Buildings, Trees and Survivors of Genocide Tell a Vivid Story

posted by Peter McDonald

The earth at Cheoung Ek is defined by beauty and serenity. A large, intricate white stupa stands at the center of the compound, surrounded by ancient, curling trees. But the earth is not flat like normal ground, nor are the trees normal trees. And rising up through the center of the stupa are shelves upon shelves of human skulls.

They are the skulls of thousands of people who died under the Khmer Rouge — the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who murdered about 1.5 million people during their reign in the 1970s. The Angkar, as they called themselves, wanted to revert back to “year zero.” They murdered all educated intellectuals and politicians, all minorities and people with previous government affiliation, as well as anyone who simply put up a fight. Their goal was a population of just 1 million simple, subsistence farmers. Today at Cheoung Ek, the clothing, bones, and souls of the murdered still remain.

Prisoners were trucked from prison and work camps into the “killing field” and locked in a detention room until their time came. They were then blindfolded and escorted to the edge of a mass grave. They knelt down and were bludgeoned to death with rifle butts and large metal bars – bullets were far too valuable to waste. They were then stripped naked and pushed into the hole alongside hundreds of other bodies. Today those holes remain, one after another, as large depressions in the earth. As tourists walk between them, they step on tattered shirts and scarves.

The roots of the “magic tree” stretch down into one such grave. Its dark, thick trunk rises up and breaks into long, sagging branches. At its base, a sign describes its purpose in English, translated from Khmai.

Magic tree … the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.

Just behind the magic tree stands another large tree, seemingly leaning away from the mass grave at its base. This one has its own sign.

Killing tree against which executioners beat children.

The killings were senseless and brutal, but as a visitor, one can only appreciate so much. Our group had the privilege of eating lunch with Chum Mey, one of just twelve reported prison camp survivors, and one of only three alive today. He is now eighty years old. His dark eyes latched onto mine as I asked him questions, translated through our tour guide.

He said his life was spared for one reason – he knew how to fix typewriters. This was a valuable skill in the prison camp, for typewriters were used daily during prisoner interrogation and torture. After lunch, Chum slowly walked us through the Khmer Rouge’s main prison, Tuol Sleng – now a museum which lies in the heart of Phnom Penh. The prison was a grade school before the regime adapted it. Now thin, stone walls divide classrooms into tiny prison cells. Hard metal bed frames remain in torture chambers, while pictures of mangled bodies on the same beds decorate the walls.

Chum bent over one such bed, taking hold of a heavy metal shackle. He raised his thin leg onto the frame, slipping his foot through the shackle as he did thirty years ago. He demonstrated how his ankles were locked in place each time he entered the room. He showed us an old wooden frame in the schoolyard — once a piece of playground equipment — used to hang prisoners by their wrists as a torture mechanism. He said his toenails had been ripped out, his eye clubbed until he lost his vision.

But today he stands as tall as his frame will allow, and still moves quite well for an older man. As he walked us through picture after picture of prisoners, young and old, dead and alive, he stopped to point out his own picture. He stood with his arm outstretched to the photo and turned back toward me as I tried to take one of him. But my camera was dead. Perhaps that image best lives as a memory.

Chum has dedicated his life to sharing his story. His existence itself is a statement of the atrocities of the past, but he expressed the importance of making sure such crimes never happen again. Meeting, talking, and walking with him was a privilege and an honor, the magnitude of which I will be lucky to ever experience again.

Before we left the prison, we huddled around Chum as he spoke to us, and our guide translated.

“He says he wishes you will take this story and tell the people in your country. He hopes as journalists, you will bring the knowledge of this story to the world.”

“We will,” our professor said. “Tell him we will.”

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A Deadly Road

posted by Peter McDonald

The road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, the sprawling capital, is bumpy and narrow. It is divided by a faint yellow line in some places, and closely flanked by wooden houses and storefronts. School children play badminton in the roadside dust, inches from the tires of gas trucks, buses and motorbikes, which catapult past at break-neck speed. The road has one rule only: get to your destination as fast as possible.

Drivers ignore the lanes as if they were never there. Large cargo trucks accelerate into oncoming traffic to pass slow-moving motorbikes and exhaust-spewing dump trucks full of watermelons.

We rode in a gray bus, but it looked more like a shoebox. The flat front windshield revealed the road ahead, but it was never a pleasant view.

