Monday, May 23, 2011

Fulbright Conference in Thailand

Sowat-dee Kha!

Wow! The last time I posted was three months ago and I’ll probably need a cold Cambodian ice coffee with buckets of condense milk to energize me for what is to follow. Over the past three months, I have been constantly working, traveling, spending time with family, and unfortunately sick. On top of that, my To-Do List for the next couple of months I am here is overloaded. But, I would not be fair to myself if I do not keep up with my blog. I am going to try and recite everything from March over the next couple of weeks.

In March was the 3rd Mid-Year Enrichment Southeast Asia Fulbright Conference. It was held in Bangkok and wonderfully hosted at the Dusit Thani Hotel Resort. The conference lasted for three days at which I presented at and learned an immense from other Fulbrighters in the area. In short, I presented on how to develop feasible memorialization projects and how they can contribute to transitional justice in Cambodia. Of course I spoke too fast, but I was overall happy with how much information I was able to pass on to the audience. Surprisingly, not a lot of people knew about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal as I had hoped, but it was good nonetheless that they had questions at the end because it shows that there is interest.
National Museum in Bangkok

I was not able to attend every single presentation because they were scheduled alongside each other, but I will say that my favorite presentation was from Dr. Colleen O’Neal from Malaysia on the mental health of child refugees in Malaysia. Her presentation and powerpoint not only was informative and humanitarian, but captured the essence of the culture of the refugees, who are mostly from Burma. On top of that, she has the most beautiful kids. I would say my favorite presenters were Matt and Mike, but I would be a little too bias since they are from Cambodia. Matt, if you read this, please send me the pictures!

Really concentrating hard
On top of hosting the conference, the Fulbright Thailand Commission certainly hosted an expensive and activity-filled conference. After the end of presentations, they held a Cultural Night at the National Museum, where we were able to dress like the people in the nation that we are fulbrighting (yes, I made up this word) in and learn about Thai culture. The festival was a mix of a fair with games such as the ring toss, dart balloons, and shot gunning. It was such a classic moment to see these older Thai women holding up toy shot guns and aiming them at these little stuffed creatures. 

There were also a cooking stall where you could cook your own pad thai and a booth where you could learn how to carve fruits into beautiful designs. The night continued with a traditional Thai dance performance set on by beautiful girls dressed in traditional Thai clothing with a live old school Thai band playing customary instruments.
Cooking Pad Thai!

Carved elephant taro piece

After, a bunch of us ventured out to see what the streets of Thailand had to offer us. They were filled with clothes, souvenirs, foot massage parlors, and food. The food was amazing. If there is anything Thailand should be known for, it’s the strong flavors of their ingredients and beautiful presentation.

The next day was also filled with adventure. The Fulbright Committee gave us two options of either visiting the Center of Applied Thai Traditional Medicine to learn about what exactly the center is called or a mangrove conservation center at Klong Klone in Samut Songkhram Province. Since I know much already about Asian medicine, I chose the second option and it was definitely worth it. Apparently, the shrimp farms that boomed in the 90s destroyed much of the plantation so we went to help rebuild it. It was pretty much like conservation tourism. We drove a couple of hours to the provinces of Thailand and went on a boat ride along the river. We passed by an oyster or clam plantation, feed monkeys bananas and planted some baby mangrove trees. It was quite an experience wearing these thick, knee-high socks and walking into the mud, which felt like sinking into quicksand while these little creatures and mini crabs crawl as fast as they do not get squash by our feet. I planted a couple of trees and then ran as fast as I could back to wash myself and get into the boat. I found that stepping softly and quickly helped me not sink too much.

