Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 11 and 12: Homestay and the Vine

Day 11: 110km Bike Ride to Chuuk

Today we had another early start and biked 110km to a small town called Chuuk. On our way to Chuuk, we biked on red clay dirt paths, stopping occasionally for fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and high-fived many kids as we cycled through their villages. After a long cycling day under the sun, we finally arrived at our homestay for the night. We were sweaty, dirty, and exhausted, but we were welcomed by the people of this community who sliced open coconuts for us before we could even find places to put down our bikes. The chief of the community gave us a warm welcome speech that was so humble and touching that it genuinely showed the hospitality of the Cambodian people.    

We enjoyed a great dinner that consisted of rice, fish, vegetables, and green bananas! These bananas were the most delicious bananas we'd ever tasted! Although it was green, the sweetness and texture of the banana is incomparable to any banana found on grocery store shelves. Following dinner, we moved all the tables and chairs to the side and danced the night away to music played on traditional Cambodian instruments!

After all the biking, eating, and dancing, we were beyond tired. We made our way to our homestays for the night. There were generally four of us per homestay and the families generously gave us their beds, bedding, and mosquito nets while they slept in hammocks overnight. There is no electricity in the community, but most homes have a small generator that is used to power a fluorescent light bulb or stereo. Needless to say, there were no showers either. We took what's known as "bucket showers". Essentially, there is a big basin in the washroom filled with rainwater and you scoop the water with a bucket to pour it over yourself. The tricky part was washing yourself while you have something wrapped around you at all times. It is customary in Cambodia to cover yourself while showering. Although this was a new experience for many of us, we all managed pretty well, were clean and tried to get a good night's sleep.

Day 12: Toughest Bike Ride Yet

Today's bike ride was supposed to be 90km from Chuuk to our next destination, Kep. However, our trusty ride leader, Lucky, decided to take a shortcut and informed us that the ride was only going to be 60km. We were pretty excited that the ride was shortened for today. Lucky failed to mention to us that the shortcut required us to bike up Phonom Vor mountain in order to arrive at our guesthouse, The Vine.

The 60km bike ride was brutal! It was the most physically challenging day we've had on the trip. Everyone, from the athletic to the non-athletic riders were all pushing themselves hard to somehow get to the top of the mountain. The sun was scorching hot and by the end of the day, everyone got lovely tan lines from the day's ride. But once we got to The Vine, the view was breathtaking and it was all worth it!

The Vine is an ecologically conscientious guesthouse and organic farm that lies in the rural village of Chamcar Bei. They are committed to maintaining a low carbon footprint and is developing an off-grid low-carbon power system, which incorporates a solar powered water heating system and freezer and a bio-diesel powered generator that charges a battery system, providing 20 hours per day of electricity with minimal carbon dioxide emissions. The organic farm produces a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruits - all grown without any chemical pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers. The farm's proudest crop is the world renowned Kampot pepper. The pepper vines are grown using traditional techniques that have made Kampot pepper world reknowned for more than 100 years.

After we all took much needed showers, we sat down and enjoyed the freshest garden salad drizzled with a simple balsamic vinaigrette served along with delicious traditional Khmer cuisine and brown rice. The food was incredibly savory and it was probably one of the best meals we've had on the trip. Following dinner, we rested in hammocks and enjoyed the beautiful scenery around us.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Days 9 -10: Phnom Penh, NGO visits, Cambodia's dark history

Hey everyone,

We are all back in Vancouver and settling in and adjusting to life back home.   Although our wonderful trip is over, and we are all currently assessing the profound impact is has had on our lives heading forward, we would like to share the remainder of our experiences over the bike trip

Day 9 

The next two days of the trip, beginning with day 9, were definitely more education and learning focused.   After spending the previous day biking 115km,  we checked out an interesting organization.

We visited Resource Development International - Cambodia, an American non profit dedicated to everything water related in Cambodia.   Water health and cleanliness is an important issue in all developing countries, particularly Cambodia.   74% of all deaths in Cambodia come from water borne diseases.

It was fascinating to see the production process behind RDIC's clay/ceramic pot water filters, a simple yet ingenious design and process designed to work effectively and be culturally sensitive (Cambodians like their pots).  The pot filtration system sells for $10, and is designed to last for up to 4 years.

Although the technology was sound and the process was fairly efficient (90+ pots are produced everyday), we learned about the difficulties related to the business side of things.  Educating the public about the need for water filtration was definitely a challenge, and required innovative solutions.  As a result, RDIC also developed puppet shows and other unique branding/entertainment/educational material designed to educate the public.  Related to this, one has to think about water contamination at point of source AND point of use.   For example, if the water comes from a well and is put into the filter,  point of source is taken care of.  But what happens if a dirty contaminated cup is used to drink the filtered water???? These kind of questions have to be addressed when educating the public.

