Funding Boost for Cambodia’s Hero Mine-Detecting Rats NGO

Published April 8, 2015

BY SIMON HENDERSON | MARCH 17, 2014
The Belgian demining NGO APOPO, which is pioneering the use of mine-detecting rats in the former battlefields of Cambodia, has received funding from the German government to expand its mine-clearance work in the country.

In November, the government gave the green light for APOPO to begin testing highly skilled African Giant Pouched Rats—nicknamed Hero Rats—on Cambodian soil.

Hero Rats have achieved noted success over the past four years in sniffing out thousands of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Mozambique and Angola.

Germany’s funding will help the NGO deploy 180 specialists in Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces to work alongside the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the organization said in a statement.

“Funding from the German Federal Government will go far to help mine impacted communities and help rid the country of these deadly weapons. We look forward to working with our partner CMAC for this effort,” said Kim Warren, country director for APOPO.

Over the past decade, Germany has provided over $15 million to Cambodia to support mine clearance operations.

Its decision to back the innovative Belgian NGO and its Hero Rats project reflects its ongoing commitment to helping Cambodia achieve the targets set by the 2010 to 2019 National Mine Action Strategy, the statement added.

The value of the grant was not disclosed, but last year Germany pledged $391,467 to APOPO’s demining activities in Thailand along its border with Cambodia, while last month it committed $359,940 to the NGO’s demining efforts in Vietnam’s central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

Mines and UXO have killed more than 19,000 Cambodians and injured about 45,000 since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and though the country is lauded internationally for its demining efforts, much work remains to be done.

Landmines and unexploded remnants of war killed 22 people and injured 111 more last year, according to figures from CMAC.

Ten Hero Rats are in the final phase of training at the organization’s research center in Tanzania before being sent to Cambodia to begin acclimatization and performance tests, according to APOPO.

A team of Cambodian recruits will soon be trained to lead the rats on their first missions outside of Africa.

 

© 2014, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

Francis Parker Exploring South East Asia

Published February 23, 2015

Wednesday, Feb. 18th: A Glimpse of the Past and a Glimpse of the Future

Standing at the center of every country, there seems to lie a defining moment in the state’s history that, more often than not, stands as a point of pride. In the United States, people are proud of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War that ensued, serving as a reminder of the freedom that stands at the center of the country. April 17, 1975, was meant to be that moment for Cambodia, which would known as Democratic Kampuchea. As the Khmer Rouge regime paraded through the streets, some Cambodians cheered at the thought of a new country centered around the ideal of total equality. However, April 1975 and the four-year time period that followed now seems to cloud both the citizens’ minds and foreign perceptions of the country’s history and people.

With this in mind, we headed to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Immediately after we arrived, we were surprised by the serenity of the center. Standing as one of over 300 “killing fields” around Cambodia, Choeung Ek served as the final destination for those tortured at Tuol Sleng Prison, which we had seen the day before. Ultimately, the killing fields combined to slaughter over 2 million people, or 35% of the Cambodian population. Guided by an audio tour, we walked independently through the compound, noting the stark contrast between the natural serenity of the compound and the atrocities committed over 40 years ago; however, the calmness was disturbed by horrifying stories and statistics. Around the grounds were areas demarcated by bamboo sticks, indicating graves that once held the remains of thousands of victims of the genocide, including women and children.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia

This grave contained the remains of over 150 women, most of whom were stripped of their clothing and sexually abused before, and to, death.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia.

This tree is notorious for the young lives ended here, as guards grabbed babies by their legs and smashed their heads against the tree until death, usually while their mothers watched. As was the case with many of the mass graves, bracelets contributed by the public adorned the killing tree as a symbol of support for those who lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.


Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Although the site was excavated over years, bones still surface on the trails, hinting at the sheer number of people still buried underneath.


Accompanying the guided tour were stories of real survivors, recounting incidents of rape, the loss of family members, and the arduous process of healing. We heard all these stories and more as we walked around a lake. The lake is known to hold many more remains, but has been left untouched in reverence to those who lost their lives there, in hopes that they may find peace.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center


The tour concluded with a memorial stupa, constructed to display some of the 9,000 who lost their lives at Choeung Ek. With its small square footage, most of which was taken up by the large case of skulls at its center, we were forced to edge around its interior, only inches from the glass container.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia

Constructed with Buddhist principles in mind, the Stupa stands at the center of the compound.


Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia

Eerily similar to the Tuol Sleng prison shelves displaying skulls, the stupa contained seven stories of skulls.


Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia

Small colored stickers allowed for us to distinguish between them, labeling them according to age, sex, and types of injuries before death.


Shaken by the haunting memorial, the tour was appropriately concluded with a rendition of “Oh, Phnom Penh,” which offered a hopeful outlook on the future of Cambodia, a glimpse of which we saw at our next destination.

In contrast to the killing fields, the Seametrey Children’s Village offered a more promising depiction of Cambodia. This primary school seemed like a half-built paradise. We encountered flourishing foliage, red flowers, palm trees, and even an Indochinese rat snake. The soon-to-be-campus very much reflected the school’s mission. Contrary to most schools, the focus was not only to educate its students, but also to help its students find serenity and happiness. As we walked into the school we were immediately welcomed by the main teacher and director of the school, Muoy You, who is also the host of the guesthouse where we are staying. She led us upstairs into a room with a projector. Children, arriving one-by-one on bicycles, saw us going up the stairs and immediately ran to meet us. With smiles on all of our faces, the children encouraged the teacher to take a little break from the schedule and show us their version of The Wizard of Oz.

