Friday, July 30, 2010

US and Cambodia in controversial lockstep

Posted: 30 Jul 2010 08:22 AM PDT

Cartoon by Sacrava (on the web at http://sacrava.blogspot.com)

Jul 31, 2010
By Clifford McCoy
Asia Times (Hong Kong)

"In a July 8 report, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights lobby, alleged that many RCAF units selected to participate in the joint exercises had abysmal rights records. HRW said that by allowing the controversial units to participate in the drills, the US had undermined its own commitment to the promotion of human rights in Cambodia."
BANGKOK - Cambodia's first-ever multinational military exercise is part and parcel of intensifying competition between the United States and China for regional influence.

The recently completed US-Cambodia military drills, known as "Angkor Sentinel 10", involved 1,200 soldiers from 23 countries and were ostensibly part of Washington's Global Peace Operations Initiative, a program run jointly by the US Department of Defense and State Department to help train global peacekeepers against insurgency, terrorism, crime and ethnic conflict.

The largest contingents of troops in the exercise were from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the US Army Pacific, even as it was billed as a multilateral peacekeeping operation.

Warming bilateral relations come as the Barack Obama administration puts new policy emphasis on Asia and moves to compete with, if not contain, China's growing influence in Southeast Asia. Cambodia, as well as Laos and Myanmar, are viewed by many observers as already firmly in China's orbit. China's influence in Cambodia has grown considerably in the past decade. While not the largest official donor to the country, its aid projects and investments are strongly publicized and come without demands for improved human rights, better governance or less corruption.

The US has provided over US$4.5 million worth of military equipment and training to the Cambodian military since 2006, and this was the first time the two sides jointly put the equipment to use. Recent statements by US officials highlighted the cooperation between Cambodia and US forces.

At the May 3 opening of the now-completed, US Defense Department-funded Peacekeeping Training Center, US charge d'affaires Theodore Allegra said the US remained ''committed to enhancing military relations with Cambodia in the areas of defense reform and professionalization, border and maritime security, counter-terrorism, civil-military operations and de-mining."

The $1.8 million training center was "evidence of the US government's commitment to enhancing partner capacity with Cambodia", he said.

At the July 12 opening ceremony of the military operations, US ambassador to Cambodia Carol Rodley said Washington was committed to enhancing its military relationship with Phnom Penh and called Angkor Sentinel a "unique opportunity" to expand the friendship between the two countries.

The drills, which also included participants from France, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, India, Italy, Germany, Japan, Mongolia and the United Kingdom, notably coincided with the 60th anniversary of US-Cambodia relations.

The program for the exercises consisted of two main components: a multilateral UN force headquarters computer-simulated command post exercise held in Phnom Penh and a two-week field training exercise at the RCAF's ACO Tank Command headquarters in Kompong Speu province 50 kilometers west of the capital.

However, the exercises did not sit well with some military officers in Thailand, the US's erstwhile security partner in the region. Thailand plays host annually to the region's largest US-led joint military exercise, Cobra Gold. Some Thai officers have expressed dismay that the US is showing increased strategic interest in a country that has emerged as one of its biggest security threats in light of recent border disputes and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's perceived meddling in Thai domestic politics.

United States Under Secretary of State William Burns discounted this view in a July 16 press conference in Bangkok. "We don't see that as in any way contradicting or in conflict with our commitment to working with the Thai military on regional security or peacekeeping operations," he said.

Guns for hire

Cambodia has come a long way since being the recipient of one of the United Nations' largest peacekeeping operations from 1991-1993. After decades of debilitating civil war, the country has in recent years sent peacekeepers, primarily de-mining experts, to Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and Lebanon.

Human-rights activists argue that while Cambodia may no longer need peacekeepers itself, its population is still in need of protection from its own armed forces, including units involved in the recent joint exercises.

In a July 8 report, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights lobby, alleged that many RCAF units selected to participate in the joint exercises had abysmal rights records. HRW said that by allowing the controversial units to participate in the drills, the US had undermined its own commitment to the promotion of human rights in Cambodia.

HRW, Cambodian human-rights organizations and other international rights groups, as well as the US State Department, have all detailed ACO Tank Command units involvement in illegal land seizures. These include the November 2009 seizure of farmland from 133 families in Baneay Meanchey province and the use of tanks in 2007 to flatten villagers' fences and crops in a forceful move to confiscate land.

HRW noted that certain elite units, such as the prime minister's personal bodyguard, Airborne Brigade 911, Brigade 31 and Brigade 70, were all scheduled to participate in the Phnom Penh portion of the exercise. Both the bodyguard unit and Brigade 70 were involved in the 1997 grenade attack on a political rally by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, according to HRW.

Airborne Brigade 911, meanwhile, has been linked to arbitrary detentions, political violence, torture and summary executions. Brigade 31 has been accused of involvement in illegal logging, intimidation of opposition party activists and land-grabbing, including the use in 2008 of US-provided trucks to forcibly evict villagers from their land in Kampot province.

Cambodian military officers and soldiers operate without fear of arrest or punishment, human-rights groups say. ''Hun Sen has promoted military officers implicated in torture, extra-judicial killings and political violence,'' said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director.

While some of these acts have been carried out for the benefit of the business interests of military officers, others have been done at the request of private companies with links to the military. Plans announced by Hun Sen in February for corporate sponsorship of military units to cover defense costs have many worried that the contributions will increase companies' control over military units to do their bidding.

Cambodian government officials dismissed HRW's claims. The US has likewise defended its involvement in the exercises. In a July 11 statement by embassy spokesman John Johnson, he said all participants in the exercises were "thoroughly and rigorously vetted" by the embassy and the Defense and State departments.

This was echoed by Burns during his visit to Phnom Penh. "Any military relationship that we conduct around the world is consistent with US law. And so, we look very carefully, we vet carefully, the participants from Cambodia, from other countries, in any kind of exercise that we engage in."

HRW called on the US government to suspend military aid to Cambodia until an improved and thorough human-rights vetting process could be implemented to screen out abusive individuals or units from receiving US aid or training. However, indications are that the US has little interest in putting the brakes on rapidly improving bilateral ties with Cambodia.

Symbolic gestures

One major symbolic step was the removal last year of Cambodia and Laos from a list of Marxist-Leninist states. The redesignation opened the way for increased US investment by removing restrictions on US Export-Import Bank financing and loans to both countries. Washington is currently one of Cambodia's largest donors with more than $72 million in assistance this year focused on health, education, economic development and government accountability. The US donated $65 million in 2009.

Washington is apparently showing its support in other ways, too. Last month, an American judge sentenced Cambodian-American Chhun Yasith to life in prison for his leading role in an attempted coup in November 2000 by a group calling itself the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF). Although the CFF had previously received some tacit US approval, the verdict sent a message to other Cambodians that support for any anti-government activities from US soil would no longer be tolerated.

Security related ties have also improved, partly out of recognition that several high-profile terror suspects have passed through Cambodia. In January 2008, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller made a visit to Cambodia to open a new FBI office at the embassy. Mueller said at the time, "It's an important country to us because of the potential for persons transiting Cambodia or utilizing Cambodia as a spot for terrorism."