As well, marketing and distributing the product to rural areas can also be a challenge, as well as costly.   The $10 cost for the filters is considered a very expensive upfront cost to most Cambodians, so finding a way to make it affordable also requires unique solutions (selling on credit, discounted price based on reference checks etc.).   We also learned that $10 represented a break even cost to RDIC.

The ethical question of whether these products, representing a significant cost to most people in Cambodian, should just be donated for free was brought up by the RDIC manager.   Without going into a deep discussion about this topic, the consensus answer to this question by our tour group, RDIC and Daniela from PEPY was NO.   If people are spending their hard earned dollars on a significant investment, people are more likely to take care of that investment because they have a financial stake in ensuring the product works as long as possible.   This leads to sustainable solutions to complex problems, and allows for the creation of sustainable and innovative business models to address these problems.     We learned of a story in another town in which another charity came in and gave away water filters for free.  One year later, most of the filters were not working and people stopped caring about them.  The other consequence was that is destroyed the hard work that companies like RDIC put in to serving this market.

Of course, the other side of the equation is whether it is okay to make profits off these products?  RDIC had mentioned that competitor organizations have come in and started selling something similar for the same price or less.   However, the danger has become that in order to maximize profit, some of these companies are sacrificing quality and don't have the same quality control measures in place. (RDIC literally tests every single pot for flow through rate, leakage, etc) in order to lower costs and increase margins.

I (Herman) don't have a problem with companies having a profit incentive to serve a market.  After all, companies create jobs and invest more resources in an industry that has profit potential.  The question becomes, how do we ensure people are not spending their hard earned, limited dollars on bad quality products and being taken advantage of?   Especially those products which can be the difference between life and death based on quality?? Consumer protection doesn't exist in Cambodia like it does in Canada.....Its a question I leave for our readers to think about.  (Market at the Bottom of the Pyramid)

After our visit to RDIC, we spent the afternoon visiting markets and exploring more of Phnom Penh city.

Dinner was fantastic, served at a restaurant operated by the non profit Friends International 

Day 10

Today was another day of learning, but of a different, dark sort.  We briefly introduced the Khmer Rouge in a previous posting.   However, today we saw first hand the brutal nature of the Khmer Rouge regime (in power from 1975-1979) and lasting, scarring impact they had left on the nation.

We first visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museam. (also known as Security Prison 21 or S21).  From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

We visited some of the prison cells and viewed some of the torture tools used at this site.  It was definitely a sobering and tragic reminder of the evils that some are capable of in this world.  This point was hammered home by the visit to the next site.

Choeung Ek extermination centre ("The Killing Fields")

We visited this site and the first thing we saw was a Buddhist Stupa.  The structure was built as a monument to all those killed.  When entering inside to pay our respects, there were approximately 5,000 humans skulls on display, along with the tattered clothing of those killed.

Hagar International

After spending the morning learning about Cambodia's tragic past, we spent the afternoon learning about Cambodia's hopeful future.  We had the privilege of meeting the young, smart and energetic CEO of Hagar Social Enterprise group - Tim Rann.    Tim talked about the unique structure of Hagar International and the interesting social rehabilitation programs they run for women that really need it (abused, battered women).  The other side of the organization is providing economic empowerment opportunities.  This is accomplished through Hagar's profitable and successful social enterprises!  We learned about Hagar's operation of a mulit-million dollar coffee chain business and a catering business, both organizations that were profitable and highly successful!

Although there is an intrinsic social aspect to both businesses in that they provide opportunities to women to learn important transferable skills in the hospitality industry, it was interesting to note that Tim's assertion was that these businesses were not successful because of the marketing of the social mission behind it, rather, because they provide high quality goods and services in a competitive marketplace...and consumers were rewarding them as a result.  An important lesson to those interested in creating "social" ventures.

After a full day of learning activities, we rested early as another 5am start was on the horizon due to another 85km of biking from Phnom Penh to our one night homestay location in the farming village of Doeurm Pour.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Days 6 - 8: Kampong Chhnang, more learning and 115km ride to Phnom Penh!

Hey everyone!  It's been a hectic, interesting and eye opening last few days and we have another 5am start tomorrow so will make this blog post not too long!

Day 6

After spending a few awesome days in Siem Reap, we began our journey to explore the rest of the country.  This adventure started by taking a long, 7 hour ferry across Tonle Sap (Cambodia's largest lake) to the outskirts of Kampong Chhnang city!