Seametrey Children's Village, Cambodia

Kids watching their version of The Wizard of Oz, made in collaboration with a group from the University of Leeds in the UK.


The footage seemed to be of professional quality, with an elaborate script, creative cinematography, and fun costume designs. Only two of the kids can afford to pay the $25 per month tuition to go to school, but all the children were treated equally. Muoy then showed us a short introductory film to the school’s mission and how our help was going to benefit the kids of the surrounding community. The plan is simple: Along with the classrooms, the school would build a full-scale recreational zone that could be rented out to the community and generate enough revenue to make the school self-sustaining. Before she could tell us our role as volunteers, Muoy could not help but cry as she spoke about the killing fields. It was then when we realized why the school was built so beautifully. It would serve as a place of joy and comfort for the community. As a place of education and peace, it offered a path to the future for the Cambodians. With education the students could perhaps move on. It offered the hope that maybe the Pol Pot regime would not be the defining moment in their society, but rather that this moment has yet to come.

As we began to understand the larger purpose of this school, Muoy told us our jobs. In a rotation, half of us would work in the gardens, and the other half would would play with school children. The work in the gardens was hard and hot.

Seametrey Children's Village, Cambodia

Mr. Holbrook, senior Matthew Wei, junior Angelica Vera, Mr. Wineholt and our guides Sayha and Samnang work in a nearby field removing grass.


The blazing heat beamed down on us as we dug up grass and placed it in a planter. Just one hour of work sucked the energy out of us. We could not even imagine what it would be like to work a twelve-hour day in this heat. Once we rotated, playing with children was extremely refreshing. The children immediately grabbed our hands and took us to their places of play. After witnessing the horror and incredible amounts of pain, the children’s faces refreshed us with hope and happiness.
Seametrey Children's Village, Cambodia

Senior Karina Dominguez, senior Olivia Ghosh, junior Mitchell Capp, junior Nicole Keeney, and senior Zak Brownlie play duck duck goose with the kids.


Throughout our travels in Cambodia, we have repeatedly heard references to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Whether it was the cutting off of the Buddha heads in the temples we visited in Siem Reap or the struggles of the families of our tour guides during the 70s, it is clear that the Khmer Rouge largely deflated a country known for its resilience and cultural heritage. However, through our interactions at the Seametrey Children’s Village and the culmination of our experiences in Cambodia, we have discovered that the atrocities the Khmer Rouge committed less than half a century ago make up a mere page in this country’s history. Over the past week, we have been fortunate enough to meet incredibly gracious people who have shared their pride in their country with open arms. Maybe that is what should define Cambodia: a people full of pride who want to show the rest of the world their homeland.

–Karina Dominguez, Pedro Gallardo, Rex Winn

Francis Parker Exploring South East Asia

Published February 18, 2015

Sunday, Feb. 15: One Foot in the Past, One in the Future

“If you put one foot in the past and one in the future, you pee on today,” Yut, our tour guide in Siem Reap, reminded us with his spread-out stance. Although seemingly far from profound and even silly, we’ve seen this Buddhist sentiment reiterated throughout our several days in Cambodia. Living in the present is vital for the religion, as it keeps us humble, aware, and centered. But something Yut also stressed was the importance of looking outside of Cambodia’s past: Angkor Wat, the genocide, and other previous moments in their history. Unfortunately, in many ways the country has been defined mainly by its bygones. Luckily, we were able to see developing juxtapositions and the promise of Cambodia’s future.

Monks walking around the perimeter of Ta Prohm temple. Even the monks carried cellphones and digital cameras for photos, which was interesting to see. Fun fact: our tour guide in Siem Reap, Yut, was a practicing monk for sixteen years! Photo by Grace Sellick.

Monks walking around the perimeter of Ta Prohm temple. Even the monks carried cellphones and digital cameras for photos, which was interesting to see. Fun fact: our tour guide in Siem Reap, Yut, was a practicing monk for sixteen years! Photo by Grace Sellick.

The shadow puppet show we enjoyed (prior to a downpour of rain) centered around ancient stories from the Ramayana. Angkor Wat displayed a mixture of new and centuries-upon-centuries of old, as some of its walls were damaged by bullets from the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Also, many of the sacred Buddhas inside all of the temples we visited, from Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm, were decapitated and looted more recently to be sold on the black market. Contrastingly, the circus show, named “Chills,” gave promise and a future in the visual arts to young adults and teenagers from a village around three hours away. Building wheelchairs for the victims of landmines shows the past’s toll on today, as many of the mines were planted 40+ years ago. Therefore, the Landmine Mueseum has put forward efforts by building schools, removing thousands of mines, and providing a scholarships and other opportunities for students who aid them.

Cambodia, Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple (the set of the film Tomb Raider) transitioned from Buddhism to Hinduism, as etchings of Buddha on its walls changed forms over the centuries. Photo by senior Grace Sellick.

Land Mine Museum, Cambodia

The Landmine Museum and its group of mine-removers has had no demining-related casualties even though they have handled thousands of landmines (for example, in one week, they removed 1,500). Other demining groups have had about a dozen injuries over the past few years. Photo by Grace Sellick.