Since then Phnom Penh has requested FBI help to solve the assassination of opposition journalist Khim Sambo and his son in July 2008 during a national election campaign. The journalist was known for his scathing criticisms of Hun Sen's administration, including allegations of corruption. The government has also requested FBI assistance in a joint investigation into a failed bomb plot against several government buildings by would-be Cambodian rebels in January 2009.

Prior to opening its new office, the FBI was involved in an investigation into the 1997 grenade attack on a rally by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in which 16 people were killed and an American citizen was among the injured. The US government and the FBI were later criticized for pulling out of the investigation when it was believed they were on the verge of solving it. A June 1997 Washington Post article cited US government officials familiar with a classified FBI report on the investigation as saying the agency had tentatively pinned the blame on Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit.

Jousting between the US and China for influence has become more openly apparent. After the US suspended the delivery of military vehicles following the repatriation of ethnic Uighur asylum seekers from Cambodia to China in December, Beijing stepped in with a $14 million pledge of military aid in May. The 256 military vehicles and 50,000 military uniforms covered under the pledge were delivered by China in June.

China has also provided small arms to Cambodia in recent years, including modern QBZ Chinese-made assault rifles for Cambodia's special forces units. With China keen to maintain its edge in Cambodia and expand its influence in the rest of the region, US policymakers may feel Washington can ill-afford to miss opportunities to improve ties. The upshot may be that strategic partners are less rigorously vetted as new friends are sought and military relationships developed.

Clifford McCoy is a freelance journalist.

Cambodia reports new death of Mekong River dolphin


Xinhua

A Mekong river dolphin was found dead in Kratie province in Cambodian's north eastern part, a government official said Friday.

Touch Seang Tana, chairman of Cambodia's Commission for Conversation and Development of the Mekong River Dolphins Eco- tourism Zone, said the river dolphin believed at age of 27 was found dead on Thursday as it was netted in a laying fishing net in the stream.

He said the dolphin, male, was already old and it had swum out of the protected zone looking for foods and accidently spotted in the fishing net.

He said it weighed 156 kilograms with 2.3 meters long.

Touch Seang Tana estimated dolphins numbered at about 150 to 170 today are living in Cambodia's two provinces of Stung Treng and Kratie, while there were only about 120 in 2000.

Last year, International conservation watchdog, known as WWF issued a report saying and warning that pollution in the Mekong River has pushed the local population of Irrawaddy dolphins to the brink of extinction.

The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin has been listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species since 2004.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The US Ambassador to Cambodia - Who is she?

Ambassador to Cambodia: Who is Carol Rodley?


In May 2009, Rodley ruffled the feathers of the Cambodian government when, while delivering the opening speech at an anti-corruption concert in Phnom Penh, she claimed that Cambodia loses $500 million a year to corruption. (Photo: Cambodge Soir Hebdo)

Saturday, July 24, 2010
Noel Brinkerhoff
AllGov.com

A career officer in the Senior Foreign Service, Carol A. Rodley is serving her second tour in Cambodia, having worked in the Southeast Asian country in the late 1990s. Although she has served in many capacities in the State Department, Rodley is well-versed in issues of intelligence and counter-terrorism.

A native of Massachusetts, Rodley graduated from Smith College in 1976.

Her Washington assignments have included executive assistant to the Bosnia coordinator for the Dayton peace accord negotiations; deputy director of the secretariat staff; Cyprus desk officer in the Office of Southern European Affairs; senior watch officer in the Operations Center; and intelligence analyst in the Russia Division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Rodley’s overseas assignments have included postings in Germany, South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Pakistan.

From 1997-2000 she worked her first tour in Cambodia, as deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Phnom Penh. During this time, she supported bringing former Khner Rouge officials to trial for crimes against humanity before an “international court.”

Rodley then attended the State Department’s senior leadership training course, the 43rd Senior Seminar, at the Foreign Service Institute from 2000-2001.

For the next two years she served as deputy executive secretary in the Executive Secretariat, until July 2003.

From 2003-2006 Rodley served as acting assistant secretary and principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. While in this position, she put together “Team Al-Qaida,” a group of State Department analysts whose goal, in Rodley’s words, was to “deepen our understanding of both specific terrorist networks and the broader international jihadist movement” using “computer-aided methods to mine the volumes of data and have developed particular expertise on terrorist support networks and terrorist facilitators.”

She relocated to Afghanistan to work as counselor for political and military affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, before returning to the states to serve as a faculty advisor at the Foreign Service Institute for Afghanistan and Iraq training.

President George W. Bush nominated Rodley to be ambassador to Cambodia in May 2008, a post she finally took over on October 24.

In May 2009, Rodley ruffled the feathers of the Cambodian government when, while delivering the opening speech at an anti-corruption concert in Phnom Penh, she claimed that Cambodia loses $500 million a year to corruption.

Rodley is married to David Newhall, and the couple has three children. Rodley speaks Khmer, German, Spanish, Urdu, and Hindi.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cambodian bourse set for next July ‘at any cost’

CAMBODIA’S stock exchange will launch by next July “at any cost”, the third scheduled start date for the much-anticipated bourse.

A statement from the Ministry of Economy and Finance, received by the Post yesterday, said the Cambodia Securities Exchange had been postponed until next year.

Trading was set to begin at the end of this year, after the initial deadline was missed in 2009. However, the exchange has yet to be licensed, and its slated home at Phnom Penh’s Camko City has yet to be built.

“The postponement of the CSX is to adapt to the evolution of the global economic and financial situation, which shows some positive signs of recovery but is still fragile,” the government release said.

“With the approval from the two countries’ [Cambodia and South Korea] prime ministers, CSX will be launched by July 2011 – at any cost.”

The decision was announced after Cambodian Finance Minister Keat Chhon met privately with Chin Dong-Soo, Chairman of South Korea’s financial services commission, and officials of the Korean Exchange last week at an International Monetary Fund conference in Daejeon, South Korea.

At the sidelines of the conference, the minister told reporters that the exchange was set to be postponed, but he declined to detail a timeframe.
Officials and public-sector representatives alike are now taking stock of the latest announcement.

For the Korean Exchange, which holds a 45 percent interest in the CSX, building public belief around the bourse in Cambodia is key.

“We will have further time to prepare. The most important thing is public confidence,” Inpyo Lee, project director of the Korean Exchange, said yesterday.

He said laws and regulations relevant to the stock market were almost in place, and that an operating licence application could be submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission of Cambodia in the next month.

Bretton Sciaroni, chairman of the International Business Club, an association that includes most multinationals operating in Cambodia, said yesterday that the delay would provide more time to create a healthy stock market.

“It is not an easy task,” he said. “If you want a right stock market with public confidence it takes time to prepare all the proper rules and regulations. I am happy as long as the stock market has been done in the right way.”

Ming Bankosal, director general of the SECC, Mey Vann, director of the Finance Ministry’s financial industry department, and Hong Sok Hour, director general of CSX, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cambodia's office rental prices decline as supply exceeds demand

July 16, 2010

Xinhua

Supply of office space continues to outstrip demand in Phnom Penh, putting pressure on already squeezed rental prices, withrates down 25 percent in the second quarter, compared to the same period last year, local media reported on Friday.