Our driver spent more time in the opposing lane than our own. Every few seconds he would veer into oncoming traffic to pass slower vehicles — sending the bus careening to the left edge of the road, forcing motorbikes coming the other way to drive into the dirt. Often times, I would look up to see large trucks or buses looming in the distance, speeding toward us head on. Seconds before our collision and certain death, our driver would swing back into his lane, cutting off whoever was driving behind us.

What is the rush? I thought. He drove with unexplained impatience and recklessness. We weren’t on a schedule. We had nowhere to be. But I realized that this driving style was all he knew. In Cambodia, traffic laws are not enforced, nor given any real regard.

The biggest vehicles rule the road simply because they cause the most damage on impact. Motorbike drivers spend a lot of time avoiding collisions, weaving their way between cars and trucks, squeezing through tiny gaps and using all available ground – sidewalks and dirt included – to maneuver. And most bikers don’t wear helmets.

Our bus driver nearly lost his side mirror on multiple occasions, but didn’t bat an eye. He was the Mario Andretti of bus drivers, whipping the bus’s bulk into tiny spaces and around corners, moving at about one HCAPM (head-on collision avoided per minute). His confidence was reassuring, but I wondered how often car accidents really happened on the road. I soon got my answer.

We returned to the bus after a brief snack of fried tarantula, and I sat near the rear, next to a left-side window. We were talking, laughing. I heard a loud smash combined with a flash of color in my left peripheral. At first, it sounded like something had collided with the side of the bus. A few people yelled out, startled and confused. We looked around and tried to make sense of it as our driver drove on, unfazed.

“I think we hit another car’s side mirror,” somebody said.

“Oh my god, no,” someone responded. “That was a person.”

The few Cambodians on our bus conversed rapidly while we sat in horrified silence. The conferred with our driver and got the story straight. Our guide, Santhou, leaned over to me.

“It was a motorbike with four people on it. They behind us and try to pass. So they go into other lane but they not see a car coming the other way. It was a big car. Lexus SUV.”

The helmet-less riders, crammed onto one motorbike and probably traveling at upwards of forty miles per hour, had veered into oncoming traffic. The back of our bus blocked their view of the road until it was too late. The flash of color I had seen was the driver’s body, which had been thrown off the bike on impact, smashing into the Lexus’s windshield and flying into the air.

“Don’t look,” Santhou said, but I couldn’t stop myself. I stood and peered through the rear window. Behind us I saw a battered mess of motorbike parts in the middle of the road. Next to it lay a lifeless, crumpled body. A couple onlookers slowly walked toward the wreckage. Our driver drove on.

“I don’t think they survive,” Santhou said, and I didn’t see how any of them could. It was a high speed, head-on collision in which none of the riders wore helmets. Their bodies were thrown and smashed before falling, mangled to the pavement. Out in the countryside, the nearest ambulance was miles away and the health care unlikely to have been good enough to help. Nor could the riders have afforded it.

So why, in this country, do they drive like they do? Relaxed laws and safety regulations have made driving a complete free-for-all, but don’t people realize how the slightest miscalculation or the smallest error in judgment can be fatal?

In two weeks, I have seen at least three traffic accidents. The locals must see the same, yet they continue to follow that one rule: get to your destination as fast as possible. It’s ingrained in their heads. It’s all they have ever known.

As a traveler, it’s easy to grow comfortable with a place after a week or so. But as I sat in the back of that bus, only about two feet and a glass window separated me from that crunch of death. I was reminded to never let my guard down. In foreign countries, the tap water and fruits can harm one physically, but vivid experiences can also have immediate mental effects.

After the accident, we sat in silence for the rest of the trip — each passenger in awe, disbelief, and reflection. We had experienced the split-second obliteration of human life. In our air-conditioned bus, we drove on.

Barbeque and Blood Work: My Adventure through the Cambodian Healthcare System

posted by Maura Friedman

It’s been a few hours since the nurse tightened her strap around my arm, slipped a needle into a vein on the top of my hand and I first felt the cold medicine seep through each of my individual fingers. It’s only been half a second since the last drip of my IV. “Plink. Plink. Pause. Plink. Plink. Plink. Pause. Plink. Plink.” This has been the beat to my morning and it was the beat of my yesterday too.

I’m in the Royal Angkor International Hospital because I have a parasite. More specifically, I’m in the hospital because the parasite medicine the doctors here doled out had me so dizzy I couldn’t sit up. Appropriately, this episode of “When Bad Things Happen to Stupid People” is so jam-packed it may as well be the season finale. But I know it’s not because I’m still traveling.