We arrived in Phnom Penh after a forty-minute flight, and then drove to our lunch. Immediately, we were aware of the difference between the capital and Siem Reap. Previously, we had eaten at semi-upscale restaurants whose clienteles were mainly tourists. This restaurant, with its much more unfamiliar foods, was mainly filled with residents of Phnom Penh, mostly Chinese, Koreans, and other foreigners living permanently in the city and working for nearby NGOs. We soon arrived at the You Khin House, a guesthouse whose profits go towards the Seametrey Children’s Village located in the building next door. (This, too, seemed an immediate departure from our stay in Siem Reap, where we slept under mosquito netting on wooden beds.)

Leaving the comforts of our new hotel, we entered into a Cambodia quite different from the sanitized, westernized streets of Siem Reap (dominated by elephant-patterned harem pants and resorts with Angkor in the name) and entered the slums around the governmental housing known as the White House. Designed by the former king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, the buildings today are crumbling, houseplants spilling out from small balconies. Almost immediately, the group (conspicuous with our clothing and expensive cameras) felt somewhat out of place. In contrast with the food stalls, motorcycle repair shops, and children running around, our middle-class American lifestyle stood out like a sore thumb. Many in the group later remarked that it almost felt like slum tourism, or that we should not have visited in the first place. Still, being able to see the living conditions and humble beginnings of the Cambodian Living Arts’ (CLA) students provided important context prior to seeing one of the graduated student’s (Neang Kavich) documentaries, Where I Go. The documentary followed a different CLA student, Pattica, throughout his dance studies, familial conflicts, and problems with discrimination (being half Cambodian and half Cameroonian, as well as not knowing his father).

Siem Reap, Cambodia

When it was constructed, the White Building was the tallest structure in the country. After the Khmer Rouge, it became a center for well-known artists and performers. Now, only the middle part of the building remains, and the CLA’s influence has helped to decrease the amount of teenagers in the area who become addicted to drugs, solicit sex, or get involved in gangs. Photo by Grace Sellick

Following the showing of the film, we departed to dinner across the street from the CLA office with the filmmaker, his brother and friend, and the coordinator of the CLA program, Melissa. Throughout dinner, we had the opportunity to ask questions regarding his production process/his inspiration for the film and the history of CLA and Melissa’s work with the program while eating coconut and mushroom soup, tempura vegetables, and delicious egg and fish “quiche/omlette.”

Cambodian Film Maker filmmaker Neang Kavich

Group picture after dinner with filmmaker Neang Kavich (far left), his brother Sal (second to left) and a friend who all participate or participated as CLA students.

We are looking forward to more work with CLA throughout this next week and exploring a new city.

— Olivia Fidler, Isaac Gray and Grace Sellick

Francis Parker Exploring Southeast Asia

Published

Saturday, Feb.14: Witnessing the Realities of Cambodia

Our group awoke at around 6:30 to have our first breakfast at the Metta Karuna Center. We shared a buffet-style meal, with baguettes, assorted jams, bannanas and packaged ramen soup. After we all stuffed ourselves with food, we hopped on a bus headed for Banteay Srei, an old temple of almost a thousand years. On the way we passed by small shops with patchy areas of palm trees growing around them. These shops sold many of the same items, which were evidently catered towards tourists. The products consisted of many woven coasters and boxes, bowls and wooden tableware. The vast majority of our group purchased the sweet palm sugar chunks, after having sampled them. They were intensely sweet and buttery, dissolving in our mouths.

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Palm sap being boiled to make palm sugar. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

The group passes around palm sugar chunks for tasting. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

The group passes around palm sugar chunks for tasting. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

Once we arrived at the temple, we learned from our tour guided, Mr. Yut, that the temple was built, designed and carved entirely by women. Observing the many small inscriptions and depictions, we soon realized the skill and the patience that went into this beautiful structure. The temple was constructed and finished by two Angkorian kings, King Rajendravarman and King Jayavarman V. The first king began this project and funded it, with his successor, Jayavarman V, supposedly appointing women as laborers. The intricate and delicate carvings and the small doorways were thought to be too beautiful to have been carved by men. Although this is just a myth, many women did play an evident and important role in Angkorian society. In wartime, for example, they joined in as fighters; they used this temple to pray for luck and victory before battle.

The intricate facade of the Banteay Srei, or "Lady Temple." Even though the Banteay Srei was constructed in the late 10th century, earlier than Angkor Wat, the floral details have not yet faded. The temple was built by women, the decorations were carved by women, and only women were allowed to pray here, as reflected by the petite door-frames. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

The intricate facade of the Banteay Srei, or “Lady Temple.” Even though the Banteay Srei was constructed in the late 10th century, earlier than Angkor Wat, the floral details have not yet faded. The temple was built by women, the decorations were carved by women, and only women were allowed to pray here, as reflected by the petite door-frames. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

Interior of the Banteay Srei temple. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

Interior of the Banteay Srei temple. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

Group photo in front of Banteay Srei temple.

Group photo in front of Banteay Srei temple.