Keuk Narin, secretary of the National Valuers Association of Cambodia and general manager of Bonna Realty Group, was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as saying that increasing office space for rent in Phnom Penh was forcing a cut in rental prices.

A quarter-on-quarter comparison of rental rates showed that 2010 second quarter prices fell 2 percent from the first three months of the year, when rates were already 10 percent lower than the 2009's fourth quarter.

A year-on-year comparison shows office rent is between 20 percent and 25 percent lower than in the second quarter of 2009.

"This year the supply of office space for rent has increased 15 percent - much more than the demand - and I think that has pushed prices still lower this year," he was quoted as saying.

The valuers association estimated that monthly rent for A-grade office space ranged between 20 U.S. dollars to 30 U.S. dollars per square meter, down from first quarter rates of 25 U.S. dollars to 35 U.S. dollars. The average occupancy rate for the first six months of this year was around 50 to 60 percent. Rental rates in B- grade offices now ranges from 8 to 12 U.S. dollars per square meter, down from 10 to 15 U.S. dollars per square, with an average occupancy of about 66 percent.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ten Historical Places in Cambodia

The Kingdom of Cambodia belongs to the Southeast Asian nations. Cambodia relies solely on its textile and garment production and trade in addition to tourism to maintain the wants of the country. As for tourism, everyone desires to go go to Cambodia’s historical locations, and listed below are a few of them.

1.) Angkor Archaeological Park
That is the placement of the world-famous Khmer civilization, a civilization so trendy throughout its time that it nonetheless awes its current-day visitors. Here, you’ll be able to go to the Temple of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom as well as the Bayon Temple. One of the best ways to view all that Angkor has to supply is to take considered one of their tours, since they are more comprehensive than by simply touring it yourself.

2.) Bokor National Park
This nationwide park is the site where an outdated and dilapidated French hill station is located. It’s rich in history as a variety of Khmer lost their lives for the creation of this used-to-be magnificent building. But aside from this, you can even see a myriad of floras and faunas in the national park.

3.) Kampong Cham
This is Cambodia’s third biggest city and can be a well-liked vacationer destination, though not as standard as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. You too can see loads of lovely locations here like the Nokor Wat in addition to the Bamboo Bridge that connects Koh Paen to Mekong. This city is also rich in French influence.

4.) Kompong Luong
This floating town is a should-see if your vacation spot is Cambodia. It is a floating village in Tonle Sap where you can experience Cambodian culture firsthand. It’s a delight to any foreigner to see faculties and homes and eating places float over the lake of Tonle Sap.

5.) Phnom Penh
Acknowledged as the biggest city of Cambodia, additionally it is Cambodia’s capital city. There is a lot you are able to do right here like visiting the Sisowath Bay the place you may get pleasure from its quasi-carnival ambiance. That is additionally the place The Royal Palace is situated in addition to The National Museum.

6.) Banlung
Here in Banlung, you will definitely enjoy visiting Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake the place you’ll be able to take picnics as well as swim within the lake. Virachey National Park can also be positioned here, or you possibly can visit the Wat Rahtanharahm the place you could find the well-known reclining Buddha. There are additionally a lot of fantastic waterfalls you can visit right here like Cha Ong and Kan Chang.

7.) Battambang
These are the must-go-to places in Battambang. It’s a must to visit Wat Banan or what they name small Angkor Wat, and it’s a must to go to Wat Baydamram or the bat temple the place you can see fruit bats stay in hundreds. Wat Ek Phnom is also a must-see place in this area.

8.) Resort town of Kep
It is a favorite seaside vacation spot in Cambodia. Here, get to enjoy the Cambodian sun as you dine in platforms and eat fresh seafoods, and it is a great place the place you can just loosen up and benefit from the solar and the sea. Visiting the Rabbit Island is also a should as you will undoubtedly take pleasure in its white sand beaches.

9.) Koh Kong
Koh Kong is extra for the nature lover as you will definitely take pleasure in majestic views of mountains and waterfalls as well as jungles. You may also visit their native zoo and the casino here if you need a extra trendy touch. Boat tours are widespread here as you visit its islands and mangroves.

10.) Siem Reap
It’s one other favorite vacationer spot in Cambodia. What you possibly can see here is the Landmine Museum, which is devoted to teaching and educating both the locals and the visitors in regards to the hazards of land mines. You can even discover a floating village here called the Kampong Phluck. For more information about Places of Cambodia please visit this website http://www.cambodiatoursonline.com

Romance in Vietnam and Cambodia For Lovers

This twelve - night unique experiences showcasing Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoian – Saigon, Vietnam and Seam Reap Cambodia.

Luxury Travel Vietnam (www.luxurytravelvietnam.com) is providing an array of attractive packages at the most romantic and luxurious hotels and resorts in Asia. Guests can expect to be met and greeted with flowers and a welcome dinner on arrival day, with chocolates and flowers in their room.

Vietnam is fast becoming one of the most romantic and fascinating destinations in Asia. Travelers can now plan an unforgettable and extraordinary honeymoon or wedding anniversary celebration in this beautiful country.
“With the emergence of beach destinations and a growing number of luxury spa and boutique resorts, Vietnam is now defining itself as an attractive and exotic destination ideal for honeymoons or romantic trips” commented Luxury Travel Company’s Sales and Marketing Manager, David Nguyen.

Luxury Travel Vietnam has also added a few extra touches such as limo pick ups and transfers, hotel upgrades, champagne, couple spa treatment, private picnics, sunset private cruises and lots of other surprises for couples seeking romance.

“Southeast Asia captures the heart like nowhere else on earth. This trip “Romance in South East Asia” makes your honeymoon extra-memorable by embarking on a journey rich in history, culture and romance. You'll be both captivated and inspired on this twelve - night unique experiences showcasing Vietnam and Cambodia. You'll also be treated like royalty at four of our favorite hotels in Hanoi, Hoi An, Saigon and Siem Reap” added Dav.

Tour cost starts from 12000 USD per couple, valid through 31 Dec 2010, for tour information, visit luxurytravelvietnam.com .

ROMANCE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
12 Nights – Hanoi – Hoian - Saigon – Siem Reap• Available through December 19, 2010

Luxury Travel Company Exclusive Experience Includes:
• Nine nights' accommodation
• Room upgrade upon arrival, if available
• Breakfast for two daily
• Experience a traditional Buddhist blessing ceremony, performed by
local monks that reside in the beautiful pagoda of Wat Damnak
that will bring good fortune to your married life
• Sightseeing with local English speaking guides
• All transfers
• Most meals

LUXURY TRAVEL rates start from $12,000 per couple

In addition to the three fabulous hotels on this trip, you'll also enjoy a romantic overnight aboard The Violet, a deluxe junk with just six luxurious cabins, as the couple explores Halong Bay.

