Good news, bad news

I’m writing this blog post in Siem Reap at an incredibly cute café called Upstairs. One of my favorite things about Siem Reap – most famous for being the site of the Angkor Wat complex – is the eclectic mix of cafes, restaurants, and bars, each with their own distinctive character. Upstairs, for example, is reminiscent of grandma’s house – warm, delicious baked goods, French-inspired décor, teapot-shaped and polka dot-clad coasters and menus, etc. (Andrea, if you’re reading this, this place has your name all over it, and will definitely be a stop on the Andrea/Kristin Cambodian tour next week :))

Photos of Upstairs Cafe, Siem Reap
This photo of Upstairs Cafe is courtesy of TripAdvisor

As another example, last night, the friend that I am visiting and I went to this creative new bar call Asana. It’s constructed to look like a traditional wooden Khmer house on stilts and when you enter, it feels as if you’re in a completely different time period: the walls and floors are made of unfinished wood, plump rice sacks are used as lounging and sitting tools, hammocks beckon the lazy traveler. We sipped red sangria – tasty enough to gain the stamp of approval of my friend, who has lived in Spain and tasted her fair share of sangria – and complementary tasters of their pineapple-infused and ginger and chili-infused liquors – delish!

Places like Upstairs and Asana don’t seem to exist in the US in such numbers as they do out here in Cambodia (judging from unscientific and anecdotal research, of course). I don’t think it’s a lack of creativity, because in major metro areas in the US you obviously have a much larger critical mass of people and thus potential entrepreneurs than you do here in Cambo. I actually think it’s more of a product of the lack of regulation and bureaucratic red tape that exists in places like Cambodia. It’s so easy to open a store here; the barrier to entry is low and seems to encourage more people to take risks. Plus, I’m betting that a place like Asana, with its unique construction on stilts, would violate a bunch of health codes, or at least take an eternity to gain approval, not to mention the approval it would take to bottle and sell those infused liquors I mentioned. Such regulation stymies creativity. Now I’m sounding like a Republican; weird.

Anyways, the real reason I wanted to write this blog post was to talk a little about domestic violence in Cambodia. I recently ran across some statistics from the UNDP’s annual Human Development Report and it was disturbing. These stats are from a random sample of about 20,000 women across Cambodia:

20% of women aged 40-49 believed it was justified for a husband to beat his wife if she refuses to have sex with him

Nearly half (40%) of women aged 30-49 believed it was justified for a husband to beat his wife if she neglected the children.

Two out of ten (roughly 20%) women age 40-44 believed it was justified for a husband to beat his wife if she burned the food.

Nearly half of all respondents (47%) agreed that is was justified for a husband to beat his wife for at least one of the six specified reasons (i.e. she burns the food, she argues with him, she goes out without telling him, she neglects the children, she refuses to have sex with him, she asks him to use a condom).

This is utterly disgusting, but indicative of a widespread cultural acceptance of women as inferior to men – and it manifests itself in additional ways beyond these statistics, from the prostitution industry to the double-standard of virginity expectations that exist for women versus men.

Can you even imagine a woman in the US saying that it was OK for her husband to beat her if she burned dinner? It’s stats like these that illuminate how far Cambodia has to go. Say what you will about the Western world’s concepts of “development” and “progress” – shout-out to Micah in all his anti-development, anarchic glory – but in terms of gender equity and human rights, Western progress is a good thing.

P.S. For those that are following the story I recently posted about the four men who were beaten by one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal aides and his entourage, the four men have accepted compensation offers from the suspects ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 and are no longer pressing charges. It remains to be seen whether the court will take action. Cambodian justice in a nutshell.

Justice, the Cambodian way

Cambodia is a lovely country. The people, for the most part, are warm and generous. There is a tangible hope of progress, that things are moving in the right direction.

But at times it can be pretty depressing, especially when you work at a place where you are constantly covering stories about egregious human rights abuses like land evictions, human trafficking and rapes. When you are writing about these things on a daily basis, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the prospects for the future of the country.

This past week was one such week. On Thursday, prominent environmental activist Chut Wutty was murdered by a military police officer. Chut Wutty was well-known for his efforts at trying to prevent the illegal logging that is ruiningCambodia’s forests. Money talks in Cambodia, and wealthy companies are coming into the country, paying off military police officials who are assigned to protect the conservation areas, and cutting down trees for their expensive rosewood.

Here’s a story on the murder.

And here’s a story about the illegal logging issue.

Also last week, a quartet of Hun Sen’s bodyguards was arrested for allegedly beating four men the previous week at a hotel in Koh Kong province. Police said that two of the victims had gone to the hotel room of one of Hun Sen’s bodyguards, Bun Sokha – who is also a personal assistant to the premier – looking for a necklace they thought they had left in the room. Allegedly, a drunken Bun Sokha and his three other bodyguards beat the duo, as well as another military police official and a hotel security guard who later tried to intervene.