At the Banteay Srei temple, we watched a live performance of traditional Khmer music by victims of Cambodian land mines. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

At the Banteay Srei temple, we watched a live performance of traditional Khmer music by victims of Cambodian land mines. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

Many children crowded around us as we exited the temple. They held postcards, wooden flutes and other souvenirs. This is a very controversial subject in Cambodia. Many people would have problems with children selling goods to support themselves and their families; however, the parents also exploit their children to conjure sympathy from tourists. Even though we cannot help feeling sympathy for the kids, it is nonetheless a prevalent issue.

After leaving the temple, we visited the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. This museum explained a lot of the horrors that still occur frequently in Cambodia. Many of these victims are children. Some of these children wounded and disabled by these mines have become workers in the effort to clear mines in Cambodia. This effort and museum were greatly influenced by Aki Ra, a former child soldier in the Khmer Rouge, and Bill Morse, an ex history teacher from California. In Cambodia an average of three casualties a week are caused by land mines. This devastation was caused by the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China, who supplied the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian armies as well as the Vietnamese. The complicated web of weapons deals and inner conflicts of Cambodia and Vietnam led to the scattering of billions of tons of mines and bombs in Cambodia. An incredibly shocking and heartbreaking thing Bill explained to us was that young kids would find these mines and cluster bombs not knowing what they were and would pick them up seeing them as interesting shiny objects–the result is obvious. This lack of knowledge is consistantly troubling for the demining of Cambodia, as many outer villages in the forest are uneducated about the dangers and are difficult to get to because of the land mines surrounding them. Many of these victims suffer from PTSD, which is not treated by the NGO. These ongoing tragedies show a harsher and darker side to present Cambodia. Not only are we reflecting on the ancient Buddhist civilizations in Cambodia, but also we are confronting the current events of Cambodia.

Hundreds of pieces of bombs and artillery at the Cambodian Land Mine Museum that were recovered from cleared land mines. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

Hundreds of pieces of bombs and artillery at the Cambodian Land Mine Museum that were recovered from cleared land mines. Photograph by junior Snigdha Nandipati.

After having eaten lunch, we headed for the Ta Prohm temple, a famous and world renowned temple used in such films as Tomb Raider, featuring Angelina Jolie. The temple itself was captivating, as we all witnessed the natural phenomenon of the native banyan trees growing through the temple’s foundation. Another interesting phenomonon about Prohm is the discovery of a stegosaurus carving in the walls of the temple. We aren’t sure if this is just a coincidence or if it speaks to us about the ancient civilization’s scientific advances. It is just another unique element that adds to the wonder of the temple. The temple was built in the early eleventh century as a place of worship for Buddhists. However, by the thirteenth century, the new king imposed a new system of Hindu beliefs on the kingdom, changing the temple from Buddhist to Hindu. The thousand carvings of Buddha were defaced and changed to phallic symbols called Shiva lingam.

A banyan tree grows in the interior of the Ta Prohm temple. Banyan trees are considered holy in Buddhist tradition because the Buddha was born under a banyan tree. This banyan tree, along with many other trees, are believed to have caused the destruction of the temple. The tree's roots insidiously creeped into the crevices of the rock, and the temple's foundation crumbled. Photograph by senior Karina Dominguez.

A banyan tree grows in the interior of the Ta Prohm temple. Banyan trees are considered holy in Buddhist tradition because the Buddha was born under a banyan tree. This banyan tree, along with many other trees, are believed to have caused the destruction of the temple. The tree’s roots insidiously creeped into the crevices of the rock, and the temple’s foundation crumbled. Photograph by senior Karina Dominguez.

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One of the amazing aspects of this temple is that it rises magnificently out of the grey rubble and temple ruins. Efforts are being made to restore the temple to its former state. This can be seen as controversial because some believe that the temple should be left to crumble naturally, while others believe that it should be held together to preserve its glory. Photographed by senior Karina Dominguez.

After dinner, we took tuk tuks to an outdoor shadow puppet theater. We watched the performance of the Indian epic Ramayana. The shadow puppet artists used leather silhouettes and incorporated dance movements to act out certain sections of the epic. Unfortunately, the performance was cut short due to an unexpected (and pleasantly refereshing) rain shower. Our curiousity about the ending of the story was satisfied when junior Snigdha Nandipati told the rest of us about the part that we sadly missed.

Scene from shadow puppet performance. Photographed by senior Karina Dominguez.

Scene from shadow puppet performance. Photographed by senior Karina Dominguez.

A sketch of the Cambodian mythical lion which symbolizes power. Even though lions aren't native to Cambodia, the lion has emerged as a symbol of the royal family through relations of Hindu mythology. While visiting the various temples in Siem Reap over the past couple of days, we saw multiple carvings of the siha featured on the temples' stone walls. Siha statues are also very commonly found guarding the entrance to buildings (such as the Metta Karuna Center, where we stayed) and can be compared to watch dogs. Sketched by junior Angelica Vera.

A sketch of the Cambodian mythical lion which symbolizes power. Even though lions aren’t native to Cambodia, the lion has emerged as a symbol of the royal family through relations of Hindu mythology. While visiting the various temples in Siem Reap over the past couple of days, we saw multiple carvings of the siha featured on the temples’ stone walls. Siha statues are also very commonly found guarding the entrance to buildings (such as the Metta Karuna Center, where we stayed) and can be compared to watch dogs. Sketched by junior Angelica Vera.

