here and prostitutes freely roam the beach, attaching themselves to lonely older men looking for a bit of companionship.  Thailand famously has cracked down on girls and ganja, attempting to foster its reputation as a country safe for families.  Cambodia represents the Southeast Asia of urban legend- a sunny place for shady people.

The moto drivers who transport people up and down the beachside road ask me daily if I require a lady for the evening.  I decline (for the record).  I am well aware of the sadness involved in the prostitution industry here, but their ubiquity fascinates me.  There’s a real Wild West vibe evident here in Sihanoukville.

Cambodia is years behind Thailand in tourism, and for good reason.  As hippies and backpackers began descending in droves upon Bangkok in the 60s and 70s, neighboring Cambodia was undergoing the beginning of 30 years of war, genocide, and oppression.  Now that Thailand is one of the new "Asian tigers", hoping to reach the affluent heights of its Northeastern neighbors, Cambodia has apparently assumed its former role as a giant den of iniquity.

I don’t want to give the impression that Cambodia is nothing but sleaze.  The people here exude a warmth and kindness that is extraordinary.  The food is delicious- think of Thai food with French bread and butter.  And the landscape is gorgeous and empty if tainted by its former role as the home of Khmer Rouge refugees.

A country as poor and blighted as this one needs tourism- badly.  Now that it’s safe to travel here, the tourist industry has grown and with it the fortunes of the Cambodian economy.  Should the police crack down on girls and drugs and possibly alienate the older men who seem to constitute a chunk of the travelers here?  Or should they cultivate a sotto voce reputation for lawless fun that might attract more mercurial types bored by Thailand’s polish?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect Cambodian officials will have to consider them very carefully as more and more foreigners flock to its beaches and temples.…


Posted on January 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia 2006. No Comments

Greetings from Sihanoukville, Cambodia- the kingdom’s hope for a Thailand-style beach resort.  I crossed the border from Trat, Thailand, to Koh Kong, Cambodia yesterday afternoon and was shocked to see the difference between wealth between the two countries.  In Trat, we ate at KFC and the residents lived in modern homes that wouldn’t seem out of place in North America or Europe.  In Koh Kong, we saw people living in shanty houses with cows and pigs idly crossing the road.

Of course, Thailand and Cambodia have vastly different histories.  Thailand has always been free from colonial domination, owing its independence to its status as a buffer state between the British controlled Burma and the French-controlled Indochina.  Cambodia was one of the three Indochinese states (Laos and Vietnam are the others) and perhaps the least developed. 

During the Vietnam War, the US secretly bombed sights in Cambodia trying to root out elements supporting the Viet Cong there.  The bombing campaign and subsequent invasion led to massive fighting in the countryside here, ushering in eventual rule by the Khmer Rouge.

Declaring 1975 "Year Zero", the Khmer Rouge emptied the capital city of Phnom Penh and systematically began marching its residents into the countryside.  They hoped to create an agrarian utopia and executed any Cambodian citizen who didn’t cooperate.  Anyone suspected of being educated, given away by wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language, was executed.  In all, two million people lost their lives due to the Khmer Rouge, and the genocide only stopped after the invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

Sihanoukville is named after Cambodia’s king, Sihanouk, who alternatively has been friend and foe to his people.  Sihanouk’s life was spared during the Khmer Rouge era by the Chinese, who felt he could be useful.  In fact, he lived in exile in Beijing for many years while it was deemed unsafe for him to live in his native Cambodia.  Sihanouk is now the octagenerian king of this land, a dysfunctional yet nominal multiparty democracy trying to rebuild itself after thirty years of war.

Cambodia’s corruption was evident upon the border crossing, as I nearly was scammed into paying a ridiculous fee for "health and sanitation".  I wisely walked out of the office before coughing up my change.  Children beg and there are many Cambodians on the beach here walking with limbs missing, almost surely victims of the country’s many unexploded landmines.

Everyone has been friendly, relaxed, and happy.  Children smile and wave whenever we walk past, and you cannot help but feel a great empathy for the Cambodians, people who have endured so much trauma yet have emerged ready to assume its place as one of Asia’s finest countries.…

The Happy Isles

Posted on January 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia 2006. 1 Comment

No trip to Thailand is complete without visiting her islands.  I am here on Koh Chang Island in southeastern Thailand, not far from our next destination- Cambodia.  Life here is slow and peaceful, and I’ve enjoyed a daily swim in the clear, warm waters.

At night, we sit on rugs in the sand and watch tautly built Thai men and women throw spears into the air and catch them.  Doesn’t sound too exciting?  Consider that these spears have flames on each tip, and that the flame throwers are dancing in tune to the music.

Also- ate the best fish and chips on Planet Earth in a little fishing village, where we found a cafe owned by a Swiss couple. 

