Cambodia Travelogue 4

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Sunday, January 15, 2012, Phnom Penh

There are three or four stretches of beach frequented by tourists along the coast of Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia, but the most popular one is called Serendipity Beach, a mile-long curved stretch of soft, white sand lined with bungalows and restaurants, each with its own patch of beach with lounge chairs and umbrellas. There is a constant stream of visitors, both Cambodian and foreign, who come to enjoy the kind of clear warm waters and hot sun you can only find in the tropics.

At the center of Serendipity Beach, there is a break in the restaurant/bars that otherwise abut each other in two long unbroken rows to each side. At this access point, daily visitors not staying at one of the bungalows lining the beach can park their cars in the lot along the main road and enter the beach area through a large open pavilion that has tables and chairs to sit and eat and dance at night. As the day ends, you can hear the band tuning up preparing to play traditional Cambodian music, and during the course of the night guests are invited to take turns at the microphone to sing their favorite songs. By night’s end the tables along the dance area filled with people drinking pitchers of Angkor beer and piled with the shells of crab and grilled shrimp cooked on charcoal grills.

During the day, I saw carloads of Cambodian families arrive with coolers of food and rice cookers, sometimes bottles of Hennessey, and spread out at the long tables facing the ocean protected from the hot sub by thatched roofs. The pavilion as a tiled floor that leads out to the beach and makes a walkway to each side for visitors to traverse the line of restaurants and bars. Judging from the numbers of visitors coming and going, Serendipity is a popular destination for Cambodian families escaping the city heat and pollution and noise. Parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles with excited children enjoy large picnic lunches at the tables then refresh themselves in the water usually wearing shirts and long pants. They sit along the waters edge rather than really swim. The water was calm, and there are almost no waves and no real change in the tide, so the lounge chairs lined up about fifteen feet from the edge of the water never have to be moved.

The pavilion area is also where the many venders selling food and fruits and souvenirs, others offering traditional massages, congregate. Most of the residents of Sihanoukville earn their living in some way from tourism. In this way, Sihanounkville is similar to Siem Reap where Cambodia’s famous Angkor temples are located, but Sihanoukville is much less developed, still a destination for “adventurous tourists” and backpackers, so unlike Siem Reap, there seemed to be more poverty. Besides the groups of girls making and selling personalized bracelets and key chains, and mothers and daughters balancing large trays of assorted fruits on their heads, there were rowdy little gangs of young children, I would guess some as young as four or five, the older ones about ten or twelve, but it’s so hard to guess the ages of some of these children who can look half their actual age.

These feisty roustabouts in their ragged shorts and flip flops roamed the beach with old rice sacks slung over their shoulders scavenging the cans and bottles discarded by the mostly foreign visitors. Unlike their more advantaged counterparts peddling sunglasses (an enterprise for fathers and sons) or fruits and souvenirs (mothers and daughters), however, I rarely saw these children with adults. None of the children, both “advantaged” and “disadvantaged,” attended school it seemed. Their days were spent working, pressing the tourists to spend a dollar or two for fresh mangos and bananas peeled to order and served in a small plastic bag with a small bamboo skewer as a fork.

Unlike the “advantaged kids” the can collectors also begged, “500 riel for food,” a sad-faced, malnourished-looking boy asked me with his hand out. They moved down the beach in a group jostling each other, tough kids, but playful. They only had each other it seemed to depend on, and perhaps the one or two poor women whom I would see with them on occasion, who must have fed them and perhaps looked after them in exchange for the fifteen or twenty cans and bottles they collected each day in their rice sacks.

It was on Sunday, the next day, after spending most of Saturday watching and talking with these children (from both groups) that the incident occurred. I had crossed the main street from my hotel and crossed the parking lot and saw a group of the venders at the entrance to the pavilion area shouting angrily at the “foster mother” of the orphan children. In the middle of the group, one of the orphan boys was being attended to by a man in a new yellow jersey. The boy’s face was badly bruised. I strained to understand what the women were saying as they screamed angrily back and forth.

They were enraged and pointing their forefingers threateningly at each other. Apparently, the orphan boy had been hit by the son of one of the venders. I saw this boy
standing off to the side. There was something wrong with him. He slurred his words and looked malformed, dragging one leg behind him.

All I could understand is that the older crippled boy had hit the small orphan and badly bruised his cheek. When the foster mother (in her rage, it looked to me, if she had a knife or gun, she would have used it) condemned the crippled boy for hitting “her child”, the crippled boy staggered forward toward the crowd and slurred in Khmer, “Yes! I hit, they look down me! So I hit!” and he lunged again at the orphan boy protected in the arms of the man with the yellow jersey.