Sofitel Legend Metropole, Hanoi www.sofitel.com

  • A favorite of visiting ambassadors, writers and heads of state
  • Located in downtown Hanoi
  • European luxury combined with Vietnamese hospitality
  • Fine dining including Le Beaulieu featuring French cuisine
  • Full-service spa

The Nam Hai www.thenamhai.com

  • Luxury resort located on Hoi An Beach
  • Unobstructed views of the sea and close proximity to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • Villas with indoor and outdoor sitting areas
  • Pool villas with private swimming pools
  • Tranquil spa with chromo therapy baths and steam showers

Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel www.saigon.park.hyatt.com

  • Luxury Hotel located in the heart of Saigon
  • Deluxe View Room faces to the garden and pool , provide a cozy residential ambience.
  • Xuan spa treatment
  • Designed to feel more like a contemporary Vietnamese residence rather than a hotel.

Hotel de la Paix www.hoteldelapaix.com

  • Stylish escape close to Angkor Wat
  • Guestrooms featuring Art Deco design with Khmer influences
  • Three-story Spa Indochine
  • Meric restaurant offering classic cuisine and seasonally inspired Khmer dishes
  • The Arts Lounge featuring chic cocktails and changing art exhibits

Controversial US-Cambodia peace training underway

Updated July 12, 2010 10:49:57

More than a thousand military personel from 23 countries are in Cambodia for the annual global peacekeeper training exercise. It's called "Angkor Sentinel" and is jointly run by the US Department of Defence and State Department. But the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch has criticised the military training exercise, saying the US should not be working with Cambodian military units, that Human Rights Watch says have committed abuses.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speakers: Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director Human Rights Watch; John Johnson, spokesman for the US embassy in Cambodia

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Roughing it in Snooky...

Having finally escaped the grey and grim Phnom Penh, we arrived in Sihanoukville (known as Snooky locally) after a five hour bus journey. As happens with pretty much every place that we've been to so far on our travels, when getting off the bus at the station we were mobbed by a gang of tuk-tuk drivers all trying to pull us left right and center and trying to get us to stay in their mates hotel or guest house... Our usual way of dealing with this is to fight our way past them and once in the clear get a map out and try and figure out whether we could walk it, which we did again this time electing to walk the (what appeared to be on the map) 1.5km to our guest house.

About 40 minutes later we found ourselves still walking along a dusty road in the baking sun with our heavy backpacks, and we still hadn't any sign of any landmarks to suggest that we were getting close. We were soon passed by a friendly German dude on a motorbike who informed us that were still a long, long way away snooky sunset
snooky sunset
. After leaving us he very kindly flagged down a tuk tuk driver and sent him in our (now rather sweaty and unimpressed) direction. We got the tuk tuk and eventually got to Serendipity beach where we were going to stay, and after the driver tried to charge us twice the fare, Kat noticed that her phone had come out of her pocket somewhere along the way.

While Kat went of to an internet cafe to call vodafone, cancel her SIM card and email people at home to let them know that she was phoneless, I decided the best thing to keep up morale would be to go and have a beer and some food on the beach. Serendipity beach is an attractive stretch of sand lined with lots of cheap little bars selling beer at around 50c a glass and mojitos for around $1.50, but the one major drawback is the number of hawkers trying to sell you stuff. During my first meal on the beach I was approached by a boy who tried to sell me a pair of sunglasses despite the fact I was already wearing a pair, had to fend an elderly woman off with one of the bar menu's as she tried to cut my toenails, and had a bloke try and sell me bags of what appeared to be oregano that he was keeping in his pocket. I went on to inform him that our accommodation wasn't self catering and that as a result we wouldn't be doing any cooking while we were there.

We found a really nice little room in a place called Tranquility, owned by a lovely British family,

which was only about 20 meters from the beach snooky beach
snooky beach
. That evening we headed out along the beach and had a couple of drinks, and enjoyed a fantastic sunset while the local kids set fireworks of from the beach.

The next couple of days were pretty chilled out. We very quickly, and happily got back into the routine of life by the beach, lazing about eating and drinking and finding new places to watch the world cup. On the Monday after we arrived we headed off to a little Island called Koh Ru just of the Cambodian coast.

The island has beaches at its north and south ends, which are connected by a small dirt path through the jungle that covers the island. We were staying at the north end of the island which was spotlessly clean and practically deserted apart from a couple of beach huts and a bar/restaurant. The beach itself was amazing picture postcard stuff and we had it pretty much to ourselves. The downside, unfortunately, was that the bar was staffed by a load of western guys in their mid twenties, who just sat around playing the playstation at the bar and weren't particularly interested in serving customers or making you feel in the slightest bit welcome. The other problem (I know I'm moaning about staying on a beautiful beach...) was that our beach shack was full of holes, had a dodgy roof, smelt fairly awful and had no electricity except for a couple of hours in the evening koh ru beach - paradise!
koh ru beach - paradise!
.

The next day we woke after a really bad sleep to really heavy rain, making spending anytime on the beach unlikely so we opted to jump back on a boat and make our way back to good old Snooky for some home comforts!

After settling back into our old room in Tranquility we went out for a meal at a little restaurant called the Holy Cow which we'd initially thought would be a steak house given the name and the sign out front, but actually had some really good veggie options. After a huge meal, which included a vegan chocolate cake, we wandered down to a bar called the Wall (as in the Pink Floyd album) which someone had handed us a flyer for while we were on the beach. The Wall is a rock bar owed by a Cambodian guy called Dan who spent much of his life living in the USA, and the walls are covered with murals and pictures of rock deity such as Led Zeppelin, the Stones and the Beatles. We sat up chatting with Dan, a couple of the bar staff and one of the regulars chatting till about three am with obscure Led Zeppelin bootlegs playing in the background. All in all a really good night. The next day was spent in a similar fashion, and after watching the football returned to the Wall for a slightly earlier night than the one before.

The next day we packed our bags once again (we're getting seriously good at packing now) and jumped on the bus on our way back to Phnom Penh before heading up towards Kratie for our last few days in Cambodia before heading into Laos for the next leg of our journey. You'll next hear from Kat who'll let you know what we've got up to in the meantime, we hope that all is good back in the UK and that everyone's well and happy.

Take care

Ewan and Kat

Saturday, July 10, 2010

CAMBODIA - Village Development Project


  • The key to the CHILD is the FAMILY,
  • The key to the FAMILY is the VILLAGE,
  • The key to the VILLAGE is the COMMUNITY

Cambodian Hope Organisation (CHO) has a vision to target and impact the province along the Thai – Cambodia border. This region has become a major ‘trafficking’ lane due to it’s proximity along the border.

CHO aims to reach the estimated1500 children at risk for trafficking in this region.

10 villages have been identified as part of this Village Development Program and this community-based strategy will consist of following 6 components:

  • Community Center
  • MAT School
  • Safe House
  • Micro-Enterprise projects
  • CHO leadership personnel
  • Water pond
http://www.hopeforthenations.com/project/project.aspx?asset=362

Cambodian population to reach 17.5 mln by 2025

July 10, 2010
Xinhua

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen said Friday that his country's population will reach 17.5 million by 2025 citing the average birth rate at 1.54 percent per year.

In an open message to the World Population Day, Hun Sen said the Cambodian populations were recorded at 13.4 million in 2008 to about 14.3 million by July 2010.

He said with the capacity of having 3 to 4 children in one family and with an average birth rate of 1.54 percent per year, the country's populations will "reach 17.5 million by 2025".

