Street Life of Cambodia

Published April 30, 2014

Michael Hernandez
Michael teaches cinematic arts and broadcast journalism in Los Angeles.
www.cinehead.com
On a recent visit to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, I was impressed with the improvisational nature of street life.  Scooters weave between each other at intersections without signal lights, trash stacked in piles on sidewalks at night is neatly swept up in the morning, and street vendors cook noodles at lunchtime. 
Missing from these images are the intense smells of the city: burning leaves, grilling meat skewers, rotting trash, incense, diesel exhaust, plumeria blossoms. 
Property in Cambodia often takes its cue from colonial French architecture, with walls surrounding courtyards, topped with barbed wire or broken glass.  Decorative elements or colorful vines soften their presence. 

The main mode of transportation is the scooter and tuk tuk, a covered trailer attached to scooters similar to rickshaws. Pop up gas stations dot sidewalks, their petrol held in reused rum, whiskey and soda bottles, probably so customers can see exactly what they’re buying.


The chaos and improvised lifestyle of the city is symbolized by the telecom system, which is a tangle of wires strung across streets and looped around poles.  Who knows which of these is a legitimate connection, and which are bootlegged tie-ins which can be had if you know who’s palm to grease.

Street vendors are on every corner.  For the sake of my intestinal tract, I didn’t sample the street food, which is often cooked over charcoal fires in makeshift grills.

The friendly people of this country and their politeness–even to complete strangers–was a refreshing change to this American who’s used to our selfish, “me-first” culture of road rage and distaste for the poor. 

Shaded alleys and streets give a slight respite from the intense heat and humidity. While Cambodians are hard working people, many take siestas at mid-day to avoid the heat and make up for restless nights without air conditioning. 

Unlike developed nations, rich and poor live side by side, so it’s not uncommon to have slums next door to a brand new apartment building.  In this building, people live 10 to a room.

I felt a little conflicted as I shot these photos.  I couldn’t help but feel like a rich westerner fascinated by the exotic, oriental culture of Southeast Asia like so many imperialist countries of the last 200 years.  There’s nothing exotic about scraping together a life selling gas out of Pepsi bottles or hawking bracelets to Chinese tourists. When I’d had my fill of Buddhist temples and fish stew, and I’d run out of $50 shirts made of high performance wicking fabric, I got to board a plane and come home to my SUV, soft bed, air conditioned office.

Nevertheless, the best gift I  got came from walking the streets and meeting the people of Cambodia: a new perspective on my life in the US and respect for how the rest of the world lives. 

Cambodia: Spirituality of the everyday

Published April 28, 2014

Cambodia:  Spirituality of the everyday.

Michael Hernandez
Michael teaches cinematic arts and broadcast journalism in Los Angeles.
www.cinehead.com

The resilience and optimism of the Buddhist culture of Cambodia left a lasting impression on this non-religious westerner–one of humbleness, awareness of the world around me and a sense of the temporary nature of all things.

Whether it was the genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge or the ravages of weather and the jungle on ancient stone wats, this place is in a constant cycle of decay and regeneration. It’s no wonder that Buddhist spirituality permeates every element of society in Cambodia.

Sunrise at Ankor Wat was beautiful and peaceful despite the throngs of Chinese and Australian tourists. This UN World Heritage site was built in the 9th century and later restored by the French in the early 1900’s. Originally built as a Hindu temple, it was later converted to a Buddhist temple, where it remains an active religious site.

Oddly, tourists are free to roam the site, and hopefully not vandalize the samsaras or other detailed relief carvings that wrap virtually every surface.


After making a small donation, this monk blessed me with a chant and a bright pink bracelet, then blew on it for good luck. I really like his krama, a multi-use bandana-like scarf that Cambodian men wear.


Virtually every home and business has a spirit house to ward off evil spirits. Food offerings and burning incense are placed in these mini temples, which you’ll find in yards, apartment balconies, or alleyways.