–Mitchell Capp, Snigdha Nandipati, Angelica Vera

 

Francis Parker Exploring Southeast Asia

Published

Wednesday, Feb. 11: A Country of Opposites

Vietnam is a country of opposites. From order to chaos, from communism to captialism, and from old to new. Today, we explored these seemingly incompatible worlds.

Walking in a single-file line through the covered corridor at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, it seemed as if we faced a new guard at every step. Despite the guards’ stern appearce with their pressed and intricate uniforms, we were suprised to see them smile at our light-hearted “xin chao”s. However, as we neared Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, the atmosphere suddenly shifted to a more serious tone. The tomb was silent, and all attention was on the angelic body that lies at the core of the Vietnamese communist identity. The tomb embodied socialist architecture through its square, imposing shape, and the sentiment that all who were present were witnessing something much larger than ourselves. Even as foreigners from America, we were able to grasp his ever-lasting legacy. This understanding was deepened when we visited Ho Chi Minh’s humble living quarters, and his conscious decisions to emulate the lives of his impoverished nation.

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“Our great president, Ho Chi Minh, lives forever!” the banner hangs aside his Mausoleum. Photograph by senior Olivia Fidler.

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Group photo in front of the Mausoleum.

After exiting the tomb, we stood in the square and reflected on the tomb and the government buildings surrounding us. Though the government is technically democratic, the Parliament building was situated between Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and the Communist headquarters, clarifying the firm hold the Communist Party has on the Vietnamese government (85% of the Parliament belongs to the Party). This was only the first of many contrasts that we would experience today.

Transitioning from Vietnam’s recent history, we stepped back into the 11th century through our visit to the Temple of Literature. In the thick of modern Hanoi, the Temple of Literature shifted our focus from the power of the collective population at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb to the opportunities of the educated elite. Vietnam’s first national university was restricted to the few that could afford to be competitive; the Confucian meritocracy of old Vietnam was not open to all. The names of graduates were engraved on stone tablets, resting atop tortoises (a Vietnamese symbol of longevity), representing their ever-lasting achievements.

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Pictured in the bottom left is a yellow fruit which locals call “Buddha’s hands,” serving as a common offering in Vietnamese shrines, such as this one at the Temple of Literature. Photograph by senior Olivia Fidler.

Shifting from our morning’s focus on the grandeur of Vietnamese history, we met with our pen pals to get a taste of everyday life in modern Vietnam. Becoming acquainted with everyday life in Vietnam was as simple as sitting down with our pen pals at a street cafe. In our small talk, our interests in each other’s differences brought us as close together as our similarities. After lunch, the schedule was ours to control.

Most of the group decided to walk through a market in the midst of rush hour traffic. The stands around the streets were as busy as the traffic, and we were able to buy goods from propaganda posters to cheap toys. The competitive nature of business being done at the market was a stark contrast to the communist ideals we were exposed to earlier in the day.

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With horns blaring and motocycles whizzing by, crossing the street with a group of over 20 people quickly became a formidable challenge. Photograph by senior Pedro Gallardo.
To escape from the hustle and bustle of the streets, we retreated to group coordinator Son’s favorite eclectic stop. Our time at Cafe Nola was spent with further bonding with our pen pals over mochas and piano renditions of pop songs.

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This four-story-plus, hole-in-the-wall coffee shop specialized in New Orleans’ cuisine. Photograph by senior Grace Sellick.

The singing carried on into the evening as the group headed over to a karaoke bar. We were suprised to find that our pen pals seemed to know the words to American songs better than we did; it was clear that Western culture thrives alongside the Vietnamese tradition. Bonding over less-than-stellar performances of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold,” karaoke was a great final send-off from the pen pals who now seemed like old friends. The farewells were certainly difficult, but we were reminded of the brief but meaningful times we spent together in Hanoi.

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Group picture with our pen pals in Ly Thai To Square.

Over the past couple of days were immersed in many contrasts, both cultural and political. We are interested in seeing how Hanoi will change in times to come and hope to visit again to see these changes for ourselves.

— Zak Brownlie, Olivia Fidler, Pedro Gallardo

Francis Parker Exploring Southeast Asia

Published

Tuesday, Feb. 10: The Road to Recovery

As we piled onto the familiar red bus after another delicious breakfast, Mr. Long, our guide, began to prepare us for our first destination with a little history.

Agent Orange: accounting for nearly twelve of the estimated seventeen million gallons sprayed over Vietnam, the herbicide was one of eleven used by the United States to clear the foilage and increase ground visibility. Named after the distinctive color of a strip on its shipping container, the compound reduced the cover and food available to the Vietnamese Communist soldiers.

Although its suppliers claimed that the herbicide was harmless to humans and the environment, post-war research quickly revealed that such was not the case. The herbicide, which often drenched those hiding in the vegetation and in close proximity and seeped into the soil as well as water sources of the surrounding area, was toxic, and its effects extend to the present day.

Entire areas of land and water were deemed contaminated and therefore unusable. Those directly exposed to the chemical spray developed cancers and painful sores, and in turn gave birth to children with serious health complications, including physical deformities and mental disabilities. Portions of the estimated four million Vietnamese affected were shunned in fear of the unknown—all consequences of Agent Orange.