They exchange continued for several minutes between the large growing crowd of venders on one side and the foster mother surrounded by her five or six orphans looking confused and worried on the other. The man in the yellow shirt stood in between and tried to calm them down, but the two women’s rage only seemed to grow. They stepped closer and closer to each other exchanging angry barbs until it looked as though they were ready break loose and pummel each other. Finally, one of the woman venders pulled back her friend, and the foster mother backed away with her charges, firing angry insults at her adversary as she backed through the parking lot toward the main street and disappeared between a ragged row of bushes. The man in the yellow shirt took the injured boy on his moto and drove away. I was told later by one of the boy venders selling sun glasses that he brought the boy to the office of his organization in town that helped the orphan children.

After the crowd broke up and the venders returned to the edge of the pavilion where they normally gathered for lunch or to rest in the shade, I tried to find out more about what had happened. Who was the crippled boy? Who was the man in the yellow shirt? Did anyone see what made the crippled boy hit the orphan boy? I asked the owner of the restaurant where I had spent most of Saturday sitting and writing “Travelogue #3”, and he told me that he wasn’t sure exactly what happened either and that I should ask one of the venders if I wanted to know more. By then, most of the venders had gone back to their routines, while others sat at the edge of the pavilion talking about what had happened. At that point, one of the boys selling sunglasses approached me, “You want sunglasses?” he asked in English.

“No, thanks, I already have some.”

“How much you pay for those?”
“Seven dollars.”

“Are they Polaroid?” he quickly asked. (A fine little salesman.)

“I don’t know. I bought them last year when I visited Siem Reap.”

He quickly pulled out a small mirror from his tray of sunglasses and held it up to my eyes. “You can see the fish?” he asked.


“If you can’t see the fish, it not Polaroid. OK, try this.” I handed him my glasses and he handed me one of his to try.

“Now you see the fish?” he asked holding up the mirror again.

“Yes, there it is.”

“Polaroid good for your eyes. When you look in sun, not bad for your eyes.” I scanned the horizon, and there was a noticeable difference between his and my old glasses.

“How much do they cost?” I asked.

“Fifteen dollah.”

“That’s too much.”

“It comes with a nice case. See.” He showed me the case.

“How much without the case?”

“Ten dollah.”

“I’ll give you seven.”


“Ok, eight.”

“Ok.” Done.

Then I started to ask him about the incident earlier, and he explained the situation in impressive English for a boy who looked maybe eleven or twelve and had probably not been to school for the last five years.

“Those boys got no parents, so they look for cans to get some little money to eat. When they see that boy (he pointed to the crippled boy standing with his mother), they alway swear him, like ‘you f- .....’ and he proceeded to impress me with his extensive vocabulary of English four-letter words.

“What’s the matter with him?” I asked indicating the crippled boy. “Is he (I used the Khmer word for ‘crazy’)?"

“No, he not. He have some problem with his leg when he young, but he not ‘crazy’. He (he used the word for fortune teller).”

“He’s a fortune teller?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, he very good write the number and (he used the Khmer word for ‘calculate’/ ‘predict’). When those boys swear him, he get mad and hit. Those boys not good for Cambodia. They no sell something like sunglasses or stuff for tourists. They just look for cans and don’t know about something to improve.”

I asked about the man in the yellow shirt.

“Yeah, he organization, PPPC. You know that organization?”

I shook my head.

“They try to help those kids, but those kids never change. They jus’ know how to beg for five hundred riel, one thousand. Like that.”

George Chigas, Department of Cultural Studies


Cambodia Travelogue 3

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Saturday, January 14, 2012, Sihanoukville

On Thursday after teaching class at PUC, I met for the second time with a Cambodian student group that call themselves Y.E.S. (Youth Experience Sharing). I met them for the first time last Friday (the day after I arrived in Phnom Penh) after seeing a Facebook invite from the group’s nominal leader, Ly Kheang, asking YES members to meet at the Riverside boat launch at 4:30 pm in time to board one of the nightly tour boats that makes a 45-minute loop along the Tonle Sap, one of the two rivers (along with the Mekong) that flows through Phnom Penh.

UMass Lowell’s connection with YES began a year ago, January 2011, when UMass Lowell students Tola Sok, then-president of the Cambodian American Student Association (CASA), Sarina Choun, CASA’s current president, and CASA Executive Board member, Tony Phiv, travelled to Cambodia on a parallel trip with mine to begin work on the CASA’s Project S.O.K. (Save One Khmer).