Mira Costa School – 3 Days & a Reflection Center

Published April 9, 2014

by  on April 9, 2014 in Letters From Cambodia
The morning rush is inevitable, it happens almost every day on this trip but the one 3 days ago was on an even stricter time crunch. That morning we planned on getting up completely packed to leave Phnom Penh so we could fly to Siem Reap, and although most were some weren’t which cost us a bit of time. Then after a quick breakfast we headed, luggage and all, into a bus headed for the Russian Market.
Buy, sell, bargain, and buy again. The Russian market was alive with colors and shadows. The busyness of the place beautifully contrasted with the quiet intimate moments that a buyer has with one of the vendors. The couple seconds to many minutes back and forth on the price that in-the-end results in the buyer getting whatever he wanted for about half the original price is perfect bliss. The smells that waft from the center of the market really bring alive the true underground and gritty beauty of the market. Not to mention the contents of the market. From elephant pants to knock off Gucci bag to decorative swords the market encompasses it in all it’s splendor.
From the market we took a quick hop over to the Phnom Penh Airport and on to new age propellor plane (Seen below) for our 1 hour rocket over to Siem Reap.
Just landed in Siem Reap. Walking from the tarmac to the airport building.
Once in Siem Reap we went to the Metta Karuna Centre, which would be our place of rest for the next 2 nights. Now this place was a bit different from our last place of stay. This center was a reflection & refugee centre for people. At this centre we lived like a middle class Cambodian. Meaning there was no warm water, bugs everywhere (termites, mosquitoes, and beetles), and no air conditioning. The rustic style of living was quite the culture shock but looking back on it I am very glad I got to live through those conditions. The situation has given me another new perspective on life and I am extremely happy that I have had this opportunity to grown from it.
Two days ago the sun rose over the once gleaming temple of Angkor Wat. Now a spiritual set of ruins tat glow against the morning sun. The energy of the civilization of the past here resonates and flows through the buildings empty corridors. The smell of incenses and child-like enthusiasm for the beautiful architecture waft around corners and into my nose. As my bare feet walk on the cold stone worn down by history I feel my soul energy being drawn through the temple. As I find a place where the energy seems to surge like a raging bull around me I begin to meditate.
Morning crane pose at Angkor Wat
After a lovely sunrise visit to the “Number 9 Wonder of the World” we took a quick tuk tuk ride over to Ta Prohm Temple, the location of the Tomb Raider movie. The temple was overgrown with roots and trees that grew from it’s center yet it still was beautiful. It glowed in morning sun, with the sun pushing through the leaves. 
Finally touching on yesterday, a day full of filming and elephants. With another early wake up time, and another sunrise we arrived at Angkor Thom (Seen Below)
The morning sky over Angkor Thom
After a calm and relaxing time filming and wandering around Angkor Thom we took a short walk over to the Elephants Terrace where we scaled the kings temple and marveled at the beauty. Then we took a magical ride on the local elephants around the temples.

An extreme selfie (using a GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition) on the back of an elephant with Angkor Thom in the background.
After a long and breezy tuk tuk ride we arrived at The Cambodian Land Mine Museum. There I conducted an interview with Claire. We interviewed Bill Morse (Seen Below), the owner of the museum and an extremely interesting man for our documentary.
Interviewing Bill Morse on the Canon 7D
Bill was so gracious and was incredibly well spoken, I can’t thank him enough for the interview.  The interview was quite long and we ended up going over time. So by the time we finished the interview we had to rush back to Metta Karuna Centre, pack, and head to our final place of stay, Soria Maria.

Mira Costa School – Pictures from Cambodia 2014

Published

Students at Angkor Wat.

Documentary scripting time.

Building wheelchairs for landline victims.

Sunset at the floating villages.

5:00 am can’t kill these smiles :)
Elephant rides at Bayon temple.

Elephant riders.

Landmine victim helps us assemble wheelchairs for other amputees.
Note the prosthetic leg.

Floating villages.

Students interview amputee landmine survivor.

Foot massages for the girls.

Model US airplane dropping cluster bombs.