To qualify, my guide is the person who recommended the restaurant that made me sick to our group and all the Cambodian employees here at the Bed and Breakfast love that specific place to eat. We wanted a really authentic Khmer barbeque experience and were told that, with no other tourists at the restaurant, that’s exactly what we’d get. Meagan and I mainly pushed to go there.

Ready for adventure, our entire group piled into tuk-tuks that took us in the opposite direction of town to an open-air building that glowed under strung lights. Our group shuffled towards it together in the kind of coagulated form a gathering takes when each individual wants someone else to go first.

My stomach is literally turning as I write this, but that may just be another side effect of this medicine. Authentic Khmer Barbeque consists of rows of meats (many of which come from inside the animal), vegetables, and noodles, all of which you cook yourself on a sort of perforated metal dome that is placed over hot coals. A slab of lard goes at the top of this dome, presumably to aid and flavor the cooking. There’s also a place for water to rest above the coals where the noodles and vegetables are cooked. Sauces are also available to garnish the food. All this is laid out buffet style in un-refrigerated rows. You could start lecturing me here, but, at this point, it’s too late to save my stomach.

Our group figured out all of this through trial and error, by watching other patrons and through the example of one waiter who took pity on our ignorant souls and tried to give us a wordless demo. There were no actual instructions because we don’t speak Khmer and, aside from “chicken” and “beef” (which the waiter used in pointing to only two plates of raw meat that sat among many, many more), no one spoke any English. And yet, we persisted.

The Khmer barbeque restaurant really was an interesting and fun cultural experience but my weak American stomach just could not handle it. Only two of us got sick: ironically, Megan and I, the two who’d been most insistent on the restaurant choice. We laid in bed for the next day and a half writhing with stomach cramps, nausea, and other symptoms too indelicate to describe before we went to the hospital. Nurses in tailored white skirts and jackets with matching high heels took our blood pressures as Megan and I tried to remain calm on identical hospital beds next to one another. Blood tests came next, then a visit from the ER doctor. Both confirmed a parasite.

Because Megan’s symptoms consistently plagued her about eight hours before mine set in, she was in far worse shape than I and had to stay overnight. I was released, but we were both given the same antibiotics and ended up on bed rest for the next few days while the side effects of the medicine set in. All we did for those days was sleep and watch hopelessly old CSI episodes. We were too dizzy to walk and had absolutely no appetite to eat.

Megan began to make progress. I began to get worse. Because it’s pretty hard to convince your professor that medical attention is unnecessary when you can’t sit up in bed and you have a hard time remembering your mother’s phone number, I ended up, once again, in the hospital, this time thanks to the incredibly strong side effects of the medicine I was taking to combat the parasite. This scenario was problematic. If any of you have ever had an antibiotic, I’m sure you can attest to the fact that general medical protocol is to finish the medication in full to make sure your ailment is completely flushed out. I had two days left of this particularly evil medication to go.

My doctor wasn’t messing around this time. He admitted me for two nights in the hospital to ensure constant IV fluids and steady supervision. I received the rest of my antibiotics via IV as well, mixed with a cocktail of pain and anti-nausea medicines. My healing was slow, painful, and not aided by the consistent knowledge that I would only truly recover once the antibiotic was completely out of my system.

My ever-present language barrier consistently compounded these frustrations. The staff was kind and helpful and did speak English, but it was often confusing trying to understand one another. When I told the nurses I was dizzy, they brought medicine for my “headache,” but the Advil really didn’t help me. I still don’t know what happened to my IV that made it leak more of my own blood then I’ve ever seen before. A lot of questioning was required on my part to figure out how I was being treated. A game of medical charades often helped me describe my symptoms.

The facility itself was clean, modern, and I had a private room, but there is only so much bedrest one study abroad student can take. I’m ecstatic at my looming release. Although I spoke as much as possible to friends and family using Google Voice and had plenty of hospital visitors, inevitably most of my time was spent watching National Geographic (I can safely say I know more about the Dog Whisperer, stem cell research, and swamp logging than anyone reading this). A fair amount of the specials playing were actually about Asia and, chained to my bed via IV, I watched those too. The irony of experiencing the region I was currently in through a screen was not lost on me.