Project SOK’s mission is to provide some form of assistance to impoverished villages in rural Cambodia. In the process of networking with other student groups in the US and Cambodia, UMass Lowell’s CASA members connected with YES, so that the two groups now stay in regular contact through Facebook. (Tola added me to the YES Facebook page, so even though I had never met any of the members personally, I was able to follow their activities through the social network.)

One of my objectives for this trip is to help grow the relationship between CASA and YES and offer my support as CASA’s faculty advisor. So, on Friday (January 6), the day after I arrived in Phnom Penh, I went unannounced to Riverside at 4:30 pm per Kheang’s Facebook invite. Seeing a group of young people milling around the boat launch, I approached them and asked if they knew Ly Kheang. I was told by one of the girls (her name I found out later was Hoeung) that he was on his way, and in the meantime we briefly introduced ourselves. When I told them I was from UMass Lowell they asked if I knew Tola and with that common connection revealed, we all became fast friends. It was a wonderful example of people who might otherwise never meet connecting through personal and virtual social networks.

Moments later Kheang arrived with two students visiting from Indonesia whom Kheang knew through a regional student network concerned about environmental issues. After some more introductions we boarded the tour boat ($1 for nationals, $5 for visitors) and continued our informal meeting. We climbed the stairs to the top deck with its panoramic view of the river and cool breeze and arranged our seats in a circle. Since the Indonesian students did not speak Khmer, we used English, which all of the students spoke very well.

One of the Indonesian students, Cheya, asked about YES’s plans for “no plastic day”, a regional event scheduled for March 3 for 3 hours (3, 3, 3, very clever, I thought), and Kheang explained they were having trouble finding an achievable objective they could work towards. Plastic bags are almost indispensible at the Cambodian traditional markets where the meats and vegetables are cut and cleaned and sold on the spot, and plastic bags are used more for packaging purposes than transport. I suggested that there are a few “Lucky Supermarkets” now in Phnom Penh that resemble western groceries, large, air-conditioned, modern buildings with aisles of prepackaged food. Perhaps these markets may be a possible starting point? One of the YES members added that other stores like tailor shops or electronic stores might be other possibilities. Everyone agreed that targeting these kinds of stores may be an achievable goal for the event.

Kheang told the group that YES was approaching some organizations to sponsor the cost of tote bags to give to the people who participate in the “day without plastic”, as a first step in changing people’s shopping habits to try reusable shopping bags as a substitute for environmentally harmful plastic that often end up being burned in small trash fires on city side streets or buried in crude landfills outside the city limits.

Cheya, who is also a media and communications major, asked if YES was planning to utilize Cambodia radio and TV stations to get the word out about the event. Kheang and others smiled. As much as they would like to, advertizing on the Cambodian media poses many problems: it is costly and since most stations are controlled by the government, it might require government approval. As a small organization, YES would be hard pressed to accomplish even a modest goal by March 3.

There was a pause in the discussion, and people took a moment to take in the view of the skyline and the rising moon and darkening sky. The boat had already started back to the dock by then, and the remainder of the time was spent introducing ourselves in more detail, since getting to know each other was a main objective of the meeting and seemed to yield unexpected but valuable results. Before disembarking, Kheang asked a passenger on the boat to take a picture of our group, and we all gathered in a semi-circle on the middle of the deck as the meeting was formally documented.

The next day, Kheang posted the group photo on the YES Facebook page which Tola happened to see back in the US. He posted a comment under the picture: “Is that George Chigas, CASA’s faculty advisor, in the back row in the white shirt?” (More connections!) I also received a very kind email from Hoeung in Khmer (a show of respect and in a way acceptance) thanking me for taking the time to join their group and asking if the group could meet with me again the following week. After a few subsequent emails, we planned to meet last Thursday (January 12) at 4:30 pm after my class at PUC at the park near Independence Monument across from the Ministry of Environment.

On Thursday, I hurried back to my hotel after class, showered and walked quickly to the meeting place afraid I might be late, but when I arrived I didn’t see anyone there. A little annoyed, I called Hoeung on her cell (we had exchanged numbers by email) and she told me they were on their way. What I didn’t realize was the YES members had to ride their bicycles (not motor scooters like wealthier students) from the University about five miles away in heavy traffic. (Traffic in Cambodia requires a description of its own, a kind of free-for-all where who yields to whom is governed by the size of the vehicle, and bicycles would be at the bottom of that hierarchy!)