Awesome Roomie, Lisa.
We all cleaned ourselves and had lunch on the water in this wooden house on stills. I met some pretty cool people at lunch—a Fulbrighter and her husband from Vietnam, a Thai Fulbrigher who will be at Harvard this upcoming school year and of course, my awesome roommate from Laos. Lunch was amazing. Again, I cannot stop raving about the food in Thailand. It is fitted perfectly for my palate, which was probably shaped by the food that my aunt and her Thai husband always cooked back at home. Mmmm. Delicious. Here is a sampling of what I had:

Deep Fried Fish with Sweet Chili Sauce. Yummy!
After lunch, we went to another province to see how mangrove trees can be turned into charcoal production. I was a little confused about the day’s earlier activities of conserving mangroves and replanting them, but apparently, this was in another plantation where mangrove trees are abundant? Yeah. Okay. That logic seems perfectly sound. Lets all buy hummers in the States because people in Cambodia are not driving them that much so it evens out. Anyway, the mangrove trees are cut up, placed in this huge dome-shaped oven, and fired up into charcoal. They are better than any other trees because they do not produce as much smoke when burnt and last longer. So mangrove charcoal for the win (!) even if it destroys the ecosystem.

We took what seemed like a long bus ride home and went out to explore what the food stalls had to offer us. My roommate from Laos (Lisa) and another Fulbrighter named Ben, I think (Lisa if you read this, please confirm!) took up the Thai Harvard girl’s suggestion for where she thinks the best food is in general, forget street food. It was near this metro stop and it was indeed the best food I’ve had in Thai. Even the multiple course dinner at the 5-star Dusit Thani Hotel did not compare (no offense!). I loved the flower-shaped mashed potatoes and salmon with truffle sauce at the Dusit Thani though.

The lovely conference trip ended and I was busy back at work.

Up next…Vietnam.

Thank you for reading.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Western Shores and Work

Once again, it has been awhile since I’ve updated this thing. I’ve been very busy with work, but staying in touch with people from back home is very important! Thank you to those who have written me some snail mail even if it takes about a month for it to get here. Also, a shout out to my UMW debate team, who are competing at districts this weekend. GO. FIGHT. WIN.

In December, I interned at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and worked on the Koh Pich Bridge “stampede” investigation.  I really enjoyed my time there and the practiced ideals that they exhibited, I believed, were different from other NGOs, which is refreshing when you’re in a dog eat dog world. That type of behavior should not exist in a humanitarian setting! I was also able to dabble into other projects, such as LGBT rights, which is so underdeveloped here in Cambodia, there is not any term for L, B, or T so everyone from all colors of the rainbow just falls under G. CCHR really encourages and allows you to be involved as much as you can.

For the past two months, I have been interning at the Victims Support Section of the ECCC. I work with the Outreach Team, where I help organize and attend public forums in the provinces of Cambodia and with the Reparations and Non-judicial Measures Team. My research paper goes in and hand with the work of the Reparations team, which is very beneficial, like hitting two birds with one stone. That’s pretty much all I can say about my work at the Court.

Lets go back to talking about traveling, which is what this blog was intended for! Back in November after Siem Reap, I visited all over Western Cambodia, to a still Khmer Rouge stronghold in Pailin to Poipet, where I have relatives that cross the border everyday for their clothing shop. We visited some ancient temples in Battambang. One was the result of a competition between Cambodian females and males at the time to see who could build the most magnificent temple. The boys gave up when they saw how intricate the carvings on the girls’ temple was so all that is left in Battambang is literally what looks like what a little boy would build with legos. So typical! Blocks versus small detailed designs. The Cambodian countryside is absolutely beautiful. The natural, charming scenery would put Wordsworth into a transcendent epiphany.

Part of the peeks of interning at CCHR in December was being able to attend the staff retreat in Koh Kong. KK is on the Western shores of Cambodia, above Sihanoukville. The retreat was for a couple of days and in my opinion ideal when you can work and have fun at the same time. We would have our meetings near the shore with coconut trees everywhere and sand under our feet. Perfect office atmosphere! We went to visit the Peam Krasop Mangrove Forest, where you can go on a mangrove walk in the eco-tourism sanctuary. It is a must-go place for naturalists! We walked through the mangrove forest (pictures are on Facebook) and then took a boat to a nearby isolated island. While dipping our feet into the cool water, we saw dolphins along the way.