Bayon temple of faces.

Temple carvings.
Gardens at Metta Karuna Centre.

Mira Costa School – Seeds of Change

Published

by  on April 8, 2014 in Letters From Cambodia
Outside of the busy, jam-packed streets of Phnom Phen lays the Montessori school which we visited today. The owner of the schools also operates the guest house that we’re staying at in order to raise funds in her quest to education the children of Cambodia. The Montessori is made to be self-sustaining, using left over food for re-purposing into gas, a thatched roof and walls to keep the school cool, and the future planned installation of solar panels.
Upon the start of our visit we met the owner as she explained her story and connections to the Khmer Rouge. She told her struggle to operate the school and her solutions she has used to try to fix some of the glaring issues with keeping her dream a float. She has used web sites that were the Cambodian equivalent of KickStarter. With this she has been able to build on to her school and add more facilities. We ate a Khmer lunch made by some of the volunteers and workers at the school. Many of the people there stay long periods of time and are from other countries and continents. One of the workers, an Australian, stays with his wife and has a daughter who is enrolled in the Montessori.
Boy with mask.
Blazing in the hot Cambodian air, the sun gleams an orangish tint as the sound of dogs barking can be heard faintly in the distance. Students dig and churn cement for foundations as others joke and play with the children, making them laugh. As the wind blows faintly through the walls of the school we played with the children, and gave them their donations. The teacher read aloud the names of the gifts in English, to teach the children vocabulary. The children perform a rendition of “The Red Hen” to show how much English they have learned. I’ve never seen so much joy from people who have so little.

Mira Costa School – A High School of Horrors

Published

A High School of Horrors

by  on April 8, 2014 in Letters From Cambodia
Over the blaring sounds of a busy city street, the soft mellow tone of a slow afternoon breeze moving through the dark building’s halls can be heard as white pedals fall off the courtyard’s trees. This place is Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S-21, this place is a former high school gone prison.
Operated by the Khmer Rouge, S-21 housed, tortured, and murdered over twenty thousand Cambodian Civilians. Captured for the accusation of being “educated”, these civilians suffered from malnourishment, drowning, burning, stabbing, and electrocution in one of the most massive series of public executions of all time.

The rooms of the former high school are haunted by the remnants of torture devices, left behind by the Khmer Rouge. The cold tile floors have been stained by the blood of Cambodian prisoners and the darkness seems to hold in the memories of the dead. An ominous feeling of despair looms the corridors as you walk through rooms of discarded clothes and equipment.

Posted up along the walls are hundreds of pictures of the victims of S-21. Covering these walls are the only remaining remnants of the victims, for the Khmer Rouge destroyed many records regarding their affiliation. Returning from a place like this will make you question how much you really know about the world.

Mira Costa School – Culture Shock

Published

by  on April 8, 2014 in Letters From Cambodia
I’m going to skip over the near 20 hours we spent on a plane to arrive in Phnom Penh, because I don’t think anyone wants to relive that; but I must say it was more than worth it.
I knew that being here would be different but the streets are literally out of a movie. From venders selling fruits and chairs on the street to the hundreds of mopeds and tuk-tuks, the city never stops.
As amazing as the whole scene is, the measure of poverty that resides here is overwhelming and heartbreaking. Our first day walking the streets we were approached by a little boy, no less than 3 or 4 years old, who was missing his left hand. We learned that when children are born with deformities their mothers and families often reject them, leaving them to beg on the streets or get caught up in a “pimp” system. We give them food but no money, as to not encourage them to continue begging and make it their sole job.
Streets of Phnom Penh

There are also many beautiful aspects to the city, such as the Royal Palace which we visited our first day. It blows my mind how they have all of these rich clothes and crowns make of pure gold and hundreds of diamonds, and yet have so much poverty still remaining throughout. We learned about the clothes and history of Cambodia which was fascinating. It feels like a sauna 24/7 but I’m so busy taking everything in around me that I hardly notice it, believe it or not.
We also visited the Daughters of Cambodia NGO, the focus of my group’s documentary project. Although we did not get to truly interact and meet the girls who were one of the 19,000 currently in the sex trafficking of Phnom Penh, it is evident how impactful and helpful this program is to get girls out and give them a fair opportunity in society. Everything is all so inspiring.
Just from this first day I already feel so changed and in constant awe of what is around me, I can’t imagine what else we will encounter.

