Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day 8 Reflection

We began our second day in Siem Reap with an early morning departure for Ta Phrom, one of the many temples that make up the extensive city of Angkor. Beating the crowd, our amiable and informative guide, Borin, gave us a private tour of the late 12th century ruins. Characteristic of the country of Cambodia, Ta Phrom revealed the power of mother nature. The massive winding roots of the soft wood trees kept the ancient structures intact while threatening to destroy other parts of the temple. While strolling through the complex, Borin explained the long and turbulent history of the Khmer people. Virtually all the sculptures and carvings of the Buddha were destroyed when a Hindu king came to power. A closer look at the artwork proved this claim.

Once we arrived at the Bayon, the tourists arrived in flocks. I felt as if I was being watched by the four smiling faces of the towers of Bayon. As well preserved as the temples were, it was still impossible to imagine the city of Angkor in action in the hundreds of years ago.  After touring the temple several adventurous members of our group mountain biked on the 10 foot tall wall of Angkor Thom and back through Siem Reap to our hotel.  Amazing to see the ruins and the city from this view!
In the afternoon, we were exposed to a totally new landscape--one of towering stilts and water. We visited Kompong Phluk, a floating village occupied by ethnic Vietnamese and Cham people. The livelihood of the villagers depended on rice paddies in the dry season and fishing during the monsoons. A murky brown canal brought us through the community and into the vast Tonle Sap Lake. We walked through the village and arrived at a primary school where Khmer and art were being taught in two different classrooms. We were invited in to the art class where Hannah taught the children how to fold a origami crane.
The day ended with another delicious meal. The group met up with Raksmey, a former intern at BHS, and her friend Dani. Both teach at a private school called Jay Pritzer Academy.

Until next time,


Day 8 (Ta Phrom, Bayon, Angkor Thom, Kampong Phluk)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 7 (Siem Reap, Sunset at Pre Rup)

Day 6 (Brookline Samlahn School)

Day 6 and 7 Reflection

     After a hot, sweaty sleep at our villa in the town of Rovieng in Preah Vihear province, we woke up excited to drive in our Pajero vehicles to the Brookline Samlahn School. The drive to Samlahn Village, which was about an hour and a half long, started off smooth, then quickly turned into quite the adventure. We found a man in a village near Rovieng to navigate. He guided us through several different villages, each smaller and more remote than the next, connected by forested, sandy paths with deep pits and large smooth boulders. During the rainy season these were stream beds, but now they were roads-- and our only means of reaching the Samlahn School. During my sophomore year the building of this school on the other side of the world was only in idea in our heads, but now here we were, laughing together, our heads hitting the ceiling of the car as we bounced over the terrain that only about forty years ago was a Khmer Rouge stronghold.
     Through the heat and dust I finally made out the roof of what I knew must be the Brookline Samlahn School. When we arrived at the front drive way, we saw two lines of young children facing each other. We were greeted by the principal and other officials from the region, then led in between the two rows of children. What happened next left us speechless. It's difficult to explain what we felt at that moment, as sixty cute, young boys and girls clapped and smiled as we entered the school yard. All of us will agree, however, that it is something we will never ever forget.
     After an opening blessing from two monks of the Samlahn Village, we took seats behind a table set up at the front entrance of the school, facing a crowd of one hundred or so residents of Samlahn Village packed under a colorful tent. The school principal, the Deputy Chief of the Department of Education of Preah Vihear, the governor of the district of Sangkum Tmei, Mr. Green, and Ms. Boynton all gave speeches. The mic was then passed to me, then to Dan, Hannah, Sabine, Yijin, and Kate. At some point during the opening speeches, our guide, Chamruun, walked tot he outskirts of the school yard, picked up a "Danger!! Mines!!" sign, and propped it up on a tree stump. We learned from him later that the grounds directly in front of the school where the villagers were sitting under a tent, which was thick jungle until recently, needed to be thoroughly de-mined before it was safe. Chamruun placed this sign for all of us to see to remind us that the dense forest surrounding the school was still heavily mined. The mountains in the distance served as fortified hideouts for Khmer rouge soldiers when they retreated into the wilderness.
     To see the Brookline Samlahn School, meet some of the teachers and students, and see the results of our efforts was truly surreal and fascinating at the same time. The moment I left I wanted to return, and it is very special to be involved in this hopefully on going relationship between Brookline and Cambodia. Our visit was meant to not only see the school but to also plan out our next steps. I am thinking simply building a fence around the school grounds would make the Samlahn school feel more comfortable and safe. The forest surrounding the school is studded with destructive mines, and I believe the great the barrier there is between violence and education, the more hope there will be for restoring a solid foundation in Cambodian communities, both rural and urban.
     After a ceremonial ribbon cutting performed by us and local officials, we visited the Samlahn village, which was a short distance from the school. We walked around, and eventually found ourselves talking to a very kind, old woman, who spoke to us through Chamruun, who translated Khmer to English. She explained how she, as well as her ancestors, grew up and lived their entire lives in Samlahn village. Her bright, gracious, gold-toothed smile faded when she described the life during Khmer Rouge regime. "It was very difficult," she said. "There was no food. It was bad. It was bad."
     The next day, we visited a school for second to sixth graders across the street from our villa. We sang English songs with them and had basic conversations. Interacting with these children could have been one of the most heart-melting experiences I have ever had. We soon drove to Siem Reap. Around 3 in the afternoon, we went to the Pre Rup temple in the Angkor city complex to watch the sunset. The temple was constructed using volcanic rock, marble, and bricks. The volcanic rock came from the mountain 150 km away, carried by elephants and ox carts. It has a deep reddish hue, and the deep orange light from the sunset illuminated the stone and surrounding landscape. It was a perfect way to end the evening, and an even better way to begin the next stage of our adventures in Cambodia.

