Sunday, July 13, 2008

In Search of Siem Reap: Epilogue

by YSG

It was rather easy to generate interest to this year's study trip to Siem Reap. The powerful allure of Angkor Wat was publicity enough. What needed more thought, however, was to craft together a variety of inputs providing snippets into contemporary Cambodian society and culture in a limited space of time. For the rest of the travel itinerary, I relied on the curiosity and energy of the travelers themselves to ferret out stories consonant with their own interests.

In what ways this particular cohort of young and novice travelers have grasped Cambodian society and culture at a specific moment in time are now on courageous display in this collective blog. Unlike private diaries, they are written for an anonymous global audience and offer an eclectic mix of entries as a textual and visual record of their journey together.

A few motifs can be discerned from their respective entries. One thread deals with the tragic and long term repercussions of genocide, war, disease and poverty. Another looks at the rich heritage of ancient Cambodia and its power for both economic uplift and the commercialization of culture. Yet another thread highlights issues of democracy and economic justice in a country undergoing rapid modernization and developmental change.

This year's trip would not have been possible without the goodwill and assistance of key institutions and individuals. Firstly, to Dr Philippe Peycam, Executive Director of the Center for Khmer Studies, for readily agreeing to be the host institution and opening up the facilities of the center. My gratitude also goes to Dr Michael Sullivan (CKS), Ms Depika Sherchan (Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction), Venerable Y Nol and Mr Duong Than (Life and Hope Association), and Mr Serge Rega (National Center for Khmer Ceramics Revival) for providing their insights into Cambodian society and culture.

As only the travelers themselves would appreciate, the study trip would be that much poorer without the valuable assistance of our able student guides from the Royal University of Phnom Penh - Ms Bunneth Siek, Mr Hak Bona, Mr Kosal Din, Ms Borey Yin and Mr Thach Sorn. Much more than mere translators, they helped the Monash travelers to traverse both linguistic and cultural barriers.

Whether it was the agonizing slow speed of the internet, the scorching heat, the dusty roads, the price of souvenirs and handicraft, exotic cuisine, the architectural marvels of ancient Cambodia or the heart wrenching stories of landmine victims and forced evictions, I believe this year's study trip has generated enough talking points to last for quite a while. However, if the trip had helped the student travelers in a small way to better appreciate and empathize with some of the challenges that face Cambodians today, I believe its value lies deeper and is more lasting.

Siem Reap 2008 - the memories will live forever.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Closing entry by Co-editors Mindy and Maxine

by Mindy Wong

I am thrilled to say that every individual who has been part of this year's study trip, In Search of Siem Reap, has contributed an enormous amount of time and effort to this blog. In terms of the high level of contribution, and I'm not only pointing fingers at those who were the last to leave the cyber café (you know who you are). I would honestly say that it was the little things people did that smoothed out the bumps for others. This spanned from giving and accepting constructive criticisms to offering to buy refreshments or giving each other a gratifying pat on the back.

Sketches of Siem Reap: A flower grown in the premises of Wat Damnak

Each of us have encountered truly unique experiences in the pursuit of our soft stories, such as the invitation to a local birthday party and classic moments like snapping the guitar string that belonged to a tuk-tuk driver! For most of us, we have fine-tuned our bargaining skills. Some of us have also learnt how to handle aggressive stray dogs without combat, accustom ourselves to temperamental downpours and dust, as well as acquire an appreciation for local Khmer food.

In this aspect, I would have to admit my addiction for salads. In one of the days I had up to three salads! So I've had my fair share of vegetable, pork, shrimp, glass noodles and Western as well as Khmer salads, which I will terribly miss.

Sketches of Siem Reap: A vase from the ceramics centre

I think I might have been too comfortable with the laid back way of life in Siem Reap. This means that when I am back in Kuala Lumpur, I constantly need to be reminded that I can no longer cross the road with my eyes half closed, head turned elsewhere, hoping that motorcyclists and bicycles will slow down for me, as they have courteously done so in the past week.

Sketches of Siem Reap: A pencil shading of a stone carving at Angkor Wat

As I complete my final entry as co-editor for this trip, my most vivid recollections of Siem Reap, in no particular order, are a compound of: -

- the smoky, grilled chicken vendors we were bound to walk past at some point of the day
- la-di-da-ing to the Indiana Jones theme song on our first tuk-tuk ride
- the first stylish and hearty meal I had at the Khmer Family Restaurant
- the low-lying rainbow of heavenly beauty at Angkor, and oh boy, I could go on…

Another great pleasure was working as the co-navigator with Maxine on our editorial magic school bus because we complemented one another. To my editorial buddies, Fabian, Kemi and Melanie, thanks very much for always being readily available to dwell straight into work mode and stay that way! As the days progressed, strong communication skills were evident between the photography, video and blog teams which made the trip a blast!