Today we head to Trat, on the Cambodian border, and then we’ll get to Sihanoukville as quickly as possible.  Next post will be from there…………………………

Alive….in Bangkok

Posted on January 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia 2006. 1 Comment

Good morning from the humid, colorful streets of Bangkok.  I’m once again staying in the traveler’s ghetto of Baglamphu, near the infamous Khao San Road.  Bangkok is hot, dusty, chaotic, busy, friendly, and dirty- just as I remember it.

There is much to see and do here, but the climate makes one reluctant to move very fast.  It is easy to get trapped in the ryhthm of movies, milkshakes, noodles, and beers, and it takes real motivation to get sightseeing.  But I’m going to try.

Other notes:

  • Bangkok is more expensive than it was last year, and much more expensive than China
  • There is a remarkable contrast between the white, bloated European travelers and the slim, lithe, brown Thais
  • There don’t seem to be as many people here this year.  Bird flu worries?

Next stop?  Either Ko Chang Island or the city of Trat, on the border with Cambodia.  Today’s agenda- getting US$ for Laos and Cambodia and booking travel plans. 

Until then……

Fuzhou Blues

Posted on January 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. No Comments

Yesterday, we gave speaking exams to our students.  I sat in an arctic-like classroom for four hours as my students came in pairs, over and over.  After one hours, I began to shiver a little.  One hour later, I couldn’t control it.  Then, I began to notice that my hand was too cold to write.  The last few speaking tests were a bit unprofessional as I was running in place while speaking to keep my blood circulating.

So what did I do when I finished?  Bought cold beer, of course.

Then we went downtown for my first real hot pot meal in China.  Hot pot is a type of Chinese dining experience in which you cook your own food.  There’s a- you guessed it- hot pot of boiling water in the middle of the table, divided into a spicy half and a mild half.  You order raw food and cook it yourself by dipping an enormous ladle into the pot.  This was fun but a little too much work for me.  I am reminded of Bill Murray’s line in Lost in Translation- "What kind of place makes you cook your own food?"

The next two days will be spent busily getting ready for Southeast Asia.  Hooray!  I envisage myself sipping an umbrella drink on a beach somewhere, laughing at the poor souls who have to spend their holidays in frigid climes. Ha!

My next post will likely be dispatched from the chaotic, humid, stinking, massive, chic, troubled, and altogether exhilerating city of Bangkok, Thailand.…

Hitch on Arik

Posted on January 7th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Affairs. No Comments

Excellent assessment of Ariel Sharon’s career by Christopher Hitchens.…

Cheating Arrgh!

Posted on January 7th, by matt_schiavenza in Teaching. 2 comments

So in the course of marking my Grade 3 writing exams, I noticed that two test papers were nearly identical.  One was written by a girl who writes very well and is unusually articulate in English.  One was written by one of my poorest students, a boy whose writing is usually indecipherable if not laughably half-assed.

I then immediately deduced that the boy cheated off of the girl.  Whether the girl was complicit in this crime, I don’t know but it seems likely.  He couldn’t have accurately copied three sentences without having at least decent access to her own composition.  Given that she writes very quickly, it is more than possible that she finished her composition early and then let him pilfer part of it for his own benefit.

I went into my coordinator’s office to tell her about all this.  I told her I thought it was sensible to give him a 0 for that particular composition.  She wrinkled her nose and said that she still isn’t sure if what I gave her constituted proof (even though my team leader read it and came to the same conclusion I did) and that I should come on Monday afternoon and give him the composition again so he can re-do it.  In other words, give him a second chance.

I was very unhappy about this but didn’t want to get into an argument about it so I skulked away.  Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be that big of a problem, but I had intended to use all day Monday to prepare for my trip (I leave Tuesday for Xiamen and Wednesday fly to Bangkok).  Instead, I have to go back to work, sit while this idiot writes a composition again, mark it, write a report for him, and then hand it to my coordinator.  All because he was too lazy or incompetent to write it honestly the first time.

For some reason, cheating isn’t a serious offense here.  I don’t get it.  People get booted out of school for cheating back at home, but here I think the Chinese are more wary of someone losing face than someone being given a fair punishment for what anyone would consider a major fuck-up.…

Big Football Game

Posted on January 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Sports. 3 comments

I’m really not a huge college football fan, but I really wish I could watch the USC-Texas game today.  Alas, I don’t know if there’s a single native soul in Fuzhou who could provide me with any useful information about Reggie Bush or Vince Young.

Apologies to Jascha, and to any UCLA fans, but I’m going for SC today on the basis of Pac-10/California state loyalty.  I do have a feeling, though, that the Trojans aren’t quite as strong as they have been in previous years.  We shall see.…