He said women have played an important role in Cambodia's society and their roles have been elevated through the rectangular strategy set out by his government and their education was also recorded high.

Hun Sen said that literary rate among women at their ages of 15 and above was recorded having basic education from primary to graduate level was increased from 57 percent in 1998 to 71 percent in 2008.

Also, at the same time, women have been integrated and posted in the government cabinet, parliaments as well as other governmental institutions.

Cambodia holds it population census every 10 years and since 1993, Cambodia has held twice, one in 1998 showing 11,437,656 with 5.5 millions as males and 5.9 millions as females, and the second was in 2008 showed the populations increased to 13,388,910 with 6.5 millions as males and 6.9 millions as females.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

In Cambodia, a House With Legs


Justin Mott for The New York Times

Darryl Collins moved a wooden house on stilts, built in 1915, from a remote island in Cambodia to Siem Reap.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia

A CENTURY ago, Cambodia’s rice fields were filled with majestic, elevated wooden houses. Today, few noteworthy examples remain, largely because of the cost of maintaining them and the near-universal desire for air-conditioned Western-style homes.

So when Darryl Collins, an Australian art historian who has lived in the country since 1994, had the opportunity to buy one four years ago, he couldn’t pass it up.

Built in 1915 by a wealthy Chinese-Khmer timber merchant on a remote island in the Mekong River, the house was set on stilts, nine feet off the ground, to protect it from floods and to maximize air circulation. It was built with at least five types of Cambodian hardwood, and the interior woodwork was decorated with ornate carvings of phoenixes, plum blossoms and fruit — symbols of success, abundance and wealth.

“When I walked in, I was amazed,” said Mr. Collins, 63, who had heard about the house from an architect documenting the country’s historic wooden structures. At the time, he was facing the prospect of turning 60 and was looking to make a dramatic change from his life in Phnom Penh.

But the elderly owners had no plans to sell the house — because of its isolated location and the general lack of interest in old homes, they assumed it would be more profitable to dismantle it and sell off the decorative elements. To prevent that, Mr. Collins wrote a contract on the spot, agreeing to buy the house for $6,400, a figure the sellers deemed auspicious for its square eights (eight and nine are considered lucky numbers in Asia) and its amount. Antiques dealers, Mr. Collins said, would have driven “a harder bargain.”

The location of the house — nearly 200 miles from Siem Reap, the town near the Angkor Wat temples where Mr. Collins planned to retire — didn’t deter him. He simply had it moved. The traditional wedge-and-pin construction made it possible for the 1,650-square-foot structure to be pulled apart; walls were sliced into panels by a team of 20 carpenters.

“I was horrified,” he said. “I didn’t believe it could ever be put back together again.”

The pieces — which weighed about 50 tons and included two dozen 30-foot columns and 400 35-foot floorboards — were hand-carried and loaded onto ferries that transported them to a nearby town. Then a truck took them to land Mr. Collins had bought for $60,000, where a new concrete foundation waited. Working with the architect who discovered the house, Mr. Collins embarked on a 10-month reconstruction that was completed in July 2007 and cost about $94,000 (including the relocation and the installation of electricity and running water).

The main interior space, framed by an elaborate decorative archway, functions as a large living and sleeping area, with a simply furnished master bedroom. Mr. Collins added two staircases, one lighted by lamps made from old chicken cages, and a two-story concrete wing to house the kitchen, the bathrooms and a guest room; a second new structure contains the garage, a storage area and another bedroom. Along with the patio under the house, which was tiled, the additions quadrupled the living space, to more than 6,400 square feet.

Though the house was built to provide natural ventilation in sweltering Cambodia, Mr. Collins spends much of his time on the patio, which he has furnished with high-backed antique chairs, a platform bed and a bamboo birdcage filled with origami birds. Here, in the space defined by giant columns, he sees the true value of his hard work.

“Older people who grew up in houses like these will just walk right under the house and hug a column,” he said. “They connect the house with something they knew a long, long time ago.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vietnam’s China Backlash?

Tougher work visa requirements in Vietnam seem aimed mostly at Chinese migrants. But other expats are caught in the middle.

Photo Credit: Petr & Bara Ruzicka

Many foreigners in Vietnam worried about the new, stricter laws governing work permits and visas don’t realize it’s not about them—it’s about the Chinese. That said, the fact that only some will end up collateral damage in what analysts see as a push against migrant workers isn’t likely to be very much comfort.

Decree 47 came into effect on July 1, and the reworked law gives the authorities here the power to deport foreigners who have been living in Vietnam for over three months without a valid work permit. Previously, the law only had provisions for granting permits. But applicants must now, among other things, demonstrate they are qualified to hold positions that locals cannot. This obviously excludes migrant labourers.

Many foreigners living in Vietnam don’t have work permits—the paperwork is complicated, original copies of degree certificates must be notarised in the applicant’s home country and again in Vietnam, and those who have been living in one location in Vietnam for longer than six months can have a police check carried out by local police. In addition, many Vietnamese employers simply aren’t willing to go to the considerable effort needed to issue foreign staff with permits, despite fines having increased ten-fold to 15 to 20 million VND.

And previously no permit was no problem. Vietnam has often been lax in enforcing its rules, a point underscored by an article in a local newspaper last year that quoted Minister for Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan as saying, ‘The rules are quite strict, but we don’t implement them.’ (MoLISA is the government body overseeing the issue).

Previously, many expats have gotten by on the B3, a six-month multiple entry visa easily renewed by any travel agency. But last year, the visa laws were changed without warning, making only three-month extensions available within Vietnam (and they’ve also become significantly more expensive, with some people paying more than US$200 for extensions).

‘The government didn’t inform us why the law changed,’ says Trinh Tien Trung, a former travel executive. ‘Now you have to get out of the country then come back and get a visa on arrival.’ Currently, some travel agencies in other countries and embassies can grant six month visas, but the situation changes regularly.

Newspapers haven’t been unsympathetic to the problems some expats are facing. Thanh Nien News, based in Ho Chi Minh City, noted that thanks to the confusing mass of red tape, ‘Vietnam will lose good people.’

American Jay Ellis runs one of Hanoi’s longest-running bars, the R and R Tavern. Ellis has been in Vietnam since 1993, two years before the US embargo was lifted, and says that in his experience, attitudes to most foreigners have always been positive.

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Cambodia's fibre-optic network online

100706_7
Photo by: Bloomberg
A 12-strand fibre-optic cable awaits splicing before installation. Cambodia inaugurated a multi-million-dollar fibre-optic network yesterday.

THE final length of a US$17.6 million fibre-optic telecommunications network linking Cambodia with other Greater Mekong Subregion countries began operation yesterday.

Officials say the new 651-kilometre transmission line to Laos will increase the Kingdom’s communication speeds by linking the country to a regional backbone already connecting Thailand, China, Vietnam and Laos.

“This will improve living conditions for people in the GSM countries, as the entire network is now in place,” Minister of Posts and Telecommunications So Khun said at the launch yesterday.

Part of the GMS Information Superhighway project, the latest links were built by Chinese telecommunications equipment supplier Huawei Technologies for a total of $17.6 million, according to a project summary. The links have a network capacity of 2.5 gigabytes per second.