The security camera videos from the attack were recently posted onto YouTube and are gruesome. They show Bun Sokha, clad only in a towel, viciously beating the victims, kicking, elbowing, and punching them. One of the bodyguards points a gun at the victims. What appears to be an electric baton is also used in the attack. The victims appear to be unarmed and at several points are on their knees, with their palms together in front of their bowed heads in a subservient posture, apparently begging for mercy, while they just continue to be pummeled. It’s pretty awful.

See for yourself, if you’ve got the stomach for it.

In video #1, the beatings occur between the five- and seven-minute mark. In video #2, the beatings happen around 8 minutes.

Videos like this are gut-wrenching and make it hard to be optimistic about the future of the country, especially when it is being led by such apparent thugs.

On the bright side, it does seem like the justice system is taking action. Despite being reportedly offered $15,000 for their silence, the victims are still pressing charges and the four suspects were arrested last week and are being charged for “intentional violence,” which carries a prison term of up to five years.

I left my heart in Inle Lake

Ahhh. Last day in Myanmar. Just arrived into Yangon this morning after spending the last several days at a spot called Inle Lake. It was so incredibly peaceful, probably my favorite part of Myanmar. Tiny, sleepy town that was a nice break from the gritty hustle and bustle that is Yangon and Mandalay. Hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists, but it’s getting there. It’s the most tourist-friendly spot in the country and looks to me like it’ll be the next Chiang Mai. We stayed at a lovely guesthouse where the owners brought lemonade to our rooms after we returned from sweaty bike rides through the countryside and made us delicious banana pancakes for breakfast. ‘Nuff said.

If you can believe it, there was even a vineyard within biking distance, so one of the evenings we watched the sun set beyond the mountains while sipping the region’s finest whites and reds. It was unexpected, but a nice treat since traveling through Myanmar can be quite stressful. There was also a hot springs within biking distance that proved to be nice day-trip (except for the fact that the pedal on one of our bikes fell off mid-trip), and we hired a long-tail boat for a day to explore the lake’s entirety. We spent the nights enjoying the cooler weather, sipping gin and tonics, and playing gin rummy (fittingly, of course, because we love puns). All in all, a great way to wrap up an amazing ten days in Myanmar. Pics coming soon.

The craziest capital you will ever visit

Seven years ago, in 2005, the government of Myanmar up and decided to move the capital from Yangon to a city it basically carved out of nowhere in the middle of the country; they named it Naypyitaw. Some say the move was intended to better fortify the capital from an invasion. Others say it was the result of an astrologer’s advice. Either way, it was at the top of my itinerary, though certainly not part of the typical tourist circuit.

It didn’t disappoint. I only had about 8 hours total in the capital, but it was a surreal experience. I’ve never been to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, nor do I think I will ever make it there, but if I had to guess, it would look a lot like Naypyitaw.

It was basically this huge sprawling concrete city with absolutely no people. Things were massive and incredibly spread out, it took about an hour moto ride just to get to the city’s train station. The government buildings — Ministry of Education, Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Information, etc. — were ornate. You couldn’t take photos of them though, at least according to my guidebook, which was validated by my motodop who refused to stop for me to snap a couple pics.  The city had 8-lane highways with impeccably manicured medians, but again, eerily empty. Totally strange, felt like I was in a completely different world. The construction of the city apparently cost about $200 million, which is an ungodly sum in a country where most people are living on just a few dollars a day.

A strange highlight of the 8 hours was a visit to the Naypyitaw fountain gardens, on the recommendation of my motodop. It was sort of like a huge amusement park, without the roller-coasters and vendors. There were water fountains, waterfalls, caves, swimming pools, inner tubes, an ampitheater, water slides, etc. etc, and all were impeccably pristine and clean. It was fun to see, but again a strange government-funded project in a country that is struggling economically. Priorities?

Wish I could post some photos, but the internet is too slow. Will do so when I’m back to 2012.

Burmese days

Just got into Myanmar. The internet is painfully slow here, it makes Cambodian internet look lightning-fast, but wanted to jot down some quick notes/thoughts/observations about my first 24 hours. Also, forgive any spelling errors because the internet is so slow I cant see what I’m typing.

Staring: it’s outrageous. I’ve gotten used to my fair share of staring in SE Asia, since I stick out like a sore thumb in Cambodia, but this takes it to an entirely new level. People just straight up stop whatever they are doing and stare at me. Sometimes they holler. Or clap. Today I was biking and some dude yelled from across the street. ACROSS THE STREET that my kickstand was down.