After the retreat, I went to an island called Lazy beach with friends and relatives from New Year’s Eve. It was definitely a bizarre and unique experience to spend NYE on an island with about 40 people max and barely any electricity. We took the liberty to countdown whichever time we wanted around midnight and jumped into the sea. It lasted until 5 in the morning because I ended up watching the dazzlingly, beautifully lit sky, staring for falling stars, and observing stars that would not be seen anywhere I’ve been because of the lit city. Paradise? Yes. I did not even mind staying in the wooden bungalow, where bugs and all types of insects could come in and out (there was a mosquitoes net, of course).

In mid-January, I went on an outreach trip to a Southern province called Kampot, right about Kep on a map. More than the beautiful scenery (Bokor Mountain is located there along the riverside); I was more impacted by the elderly victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. It was quite disheartening to see more then three hundred people, who have been disastrously impacted by the regime still impoverished and in quite desolate situations. It is one of the reasons why I am splitting my time by working with the Reparations Team. Ironically in a culture where respecting the elderly is praised, there is not adequate social services for the elderly. They often get ignored and the NGOs here care for the kids because “children are our future.” Again, can’t really say much about my work, but if you want to find out more information on the VSS and what the outreach team does, click here and/or here.  

This morning, I went to visit an orphanage called Help for the Poor near Chmar Ampov, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It was operated by this genuine Cambodian family (father and his three kids). The mother is a doctor (now in America) and felt sorry for the abandoned babies at her hospital so she took them home and before you knew it, there was a multitude of kids. They also take in kids from poor families. There were approximately 25 kids, ranging the ages of 6-17.  I went with a co-worker and we just planned an informal visit in which we bought fruits, snacks, and beverages for the kids. I plan to go there many more times and with actual financial contribution next time since their international donors are slowly disintegrating. By all means, please help contribute via me if you can.

I'll be visiting Kep (again) this afternoon. I will keep everyone updated. Until then, I miss you all.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Happy 2011, everyone!

            I apologize for failing to update this blog. I have not even finished my travel stories yet! No excuses, but it is really hard to find time when you are busy and the slow internet does not give me any incentive to upload anything. But, I promised to post a blog about what I have done recently so that I will.

In honoring Genocide Day this past Friday, I went to honor my great uncle (my grandma’s younger brother) by visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I went with my two uncles, who have been living in Phnom Penh for years, but have never visited the place. I was very surprised to hear that, but the youth here is either apathetic or does not want to revisit that part of Cambodian history because it is so sad for them. It didn’t matter to me so I pulled them along with me because it is very important that they hear the stories as a lesson learned so that it never happens again.

I live pretty close to the place—only about 6 blocks away. The place was filled with people; both Cambodians and foreigners. Cambodians get in free of charge, which is good because the general population is not wealthy (an understatement) and it removes the financial excuse to not visit the museum. I wanted to find my great uncle’s name, but their documentation center or library was closed. Perhaps, I went too late at 3 p.m. I will have to venture there another time. His name spelled in English is NHEM, Yanath. I kept his name alive in my heart and mind while I was there. I wondered what he went through as I was listening to the horrendous stories.

I decided to hire a tour guide. I thought it would be worth the history lesson even if I have read about most of it already. I also wanted to support the tour guide so that people like him continue to work as the disseminators of information. It was an hour-long tour that began with a brief history lesson of the Khmer Rouge era—something that you can read in the introduction of every book ever written about that time. Before entering the once converted-school-into-a-prison/torture center, we met with an old man sitting outside the place. His name is Mr. Chum Mey. He is one of the seven survivors of the place. He was a repair man at the time for the Khmer Rouge. His family was all killed there and now he is the Director of the Victims Association in Cambodia. I think I will invite him to coffee one day and just have a talk with him.