Speaking of Tongues

posted by Satyam Kaswala

Teenagers shook off their shoes before trickling into the Journeys Within Our Communities classroom. Some of us in the study abroad group volunteered to help teach an English conversation class to the young Cambodian students, who seemed eager to be armed with a language that could serve as a weapon against poverty and potentially propel them to higher paying jobs, satisfying careers and other intellectual pursuits. They sat in desks arranged like a rainbow, the white board serving as the space between the pots of gold. The instructor, Andrea, directed us to work with groups of a few students each and handed us a sheet of paper with an English exercise on it. The story spilled on the paper told a simple tale of a couple debating whether to tour the Grand Canyon by helicopter or by bus. My use of the term “simple” here is shortsighted.

 “Helicopter?” one student asked. It disarmed me.

The spinning blades of the fan above us chopped the air, and I quickly pointed to them hoping it would spark some association in their mind. My pointing finger began to twirl erratically as if stuck in the fan’s whirlwind current as I further tried to mimic the motion of a chopper’s blades.

 The students looked at me like I just stole their mail. They were puzzled.

I tried to describe it with some spare English. I scribbled a drawing of what some would interpret as a helicopter on the corner of the paper.

“Oh!” one student exclaimed. I still don’t know whether she recognized the helicopter or simply acknowledged the act of creation.

I thought of the history of the machine in the region in an effort to maybe draw a connection, seeking to invoke the students’ understanding of their nation’s recent memory. The United States invaded Cambodia in the 1970s under the Nixon administration. It hurtled bombs at the eastern part of the country. Helicopters carried some of those bombs. That was all I could think of, and I didn’t know how to use it.

I had no ground to stand on. How could I relate this concept that was basic to me but foreign to the students without using words? It is true that most communication does not come from words. Still, having language as a vehicle for communication was something I was so accustomed to that when it was rendered useless, I felt stranded. And when gestures don’t work and drawings don’t work, I’m left to wonder: is it possible that some things simply cannot be communicated?

On a personal level, art, for instance, conveys ideas for which words might not even exist. As does emotion itself. But the exchange I had existed on a cultural level. Surely all of us knew what a helicopter was, but we still could not quite convince each other of it. This exchange was a microcosm of the larger fundamental struggle of intercultural dialogue. We often consider language to be the most immediate form of this dialogue. Here again that immediacy was shaken. There is a popular slogan plastered on countless shirts sold in the Siem Reap markets: “SAME SAME, BUT DIFFERENT.” Somehow this perplexing sentence never made more sense than when I was in that classroom.

There are ideas in Cambodian culture for which I as an American have no point of reference in my culture and vise versa. At least some of those students likely came from the impoverished Cambodian countryside that modernity eluded. Of course, despite the fact that they might not be able to cloak their ideas, struggles, longings, realities or thoughts in a particularly popular and acceptable language that the world can understand, other seemingly poor, rural Cambodians still have untold treasures of knowledge, language and expression equally as complex and vital as something like English. So much so that I was left to wonder for a moment why it was me that was teaching them my language and not the other way around, especially since I was in their country. I thought of Henry David Thoreau:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you.”

Indeed, these students were learning my language because the world at large chose to understand English, the favored medium of expression between cultures in this age of globalization. However, in the classroom I saw English being used not necessarily as a ridiculous, demanding commodity but rather as a means to understand others, their cultures, their ideas. We were making a sincere effort, and that was the most important step.

It was a challenge. But when I smiled or laughed, they did too. This unspoken communication was the most authentic I had with them that day. Some things may not be readily understood or expressed, but that does not mean they are not universal.

“Education is the Key to Success”

posted by Alicia Harper

“Education is the key to success,” became a phrase I grew to loath when I was younger. My teachers and parents would incessantly repeat this phrase as if to hammer it into my brain, though unsuccessful with their attempts. After growing older, getting my act together and maturing in many ways I know now that my elders were completely correct, a good education is a valuable and necessary possession.

On Thursday afternoon I casually strolled into the JWOC English class with thoughts of what I would eat for dinner and how good I would sleep clouding my mind. Class began and I was immediately brought back to Earth through my first interaction with a Cambodian student. The sudden reality of the moment hit me, and I realized that I could actually help these people.

As a high school and college student I studied the Spanish language for some years. Even after all the hours of studying I still would not call myself fluent in the language. The English class at JWOC challenged students with a more rigorous workload than any of my college Spanish classes. The teacher, an American, spoke only English to the class for the entire hour. The students were delightful and eager to learn, but many did not know English as well as I expected them to.

