Holiday unknown to me gives access to French Embassy

french-6

The imposing main building of the French Embassy greets visitors just inside the gate.

An annual series of events around the world under the umbrella of European Heritage Days had escaped me until this year, but last Saturday’s activities in Phnom Penh allowed me and hundreds of others to enjoy access inside some otherwise private international venues.

I learned about the possibility of seeing the French Embassy only the day before by reading a one-inch item in a local English-language daily.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about also being able to tour the British ambassador’s residence, UNESCO offices and a restored colonial-era building where the high-end Van’s restaurant operates.  (I had dined expensively at the restaurant once and have felt no need to return.)

Still, visiting the French Embassy proved to be notable for Continue reading

Remarkable book set in India illuminates deprivation

An engrossing and enlightening book came to my attention a while back.  It was written by Katherine Boo, a longtime New Yorker writer whose prose is elegant and artful.

Behind the Beautiful ForeversHonored by a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Boo had her book published in 2012.  I cannot recommend too highly Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity.

I have to say its ring of authenticity is a clarion invitation to understanding and empathizing with the poorest of the poor.  So compelling are the book’s descriptions that I felt as though I could smell the smells of a slum, taste the bitterness of injustice and feel the pain of deprivation on which Boo trains her attention.

Stupid me, either when I ordered Behind the Beautiful Forevers or got down my list of reading material, I forgot a key fact about the book until I arrived at Boo’s author’s note at the end.   Continue reading

The news in Cambodia gets more dispiriting every day

thumb_img_1058_1024As a former traditional print journalist, I cannot leave behind the urge to keep up with the news.  Consequently, I read online or on actual paper the three slim dailies published in English, presumably for expats.  

The Khmer Times, which I confess has shown modest improvement since its plagiarism scandal several months ago, is the one in which I have the least faith in having achieved an acceptable journalistic standard.  Rather, I tend to rely on the Cambodian Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, which do a pretty good job of reporting the news.

What I see virtually every day is stories about political corruption, traffic deaths, human rights abuses, sexual abuse, governmental misconduct and an extraordinarily high level of judicial malfeasance that boggles my mind. Continue reading

Waterfall is worth bad roads, traffic and a tough climb

Cambodia’s roads are notoriously crowded, generally poorly maintained and dangerous.  That is why I have started to avoid riding on them for trips of any distance.

However, when I saw on my Facebook page an invitation to join an excursion to Chhreav Mountain Waterfall that was supposed to involve only two hours on a bus, the temptation to enjoy the hike, swim and companionship of some 30 other folks proved to be compelling.

Mai Channeang — who runs a transportation service that schedules Sunday tours every two weeks from Phnom Penh to outlying attractions — wrote that the site is in Kampong Speu Province, on the border between Kompong Chhnang and Pursat provinces 150 kilometers (93 miles) away.  It is in Thpong district.

I had been on another one of his tours, and I was impressed with how well organized and diverting it was.  Including a typical Cambodian lunch, transportation and Mai’s assistance, the $20 fee was a good deal.  The hike to the waterfall sounded like particular fun.  When I mentioned the waterfall to several Cambodian friends, none had heard of it, making the modest adventure all the more appealing.

(Mai has scheduled another excursion there at the end of this month.)

Unfortunately, we got off to a bad start not long after we departed a few minutes after 8:30 a.m.  Fifteen minutes later, we ran into a traffic jam fairly close to the center of Phnom Penh, and we were pretty much at a standstill for something like an hour. Continue reading

Towering loads of cargo, humans atop trucks, ply roads

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Big loadThere apparently are laws against it, but vehicles overloaded with merchandise, produce and even Cambodians themselves ply Phnom Penh’s streets with impunity.

No one bats an eye at the spectacle, and it seems as those who ride or drive tuk-tuks, motorcycles and trucks or wagons of all sizes don’t Continue reading

Travel continues to infiltrate my blog about Cambodia

Written years ago, the focus of my blog as expressed at the top continues to be true: “Reflections on Living in Another World.”

Although you may have noted a sprinkling of posts that are more about my travel experiences than my perspectives on Cambodia, especially Phnom Penh, rest assured that I don’t see this blog as merely or mostly a travel blog.

Yet it occurs to me as I write that maybe you’d prefer more travel and less of my observations about the country where I have made my home since the end of 2013.  If so, you’ll be particularly pleased over the next several weeks.  Indeed, I may find it hard to avoid commenting on aspects of the wider world as I spend increasing amounts of time outside Cambodia in satisfaction of the travel bug that afflicts me.  Nor will I abandon trips worth describing when I make my way around the country.

That said, I am unable to Continue reading

Visit to Khmer Rouge Tribunal sparks old memories

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia yesterday. ECCC

Convicted of crimes against humanity, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in June. Source: ECCC/Phnom Penh Post.

The idea was not so much to report on testimony given at what is officially named the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, or ECCC, a U.N. funded organization that otherwise is known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  It was a sense of obligation.

The courts’ multi-million-dollar mission since its creation in 2006 has been to prosecute ultimately just a few of the individuals involved in the genocide of more than 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s.  That the government is filled with former adherents of the Khmer Rouge has resulted in years of negotiations, stalling and the resulting freedom from trial of thousands and thousands of killers.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held onto his position for 31 years, acknowledges that he once was a relatively senior member of the Khmer Rouge before he changed sides.

Having already borne witness to the atrocities committed by Cambodians against Cambodians at a high school that became the notorious S-21 prison — referred to as Toul Sleng — and the killing fields, I decided it was high time that I observe the trial taking place 16 kilometers (10 miles) from downtown Phnom Penh.  My goal was less to recount testimony but more to share with readers how it felt to get and be there.

It was an unexpectedly chilling experience because Continue reading