When Hoeung, Kheang, and the others finally arrived, we decided on a place to sit and talk. (Being the afternoon, we had to compete with the exercise groups that gather at different corners of the park each afternoon to form rows behind the group leader who demonstrates the exercise/dance moves that everyone follows to the accompaniment of loud music pumped through large speakers.) Again, the meeting was very casual with no specific agenda. But after a few minutes of conversation, I asked Kheang to tell me more about YES’s activities in 2011, since I still knew very little about the kinds of things the group did.

Kheang described a series of visits YES had made to rural high schools to talk with the students there and describe what it was like to study at university and live in the city. He explained that they wanted to act as mentors for these students and encourage them to try to go to university if possible. “If we could do it, they can do it,” he said. “We were just like them. We came from the same small, poor villages.”

As Kheang was describing one of the trips to a high school in Siem Reap where two of the YES members had gone, it occurred to me that this might be a way for our UMass Lowell students who planned to study at PUC next fall to connect with YES and participate in a service learning project as part of their coursework at PUC (with credit transfer to UMass Lowell). To end the meeting, I asked Kheang how to add my students to the YES Facebook page if they chose to, and I promised Hoeung that if we have another meeting before I leave Cambodia, I would go to see them.

George Chigas, Department of Cultural Studies

Cambodia Travelogue 2

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Friday, January 13, 2012, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Completed the first week of teaching at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). Although the primary text used for this class is the same I use in my Comparative Arts class at UMass Lowell (a Cambodian classic called Tum Teav), the way the Cambodian students at PUC respond to the text is very different than my students at UMass Lowell.

Since the Cambodian students have all read and studied the story in high school, I spent very little time this week discussing the characters and plot of the story, and most of the time discussing the role of the text in the 1960s after Cambodia gained independence from French colonial rule (1863-1954). Since Tum Teav is perhaps the most important text in the Cambodian literary canon, it played a key part in Cambodia’s attempt to re-invent Cambodian cultural and national identity after almost one hundred years of French rule and cultural domination.

Although these concepts are fairly abstract and difficult to grasp, I was impressed by the students’ eagerness to engage in our class discussions and ask difficult questions. Nevertheless, I found it very challenging to teach these ideas in a setting that is new to me. I have never taught at a Cambodian university before. Consequently, I found myself trying to explain these concepts in ways that I would not use at UMass Lowell, in ways that tried to relate to the specific cultural background of the students. One of the difficult concepts we discussed concerned the emergence of Cambodian literary institutions in Cambodia.

Before the French arrived in Cambodia in 1863, the western notion of “literature” did not exist in Cambodia. Of course there was literary writing, but these texts (written on palm leaf manuscripts) were primarily produced by monks in temples or scribes in the royal palace. So, basically, they were either “religious texts” or “royal texts.” During the French period, French language and literature was used in the educational system especially at the lycée, and by the 1930s, the idea of “literature” and literary institutions (distinct from religious and monarchal writing and institutions) had become established in Cambodia.

After independence in 1954, there was a concerted effort to remove French influence from Cambodian society and assert a distinctly Cambodian cultural and national identity, a modern nation-state that could join the other nations of the world at the recently formed United Nations, for example. In doing this, French literature (Balzac, Flaubert, etc) were removed from the national curriculum and replaced with Cambodian texts such as Tum Teav. “Literature” as an institution was maintained while the texts that comprised it were changed from French to Cambodian.

In the process of discussing this in class, it was clear to me that most of the students were having difficulty grasping these concepts in the way I was presenting them. To make the concepts easier to understand, it occurred to me to compare the various institutions (religious, monarchal, literary, etc) to baskets, an image that is used in Buddhism to explain the three kinds of teachings of the Buddha, referred to as “the three baskets.”

I drew several baskets on the board and labeled them “religious”, “monarchal”, “literary” etc. I explained how after independence from France, Cambodia under Prince Norodom Sihanouk still wanted to keep the “basket” called “literature” created by the French. This was something that Cambodia still needed. It is a necessary feature of a 20th century modern nation-state. What the country wanted to change, I explained, was the contents of the “basket”, the texts, because these were the texts that would be part of Cambodia’s new cultural and national identity.

This seemed to “click” with the students, and would probably not been as effective in my class at UMass Lowell. We went on to compare how this process also took place during Cambodia’s Angkor period (9-15th c.) when Indian cultural influence was very strong but was transformed into something uniquely Cambodian. I think it was a “learning moment” for both the students and me that make teaching in new settings so refreshing and inspiring.