One of my (Laura's) most memorable moments happened unexpectedly as we biked from Tonle Sap to Kampong Chhnang. After biking for 15km from the ferry port, my tire blew out!! Luckily, one of our super awesome ride leaders, Chor (but we call him Joe) was right behind me and stopped to help. We look around and it just so happens that we end up in front of the home of a family of four, including a 90 year old grandma sitting on a wooden platform with a pestle and mortar in hand grinding spices for a traditional Cambodian noodle dish, two young girls (probably aged 10 or so) playing with their two dogs, and the mom, just observing as most moms do. Not only do we stop in front of their home, they happen to sell a variety of fruits as well. So what do we do in this case? We buy a watermelon, crack it open and share it with the family!! As I ate my watermelon with the two girls, one of which spoke a bit of English, and with me speaking a few words of Khmer, we ended up laughing and smiling despite the language barriers. As I waited for my bike to be fixed by another super fantastic rider leader, Rithy, I went over to grandma and sat with her. No verbal communication was necessary, just the simplicity of eye contact made me feel like I understood what she was thinking, and her with me.

We've all been told to live in the present and not worry about the past or future, and for most (including myself), that is hard to achieve. But in that brief span of time because of an accidental flat tire, I felt completely in the moment and felt connected to a family that welcomed me into their home and showed me the generosity and hospitality of the people in Cambodia. Throughout our bike trip, we bike pass many homes and rarely get to stop and enjoy the moment. This was one of those times where unexpected experiences are created and you become completely immersed in the present. They put such a big smile on my face that I hope the rest of the riders get to experience something like that!!     

We arrived in Kampong Chnnang city after 30km or so.  The city was a far cry from Siem Reap, in that there were not that many foreigners and the city was definitely less developed.  With few foreigners in this city, it was not surprising that our bike tour became somewhat of a curious attraction to the locals.  Having children from every household shout "hello" was definitely a memorable experience.   We checked into our guest houses and ended our night early as another 6 am start was on the horizon.

Day 7

Day 7 included about another 40km of biking throughout Kampong Chnnang's suburbs and included two primary highlights:

Khmer Rouge Secret Airport

After biking on dirt roads, our road conditions suddenly switched to a hard and proper concrete roadway.  These roads were built in the early 70's for trucks to transport goods to a secret airport built by Cambodia's genocidal regime led by the Khmer Rouge.  The abandoned airport, guarded by one security guard, was eerily quiet.    We gathered around the runway and were given a tragic history lesson by one of our local Cambodian ride leaders, Rithy.   The airport was built by the Khmer Rouge with help from China during the early 70's.  The intention was for China to ship weapons to the airport in exchange for rice grown in Cambodia.  Of course, this never happened as Cambodia had its own food crisis during the regime.

We also learned why the airport was tragically considered "secret".   The Khmer Rouge killed everyone that was involved with designing and building the airport.  Furthermore, locals in the surrounding areas were also killed due to their proximity to the airport.  The Khmer Rouge were an extremely paranoid regime and feared that spies would discover the existence of the airport.

To truly understand Cambodia and where it has come from, it is extremely important to understand the Khmer Rouge and the repercussions of their time in power that extend all the way to present day Cambodia.  For those that are really interested in the country, we highly encourage you to spend a few moments reading up on them over the internet.

Ceramic development center

The province in which Kampong Chnnang is located in depends on pottery for economic development and job creation.  We visited a local pottery shop to see some of the goods.  These pots are mainly meant for local consumption rather than exports, and are used for such things as water storage, cooking etc.  Ceramic pottery is an important industry!

After a productive day, we ended the night early for what was going to be one of our earliest starts, 5 am on our bikes!  Why so early you ask?  Because we had a 115km bike journey in the pipeline!

Day 8

Our epic journey was about to be tested with our first of many > 100 km days.   The bike ride went from 6 am until we arrived in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, at approximately 3:30 pm.  It was truly a long yet satisfying journey filled with many memorable experiences.   We had many stops along the way - interacting with locals, having our fill of sugarcane and coconut juice, spontaneous dance sessions during the breaks, eating snails, high-fiving each other throughout the day for support, and getting bursts of energy from children coming out from their homes to give us high-fives.  The road conditions were a mix of main highways, with our bike group sharing the roads with large trucks, and local dirt roads.  We also got lucky with the heat (normally 30-35 degrees) as the weather was overcast with a mix of sun.

My (Herman's) most memorable experience was at a sugercane stand at a local village corner.  While I was waiting for the juice, I started interacting with some local kids.  I had remembered purchasing a Vancouver postcard and decided to give one of the kid's the postcard.  The child was definitely happy and perhaps it might serve as motivation for him to go to school...?????  Maybe him getting the card was a life changing moment???? Probably not, but I could not stop imagining the possibilities :).

Days 9 and 10 have been even more memorable but unfortunately, that's all the time we have today to blog!  We will try to catch up on our postings as soon as we can but this may be the last update until we are on our way back home!!!  Thank you all for continuing to read up on our interesting experiences!!!