Sketches of Siem Reap: The roots of a tree trunk growing over the walls of Ta Prohm temple

If you ask what I have taken away with me from Siem Reap, it would be a new page in my secret recipe book, a reviving drink I wish I could readily have right now - sugarcane juice with a tinge of lemon makes the world go round and round…


by Maxine Lim

The journey, In Search of Siem Reap, through editing has been an interesting one at best. Like any other study trip, taking on the mantle as the co-pilot of this editing ship with Mindy has come with a lot of learning curves, from unexpected situations like viruses attacking our pictures to minor internal strife.

In retrospect, I would not have given up any of the experiences I have gained in Siem Reap. It has been a challenge putting all sorts of journalistic theory into practice but what a worthwhile challenge it has been! It has taught me to better understand the human character and to roll with life's little surprises. Perhaps most importantly, I have learnt through observation, to adopt the Zen-like calmness of the truly inspiring Khmer people and their tenacity to always remain positive despite facing severe difficulties.

There are so many people who have made it a joy to work with, in this trip. Of course, the main ones are our wonderful and tireless pool of editors, Fabian, Melanie and Kemi who throughout the course of this trip, worked as if they did not have the words 'Quit' or 'Tired' in their vocabulary at all! The support group of all the various departments, Video, Blog and Photography made editing a smoother job than it was.

As I type this, I am reminded of time spent in the cyber café, bustling to and fro as we rushed to meet the deadlines and frantically working in tandem like a well-oiled Monash Machine that we were, to put up our stories on time. If I could preserve one lasting memory of our study trip, it would be this: To be surrounded by friends, working together with one aim in mind while we laughed over the events of the day and smiled apologetically at the cyber café owner for constantly staying past closing time.

The walk back to Popular Guesthouse in the dead of night was a time for all of us to wind down, content with our day's work and looking forward to what tomorrow would bring. It has been an amazing journey. Until we meet again. Chum riep leah.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Beyond First Impressions

by Mindy Wong

As the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words.

The eighteen of us first encountered our student guides through passport-sized photographs they submitted. Upon meeting the student guides, however, we wanted to take newer photographs of them that could reflect their inner qualities without the following 600 words.

Cooperative, knowledgeable and humble would incontestably be the best three words to describe our student guides.

Bona, Borey, Bunneth, Kosal and Sorn have all given their 110% effort to help bridge the cultural space between us. Despite linguistic differences, they would always try their best to explain and clarify themselves. Our efficient student guides never failed to complete their tasks, whether to be the translator during interviews, to purchase phone cards, or to gather ticketing and transport information to Angkor Wat.

"They were very informative, especially at Angkor Wat. Not only do they know the history of temples, they could explain the images and icons even. As well as the role of Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodian history," said Melissa.

Cambodian culture, lifestyle and politics are only some of the topics which are close to their hearts. As nationalistic individuals, they modestly share their knowledge with us, expecting only our desire to learn and to question.

At first impression, some of us thought they were rather quiet and shy, rarely initiating to talk. As we investigated into the reasons behind this, Max found out that it is part our cultural differences.

"According to Bona, Cambodians who have not been influenced by Western culture do not have the habit of saying hello. Their gesture to show friendliness is just to smile. So by not saying hello does not mean they're unfriendly," said Max.

As such, we have come to understand why some of our interviewees gave short answers as well.

In the first few days, both parties found it difficult to understand one another. However, the student guides made the effort to listen very carefully to us, while we spoke slowly and were very conscious about how we phrased our words.

"My name is similar to Cambodian names so it's pretty cool," said Linda, who was the first person the student guides remembered.

Learning our names proved to be rather challenging for them and this resulted in slight alterations to our names. For example, Aron became Iron, Melissa was pronounced as Malaysia and Fabian was spelt as Fibean. Once, Max was even mistaken for Maxine.

During the course of eight days, we learnt about Cambodia's historical, political, social and cultural issues. Feeza has now become more aware of the hardship of the Cambodians and their preference for agriculture rather than higher levels of education. I have realized how well they preserve their culture and customs, such as not taking photos with three people.