However, the Vietnamese are not easily disheartened. Support groups and organizations dedicated to helping the victims soon emerged as awareness was raised, both domestically and internationally. Contaminated areas were, and continue to be, carefully monitored by scientists and used to hold the United States accountable for the copious amounts of toxic herbicide sprayed. The Pineapple Village, founded by affected women who were ostracized from their original communities, helped change attitudes as they sold pineapples for a living and gradually regained acceptance.

We had the honor of visiting one such organization with our pen pals from Hanoi University: the Peace Village, or Thanh Xuan.

Upon meeting up with our pen pal friends, most of whom used taxis, public transportation, or motorbikes to reach the destination, we were escorted into a room with residents of the village for a brief introduction by lead Doctor Vu Son Ha.

Since its establishment in 1991, we learned, the Peace Village has provided medical treatment to over ten million people; the Hanoi branch focuses primairly on providing aid to Agent Orange victims. Their educational and physical therapy programs are specifically designed for the needs of the victims, beginning in primary school and continuing as far as vocational training to help facilitate the students’ integration into society.

We were welcomed by a few of the village’s students with a song called “I Am Not Sad,” which was specially composed for Agent Orange victims to help lift their spirits. In response, we sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” which allowed the students to participate by clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and jumping around in rhythm with us.

We were then able to visit their classrooms and interact with the children on an individual basis. Given that most of the children were not able to speak, or disliked doing so, our pen pal friends and we were forced to work together to communicate through other means, including pictures, hand motions, and facial expressions. The residents of the village—although the “village” more closely resembles an apartment complex—were also gracious enough to allow us to try our hands at their embroidery pieces, which depicted countryside scenes and cultural sites of Vietnam. As both Hanoi University and Parker students alike struggled to sew in straight lines, we learned that the ease with which the women worked was something acquired over many years, their techniques developed over several of the pieces that took up to five months to complete. In addition to embroidery, the able residents also learn how to weave pouches, scarves, vests, and even jackets in multi-colored, varying patterns to sell alongside their embroidery pieces, handmade bracelets, and crocheted squares.

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Pen pals from Hanoi University play with several of the children from the Peace Village, showing them how to use the stamps that were donated by Mrs. Hayman’s second grade class at Francis Parker. Aside from the stamps, the students from the Lower and Upper School donated a variety of art supplies, a world map mural, and a washing machine.

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Juniors Simone Tift and Snigdha Nandipati practice their needle point on the machines that the children, affected by Agent Orange, use to create magnificent and unique pieces of art to sell and raise money for the Peace Village.

After bidding farewell to the Peace Village with broken—but improving!—Vietnamese, we enjoyed a traditional lunch of a Vietnamese-style sandwich and bananas, and with the guidance of our friends, we walked off the meal by exploring the surrounding area. We came across another market, and ducked under its entrance into the dark, tented enclosure, shuffling through stalls selling kitchenware and clothes that morphed into produce and shoes became crates of fruit while baskets of hair accessories became cages of chickens, and followed the narrow path for only a couple minutes before exiting back onto the streets and headed to a well-known cafe for a taste of Vietnamese coffee.

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After spending the first half of the day at the Peace Village, seniors Grace Sellick, Emma Sheean, Pedro Gallardo, Sam Pryor, Olivia Ghosh, and Olivia Fidler and their pen pals toured the area and stopped to sample traditional Vietnamese coffee and other specials treats at the Twitter Beans Coffee. A traditional Vietnamese coffee is similar to an espresso but is made with condensed milk.

Suspiciously similar in both color scheme, design, and drink options to a certain American chain, the Twitter Beans Cafe provided us with an opportunity to relax, perhaps a little too much as we lost track of time and found ourselves rushing several blocks back to the bus to arrive at the appointed departure time and make a timely arrival at the family home of one of our very own friends, S’on.

We were dropped off across the street and, using the sticky rice technique, crossed the bustling streets and made our way to his home. His mother and father stood by as twenty-five people crammed into their living room. Assorted Vietnamese candy, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and warm tea awaited us inside the Giang household, and as we continued coversation with our university friends, we took in the wandering tabby cat, the first feline we saw on our trip, took in the family shrine, adorned with gold coloring for prosperity and luck, as well as fresh dragonfuit, bananas, and custard apples, took in the large family portrait that hung above a cherry blossom tree design that added a personal flare to the gray walls.

As the afternoon turned to evening, we reluctantly parted from our friends from Hanoi University, and we headed off to the final destination, a traditional water puppet show at Thank Long water puppet theatre.
Established by farmers in the eleventh century as a celebration of a good crop, water puppetry became very popular in northern Vietnam as a form of public entertainment. Made from soft wood easily carved by the non-specialized farmers, the puppets were sculpted into many flexible shapes, such as people, animals including foxes, water buffalo, and frogs and mystical creatures like dragons, fairies, and phoenixes. In order to seal the wood and prevent it from sinking, lacquers were developed to add color to the tan coloring of the wood.

However, this art was almost lost after the war and continued to dwindle as the population struggled to stay afloat and, in turn, had little time for entertainment. This trend began to turn around in 1986, when the economy began shifting from largely subsidized to more free market.
As Vietnam opened its borders once again, tourism revived the art and developed into the complex stories and manipulation of puppets we saw today.

As the puppeteers stood in wasit-high water, they manipulated the puppets in front of a bamboo screen. Coupled with live singing and music utilizing traditional Vietnamese strung instruments and flutes, the show was well received and enjoyed.