George Chigas, Department of Cultural Studies

Greetings from Cambodia!

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Prof. George Chigas is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to develop our study abroad program with Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). We currently have seven students planning to enroll for Fall 2012. He will be sending updates of his journey.

Monday, January 8, 2012 (4am), Phnom Penh Cambodia
Arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday night at 10:30 pm. The main purpose of this trip is to develop the relationship between UMass Lowell and Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). This relationship was initiated previously by Dr. Pierson and Vice-Chancellor Maloney and formalized during my last trip in January 2011 which resulted in a memorandum of understanding (MOU). 

Currently, the main activity between UMass Lowell and PUC is a study abroad program through the Department of Cultural Studies. Our first student just completed the program during the Fall 2011 semester and seven students have applied for the Fall 2012 semester. During my three-week trip I will develop a hybrid (face-to-face & onine) 3-credit course designed to satisfy PUC's course requirements for "Critical Reading of Literature" (ENGL 413), a required undergraduate course in several undergraduate faculties (colleges). This course would also be designed to satisfy UMass Lowell's Cultural Studies course requirements for Comparative Arts. If successful, UMass Lowell students who study abroad at PUC during their summer term (August-November) would have the option to extend their stay through January to take the course and transfer the course credit. 

Other important objectives of the trip will be to discuss a possible faculty exchange with PUC,
 options for PUC students to study at UMass Lowell, service learning opportunities for UMass Lowell students in the area of Peace and Conflict, as well as gathering books and materials for a special collection and locating Cambodian music instruments for use by the UMass Lowell Music Department's World Music class that will offer Cambodian music this spring 2012.

In this travelogue I hope to record my thoughts and impressions about what I see and experience during these three weeks. This is my sixth trip to Cambodia; the first was in 1996, as I was beginning my graduate studies in Cambodian language and culture. Much has changed since then, and it would be impossible to provide any comprehensive assessment of the political and socio-economic transformations that are happening perhaps as fast now as at any time in the last thirty years. 

It was thirty-three years ago on January 7 when Vietnamese forces removed the Khmer Rouge from power. Their four years of totalitarian rule resulted in the death of a quarter of the population (2 out of 8 million) and the total destruction of infrastructure, educational, financial, health systems, religion, the list goes on. Making a speech on national TV that I watched in my hotel room last night, Prime Minister Hun Sen described how in the 1980s people had three ways to get around: barefoot, using flip-flops, or if you were rich, on bicycle. 

Today, Hun Sen said, you see people in new running shoes, motos (Honda & Vespa scooters) and Lexus SUVs. This is in fact what you see in downtown Phnom Penh today. Families and couples strolling along the beautifully landscaped garden walkways, gathering in the large Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship plaza to exercise in organized groups to music, hordes of young people on scooters cruising the Riverside broadway along the Tonle Sap. 

And these sights are in stark contrast to my memories of the same places during my trip in 1996, about fifteen years ago, when the gardens were patches of dirt where barefoot children in rags tried to fly homemade kites made of discarded plastic bags and bits of plastic string. 

Everywhere you look there is construction and new businesses. Of course, you will also see poverty and barefoot children, and if you leave the city to the countryside, you see very little development, lack of schools, health care, jobs, etc. And perhaps this is one of the difficulties in trying to assess a place like Cambodia. 

Compared to where it was thirty years ago, the growth, development and stability (no armed conflict, no violent protests, although there are protests that I will talk about) that exist now are remarkable even extraordinary, and Hun Sen?s government (which has been in power continuously) deserves credit for the progress that has been made. Still, there are many serious problems, the lack of civil liberties (freedom of speech, especially), flagrant abuse of power by government officials, lack of rule of law or equality before the law, etc., that are very upsetting to witness and make you want to condemn the government and the leadership for tolerating, enabling and in many cases participating in these abuses.

As I left the Phnom Penh airport Thursday night in the PUC van that came to pick me up, as we pulled out of the airport road onto the main street, to our left a large SUV pulled out and struck a moto driver. We saw his body (it seemed like slow motion) topple over the hood of the SUV and fall onto the pavement. The driver looked unconscious, sprawled across the road. The SUV backed up a few feet, and someone got out of the back door and looked at the body then got back in the car as it drove away leaving the injured moto driver behind. 

I turned to Narin, the PUC staff person whom I had met last year, in disbelief that the SUV could just drive away like that without having to help the driver or make a report to the police. Narin smiled ironically, ?In Cambodia, no one helps you. You have to help yourself, because there is no one (no governmental agency) that will help you."

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