As the class went on I began to form a new found respect for teachers. It is a hard job to be patient when you feel that your student should know something that they don’t. Teachers must have a light heart and an understanding for others that some would not be able to muster. My regard not only grew for teachers but for the students, trying to their hardest to carry on a conversation with me and at the same time being very careful as not to embarrass themselves. The effort they gave in that hour was, in my eyes, inspiring. Their huge smiles, awkward giggles, and intense effort to understand was unlike anything I’ve witnessed before.

The class came to an end, and as they packed up their things, filed out the door and thanked me, I watched as the students hopped onto their motorbikes and drove away. Standing in the room empty of students I felt a lump in my throat filled with things unsaid. I wanted to tell them that their hunger to learn was inspiring to me. I wanted to tell the ones that were struggling to keep pushing through until it came easy, because they were improving their lives by just sitting in the class and learning. I wanted to tell them that they were more courageous than I have ever been. I wanted to thank them for introducing me to something I have not seen in many people, a true desire to be better for themselves and for their families.

A non-profit organization like JWOC is so important to this community because a price cannot be put on the value of a good education. It opens doors to all who have the ambition and put in the work. A twinge of ignorance and juvenility pulses through my body as I look back on my attitude about the importance of learning. The students in the English class will never know this, but they taught me a lot about life that day.

People of Money

posted by Megan Swanson

Her face is stern. She is young, not too young, but it is hard to tell an exact age. Her ponytail pulls her dark hair away from the indecipherable face while her calm facial expression turns quickly into action.

She walks at a quick pace, almost a jog, to her booth of clothing and souvenirs. Surprisingly enough there is no “Hi lady!” or “Special price for you!” which is either a result of my inept attempt to style a pair of traditional Cambodian pants on over jeans or that she is tired.

A giggle escapes her while she fixes my futile attempt at wrapping the gold pants. While she ties the pants around me her face returns to an unsatisfied calm. Now that she is up close I would guess she is in her 20s.

At the back wall of the night market in Siem Reap this quiet little corner stall was empty when we arrived. The sales lady did not race over to me when I had pants half-on, half-off, but slowly arrived and began to gently teach me how to tie them.

A dusty rack of fake Ray-Bans sits on the counter above the mirror in which my reflection results in an indecisive conclusion. I immediately think not of the pants, or the girl, or of my friends telling me to buy them, but of who I can bring back fake designer sunglasses.

She begins the debate with, “I will give you them for six dollars,” I quickly respond, “No need, I won’t need them anyway.”

Her face only reveals a slight disappointment, but one that fades quickly. A tightly curled green and black hammock curled catches my eye. I ask how much and she responds four dollars. I counteract with three and she laughs muttering something about having to make a little profit. I hand over four dollars and agree with her. I bought a hammock for four dollars.

I stereotype sometimes, like everyone does, but says they don’t. A personal stereotype developed within seconds of stepping out of the tuk-tuk on our first day into town was that Cambodian salespeople will do anything to sell their fare no matter how impractical or gaudy.

The scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow are all being primped and pressed by the beckoning people of Emerald City comes to mind. Just as the Lion had several Emerald City goers to curl his tresses to perfection, I have my pick among fish massage tanks, cheap sales and massages galore.

Instead of singing and dancing hands are grabbed, menus thrown into faces and whispers of “happy times” fill the ears of many a tourist. Emerald City seems to fade.

Recently I bought a pair of pants. They are from Old Navy, inexpensive, long, linen and comfortable. They are also from Cambodia, but I haven’t seen these pants anywhere here. My linen pants are made with a soft hand of cotton while the Cambodians struggle to acquire gentler cottons for their own clothing. Thailand imports the majority of the cotton for in-country clothing and according to the locals it is hard to find well-produced, softer materials.

My linen pants are balled up in the corner of a hotel armoire right now. As breathable and soft as the cotton may have been, the heat here makes them too hot to handle. Several salespeople at the market watch as tourists filter by their stalls, buying t-shirts that they may themselves soon ball up in the back of a hotel armoire.

The old navy pants cost me thirty dollars, but yet I still stand here bargaining over pants that I would on a whim buy for much more than thirty back home.

Maybe that woman with the gold pants knows this, maybe she is just having an off day. That “people of the market” stereotype never jives with the fact that we are all people of money. Unfortunate, but the bargaining goes on.