Day 5 Reflection

I woke up before my alarm set for 5:30 a.m. in hopes of attending one of the impromptu morning exercise classes on the waterfront.  Unfortunately, the classes held on Sunday morning were all choreographed in matching outfits and far too advanced for us. Instead, we walked parallel to the Tomle Sap river, enjoying the morning breeze and rapid sunrise from across the water. It is hard to believe that the first portion of our trip has come to a close. Although I was reluctant to leave the bustling city of Phnom Penh, I was looking forward to our upcoming journey to visit the Samlanh School. Even after traveling thousands of miles, it is almost unfathomable for me to conceptualize that our indirect fund raising  built a school. I can still remember selling candy bars to my classmates, saying it "just cost a dollar", and not realizing how much each dollar meant to the Samlanh Village.

We then met Chamruun, our Samlanh School correspondent, and started our drive to Rovieng, the village we would be staying in for the next two nights. Slowly the landscape shifted from vendors selling car engines and "Angry Birds" apparel to vendors selling lotus fruit, advertisements for skin bleaching to signs for the "Cambodia Peoples Party", and dust to lush greenery of rice patties. We stopped briefly in Skuon at a station selling fruit, vegetables, and... tarantulas! We were unable to eat the tarantulas, but Rohan, Daniel, and I had live ones placed on our shirts. Daniel and Rohan were brave enough to put them in their hair while I held my breath and stared down at the hairy spiders crawling up towards my exposed neck. After leaving Skuon (and managing to avoid hitting a runaway cow galloping on the road thanks to our skilled driver) the area became dry and even more remote. People riding on top of various vehicles peered into our car, surprised to see tourists so far from typical tourist attractions. Thankfully, they responded to our wave with a friendly smile.

Eventually we arrived at Phnom Snatuk, a Buddhist temple on top of a hill. We climbed up the colorful steps, pausing to catch our breath and take pictures of a nearby barrel of monkeys and the view of the land below us. More than 900 steps later, we reached the top: sweating, panting, and in awe. Mr. Green, Daniel, and Rohan (the men) were allowed to push down a sacred floating rock while Ms. Boynton, Kate, Yijin, Hannah, and I (the women) watched from the sidelines. Who wants to touch some floating rock anyway? After walking through colorful temples and exploring worn paths leading to massive 14th century Buddha carvings, we continued on our way.