So Khun said construction was financed by a soft loan from China’s state-owned Export-Import Bank, and that the new network was under the control of Telecom Cambodia and Enterprise Telecom Laos.

Increased telecommunication speeds would prove an economic boon to the Kingdom, he said.

It will “increase national income by promoting development of ICT, exchanging new technology and information, and transmit voice, video, data and internet traffic widely to the world at an acceptable price.”

Stretching from Kampong Cham to the Laos border along National Road 7, and from Skun city in Kampong Cham province to Siem Reap along National Road 6, work laying the new cable wrapped up in July 2009, according to Telecom Cambodia director general Lao Saroeun.

Work has been conducted over the past year to increase the capacity of the network to send data at “super-fast” speeds, he said yesterday at the launch event.

Lao Saroeun said the fibre-optic network had already played a role in strengthening cooperation within the GMS, promoting economic growth within the region.

Telecom Cambodia would also be able to begin providing services to customers living in provinces surrounding the Tonle Sap lake, he added.

The original memorandum of understanding establishing the GMS Information Superhighway project was initiated by China and signed by the six regional nations in December 2004. Work on the latest line began at the end of 2007.

Laos’s Minister and President of the National Authority of Posts and Telecommunications Khamlouat Sidlakone predicted operating the cable would improve its economic ties with Cambodia.

“It will facilitate the development of trades and tourism between the two neighbouring nations,” he said yesterday. “It is not only a benefit of the people of the two nations, but also in other GMS countries.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Holiday in Cambodia: With Extra Cheese Please…

By Justin Thoreau
part 1

The sun had reached its highest point of the day and Jim and I were still haggling at the market. Jim looked at me with that smirk on his face, the one where I know he’s bullshitting.

“I think you should buy it.”

“What the hell am I gonna do with a table cloth? I don’t even have a table,” I said.

“I don’t think it’s a table cloth. I think it’s a tapestry.”

“Well, you see, that’s my point. I don’t know what the hell it is so why am I bargaining for it?”

“Come on. Do it.”

“Eeehhhh.” camb4

This was how the day was going. Spent our third day in Siem Reap, the lazy Cambodian village, trying to negotiate the cheapest price for hammocks and parachute pants and now one table cloth, or tapestry depending on who you ask. However, after hours on end we were in need of a break and some serious sustenance. We’d started the day early and the sun was parching us to our bones. As we scoured the town for shade, food, and liquid our eyes came upon our first “happy” pizza parlor. Hmm, I thought, I like “happiness.”

We looked upon our pizza suspiciously. It was greasy and carelessly put together. On top of the grease sat flecks of green—like boats in a harbor they huddled together. “You think this is the real thing?” I said glancing from the pizza to Jim. “If it is I’m getting another one,” he responded. “Looks like shit though.” Hungrily we wolfed down slice after slice and waited for something to happen. “Cannonball,” I said as I took a huge bite of pizza in my mouth and reached for my beer, gulping down a generous mouthful to help the bite down. At the end of the meal our stomachs were bulging, for just a little more flexibility. The beer and grease sloshed in our guts, refusing to mix.

A half hour later we again found ourselves at the market. “You feel anything yet?” Jim asked me. “Maybe, I can’t really tell. Give it another ten minutes.” We were waiting for the worm to turn. With force of will we tried to summon the high, as if pure mental concentration would stoke the green flecks in our stomachs to life. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, still nothing. “I think we’ve been got,” I said, “like junior high kids purchasing a bag of Oregano. Smoke this and it will really get you weightless.”

“Dammit, so all we’ve managed to do is eat a greasy pizza that will probably give us the shits,” Jim said while shaking his head in disappointment.

“Looks that way; speaking of which, let’s head back to the hostel.”

camb

The rest of our afternoon was spent by the pool, trying to daydream away from the disappointment of our “happy” lunch. Nothing a few beers and a dip in the pool couldn’t help. The hours passed by and with each one our stomachs and spirits began to perk up. The day had been lazy but the night was setting in and it was time to make the most of it. We changed our clothes and agreed to meet up with some people from the hostel for a night out after we grabbed dinner.

Once again Jim and I set out down the dusty street towards the main town, in search of sustenance. Buzzing from our afternoon beers by the pool we considered our options. Curry? BBQ Kangaroo, again? And rather than turn into food bores, “Hey check it out, another one,” I said turning to Jim. “What do you think, could we get burned again?”

“I’m willing to find out,” he shot back.

Clearly we had not learned our lesson as we stepped lively into another “happy” pizza parlor. Forty-five minutes later we found ourselves once again disappointed. The “happy” pizza it turned out was not living up to its promise. What’s so “happy” about Oregano if you’re not in an Italian restaurant anyway?

Giving up on our quest for “happiness,” we turned and headed for the bar to join our hostel mates for a few drinks. We entered a raucous bar by the name of Angkor What? and headed for a table. “Everyone here is drinking from buckets,” I said to Jim. “You wanna get one?” he asked. We made our way to the front of the bar and ordered a whiskey bucket. Soon a blue bucket of whiskey, coke and something called Cambodian red-bull was placed in our hands and we glided back to our table gleefully thinking that we would finally get our money’s worth of “Fucked Up”, all four dollars of it.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, Cambodian red-bull is essentially a cylinder can of straight barbiturates. Back at our table we eagerly grabbed a handful of straws and started to suck down the bucket in generous gulps. We were joined at our table by a guy from England, a guy from Canada and a couple of girls from Scotland. We sat at our international table and shared the Facebook triteness of our day. As the minutes ran buy I quickly noticed that our bucket had been emptied and we were in need of a second one. The second bucket went down just as easily as the first. Had we really just drank two full buckets of whiskey in a matter of twenty minutes Who the hell would know? No one was wearing a watch and our brakes were off.

Soon we started to feel the affects. Our volume was increasing by the minute and soon enough Jim was on top of the table next to us doing some sort of weird jig for the ladies. They whooped and hollered at him and everyone was having a good time. I felt the whiskey starting to take hold as well. My brain was giving way to my loins—from now on they would be making my decisions. My heart was pounding, I had to move. Sitting in my chair was counterproductive. Leaping up, I joined the circle on the dance floor and started wheeling around like some wild animal. My limbs were no longer functioning in regular patterns: it was about time.

Part 2 next week in 3WM
_____________________________

Monday, July 5, 2010

An Adventure tour to Kratie, the Mighty Mekong and the Mysterious River Dolphins

Siem Reap Cambodia

Monday, June 28, 2010 We had hoped to catch a boat North along the Tonle Sap to Battambang but although we are in the wet season the water had not yet risen enough to allow the larger boats to pass. Instead we took a leisurely two day drive along the river through small villages and rice paddies to the heart of Cambodia's rice bowl, Battambang. We arrived early and decided to spend the afternoon being tourists and took a sweaty walk up Phnom Sampeau mountain for glorious views of the surrounding countryside and the more sobering limestone caves used as "killing caves" by the Khmer Rouge.

