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mosaic692048a6f788904cb185edacb51f0f2d784f0c63Chronicles in Cambodia: Dispatch 3

Bar review Phnom Penh style

One of the great things about having hundreds, maybe even thousands, of NGO workers living and working in Phnom Penh is the fact that a whole host of restaurants and bars have sprung up to give them something to do when they’re not doing something NGO-ey. I didn’t know it at the time I booked my hotel, but the street I’m staying on, Street 278, is one of the more popular streets for these restaurants and bars.

4648957882_da270547b1So, after doing more shopping at the Central Market on Wednesday and visiting The Killing Fields at Choueng-Ek on Thursday (click on photo on right for Flickr photostream), I decided on Thursday night to check out the Equinox Bar, Restaurant and Gallery, which is just a stone’s throw from my hotel. The scene was pretty quiet when I first arrived, with handfuls of foreigners congregating around small tables, and nursing imported and domestic beers while catching up on the goings-on of the day. The bar did pick up a bit when swing music started blasting over the sound system, and several men and women stood up to dance. Apparently, a group of expats get together after a swing dancing class to practice their moves at Equinox.

Earlier in the day, I had gotten a hold of a local cell phone number with the help of a super-nice photo shop owner, and found out that one of the California students I met at the airport, we’ll call him Econ Dude, knew the exact bar that I was at. So Econ Dude grabbed a tuktuk driver and met me on the second floor of the bar, where I had been doing some people watching.

Since Econ Dude had done a lot of traveling before and was more familiar with the streets of Phnom Penh, I asked him to confirm many of the suspicions that I had about certain things that I had come across during my brief travels. Yes, your tuktuk driver is metaphorically taking you for a ride if you pay any more than $5 for just one trip. Yes, the business owners only want fairly new, untorn and unmarked American money and will refuse to take blemished bills. Yes, there is a separate price for locals and foreigners on goods and food in the market. Yes, you have to negotiate the price for everything or risk being overcharged. And, yes, the beers of Phnom Penh, Angkor and Anchor, both taste like light beers and go easy on the alcohol.

Of motos and meetings

The day after the Equinox bar review (Friday) was the first day that I had to report to the Open Society Justice Initiative office, which is located in one of several large office buildings in Phnom Penh. Once again, I hired Mr. Black, my unofficial tuktuk driver, to take me where I needed to go.

When I arrived at the office at 7:45 a.m. for an 8 a.m. call time, I had to hang out in the hot and humid hallway of the building for a bit until about 8:15 when a small, bespectacled girl gripping a motocycle helmet came in and asked if I was the OSJI intern. I said “yes” and she ushered me into the small office that housed OSJI’s Cambodia operations. After making several calls, she told me that she would now take me to a meeting, and grabbed her keys and helmet off the table. Yup, I would be taken to the meeting on the back of her moto.

This wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t received a lengthy email from my law school professor, who had been to Phnom Penh many times before, about some of the dangers one might encounter in the city. One of these things was getting on the back of a moto, as there is a possibility that a bag snatcher will attempt to grab your bag and drag you off the bike into Phnom Penh traffic. With this in mind, it was a little daunting getting onto the back of the bike whilst gripping the messenger bag that carried my Macbook, but, after I got over the initial fear, the ride was quite thrilling.

After a 10 minute ride through the streets of Phnom Penh, I was deposited at a place that upon first glance looked like a private home, but turned out to be the office of another of Cambodia’s many NGO groups. I sat in on a meeting with some important people, met my project coordinators, went to lunch, sat in on another meeting with some very important people, and was told to get ready to work on Monday (more on that later). For some reason, those meetings in the comfort of air conditioning were so much more tiring than wandering about Phnom Penh for an entire day, but it sounds like the project I will be working on should be fun.

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4638879924_56da5df65a_mChronicles in Cambodia: Dispatch 2

For my first full day in Phnom Penh I decided to hit up the spots that most visitors to the city pass through, including the Royal Palace, the National Museum, Wat Phnom, the Russian Market and the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. And while touring the city on foot is certainly doable, I decided to hire a tuktuk – a four-wheel, shaded cart hooked onto a motorcycle – for the day to avoid becoming roadkill on Phnom Penh’s busy streets, which could best be described as ordered chaos. (Click on the photo to the left to be taken directly to my Flickr photoset)

When I first arrived here, I was struck at just how many motorcyclists there were in the city as they swarmed around and sped past the lumbering van that picked me up from the airport like schools of fish around a large, slow whale. Motorcyclists and drivers alike are not afraid to go against traffic and edge into busy intersections where motorcyles and other vehicles meet you head on. There are traffic signals, but, based on the number of people who actually stop, they are more of a suggestion than a command; if you can make it without killing anyone, go for it! Luckily, I got a good driver, Mr. Black, who knew his way around the city and who was an assertive and fearless driver.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is the center of royalty for the kingdom of Cambodia and was my first stop on my day-long adventure. I had seen pictures of the palace in guidebooks and on the Interwebz, but seeing the majestic and boldly colored buildings and manicured grounds was nothing short of spectacular. Some parts of the palace are closed off to the public, but what can be seen is still worth the visit. It’s also a good spot to run into other tourists, who you can pick out because of their hiking boots and Lonely Planet guides. One thing I’ve noticed in my short time in Phnom Penh is that the tourists/aid workers that it attracts are very friendly, worldly and socially conscious individuals. That includes an NGO worker from Belgium who I met at the Royal Palace. He said that he and his girlfriend worked for an NGO in Siem Riep and were, like me, planning on seeing the sights in addition to continuing their work in the city.