Then, we began the real tour, entering each prison room. In each room, there is a picture of the victim that was tortured and quickly killed after they received news about the Vietnamese liberating Cambodia or “invading” in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge. The 14 victims are still unknown; the Khmer Rouge smashed some of the faces so hard with a dirt shovel that they were unrecognizable. They were buried by the Vietnamese soldiers in the courtyard. Their bodies remained there today with a white coffin-shaped monument on top of their graves. Each room had a different story with different instruments used as killing devices. The prisoners were all tied to a metal bed and some were tortured 2-3 times (or more) a day for months before they were killed. The Khmer Rouge did not waste any bullets on them. They would either hit the back of their heads with something hard or cut their throats. They treated the prisoners like animals. The victims were allowed to bathe once or twice a week if they were lucky. They would hold up to 50-60 victims in a classroom before extracting information from them in isolated rooms and when they gave them a shower, they would just water them from the window with a hose as if they were pigs. There are tons of tortuous stories, but I won’t go through them all because they either anger me or make me very sad. For some reason, the stories are more chilling when I hear it in Khmer. Perhaps, it is because I have never heard of these combinations of horrifying words spoken in the Cambodian language.  One of the torture methods was to water board the prisoners in filthy, urine and feces. Another was to pull out the nails of victims and pour rubbing alcohol on them. If I am correct, (because there were so many stories) Mr. Chum Mey does not have any nails.  The females were placed upstairs and raped by the guys until the rapists had enough and then, they were killed. Whole families were killed there—father, mother, children…even infants. I believe the number of children murdered there was around 130, if I am correct. I know it was more than a hundred children. 

I could not help, but feel a deep anger and towards who? Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge consisted of Cambodian people. Cambodians were killing Cambodians. A Cambodian man could kill an innocent Cambodian infant. I cannot accept any reasons from the perpetrators for killing. They said that they were just “taking orders” from the top and it was either to kill or be killed. Well, I swear that I would rather be tortured or killed than to kill other people and usually, you wouldn’t just kill one person, but some people had killed more than 40 and that’s a low number. I also get resentful because of what I see in Cambodian society today. I am not allowed to name them. Anyways, the tour guide expressed the exact same feelings as I did, which made me feel relieved because I feel so guilty having these feelings about Cambodians (the people before). How could we do this to our own countrymen? And classism still exists in Cambodia today! But my hot, shooting temper is always quickly put out by my sympathy for the current poor Cambodians.

The tour finished and I recorded it on my Flip Mini camera. I continued walking around the area, but I quickly wanted to leave because my presence there only made me continuously run the haunting stories repeatedly in my head. Even now, I am still adversely affected by them. I still cry today. I wish it never happened. They killed off nearly all our intellectual, artistic, religious, creative, and academic people in society, leaving Cambodia with an uneducated, poor mass. I wish Cambodians are still not so poor today, but Cambodia is doing much better. I hope we build up a better society. But these moments of anger are okay. Not only are they quickly disperse anyways, but that are evidence of the fact that I am not comfortable with what happened and what is going on today. I believe staying still, not feeling anything is dangerous. We should dare to seek. Like Alexander Hinton said, “If we do not seek to analyze genocide, then it becomes a floating signifier of evil, appropriated at will for moral condemnation or contained in ways that make us feel more comfortable.”

P.S. Those that gave me addresses so that I could write to them, if you are writing me back, please let me know because I no longer work for the address that I posted on the envelope. However, I can still have my friends who still work there retrieve mail for me, but you have to let me know if you have written me!

A Monk at the Tuol Sleng Gencoide Museum

 I didn't take a lot of picture because I wanted to listen to the tour guide and I honestly did not want pictures of torture rooms with blood stills stained on the floor on my camera. It really haunts me.

One of the visitors starting their history lessons early :)