Pser Leu

posted by Lindsey Isaf

The front of the Pser Leu market seemed to aesthetically please and ease the unknowing foreigner. Stalks of miniature bananas, perfectly ripened, hung from every small, cluttered market store. Contrasting the yellow and green bananas were neighboring assortments of baskets with cluttered colorfully unidentifiable spiked, rippled, or velvety fruits and vegetables.

In almost any other country, such color and armored fruits would signify a dangerous ability to attack one’s stomach or life, but in Cambodia eager, confident hands swarmed the bursting baskets. Besides the unfamiliar names that accompanied each fruit and vegetable, the market’s appearance was comfortably similar to an American farmers market. This familiarity invited me further. Feeling confident from the surrounding spectrum of color and the welcoming smiles, I continued.

The road leading through Pser Leu market’s perimeter was a mud road that doubled as a walkway and a side road. Constantly I found myself weaving through the trash littered road while actively dodging motorbikes that weaved uncontrollably through shoppers. In addition to surviving the market’s Frogger game-like setting, I continuously hopped across each puddle of water that I considered potentially polluted. Nevertheless, a smile shone on my face as I anxiously ducked and dodged down the side road.

Eventually rounding the corner the sights got progressively more gruesome and the stench more potent. Cleavers shined in the daylight with each up and down motion that accurately cleaned numerous fish while leaving each head attached. Next to the woman, who skillfully and artfully dealt with each fish, was a bucket of panicked, freshly caught fish squirming to escape their companions’ fates. Passing the seafood, further down the newly muddied road, ripple surfaced cow stomachs (tripe) laid coiled in baskets.

Above hung various sized cuts of chicken and beef while some rested flat similar to a buffet. The aroma of the unrefrigerated beef, chicken, and fish along with other faceless aromas wafting through the open market made me wary. With one gust of wind, my strong stomach nearly failed me. However, my feet eagerly continued towards the next set of stalls as if they had a mission unannounced to me. My sight and smell had no choice but to follow. The stench was worsened by the presence of an open sewer system that was being fixed.

On one instance, caught by surprise and slightly repulsed, I was forced to resist clasping my hands over my nose and mouth. I figured it was my saddened American-adapted sense of smell because I suffered while others seemed unbothered. Napping children slept under or around the meat and fish as if they were temporary teddy bears while other children ran around this tight maze like it was a playground. Each ran from one stall to the next, all in between incessant laughter and occasional yells of “HELLO” and a wave. Finally I ducked under the roof to visit Pser Leu’s “secrets” hidden beyond the outer food market.

I concluded the outdoor, unrefrigerated market was certainly a health inspector’s worst nightmare and hoped for drier goods on the inside. Soon I found myself quickly racing through one more food section where the stench was as thick as fog because of the roof enclosure. Once inside, the air was thicker than the humid, outside air and could only be broken apart by the humming of numerous fans in each stall. Only by walking further into the market could someone find some relief.

At the heart of the market, the free flow of air was marked by a golden glow that lights the entire area. At first one might think the gold glow was some mirage left in the middle of chaotic shops. Maybe the earth’s core had finally erupted through some crack in Pse Leu. But, by approaching the center, the large amounts of glass cases selling gold jewelry bracelets, necklaces, and earnings meet the eye. Beyond the glowing epicenter of the market, there were hundreds of stores as far as the eyes could see. Rows of bedazzled prom dresses, extravagant textiles, and clothes with humorous English sayings. European sized tight jeans were folded presenting their unique pockets with printed words of “Iphone,” “Lexus” and “Gucci.”

Next were the awkwardly placed dentistry offices alongside the piles of rusted supplies for yard work. The items and descriptions were innumerable. Every corner had something. Someone could even buy a knockoff of an expensive designer bag while you glanced at the manikan feet wearing shoes next door. After spending an hour aimlessly and continuously lost, I had barely skimmed the surface.

The blinding sun and sweltering heat, was the only indication that I had maneuvered my way out of the market and onto the street. Pser Leu truly resembled a Khmer style Walmart. Each aisle carried a large selection of various necessities. There were no foreigners and the prices were fair. The lack of foreigners allowed for cultural insight. Each stand, with its unordinary sights and smells, and each heat-induced sleeper or lively passerby told a story.

Pser Leu’s has the capacity to entertain locals for days straight, whether to buy clothes, sell farm products or woven baskets, shop for an engagement ring, or eat lunch. Escaping the tourist area of Old Market, I have realized that Pser Leu serves as a perfect medium for storytelling. The stories of local culture and the daily lives of individuals are told through each crammed aisle.