Apart from that, we have also gained invaluable acquaintances with our student guides. Borey shared stories with Melanie about her parents who survived the Khmer Rouge, while Dr Yeoh found out about tuk-tuk drivers from Sorn, whose uncle is a tuk-tuk driver. Sorn seemed the most affected by culture shock. His roommate, Aron, noticed how he much he enjoyed watching television. On the other hand, Bunneth is one of the most talkative of the bunch. As for Kosal, he was keen to share Cambodian politics and held strong political interest and perspectives. Bona was generous because, according to Max, he shared his shampoo as well as snacks.

Some things were beyond our expectations. For one, we were surprised to see how they could tolerate 30 over degrees Celsius in long sleeves and blazers without a trickle of sweat. Conversely, we looked for every shade possible, hid behind our sunglasses and explored Siem Reap with sticky sweat print t-shirts. Melanie was perplexed by how some people could wear high heels with the road condition as such.

"They're like Ninjas. They seem to whiz in and out without anybody noticing and suddenly, they're next to you," said Maxine.

The student guides were mysterious, indeed.

She added, "Despite not being able to communicate fluently, we learnt to understand each other through more than words, which made this experience more special."

By the end of our journey, the student guides made drastic improvements and they have become much more fluent in English. We believe that they have learnt a new culture, interacted with energetic students from Monash, as well as made many new friends. O-Kun (thank you in Khmer) for enlightening us to the beauty of Cambodia and her people.

Our Student Guides: In Their Own Words

compiled by Melissa YF Wong

Bunneth Siek

My name is Bunneth, a recent undergraduate of the Royal University of Phnom Penh History. I am from the Southeast province of Kandal, roughly 60km from Phnom Penh.

I am exceedingly pleased to meet and learn about my newfound friends from Malaysia. During my time with them, I feel satisfied that I am able to help them with getting to know Siem Reap and also to be able to assist them in their choice of interesting news stories that for the blog. Everybody is dedicated and responsible in the work they are assigned in addition to being friendly, active, brave, and well-organized.

They also display a very amazing show of comradeship. The reason why I say this is because they seem to truly enjoy each other's company. The jokes they make as a result of what I suspect are derived from joyful personalities are inspiring to me. From them, I have learnt to be a little more outgoing and a little less shy. I hope the friendship will last forever.

Borey Yin

Hello everyone, my name is Borey, also a year four student with the Department of History at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. I am glad to be in Siem Reap province with some students from Monash University Malaysia. All of them are very friendly especially Dr. Yeoh who I find is very active; he likes talking and I feel that I can learn a lot from him. Moreover, you all are so funny particularly Feeza and Melanie and I like their contagious laughter and I find myself laughing much more when I am with them.

I also learn about Malaysia from my roommate Melissa. We exchanged our knowledge of Cambodia and Malaysia as well other countries such as Indonesia, Slovakia, Sri Lanka in dialogue with other Monash students. I feel proud that they have come to visit Cambodia, and with such a willingness to learn of our culture. I like that they enjoy the local cuisine and find pleasure when they compliment it. The trip to the Angkor Wat was particularly tiring for me but the atmosphere in the van picked me right up what with the jokes everyone was still in good humor to make despite being tired.

I hope for a never-ending friendship and I wish my Malaysian friends all the best in their future undertakings.

Bona Hak

Hi everyone! I am Bona, a student from Royal University of Phnom Penh in the studying second year history. I am exited to be guiding Malaysian university students for eight days under the leadership of Dr. Yeoh.

I have learnt many things from the such as the sessions conducted at the of Centre of Khmer Study (CKS), COHRE (Centre of Housing Rights and Eviction), and training at Life and Hope Association. Moreover, we have joined for the Angkor Association for Disabled and interviewed the disabled people there and listen to the stories they have to tell.

I feel that I have plenty of experiences to take back with me to Phnom Penh and I will share them with my friends. Within six days, I have discovered my Monash friends to be hardworking and friendly. Alhough we are so different culturally, we still find many things in common. I like the way they learn and more importantly, the way they are able to cooperate with each other and prioritise teamwork. I also find them helpful and accommodating.

It's cool to be able to learn about other societies in my own country and especially through the eyes of foreigners who want to love it as much as I do.