I booked myself in for a cooking course the following day, which included a trip to the local market. It was brilliant wandering through the manic morning market mayhem with Vannak (our teacher) putting names and uses to all the weird and peculiar fruit and veg. I did gag a little at the squirming bowl of ants and maggots which is (apparently) great on salads Stopping before a police checkpoint
Stopping before a police checkpoint
! I learnt to make Amok, a totally scrumptious fish curry that has easily become one of my favourite Cambodian treats, as well as a tangy chilli salad and a veggie dish of stirfried morning glory and tofu. yum! Matt got his hair shaved off although the barber had real issues understanding the idea of a buzz cut and kept on wanting to style it, much to Matt's annoyance and my amusement. We got there in the end although it wasn't quite as short as Matt had intended.

In the morning we were back on Frank speeding towards Siem Reap and the ancient ruins of Angkor. We checked into an awesome little guesthouse, a little pricier than our usual but with the luxurious perks of free tea and coffee, free fruit, free internet and a free massage each! Sweet! We spent the next 3 days playing at tombraiders and dodging the touts whilst exploring the magnificent and awe-inspring temples of the Ancient Khmer Empire. We watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat, got lost in the labyrinthine passages of Bayon, stared in wonder at the huge trees that had become one with the walls of Ta Prohm and scrambled over the massive stones of the collapsed archways of Preah Khan. All in all we visited no less than 20 temples with our 3 day passes, no two the same and each utterly breathtaking. We have posted a bunch of pictures of some of our favourites but no amount of photos or description can portray the experience of visiting Angkor, it has been one of the highlights if our trip so far.

Cambodia's Kratie is a very 'chilled-out place'

We enjoyed our stay in Kratie. It's a very chilled-out place. We particularly enjoyed cycling on the island across from Kratie. It was so beautiful over there and the people so friendly. Many families on the island live in small huts, with no electricity or real facilities. These are poor farming families, but they seem like some of the happiest people I have ever come across. We stopped to buy some water and one family gave us fruit for free and seemed really happy that we'd stopped. Puts things into perspective when I consider western life - people moaning about all of the material things they can't afford, when they should be appreciating how lucky they are.

We headed off to Phnon Penh for an overnight stop. When we arrived it's was raining. Actually, it was RAINING!!!! I considered building an ark. Some of the streets had amassed a foot of water in about 20 minutes. Luckily we didn't really get caught in it. We dumped our stuff and headed to a local bar to watch the England v Germany game. We were sat with a few rough looking England fans (funny guys, but scary guys). The other side of the bar was filled with not so rough looking German fans. Let's just say after about an hour the German fans decided, wisely, not to heckle and cheer so much. The England fans were going mental at them, particularly after the Lampard non-goal was greeted with cheers. One guy stood up and shouted something like “you cheating kraut motherf****** c****”. I thought it was going to kick off big time. It wasn't a great atmosphere at all. After the game they went, leaving me and Lou sat on our own. Eek! The game, as you all know, was wank. Nuff said.

We arrived in Sihanoukville (kinda pronounced snookyville) the next day. This is Cambodia's most popular seaside resort. It's like magaluf, but dirtier. We both quite enjoyed it though - may have to do with the nice place we stayed - The Beach Road Hotel. $10 a night and the place is really nice. It also has a pool, which we made much use of, even if it rained most days. Snooky is wet this time of year. We did have a couple of days of sunny weather though. Got my sunburn on!

You can
Kratie
Kratie
One of the dirt tracks we cycled down.
get a beer from as little as 50p in Cambodia. Nice. We got hammered in a beach bar one night for about $3. I bought one bucket (a massive cocktail in a bucket - enough for 2-3 people) and the bar staff gave away free shots all night. The place was packed and it was a great laugh. Had to lead Lou home before her legs went. Those who know her understand what I'm talking about.

We've now moved down the coast to Kampot, which is a small scenic town famous for salt & pepper. The production of actual salt and pepper, not the fat 80's rappers. We've just checked into a fab place called the Magic Sponge, which is run by a top guy from Leeds. What sold it for us was the sight of a crazy golf course in the garden. What else do you need? We plan to hire some bikes tomorrow and ride into the country. After a few days in Kampot we're heading back up to Phnom Penh for a couple of days.

Louise's Section

Not much else to add really. As soon as we headed in from Laos to Kratie you could tell the difference between the people. I find Cambodians much more friendly and eager to help.

So I've seen a dark, wet Phnom Penh and it seemed nice so glad we get to go back for a few days.

Sihanoukville is well er... pisshead central really. The beach is lovely but littered quite a bit and you can't walk more than 2 feet without being asked to buy a bracelet from a kid or a lobster from the old lady or in my case getting them touching my legs asking if I would like a wax coz I had missed a bit, but on the upside my nails didn't need doing as they were apparently lovely!! So, back we went to the hotel and pool for some peace.

Had my June drinking binge in Sihanoukville and met an Irish guy and his Cambodian lover!! She had a boyfriend in UK, was seeing this guy here and then chatting up (in a very hostile way I may add) a lovely Aussie guy. Many many drinks later and the worse for wear she comes up later telling me I was her friend but now I amSnookyville
Snookyville
Not the best day, but still good enough to dip your toes in!
bitch coz I told the new guy she had a boyfriend. This I cannot remember but spent the next 2 days convinced there was a Cambodian mafia of women out to kill me so refused to go back to the nice food place where we met her just in case.

Now in Kampot and have beaten Chris at mini golf and my pool skills seem to be getting better too. Maybe off cycling tomorrow to the Rusty Keyhole pub in some fields somewhere run by a Manc guy and they apparently have the best bbq spare ribs in the country and Chris nearly wet himself when the manager here told him they do Roast Dinners. Todays meals were very Cambodian, Chris - Chips/Cheese/Beans and then Luk Lac/Egg/Chips . Louise - Spag bol with chedder cheese then one of the best chillis ever with chips and cheese!! Can you tell I have missed and now found a plentiful supply of Chedder!! I aint never leaving this place!!!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ups and Downs in the Mekong Delta

Trip Start Jun 01, 2010 Trip End Jul 08, 2010
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Hung Homestay

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

(Brian)

We were in Saigon and needed to get to Phnom Penh. We also wanted to see a bit of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam so we booked a 3-day/2-night tour that would take us around a few towns and cities in the Delta and end with a boat up the Mekong over the border into Cambodia to Phnom Penh. The tours out of Saigon are insanely cheap and since we aren't always tour people, we kind of looked at it as a way to cheaply get to Cambodia and maybe see some sights along the way. The one thing we were pretty excited/nervous about was that we'd chosen the "homestay" option on the first night so instead of going with the tour group to a hotel, we'd hook up with a local family and stay with them outside of town.

We left our Saigon hotel early and had a two-hour bus ride to a town called My Tho, the first stop on most Delta trips Mekong River at My Tho
Mekong River at My Tho
The scenery was already quite different from other parts of Vietnam in that it's much flatter, there are massive rice fields stretching forever, and there is some kind of water everywhere - be it lake, pond, ditch, canal, stream or river. We boarded a small boat at the My Tho harbor and were shuttled around the Upper Mekong, past floating houses, fish farms, lots of floating garbage, and most of all a ridiculously large number of boats. There were small canoe-sized boats with noisy car engines strapped onto the back, big fishing boats with hammocks on the decks, and massive barges hauling great mounds of dirt and sand down the river to who knows where.

