Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Community Outreach, Takeo Province, Cambodia - May 13, 2016

On King Sihamoni's birthday this year, I took a break from work to visit an elementary school in Takeo province. The field trip was organized by the university I work for to give back to communities in the rural poor. It was an eye-opening experience, and I'm better for it.

Having seen the simple conditions of the villagers, I was reminded of how lucky I've been (and still am). The elementary school we visited was built 10 years ago, and it currently serves three villages in that province. Many of the students go to school there either on foot or on bicycle. The classrooms are basic with wooden tables and benches. A chalkboard is centered in front of each classroom. Of lavatories, there are only 3 (2 for all students, and 1 (padlocked) for teachers). The public school teachers there receive a pittance sum of $150 a month for salary - apparently less than many construction and garment factory workers in Cambodia. Education is obviously not a top priority for the Cambodian government, or they would have invested more in teachers' salaries and development. In front of the school, there is a man-made reservoir built with private funds donated by a philanthropist. It is filled with lotus plants (said to be natural water purifiers the mechanics of which I still don't fully understand). From this pond, many families draw water for their daily use. There are no mini-marts or air-conditioned cafes in the village. Instead, there is a make-shift stand that sells ice-cold drinks and snacks near the school.

I was heartened to witness the interactions between our college youths and the young ones from the villages. Feeling shy and foreign at first, both groups of students soon warmed up to one another. Then they broke into several groups and commenced playing games. The communal spirit and solidarity were strong and genuine. There was no foreign entity poking his/her ugly nose into someone else's business. This was pure grassroots community outreach by Cambodians for Cambodians. I also witnessed first-hand the passion for change and hope that many Cambodian youths have for their own future. A number of those I spoke with believe in effecting change themselves as they are none too pleased with the Cambodian government's track record. They deem their government to be impotent, corrupt, and unreliable. I have nothing but respect and good wishes for these youths.

Previous post: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (10 Years On) - April 13-17, 2016

Friday, June 24, 2016

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (10 Years On) - April 13-17, 2016

When I first visited Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) ten years ago, I was overwhelmed by its noise, traffic, and people. The urban chaos of HCMC at that time put me off completely, and I never thought I would return for a reprise visit. But I did. During the Khmer New Year school break this year, my boyfriend and I decided to visit Vietnam's largest city, which was a 7-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

On this reprise trip, I was actually taken aback by HCMC's transformation over the years. The city has surpassed my expectation and transformed itself into a modern, somewhat sophisticated, urban metropolis. If there was one word to sum up my experience in modern-day HCMC, it would be "lifestyle". It was quite pleasant to be around chic restaurants and cafes, trendy boutiques, and gratifying spas in the city. This was not to say that we splurged and indulged ourselves all the time in HCMC. I was still drawn to street foods and cheap eats, and thankfully, they were not completely abolished from the city. Still, it was hard not to notice the affluence around us. It was flaunted unabashedly, and to me the most prominent representation of this affluence would be the Bitexco Financial Tower which stood tall and proud like the Burj Khalifa of Dubai in the U.A.E. The night views from the 52nd floor of the Bitexco (windows could have been cleaner) weren't exactly out-of-this-world, but it was still nice to have a different perspective of the city from this structure. The other noticeable and most-welcome change was the exchange rate. We got 22,000 dong to a US$1 on this trip vs 16,000 dong ten years ago, and this made me happy.

I also visited the War Remnant Museum on this trip, and surprisingly enough, I got a lot out of the visit. Reading about the different types of horrendous tortures afflicted on prisoners of war and seeing the unedited photographs of victims and the destruction of landscapes disturbed me. It made me think about the uselessness of wars and the selfish and greedy motives of some sick, corrupted people. There are no winners in wars and battles. Period. The museum is a definite must-see if you're ever in HCMC - the best $0.68 I've spent in years (entrance fee: 15,000 dong per person).

Above left: seen at a Cambodian rest stop en-route to Vietnam - a table of offerings to gods and ancestors during Khmer New Year; Above right: a guard dog at Vietnam's customs and immigration border control

Food and beverage in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Above: late dinner at a hole-in-the-wall joint in District 1 (Pham Ngu Lao)

 Above left: these mixed fruit smoothies were simply delightful; Above right: reconnecting with street desserts (flan and soymilk) in Vietnam (cheap and delicious)

Above: lunch at Hum Vegetarian (pink guava juice and red curry with rice noodles)

Above: dinner at Pho Hai Thien (pork rolls, beef flank pho, and guava juice)

Above left: cha gio (minced pork sausage) with rice noodles; above right: another dessert vendor on the street

Above right: cocktails on the 52nd floor of Bitexco Financial Tower

Above: dinner at Kim's restaurant - the usual Vietnamese fare of fresh rolls and banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe)

Above left: bia hoi (fresh beer) $0.45/glass; above right: banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich)

Above left: chocolate freeze from Highlands Coffee (our favorite drink in HCMC); above right: Saigon beer at Pizza 4Ps

Above left: half teriyaki chicken with nori and half eggplant margherita pizza at Pizza 4Ps; above right: coconut delight dessert

War Remnant Museum

Local scenes

Above: Saigon Post Office

Next post: Community Outreach, Takeo Province, Cambodia - May 13, 2016
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