Shortly afterward,  We were greeted by Bud, a Vietnam Veteran and owner of the Santuk Silk Farm. He showed us how silk was made and even offered us silk worms to eat. Rohan and Daniel each tried one. I was tempted to try one as well until I saw the look on Rohan's face as he struggled to swallow one down. We enjoyed meal cooked by Bud's wife while he shared stories of his life, including growing up in Connecticut, attempting (unsuccessfully) to avoid the Vietnam War, and starting the silk farm. After  purchasing some of the beautiful silk scarves made by the local Cambodians he employed, we began the last leg of our drive.

A few hours later we made it to our villa in Rovieng, which was built on stilts over 20ft high. We played card games while the villa's chef prepared our dinner. The evening was mellow in comparison to our time in Phnom Penh, allowing us to prepare for our day at the Samlanh School.

Day 5 (Journey to Preah Vihear-- Skun, Santuk Silk Farm, Phnom Santuk)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Day 4 (Harpswell Foundation, Markets, Roller Blading)

Day 4 Reflection

Today was sadly our last day in Phnom Penh, but it was a great one! We started our morning early with a walk through the market right next to our hotel, something that has become somewhat of a routine. It never fails to truly wake us up and get us going for the rest of the day. Notable sights were the bins of squirming cat fish and rows of pig heads.

Our first stop of the day was a visit to the Harpswell Foundation Leadership Center for Women. Finding it proved to be a bit tricky since the directions we got told us to "turn at the house with the blue roof", and as you may expect, there are more than one of those in the city of Phnom Pehn. Founded by Alan Lightman, the Foundation brings girls from the rural provinces of Cambodia into Phnom Penh and offers them a place to stay, that way they can have the opportunity to study at a university (almost all of the dorms in Phnom Penh are solely for men). The dorm itself was beautiful--I think we agreed it was much nicer than any dorm we've seen in the states. There we were met by a woman named Sokeang, who had graduated from the Foundation herself a few years ago, and now works there. She showed us around to places such as the kitchen, where a group of students were preparing a meal, as well as the computer center and the library (they had Harry Potter written in Khmer!) Perhaps the most beautiful space was the Hall of Great Women, located on the top floor of the dorm overlooking the city. Sokeang and the Foundation were truly inspiring. Sokeang described the environment in the dorm as very supportive. She told us that each girl learns from each other, as this is the first time any of them have lived on their own. Visiting was truly a wonderful experience, and as I heard Kate say, I don't think any of us will taking having a dorm to live in at college for granted after visiting.

Our afternoon was quite different. We began by spending time in the Russian Market and got to practice our bargaining skills. It was very overwhelming at first, because there was just so much stuff! It was hard to know where to begin. I found that wandering the market and observing the eclectic mix of goods (paintings to school supplies to car parts) was most enjoyable from the experience.  After comparing purchases, I think we came to a consensus that Kate and Yijin made the best ones; they got Hello Kitty and Angry Birds manicures, something I was personally very jealous of.

Our last stop of the day was to the Sorya Shopping Center, an intimidating shopping mall that could probably rival any of the ones in the U.S. While the mall was filled with the usual amenities of fashionable clothing stores and restaurants, the highlight had to be the roller blading rink located on the top floor. Sabine, Rohan, Dan, and I were brave enough to try it. I really mean brave. People were whizzing around so fast, often without really looking, and there were lots of jumps and bumps to fly off of. There were also few hand rails, something I definitely could have benefited from. Rohan, Sabine, and Dan attempted to go down one of the ramps and over a jump, but Dan was really the only successful one. Sabine and Rohan had their share of falls, something the onlooking Cambodians got a kick out of.