The National Museum

The National Museum was my next stop. The building that houses the museum collection wraps around a small courtyard and is very similar in style to the buildings at the Royal Palace. The collection itself hosts a wide variety of stone statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities and thousand-year-old artifacts from Cambodia’s long and storied history.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom is a temple in the middle of the city and was my third stop on the trip. The temple is actually in the middle of a large park, where families spend leisurely time in the afternoon, much like the parks back home. Unlike the parks back home, however, you don’t just see human families making use of the open space. If you look up into the trees, or on the hillsides of the temple, you may just spot families of monkeys, just like I did.


Russian Market

If you’re looking for cheap clothes shopping or for a knickknack to bring home, the labyrinthine Russian Market is a great place to browse through. You can spend hours looking through the stalls upon stalls of clothing, tchotskys, bags, jewelry, art, and god knows what else is hiding beneath the tin roofs. If you’re hungry or thirsty, there are also drink and food vendors centered in one part of the market. It was while sitting down to a glass of sweet coffee that I met two human rights workers and another tourist from Belgium. Again, super nice people who did not hesistate to chat with a newcomer to the city.


Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

A visit to Phnom Penh is not complete without a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was my last stop on my tour through the city. The four buildings that make up the museum, once home to a children’s school, played host to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge during its blood-soaked reign of terror in the late 1970s. I was privileged to have a tour guide who was not only knowledgeable; she was one of the survivors of the regime. According to her, her family was marched from Phnom Penh to Svay Rieng, a city in the southeastern part of Cambodia. She and several of her family members were able to cross the border into Vietnam. Her father, a sister and a brother were not so lucky. Unlike the families who can find evidence of the ultimate fates of their relatives as documented by the soldiers in Tuol Sleng, and whose photos are on display there, she still to this day does not know the exact fates of her family members. Even now, almost thirty years later, she still tears up when telling her story and telling the story of many others who were tortured to death by the Khmer Rouge.

Many of the rooms in the museum are a grim reminder of those horrors: the walls are unadorned save for a large black and white photo of one of the Khmer Rouge’s victims – this one had his throat cut, this one’s face was bashed in by a shovel – and a metal bed frame. Other rooms have been preserved to show the layout of the small cells. My tour guide said that often two people would be placed in these cells, and would often die there. At one point, she looked down into a cell, spotted a deep red spot, and tried to scrape the spot vigorously with her shoe: “We clean here often, but there is still blood. So much blood, that we can’t clean.”

After the tour, I ran into the Belgian NGO worker who I met at the Royal Palace and another traveler from Southern California who also happened to be from Orange County. The traveler, who was planning on biking around Southeast Asia for a full three months, said that he hoped to raise money and kick off aid projects in the region, or wherever else needed help. Check out his website here.


Visit my Chronicles in Cambodia Flickr photoset.

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Chronicles in Cambodia: Dispatch 1

After almost a full day of travel that included a 13 and a half hour flight from Los Angeles to Taipei, a three-hour stopover in Taipei, and a three and a half hour flight from Taipei to Phnom Penh, I have finally arrived in the hotel room that will be my home for the next eight weeks while I intern with the Open Society Justice Initiative.

To say that it’s a bit of a shock and a bit surreal to be here after the past three weeks would be an understatement. During the week before and the two weeks during finals, there were family issues that needed attention. Then there were the finals themselves, including one hellish property final. After finals, when you’d think one could finally breath a sign of relief, there were more issues that came up. And before I could remind myself to keep breathing, I ended up flying here.

I’m exhausted, and, as a result, a wee bit overwhelmed, but that does not mean that I’m not excited about this new adventure. I even got the adventure pants (read “hiking pants” in non-Julie speak) to prove it. I met some really nice people so far, including a man who is taking his daughters to visit his country for the first time, a graduate student from northern California who will be in Phnom Penh for 10 weeks with some of his classmates working on an economics project, and a young lady from the Bay Area who will be traveling Cambodia and other Asian countries with her friend.

And I took some pictures! Have a look (click on photo to get taken to Flickr photoset)!


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After a three-hour Contracts final, I am officially done with my first year of law school! Wooohooo! Feeling good does not even begin to describe it!

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Like Clark Kent and that Super Fella.


Also: We’re down to the home stretch, folks! Four finals down, one to go! After my Contracts final tomorrow, I officially will be done with my first year in law school and getting ready for Cambodia! Confetti!!!

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I hope this isn’t the beginning of a trend, but for finals last semester and for finals this semester Undergrad Neighbor has done something unintentionally, yet incredibly annoying. Last semester, the day before my Torts final, it was inviting his douchey, possibly hipster friends to talk about Picasso, smoke douchey herbal cigarettes, and scream like Howard Dean while running into walls.

What could possibly be worse than that?

One word, nerds: Drums. And not just any drum kit, mind you. From what I gather, Undergrad Neighbor has either borrowed or has recently purchased a digital drum kit, which means that there is one drum set with a million preset kits on it. And he’s going through every single one of them.

Every. Single. One.


Now, I wouldn’t mind if he had drum skills so crazy mad that he could play the dress and undies off a feminist groupie, but that is not the case, my friends. All I’ve been hearing for the past hour or so is “bass, bass, bass, bass-snare … high hat!” tried with all the different kits that came with the drums.

To grasp my level of annoyed, think Rock Band on the easy setting played by a rhythmically challenged kitty cat, minus any potential cute factor. “But kitty cats have no hands, much less the manual dexterity afforded by thumbs!” you say.


Puppies, kittens, unicorns and rainbows.

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