The boat toured around a bit through some narrow back channels and eventually stopped for a "free" lunch, which turned out to be a small plate of fried noodles. We had to pay extra for drinks and anything else ordered off the menu. We made the huge mistake of not looking at the price before ordering a plate of spring rolls, which we've never paid anything more than $2 for in all of Vietnam. Amazingly, we eventually get the bill and they were freaking $8!! Unbelievable...one of the many downsides of organized tours...being stuck at some overpriced lunch spot with mediocre food and paying more than any other meal had cost us during the whole trip - and this was supposed to be the free meal!
Pam on Tour Boat
Pam on Tour Boat

There were a number of other attractions to see in the afternoon - another downside of tours, having to go on a set schedule to places you really don't care too much about. But we did see some interesting things like a coconut candy "factory" (really more workshop than factory) with three ladies making candy by hand and selling it to tour groups for $1/bag. It was actually pretty good tasting and interesting to see them work. They did the whole process by hand - growing the coconuts, grinding up the flesh, separating milk from oil, cooking the milk with peanuts or chocolate, cutting long strips with a giant knife, and packaging them up in rice paper and plastic. Back home we'd call it organic artisanal confections and charge $10 a pound at Whole Foods.

At the next stop - a fruit farm with a traditional music performance - it rained. Really hard. Full-out tropical monsoon rain. We were covered at the time, but it wasn't letting up and our guide said we had to move to the bus to stay on schedule (another downside of the group tour). Luckily we had ponchos, but they only went to the knee and the lower half of our bodies got absolutely drenched on the 10 minute walk to the bus. The path was mud and flooded and we just had to trudge through it in our flip-flops. I kept thinking of Forrest Gump when he was in Vietnam and was describing the rain: "big old fat rain, rain that flew in sideways, and sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath."

After the rain, we dried off a bit on the three hour ride to the next destination, Can Tho - the biggest city in the Delta at over two million and where we'd spend the first night Brian on Tour Boat
Brian on Tour Boat
. We pulled up to a hotel and most of the group went in, but us and another couple stayed back to get transferred to our homestay. We really had no idea what to expect as we were taxied across town through some back alleys to a random boat dock and put on a small boat, puttering down a small river out into the countryside. We pulled up to another small dock next to a line of palm thatch bungalows lining the river. We met Hung, our host, whose parents own the property. He showed us our room, which was an extremely rustic, but perfectly adequate place to spend the night. It was a private room, with a sink and shower, comfortable bed, fan, lights, mosquito net, and even a porch overlooking the river. I think the term "homestay" is a bit misleading since we had visions of being curled up on the floor of a stranger's living room, waking up in the morning spooning with the family dog.

We did, however, have a wonderful meal in the family's house. We were introduced to an old neighbor woman who showed us how to make sweet potato and bean sprout springrolls, which she would fry and serve with a spicy chilli sauce - we had to work a bit for our dinner. The rest of the meal was a whole elephant ear fish, which is caught throughout the rivers of the Mekong Delta, the ubiquitous steamed rice, fried tofu with tomatoes, stir-fried green beans, and rice paper wrappers with herbs for wrapping up chunks of fish and eating them like tacos. It was absolutely fantastic.

After dinner we got into the beer and spent the next 5 or 6 hours having a fantastic time drinking and chatting with the other couple who was with us, Paul and Mary from Scotland. Hung invited us to drink shots of rice with with his brother who probably didn't need any more Lots of Boats
Lots of Boats
. After the brother stumbled off to bed, Hung sat with us and we talked for hours. He spoke amazing English, which he taught himself using books on tape after he dropped out of school to work for his family. He told tragic stories of his family's history - how they used to be wealthy landowners but the government took their land during one of the redistribution periods in the eighties, forcing them to become farmers and one of the siblings to flee the country on a tiny boat across open ocean to Malaysia and eventually to Canada where he still lives today. But despite the hard life, he had such an optimistic spirit and was smiling and laughing and telling jokes while mixing in some fascinating bits of Vietnamese history and culture. He said he's met people from all over the world through the homestay and is very grateful for the experiences. It was an incredible night and before we knew it, it was 1am and we suddenly realized we had to be up at 5 to rejoin the tour group.

We had a restful few hours of sleep in our bungalow but the alarm went off way too early. The rest of the day was spent going through the motions of the tour group and being kind of annoyed that we were stuck on boats and buses instead of enjoying a nap and a shower in a nice hotel. We saw a floating market (disappointing and filthy), a rice noodle workshop (mildly interesting), and a fruit farm (just an excuse to sell fruit to tourists just at the point in the tour they are starving because the meager baguette breakfast has long worn off) Boat
Boat
. After lunch, we boarded a bus to Chau Doc, a town near the Cambodian border where we'd spend another night before taking the boat to Phnom Penh.

The bus was supposed to take about 3 hours but about an hour in - the very minute I fall asleep no less - we come to a complete halt. Traffic Jam. And not just any traffic jam. The kind where engines are turned off and people exit their vehicles and walk a half a mile to see what's happening. Our guide left to investigate and we are miserably left standing on the side of the road in blazing heat as motorbikes swerve past trying to dodge the people and parked vehicles. The guide finally returned with news: a Saigon Beer truck has collided with a large bus and the truck lost. It is now laying sideways blocking both lanes of a major Vietnamese highway. It's likely there is spilt beer everywhere. The guide says it will be at least an hour...ugh. We were miserable. Tired, sweaty, and only wanting a bed and shower.

So we waited and waited and waited. Eventually one of us got the idea to walk to a roadside coffee shop to sit in the shade and get a drink. We trekked up the road with our guide making sure we all stay together so one of us aren't left along the roadside when things get moving again. We got to the store and it was a little mental boost - a shady spot with cold drinks and hammocks. (I love hammocks.) And I had a deck of cards in my pocket so I thought we could pass the time with a group card game. But it was not to be...the minute I settled into the hammock the guide comes back and says we have to move back to the bus because if traffic starts to move and we are not on the bus we'll lose our place in line. Grrrrrrrr...so we walk back and wait some more Floating House
Floating House
. Finally we get word that things are going to move. A crane has come and moved the truck and policemen have arrived to direct traffic. It was about an hour delay but we finally started rolling to Chau Doc.

Two hours later we arrived, visited a nice hilltop pagoda, and were finally brought to our hotel, which was definitely the nastiest place we'd stayed the whole trip - another downside of the group tour...having no choice of accommodations and not knowing how crappy they'll be. Oh well, it had a bed and a shower so it wasn't all bad. We explored Chau Doc a bit though there really wasn't much to it at all. We found a place for some beers and had some snacks on the street but it was a pretty early night.

The next morning we were on a boat, speeding up the Mekong to Cambodia. So despite the downs, the tour accomplished our goal of getting us through the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia. And we saw some interesting things along the way and met some cool people, but it was the experience of the homestay with Hung that made it all overwhelmingly worthwhile. So much so that I'm going to forget about Chau Doc and pretend that Hung's homestay was our last night in Vietnam since that will leave me with much better memories of a country in which we've spent so much time and where we've experienced so many absolutely wonderful things.