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Vietnamese water puppets have been a part of the culture for several centuries; however, the tradition faded away but recently has been brought back to Hanoi due to a rise in tourism.

We ended the group’s night at a Western-style restaurant, where we experienced a food with a Vietnamese twist, including pizza, spaghetti lasagna, and grilled beef and french fries, and divided into smaller groups that could choose to explore the hotel’s surrounding area or opt to get a head start on the following day.

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Following dinner, seniors Sam Pryor, Olivia Fidler and Pedro Gallardo and juniors Nicole Keeney, Mitchell Capp, Rex Winn, and Simone Tift went across the street from the hotel to jump in on a dance exercise with local women in the park, listening to upbeat, electronic Vietnamese music.

–Karina Dominguez, Angelica Vera, Grace Sellick

36 Hours in Phnom Penh

Published December 8, 2014

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Click on photo above to view video.

On Norodom Boulevard, one of Phnom Penh’s oldest arteries, a huge, new LED screen dramatically outlines the tiered eaves of the Buddhist temple Wat Langka in shadow. Around the corner, the recently erected, towering statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, founding father of modern-day Cambodia, looks on as teenagers dressed like K-pop stars zip by on motorbikes, and uniformed officials in SUVs navigate the thronged streets. It’s this juxtaposition of traditional and modern life, of the enduring and the mutable, that defines the capital today. As high-rises transform the skyline, stylish restaurants serving food and drink that spans the globe have arrived. Yet, the city retains a provincial intimacy found in its tree-lined streets, tranquil pagodas and thriving local markets.

Friday

1. Drinking Up History | 5 p.m.

Jacqueline Onassis, Catherine Deneuve, Angelina Jolie: Phnom Penh has been luring the chic for decades. And they’ve all stayed at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, which has witnessed Phnom Penh’s many incarnations since 1929, even providing safe haven for journalists before the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city in 1975. Nowadays, embassy and workers in nongovernmental organizations gather at its Elephant Bar, lounging on rattan furniture along arched windows overlooking gardens, sipping drinks like the Femme Fatale — Champagne, crème de fraise sauvage, Cognac — which Jackie is said to have enjoyed in 1967 . (A lipstick-stained glass on display supposedly touched the former first lady’s lips.) The bar is named for the 1,396 elephants in its décor, though a renovation is planned.(Drinks, $12; U.S. dollars are the de facto currency in Cambodia.)

2. Dance With the Stars | 7 p.m.

With its tusk-like eaves, the century-old terra-cotta red building housing the National Museum, which displays pre-Angkorean and Angkorean artifacts, is stunning, especially at sunset. Several nights a week, its tranquil garden provides a backdrop to Plae Pakaa, performances organized by Cambodian Living Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Khmer song and dance. In ornate costumes and makeup, performers as young as 14 recreate tales and ceremonies, contorting their hands and feet to awe-inspiring angles. Musicians playing traditional instruments provide the hypnotic soundtrack. Tickets, $13.50.

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3. Cambodian Cuisine | 8:30 p.m.

Still recovering from the Khmer Rouge’s near-total cultural annihilation, Cambodian cuisine has struggled to find a spot among Southeast Asia’s more familiar flavors. Luckily, the food — known for its subdued qualities and expert use of herbs — has its champions. At Malis, the country’s celebrity chef Luu Meng produces sophisticated renditions of traditional recipes in a romantic outdoor setting with water features, dim lighting and a life-size Buddha. Try the green mango and smoked fish salad and prahok ktis, a pungent, fermented fish dip ($7.50 each). At the Common Tiger, the South African Timothy Bruyns creates a five-course tasting menu that stimulates the eyes as much as the palate. Sit on the leafy terrace sampling dishes like a deconstructed tom kha, or coconut soup, with sea bass and cured raw tuna with hot basil gel ($50 per person).

4. Serious About Drinking | 10:30 p.m.

Leading the new wave of sleek bar options is Bar.Sito, a smoky, moody, masculine cocktail bar hidden down a narrow lane off Street 240. Espresso martinis and negronis ($5) go down easily to the lounge and dance beats. With arched brick doorways and spacious booths, the French-run Bouchon is a charming spot for a glass of Médoc or a home-infused vodka martini. Head to the anything-goes intersection of Streets 51 and 178, where the expat party goes late. At the black-and-white-themed dive bar Zeppelin Cafe, order a $2 gin and tonic and dumplings while rocking out to the Taiwanese owner’s vinyl rock ‘n’ roll collection.

Saturday

5. Sweaty Shopping | 8 a.m.

Every neighborhood market has its own charm, though most are sweaty, labyrinthine obstacle courses. Central Market, a 1937 Art Deco structure, rises like a giant yellow four-legged spider in the city center. Thanks to an upgrade in 2011, it offers a cool, comfortable opportunity to shop for jewelry, clothing and flowers with middle-class Khmers. Farther west is O Russei market, a three-story structure that sells everything from dried fish to minidresses and matching heels. A 15-minute drive south is Toul Tumpuong, or Russian Market, stocked with knockoff DVDs, cheap silk, Buddha statues and palm wood kitchenware. Stall 696 sells film and music posters depicting Cambodia’s swinging 1960s; natural bath products can be picked up at Bodia (Stall 284-285), which is air-conditioned, miraculously. Bargaining is unaggressive.