Thach Sorn

My name is Thach Sorn and I am also with the Royal University of Phnom Penh. I study History. I am very happy that I have the good opportunity to be a student guide for the students of Monash University. I felt nervous meeting them for the first time but I found them approachable and easygoing. Thus, my fear dissipated. The sessions I attended with them were very informative even for me as a Cambodian. I am also able to pick up some of the skill they were trying to practice such as interviewing and writing. The experience was certainly very educational.

I felt happy going around Siem Reap with the students; in particular, to the Angkor Wat where I could demonstrate and apply the knowledge I have studied in my own university. I guess you could say that we had a healthy exchange of views both intellectually and socially.

I would like to thank Dr. Yeoh for bringing my new friends to Cambodia and although we have not known each other long, I cherish the friendship and the hope of meeting all of you again.

Kosal Din

Hello everybody. I'm Kosal Din. When I got to know from my brother that several students from Malaysia will be visiting Cambodia and a student guide was needed, I was very excited as I anticipated the prospect of making new friends and conversing to them in English which I seldom get to do.

When all of us arrived at Siem Reap province on 4 July 2008, all that I had anticipated became reality. The highlight of my Siem Reap trip came yesterday with the visit to the temples of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon, Prah Khan, and Bakheng temple. Being able to explain the true Khmer experience in English to the students guide was especially fulfilling especially since I study History.

I appreciate that Monash students want to learn about Cambodia especially our culture, traditions, history and workings of society. I hope my friends from Malaysia have enjoyed themselves as much as I have. Last but not least I wish everyone all the best in their studies.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Diary Entry: One Last Time Before We Head Back

by Melanie Chalil

The day started slow for most of us, after a very long day to Angkor Wat yesterday. A couple of us, self included, were up early tying up loose ends and meeting up with deadlines. I woke up feeling the aftermath of Angkor - my back and muscles ached from climbing steep stairs and endless walking. This, I will always remind myself, is nothing if compared to the hands that engineered the entire massive structure, pilling on huge blocks of stone on one another with flawless precision in the name of king and religion. Before beginning my writing duty, I stopped by Joe-to-Go, a coffee house that is non-profit.

I instantly discovered that 100% of the proceeds will be donated to The Global Child organization. I find Joe-to-Go’s business concept very fascinating but more importantly, I admire how consumerist conventions are broken here. The money will be used to fund Khmer children’s education as a measure to eradicate poverty. Coffee drinking for me will never be the same again!

At 2 pm, many of us headed back to the guesthouse for our cultural performance. We sat on the floor in the lobby practicing Rasa Sayang and traditional Dikir Barat dance moves. We clapped and sang away while the locals became our audience. After an hour or so, we were done practicing and enjoyed a little R & R.

Rest and relaxation comes in many forms but here, haggling with the locals at the market becomes our form of entertainment. A couple of us visited a stall selling t-shirts. There are two ways to bargain successfully. The first is, quote a price and wait for the seller’s reply. If they refuse to accept your price, walk away. Chances are they will quickly quote you a lower price and you can resume your bargaining session.

Ethan is particularly good at the second method. For lessons, please see him personally or bring him along. You first begin by asking them how much the product costs. Many sellers at the market increase their product’s price when tourists are present. Haggling is a test of one’s patience and endurance. Should the sellers slap you on your arm jokingly when you quote a price less than their expected one, do what Ethan did by telling them: “You hit me one more time, less one dollar.” Purchase more and chances are, the sellers are more willing to reduce the price.

I have also observed the behaviour of certain Cambodians, namely our hotel staff and sellers at the market, during this trip. Often, when a question is asked, they will turn to their fellow local and speak in Khmer leaving you in a state of confusion. They will then turn to you and present their reply. (Ed: An experience of 'Lost in Translation')

The evening was reserved for a ‘thank you’ dinner at the Temple Club. We dedicated the evening to our hospitable hosts and helpful student guides and performed a cultural show. The cultural team quickly made last minute amendments to performance to better suit the stage in the restaurant. Prior to that, we were entertained by Apsara dancers and other traditional performances.

Our rehearsals paid off and as we walked off stage, a tourist told Feeza that our performance was very good. Towards the end of dinner, a signed group photograph was given to each student guide and host as a token of appreciation. The student guides helped each and every one of us to understand the Khmer culture. They were able to provide explanations about many things from the Angkor Wat to Apsara dancing. I believe Cambodia is fortunate to have these students as future historians and we back home can perhaps learn to appreciate our history as well.