Met a young man today, maybe was 22 years old, who helped me with directions. Then asked if I was traveling with anyone. When I said no, his response was this: “Why you no have lover?” Ha. Long story dude.

Driving: the drivers here are aggressive. They make Cambodian bus drivers look tame, which is saying quite a lot. They travel about 70mph in what appears to me to be a 30mph zone. Total disregard for pedestrians, dogs, or other vehicles.\

No motos. Very unusual for a SE Asian country. Rumour has it some government official got into a bad moto accident and then outlawed them.

Biggest surprise? It’s not that weird!~ Sure, the cars are straight out of 1970 and the buildings are crumbling, but the reports we get in the West make it seem like this place is stuck in the dark ages and it’s not. This made me think a little bit about how we are a bit brainwashed by our own governments in the West. Are places like N. Korea and Myanmar really as bad as our government would have us believe? I’m certainly not defending either of those countries, which each have their own egregious human rights abuses, but I think we have a tendency in the West to demonize countries.

Last thought: the people are BEAUTIFUL. Absolutely gorgeous.

Why Romney should have filled out a March Madness bracket (or at least said that he did)

Before I get started, I just wanted to share my view of the sun setting over the Kampong Bay river. I’m currently three hours away from Phnom Penh in Kampot, a lovely little French colonial town where time seems to pass more slowly than it does in the capital. I came down as part of a press corps organized by the US embassy. We’re covering a bilateral military exchange between the US and Cambodia.

So back to the topic at hand. While I was scouring the internet for helpful tips on filling out my NCAA bracket, I stumbled upon Obama’s bracket predictions, which, if my memory serves me correctly, he’s done every year.

In the same news report it said that Romney had told reporters he wouldn’t be filling out a bracket this year.

“I’m not plugged in well enough this year to do that,” Romney reportedly told reporters on Tuesday in Missouri.

Seriously, Romney? You know your weakness is appearing authentic and resonating with voters, most of whom really enjoy March Madness, whether or not they follow college ball throughout the season. Is there not one basketball fan on your staff who could brief you on the tournament so you can at least appear to be a regular American like the rest of us?

This was a squandered opportunity and a multi-point swing (basketball nerds, that pun’s for you). Romney could’ve used this moment as an opportunity to throw around some sentences like “Those Commodores really looked good in their SEC title run,” or “I can’t wait to see if VCU makes another Cinderella run like last year,” which would’ve taken all of five minutes for some junior staffer to cook up and would have at least made it seem like he wasn’t so much of a robot. It would’ve showed personality. But instead, he simply reaffirmed what Republican voters already think – he’s not “one of us.”

Romney likely has the smartest, most qualified, most well-paid press team of all the Republicans vying for the nomination (Santorum’s events squad still lacks the slickness of most presidential campaigns at this point), but for all of their qualifications, sometimes they seem to be missing the little things. And as every basketball coach knows, it’s the little things that make championships.

Good morning, Vietnam!

I am writing this blog as I sip my morning iced coffee on the balcony of a friend’s apartment, overlooking the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh’s/Saigon’s District 2. Tug boats and shrubbery lazily move in opposite directions along the waterway. The air is warm and humid, the sun bright and relentless. Palm trees frame my view of the heart of the city.

Saigon is known “officially” as Ho Chi Minh City, which is what it’s called in Cambodia, but from what I can tell, most folks that actually live here call it Saigon. It rocks: a lively city pulsing with energy. Reminds me of New York and Bangkok (have I really been away from big cities for so long that I compare Saigon to NYC?!). Where Phnom Penh is laid back and easy, Saigon is busy and energetic.

I had a great day of sightseeing yesterday, just wandering the leafy, tree-lined streets and popping in and out of old French colonial shophouses. Had a delicious bowl of pho and took in the disturbing, but powerful War Remnants Museum (formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes) and the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, not to mention some hairy motorbike rides (Saigon is practically the motorbike capital of the world, it’s nuts).

Although Cambodia and Vietnam are both developing countries, it is eye-opening to see how much further along Vietnam is compared to its Khmer neighbor. The poverty in Saigon is nowhere near the level of abjectness as in Cambodia. Although the Communist government probably has something to do with this, as I’m sure it works hard to “hide” these less beautiful aspects of city life, it’s still clear that there is more wealth in the country and a rising middle class that Cambodia is light years away from achieving.  It’s sad to think of how far Cambodia still has to go.

I’m not sure who/what is to blame for this development gap. Corruption likely has a lot to do with it. An unhealthy reliance on international aid is probably another contributor, as is the brain drain that occurred when the Khmer Rouge wiped out a generation’s worth of the intelligent class.

Trips like these remind me of everything I love about Asia and how much of the world I still want to explore.

More later, including pics.