Overall, our time in Phnom Penh has been incredible. Tomorrow we will head off to Preah Vihear, the province where our school is located! While I'm sad to leave such an exciting city, I can't wait to explore such a different part of Cambodia. This will be the last blog entry for a few days since where we are going will have no internet access, but we'll be sure to catch up in Siem Reap. Talk to you in a few days!


Friday, February 24, 2012

Day 3 Reflection

"Everyone needs music in their lives" -Arn Chorn Pond

         My day started bright and early to Bobby McFerrin's Dont Worry be Happy in Khmer.  Rohan and I ambitiously set the radio alarm for five in the morning, in hopes of catching the sunrise over the Mekong.  We set up camp on the roof of the hotel.  However, little did we know that it would be nearly a hour before we would get any glimpse of the sun.

         However, our day was far from slow.  By seven we were speeding down the highway in our massive bus that could fit 30, en route to the E.C.C.C.  Apparently, the travel agency assumed that due to the average Americans weight, we wouldn't be able to fit into a normal 10 person van.  The E.C.C.C. is the joint international and national court set up in 2007 to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge and those most responsible for the crimes committed between the years 1975-1979.  A converted military complex, the E.C.C.C. facilities were state of the art, with live video conference and instantaneous translation into English, French and Khmer.  Unfortunately, the court was not meeting in session today, but we were able to see where the accused Khmer leaders were being held, and listen to a presentation by a co-prosecutor.  By 10.30 we were back on the road to meet Arn Chorn Pond, founder of Cambodia Living Arts (CLA).

        Cambodia Living Arts is an NGO committed to keeping alive the rich history of music and art in Cambodia.  During the three and a half year reign of the Khmer Rouge, nearly 90 percent of all artisans were killed.  After surviving the genocide as a patriotic flute player and forced child solider, Arn Chorn Pond was able to escape to the United States were he attended high school and college.  Despite a fear of ever returning, Arn was able to return to Cambodia and start the CLA.  "The art saved me,"explained Arn, "and now I save the art."  Arn charismatically led us through a slew of classrooms interspersed throughout the Bassac Slum, one of the poorest sections of Phenom Penh.  Arn explained that for many of the students, especially the young girls, CLA is the only thing between them and the hundreds of prostitution rings that surround the slum.  "Its life and death for them," explained Arn.  After trying our hand at a Cambodian Xylophone, and being serenaded by an archaic two string guitar, we headed back to the hotel for a quick rest before dinner.

          Arn had kindly invited us over to his house for homemade dinner.  On the bank of the Mekong, Arn's beautiful home lies on the outskirt of Phnom Penh.  Due to the small dirt roads we were unable to take our gigantic mega bus, and were forced to take three tuk-tuks.  We bounced and bumped our way down the crazy streets of Phnom Penh in our motorized cart.  Once at Arn's house we helped pick fresh morniglory and other greens for dinner.  We then visited a bustling food market in the nearby town, where we we able to practice our Khmer with curious street vendors.  As Arn's artist friend cooked the meal of fish and vegetable soup, we took a dip with Arn in the Mekong river.  Jumping off the eroded river bank we crashed into the thick mud and warm water below.  Careful not to open our mouths, we dunked our heads into the murky water where you could hear what Arn described as the singing fish. 

         At last dinner was ready as we sat around in a circle watching the sun set.  Arn told us his story.  Full of energy and passion Arn explained his goals for Cambodia.  If only more people visited Cambodia; not for the prostitution but the culture and the art.  The U.S. dropped thousands of pounds of bombs on Cambodia during the seventies, but where is the U.S. now.  Each one of those bombs could of paid the 400 dollars necessary to send a girl to college for a year in Cambodia.  But you dont make change with money said Arn, "but with relationships".  Only through more cultural exchanges between our two countries can we create the necessary relationships for overcoming the devestating effects of war. Arn a Cambodian-American, believes in a promising future for both his countries, one full of music, art and laughter.

-Daniel Kunin

Day 3 (Tribunal, Cambodian Living Arts, Visit to Arn Chorn Pond outside Phnom Penh, Swim in Mekong, Dinner)