“Same, Same, but Different!”

posted by Sumon Ray

Same, same, but different! This seems like a continuous phrase printed on the shirts hanging  around the inner and outer shops of Siem Reap’s Old Market.  After awhile, the English freak in you takes over and you inquire about the nature of this  “same, same, but different” saying.

The journalist in me pushed me into asking one of the people in the market about the details of this saying. Although I knew I would be lost in translation when asking about what the phrase means, I took up the challenge.

I walked into one of the shops and asked the sales woman about what “same, same, but different” means? She simply chuckled in the sweet Cambodian way and proceeded to explain. The lady said, “you and me the same, but different” or something along those lines.

The saleswoman’s simple and to the point English actually made common sense. I thought I was going to feel like I was going through a root canal trying to unravel the mystery behind this simple phrase. I handed the lady two dollars and didn’t buy the shirt with “same, same, but different” written on it, but an “I love Cambodia” shirt. How tourist of me? I couldn’t help myself.  I left the little shop in the market with my shirt and scurried along to explore the inner workings of the market that is the beating heart of Siem Reap.

When in a country, it is of utmost importance to explore the markets of the land. The way the people bargain and trade is better than watching Jerry Springer on your sofa at home. It gets a little irritating with all the people barking at you like mad dogs, but you start learning how to simply say no. Then, a tune in your head starts playing “who let the dogs out woof, woof!” Not to say that the people in the market are dogs, but they come up to your face and seduce you into buying something from their shop.

So I would like to repeat that the salesmen are not dogs, but individuals who sing to you in different tunes of “Mister, you want to buy watch for 5 dollar” or “Lady, you want scarf for three dollar. I give you special price. Just for you.”  Once you get used to the tune, you will be able to ignore them and just peruse through the markets and mute them in a way that you never thought you could. Then, you can increase the volume as you see something that intrigues your eyes.

As you go through the markets the aromas intensify and change. Sometimes it is incense, fish, body odor, or something else. Maybe even the mixture of everything. You will just have to suck it up and bask in the scent of the air. As your eyes wander in and out of the markets, you feel like you are watching a re-run of the same episode of some show. You watch the re-run because it makes you feel good while working on something else. That’s what the experience in Old Market feels like. It’s that warm feeling that you are delving into a new world with experts there to guide you. You don’t necessarily pay attention to it, but it is there. You can be perusing through the market and miss certain things going on because you are also texting your friend who is getting a fish massage at one of the many fish massage stands in Old Market.

After texting and pretending to look around the market, you bring yourself back to the market because something interesting happens. When I say interesting, I mean salesman who insists you purchase something. Actually, insist is a nicer way of meaning they keep bargaining with you until you check out what they are selling. I look and I realize that almost all the shops in Old Market sell the same thing. There is an endless supply of  “No Money, No Honey,” ‘I Love Cambodia” and off course “Same, Same, but Different” shirts.”

Now that I think of it, the saying comes from the fact that everything sold in the market is the same, but different in their story and price. Somehow all the products ended up in the same market. Every thing in the market seems and probably is the same, but the people selling the items will tell you a different story to cough up a different price than you want to buy. The shirts, scarves, hammocks, watches, sunglasses, and a plethora of other market accessories will stare at you and all you can say is “Same, Same, but Different!”

A Little English Goes a Long Way

posted by Crissinda Ponder

Because of Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC), a non-governmental organization “working in Southeast Asia to improve living conditions of local communities through health, education, economic, and emergency relief projects,” my eyes are open to a world that I did not fully understand.

The work they do is outstanding. I am amazed at how beneficial their services are to local Khmer people.

One of JWOC’s main resources is the free classes project, and the locals that are aware of these classes seem to receive them well. News of these projects often spread by word of mouth, which ultimately helps JWOC cut down on advertising costs.

JWOC offers sewing and computing classes, and kindergarten classes that teach basic literacy in both English and Khmer. Most of the classes offered are English classes, however, and a little bit of English can go far.

The ability to speak English can determine the difference between one landing a job that can support a family, or relying on family members for not-so-sufficient work. Being confident in one’s ability to speak English well is extremely important in the hospitality and tourism professions.

Even if a hard working Cambodian student can’t find the time to regularly attend English classes, any free time they can afford to spend in them can mean the world and a half.