Herman, Karen and Laura

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Day 3, 4 & 5 - Reservoir, New Years and Temples

Happy new year everyone!  (Sua Sdei Chnam Thmei)

Day 3 - Reservoir

We started the day at the PEPY house and shared some goals before getting fitted for our bikes. Our day started early at 6:30am and journeyed our way to Baray Tuk Tlay, a 700 year old water supply for the Angkor Empire. As we road along the red clay dirt roads, we passed through a village where the children came running up to the path waving and saying "hello!" over and over again. Their smiles, the joy in their eyes to see unfamiliar faces, was one of the highlights of the day. I rode alongside a group of grade 10 boys who began learning English two years earlier and we were absolutely amazed at how fluent they were when speaking English. They wished me luck as we parted ways to our separate destinations.

As you all know, the three of us did not have much experience on a bike prior to the ride. I, personally, did not know what to expect. For someone who hasn't been on a bike for 15+ years, I was quite nervous. We started off on dirt roads which wasn't too bad but around the reservoir were sand pits that felt like we were riding in quick sand! There were some minor injuries that day but luckily the three of us managed okay, with me lagging behind, of course. However, I didn't mind too much as the time alone allowed me to take in all the sights, sounds and smells of the country.

We returned to the hotel mid afternoon only to find that our day was not over yet! PEPY organized a team building scavenger hunt which meant running through the city! Similar to the Amazing Race, we ran to restaurants for hints and bargained for fruit to bring to the final destination - Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng is a mountain with an ancient temple at the top overlooking miles and miles of rice fields. The view was breath-taking and the sunset that we saw was even more remarkable. As the sun drew closer to the horizon, the color became a vivid orange, brightening the sky with oranges and pinks. The year was coming to an end and our journey was just beginning.


Day 4 - New Years

Day 4 actually continues from Day 3. After a whirlwind day ending with watching the sunset atop the mountain, we headed to a local restaurant for some authentic Cambodian cuisine as our new year's eve dinner with the PEPY ride team leaders and all the riders. The energy at dinner was exuberant as we just all had one of the most memorable days thus far, though we've only been on the trip for 3 days. After dinner, the celebrations continued as we waited for the countdown to midnight. All we can say about that night is that it was one of the best new year's eve parties any of us had ever been to!! Completely unreal and no where else could we have experienced this level of excitement, happiness and CRAZINESS!!!No pictures shall be posted on this blog...but you may hear about it when we get back.

Soooo...after only less than 3hrs sleep (or no sleep), we enthusiastically dragged ourselves up from the guesthouse beds, a group of the riders took a few tuk tuks to Angkor Wat to witness the sunrise above one of the seven natural wonders of the world. We absolutely could not miss watching the first sunrise of 2011 over the largest temple on the planet!!!! Breathtaking again??? ABSOLUTELY!!! Since this was the first sunrise of the year, it was tourist heaven. We sat by the main viewing area...along with a billizion other tour groups with cameras ranging from pocket size to massive paparazzi-esque camcorders with microphones and tripods. We almost felt like celebrities with the level of flashes going off half an hour before the sunrise. But as the sun rose from the east casting a shadow over Angkor Wat, everyone took in the moment and felt the warmth of the sun as it rised from the horizon.

Following sunrise, we headed back to the guesthouse for some much needed sleep. The rest of the day was a "free day" from PEPY where we could explore the city as we liked. For us three, we slept a whole lot during the morning and then took some time to wander the markets. Following our quick market excursion, we decided to learn more about the history of the country and visited the Angkor National Museum. This visit was a great setup for the next day, when we actually visited Angkor Wat and already knew some background history about the temple.


Day 5 - Temples

After another 6:30 am (!!) start, we resumed our journey on our bicycles today, and visited Siem Reap's main temples which included:

Bayon:  This was one of the oldest temples built by the Angkor Empire.   A fascinating temple, it contained several large towers consisting of the heads of both Buddha and the King of the time.   This was the favourite temple of most in the PEPY Group given its interesting and intricate architecture

Ta Prohm :  Otherwise known as the "Angelina Jolie" temple (Portrayed in the movie Tombraider), this temple is unique in that massive tree roots can be found throughout the temple.

Angkor Wat:  What can we say....its lives up to the hype as being an original wonder of the world.  This magnificent piece of history is on the national flag of Cambodia and currently defines the nation.   We visited the top floor of the complex, known as "being in heaven".    This is the view from Angkor Wat:

The visit to these temples, organized by PEPY, is an integral part of us learning the history of the Cambodian people and its unique culture.   The tour guides provided by PEPY were excellent and allowed us to become immersed in the country's history.   This is important as it sets the foundation for us to learn some of the problems currently faced by the Khmer people today, and the challenges they have been able to overcome given the dark recent history of the country (which will be blogged about in a future post)

Anyways, thanks for reading our blog post for today!  We are scheduled to leave Siem Reap on our bikes and get a taste of rural Cambodia over the next several days.   Internet access may be limited so we will update you about our experiences as soon as we can!