It is now 10.16 pm and I will sign off and walk down the streets of Siem Reap one last time before heading home tomorrow morning. Be it the dust, sunburn or aching limbs from visiting the Angkor Wat, I hope each of us will bring home a little bit of Cambodia with us.

His fault we're here =P
And his fault we'll never forget Cambodia

Diary Entry: On Our Last Leg

by Maxine Lim Jen Ai

I was planning how to write this diary entry for the whole day. I was pondering what I could mention about today that would be riveting, considering it is the Last Leg of our trip . If yesterday was a crazy whirlwind of visiting Angkor Wat and the circuit of magnificent temples, then today could be best described as the Day of Rest where we basically nursed our aching bodies and completed the rest of our shopping circuit.

Old Market - good for your souvenirs!

In the morning, we had ventured together to the Old Market, the veritable *gem* of a place to shop but soon split ways to hunt down our own souvenirs. I was in shopping paradise! Naturally before this we had discussed bargaining tactics, the novice hagglers learning the tricks of haggling from the experts.

As such, I found myself employing every 'dirty tactic' in haggling for the best price. The most important tip is to always say something in local Khmer, like t'lai (cheaper) or ni sahs (university student) and smile liberally all the time. This generally gets you on the good side of the stall owners, which most often than not, leads to cheaper prices or at least, no hard feelings on both ends.

Cambodian wares!

At the end of the haggling and purchasing session, we gathered together to peek at our purchases, which were varied from lovely cotton dresses, turtle-shaped compasses, Khmer silk scarves to silver rings. We managed to lug all of it back in time for our last practice for our Rasa Sayang performance tonight at two in the afternoon.

It was another 'free show' for Popular Guesthouse with one resident eagerly filming us on his camcoder and the waitresses from the restaurant upstairs lingering by the staircase to catch a glimpse of our 'dikir barat'. Today, we even attracted the attention from the staff of the motel across the street with our singing and clapping. I was one part embarrassed, yet proud that we were in the limelight. Monash students, go!

Right after that, some of us just chilled out in the guesthouse as the Siem Reap sun was back to greet us again with full force after a few days of cloudy weather. The rest of us were undeterred and left for Shopping Round 2.

As for me, after hearing about the wonders of Cambodian massage, felt a terrible curiosity to try it out. Previously, I had scoffed at Dr. Yeoh's suggestion that we all go yesterday after the Angkor Wat to Bakheng Hill trek. My muscles were still good to go, or so I thought. After waking up this morning, however, I realized that I had to bow to the Man with Experience. My right arm felt like it had been chewed on and spat out by the crocodiles in Tonle Sap lake.

Sometime in the evening, I ventured into the one next to the restaurant, Red Piano, after some recommendation from the Monash gang. It was an hour of pure bliss. If your idea of bliss is lying face down on a towel-covered pillow and having a petite lady beat your calves into submission with her feet, that is. Nevertheless, it was quite the experience and I half-dozed off, after getting used to my body being kneaded like dough.

I was all ready for the performance in Temple Bar at 9.30pm. Dinner was a mix of enjoying our last Khmer meal and nervous anticipation from all the restaurant patrons watching us as we performed later. After the last picture-taking session with the Apsara dancers, we were ready to troop up on stage, Dr. Michael Sullivan looking at us amused from the audience and everyone else cheering us on. It was a flawless performance and we had an amazing reception. With our Krama's tied over our heads, we joked that we looked like dikir barat 'Rambos'.

Posing with the Apsara dancers.

However, the best was yet to come. The last event was thanking and handing over the official group photographs to our trusty and well-loved student guides, Bunneth, Bona, Kosal, Borey and Sorn. We were well-acquainted with their individual personalities and were deeply touched to hear about their personal experiences with us and wishing us all well.

At the end of the well-wishing, a group of us dutifully trouped to the cyber café to check the Monash examination results, which went up earlier today. Right after getting the good news, a bunch of us went straight up to Temple Restaurant and Bar to celebrate being graduates while the rest of us went for Shopping Round 3, all in a day's work.

It is just 11pm now and the night is still young. A part of me is gunning to go back home. I miss Malaysia's chaotic yet organized traffic; I longed for our concrete jungle of air-conditioned shopping malls and yearned to encounter curt Malaysians who do not greet you on the streets of Kuala Lumpur with a smile. After a week away from home, sometimes you can miss the things you never realized you actually appreciated.

However, Siem Reap is a crazy place that will get under your skin and to your heart. Who knows when we will meet again?