I am proud to say I’ve been productive during my stay in Siem Reap, and I have volunteered some of my time by attending a few of the English conversation classes.

Voluntourism—gotta love it.

The atmosphere is so welcoming—it almost reminds me of a traditional class setting. We sat at desks in front of a white board, just like high school.

We weren’t situated in rows, watching the back of each other’s heads, though. There was a semicircle that stretched across the room, and we all faced each other. A few of the other travel writing students accompanied me to the class, and we were all the center of attention each time we were a part of the circle. The class was grateful for our help.

I commend the teacher, Andrea Wong, for her patience—teaching English is much harder than it may seem. She is phenomenal and has a TESOL background.

Her enthusiasm made it easier for me to enjoy the class, because I saw her passion and it sort of rubbed off on everyone else.

I especially loved the blank stares I got when trying to explain words that I thought were so simple. Try describing the word afford without using the word afford, it’s pretty hard. Or coming up with a definition for carved and defining it using other words that get you blank stares.

It’s all a part of the learning process, I guess.

Don’t get me wrong, the students were great, it’s just that I lack the teaching gene. I could probably never become an educator.

All of the students are eager to learn and they are extremely friendly.

Learning names is a big part of the experience—I wrote my own name down several times for the students and also asked them to write down some of their names for pronunciation purposes. The students were interested in learning more about the volunteers and why we were in Cambodia.

This experience is something I will hold dear to my heart, because now I know that my language is much more than a way to communicate—it’s a gateway for several other opportunities.

 

Psar Leu: Local Market Maze

posted by Kristy Densmore

Psar Leu, a massive market on the east side of Siem Reap, Cambodia, is an overwhelming maze for foreigners.

A giant warehouse encloses the market, with its outer parameters surrounded by fresh fruit and vegetable stands. Actually, it depends on how you define fresh- most things are stagnant and covered in flies. It’s wise to purchase unpeeled foods to prevent sickness.

Inside, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the aisles; they’re narrow and claustrophobic, squaring off in every direction. When looking down an aisle, it’s difficult to see what’s ahead. One must muster up the courage to choose a direction and explore.

Local Khmers weave in and out of each other, hustling to their destination. Each local seems to have a map of the market in mind as he or she swiftly moves, weighted down with products to sell, bags hanging from their shoulders, or buckets of food that may be a fourth of their body weight.

There are different sections of the market, comparable to a department store in the States, though the standards of cleanliness and organization are far from the same. Clothing stalls, hardware sections, cosmetic sellers- there’s numerous people selling everything a Khmer family needs.

Psar Leu hardly caters to foreigners. A western customer would be easy to pick out in the crowd, but is rarely seen wondering among the countless aisles of foreign mystery and wonder. There are no English ads for the market, no promotion- the locals do not encourage tourism in this market, though they won’t turn someone down if he or she passes through.

Overhead lights are minimal, and the darkness lends an additional sense of grunge to the market, complimented by the mystery scents as one nears the food section. Some stands, particularly those with clothes, have more lights; some of the hardware sections look sinister towards the back as products fade in the darkness.

The clothing stalls probably interest most traveling foreigners above products relating to everyday life in Cambodia. There are sections for men and women. Colorful dresses- floral, solid, glittered, shiny- line the parameters of the ceiling. Jeans fill tables in stacks of three to five. A variety of symbols, ranging from Gucci to Apple, imprint many of the jean pockets.

Warning! Clothing sizes are small here. The Khmer body structure tends to run slim and petite.

Local seamstresses house themselves in a section of the market, and their products are personal and cheap. There are fabric stalls galore that offer cloth that’s solid colored, sparkly, or geometrically designed. It generally takes 24 to 48 hours to have something personally tailored by a seamstress in Cambodia (maybe an option for those who don’t fit in Khmer sizes?).

The center of the market looks like a mini Vegas from far off, with rows upon rows of white lights. It’s really just jewelry- a giant core of counters selling Cambodian silver and jewels. The space here is pleasant, and it’s possible to catch a breath (both qualities are rarely found in this market, so enjoy it while you can).

Why would a foreigner go to Psar Leu? For the local experience, of course.

It’s important to be mindful of the local Khmer, though. This is where they live, where they obtain goods to survive, and where they interact with each other on a daily basis. It’s not open to foreign invasion, but curious travelers are welcome. It’s certainly not a place for everyone, but it lends a sense of home to travelers immersing themselves in the Cambodian culture.

Psar Leu is the essence of Khmer life.