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6. Conscientious Eating | Noon

At Romdeng restaurant, your tourist dollars work double time: Not only is the food excellent, but the place also offers former street children a hands-on training program. Don’t let the large tour groups deter you — the regional specialties are among the best in town, and the setting, in a colonial villa, is lovely. Try the pomelo salad with shrimp, topped with mint and bird’s eye chiles, and fragrant chicken soup with straw mushrooms and preserved limes. If you hear shrieking at any point, don’t fret — it’s just a preview of an adventurous diner’s lunch; fried spiders are a Khmer delicacy (lunch, $15 per person). At the nonprofit Bloom, women enrolled in an economic empowerment program produce the city’s best and prettiest cupcakes ($1.50 each).

7. Mind and Body | 3:30 p.m.

Many young Cambodian men shave their heads, don an orange robe and devote themselves to Buddha not only as a path to enlightenment, but also to get an education. They’re often eager to practice English while offering insight into their lives. On the grounds of Wat Botum, just south of the Royal Palace, there have been spiritual gatherings since the 15th century. Walk a block south to Neak Banh Teuk Park, which comes alive at dawn and dusk with aerobics classes, men playing Chinese hacky sack, and elderly couples on brisk walks. The new bronze statue of Norodom Sihanouk, who died in 2012, near the Independence Monument marks the loss of a beloved figure.

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8. Ride the River | 5:30 p.m.

Take a sunset cruise along the Tonle Sap River, which runs parallel to the tourist area called “the Riverside.” Private boats whisk you away for two-hour jaunts near the intersection of Street 100 and Sisowath Quay. Prices start at around $25 for a two-level wooden vessel; splurging for an operator like Crocodile Cruise — from $50 for two hours — will get you comfortable sofas, an acceptable toilet and the option of food and drink. You’ll sail by fishermen, stilted huts and the newly developed waterfront on the eastern bank. Sunsets rarely disappoint.

9. Savory Moment | 8 p.m.

For a taste of la vie en rose, book a table at Armand’s, an intimate French bistro. Run by Armand Gerbié, a French-Cambodian who is accustomed to entertaining from his days at Paris’s famed Lido club, it’s a seductive spot with leather seating, nostalgic melodies and French wine and Champagne. Try the Cognac-flambéed Australian rib eye, which Mr. Gerbié prepares tableside (dinner, $40 per person).

10. Creative Infusions | 10 p.m.

With its soaring ceilings, carved doorways and Chinese-meets-French colonial design, Tepui at Chinese House, a restaurant and lounge not far from Armand’s, offers a mesmerizing environment. Order a 21 Points (rum, Coke, Angostura bitters, sugar cane, $5), sink into a sofa and listen to Latin jazz. Along the new Bassac Lane, an alley off Street 308, you’ll find a half-a-dozen tiny, stylish cocktail bars, including Cicada, where gin reigns supreme, and the Library, which serves daiquiri variations.

Sunday

11. Corner of History | 10:30 a.m.

French colonial life, which endured here for nearly a century, centered around the northern part of town near Wat Phnom. Though many of the era’s grand structures have succumbed to time or developers, you can glimpse the past at Place de la Poste. Start at the 1890s Central Post Office, renovated in 2004, whose airy space is punctuated by pillars. Commemorative stamps depicting Angkorean dancers and flora and fauna at the Philately Counter make a nice souvenir, as do the hand-carved figurines and silks across the street at Artisans d’Angkor. Van’s Restaurant, which opens at 11:30, in the Indochina Bank building, with stained-glass windows, is a wonderful French establishment. Lunch, about $15.

12. Made in Cambodia | Noon

From water hyacinth baskets to ikat scarves, crafts abound. Shelves at the artist-run Theam’s House are lined with lacquered elephants and fish- and lotus-adorned boxes. Nearby, at Garden of Desire, Ly Pisith, a former Philippe Starck eyewear designer, sets gems in silver settings. The owners of Trunkh, a short walk away, scour the country for forgotten beauties — hand-painted signs, old shutters — and reimagine them as modern-day treasures.

LODGING

Phnom Penh is full of charming boutique hotels, where you’ll get a stylish, clean room and small pool for between $50 and $100 per night. The recently opened Rambutan (29 Street 71; rambutanresort.com; from $50) and Teav (14 Street 310; teavboutiquehotel.com; from $88) are good options in the centrally located, expat area of Boeung Keng Kang.

Down the street from the Royal Palace, the 70-room Plantation (28 Street 184; theplantation.asia; from $88), popular among Europeans, is spread across three renovated historic buildings and boasts one of the city’s prettiest pools.

For the ultimate indulgence, look no further than the Raffles Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh; raffles.com; from $195).

NYT

Cambodia Trip – Mira Costa High School

Published May 5, 2014

(click to view video)



Cambodia Trip

by  on May 2, 2014 in Arts & LifePeople
During spring vacation 2014, some Costa students went on a trip to Cambodia with the goal of producing several documentaries on social injustices in the country such as sex-trafficking, traditional living arts, and landmines. Students toured around to historical sites as well as serving people in need along the way.
Following the communist regime that took over the country years ago, Cambodia is rebuilding and trying to conserve its rich traditions that were eliminated during the Khmer Rouge.
These documentaries are scheduled to be completed by June.
Reporter: Shauna Yates
Photographer: Aili David

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.