Mira Costa School – Cambodia: A Place in Pictures II

Published

by  on April 8, 2014 in Letters From Cambodia
My last post on here was a series of black and white photographs of the faces of Cambodia. My style of photography is usually that approach, and as of late I have photographed almost 200 different faces since we have been here. No doubt this will lead to a great show or series of some sort. However, there was something about this country that I missed with those photos. There’s a vibrant passion that constantly whirls around, spinning you like a carousel. Color abounds from every corner, shooting forward like rays of sunshine. There are trinkets and items that create a texture so rich and varied you can almost feel the city in your palm. With black and white I missed that. So in response, the theme for this essay is the color and texture of Cambodia.

Mira Costa School – Body, Mind and Spirit

Published

by  on April 8, 2014 in Letters From Cambodia
I’m not a religious guy. I don’t believe in god. I feel silly doing my jewish stuff and all. Yet, I really felt something almost magical when listening to the Shmote with the lighting of the incense was one of the most powerful experiences i’ve felt so far. I almost could visualize the souls of the victims of the prison floating up and away.

Mira Costa School – Surface of Cambodia

Published April 8, 2014

by  on April 8, 2014 in Letters From Cambodia

In Cambodia, a thing that you really have to understand is that you actually can’t judge a book by its cover.
The first example is the second we stepped off the bus to get to the hotel.
Just walking down the street of our hotel, we see Cambodians, sleeping and begging at one in the morning. Which made me kind of question the quality of our hotel, because in America, rich houses stay on rich streets and the poor stay on poor streets. And so I concluded that this street has poverty on it, our hotel must be poor, and not be super nice.
It’s true that I didn’t walk into a fancy, pristinely cleaned hotel. But I did walk into this tropical, junglelike, simply beautiful and beautifully simple guest home full of crispy bread breakfasts, art living rooms, a bright blue pool, and wifi.
Different than what I expected. Better than what I expected. The cover had revealed nothing.
Again, as we were walking down the street to a place where we were supposed to “chill out” and have “fun time in the pool”, there was poverty on the streets and not super tidied houses on every corner.
I personally say we turned into the most perfect place I could imagine.
The pool was a perfect saltwater pool surrounded by bright green jungle trees and hammocks and a couple of flowers. There seemed to be six or seven rooms, including one or two bathrooms, and that was more than enough. The dining room downstairs was seated directly, openly, next to the pool, with wonderful people handing us these sweet passionfruit drinks. The whole area had a very bamboo-jungle texture to it; the house was made of this sort of wood that just made the whole thing perfect.
I’m sure most of you skipped that description. Which is fine. I don’t really like it myself. It doesn’t really even capture the whole place.
In conclusion, it was perfect. That night was perfect. It really was.
So similarly, you would think that with all this poverty in Cambodia, the people would be really scary or sad or depressing, not smiling, hateful to the Americans.
But they’re not like that at all. At all. Every single person smiles. All the kids love it when you take a picture, or shake their hands, or try to speak your language. Everybody smiles. Everybody tries to be helpful. And everybody smiles.
I’m not even scared. We were told that once some Cambodians on a motorcycle rode up and stole a purse off one of the teens touring here. And honestly, at this point, even if somebody did that to me, stealing my camera and money, I would understand. I would be extremely upset, but I’d understand. It’s not right, but they need the money. And although the same probably applies to the “punks” that steal things in Los Angeles, the “punks” in Los Angeles don’t smile. They hold grudges. And they don’t all collectively wave to rich foreigners while they’re starving on the streets.
There’s a reason why the Cambodians are called the “smiling people”.
And there’s a reason you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.