My Notes from Japan are generally meant to be amusing, funny, and cute. This one has some light bits, but
Cambodia is not Japan. I could not write lightly about my experiences there. The most graphic / disturbing
items I describe are bracketed off between asterisks. Likewise with the photos that will appear on my blog in
a few days.
Last Day, Last Ride
I realized the time at about 6:00 PM. My flight was in two hours and I was on the far side of town. I searched
for a tuk-tuk, the rickshaw / motorcycle hybrid that had become my preferred means of transportation during
my travels in Cambodia. A moto driver came up to me and asked if I needed a ride. Motos are simply
motorcycle taxis where the passenger hops on the back and is taken to his destination. I don’t like
motorcycles; I especially don’t like being a passenger on motorcycles. I wanted to get to the airport quickly
and there was no tuk-tuk to be seen.
The streets of Phnom-Phen are crowded. The main road has 4 “lanes”, by which I mean there are painted
lines on the asphalt. Cars, bikes, trucks, horse carts, SUV’s, tuk-tuks, motos and cyclos generally travel in
the right 2 lanes, except for when they are crowded, or they want to pass something, or they want to make a
left hand turn, or they want to merge into the right lane from the left. Traffic runs fluidly here. People are
considerate and polite, as we are still in Asia, but there is no apparent order, as this is not Japan.
My driver didn’t wear a helmet and didn’t have a spare one for me. He spoke a little English, so he would turn
around to make sure I could hear him. When he looked at the road, he saw only slow moving obstacles. We
passed all the cars and trucks as well as almost all the other motos. A banner above the road proclaimed
something along the lines of “Very dangerous traffic accident is everyone’s concern.” I considered my own
My driver started telling me his life story. He had quit school a few years ago to help support his grandmother
and siblings. They were very poor and lived together is a small room. His sister was sick. He wanted to
study English, but couldn’t afford the classes…. I didn’t want to have this conversation again. I had heard
sad stories from lots of the folks I met in Cambodia. I didn’t respond so he changed the subject.
Maybe because he was taking me to the airport, he didn’t go into the other pitch I had often heard. “You want
to see a lady? I take you and wait until you done. Nice lady, any age you like, even young lady…” I never
told these rouge pimps what I thought of their sales routine. But come on, you are selling your sisters for a
small commission. Extreme poverty triggers a survival instinct that maybe none of us from the first world can
appreciate. I believe these men are not callous to the plight of girls who have been kidnapped or sold into the
brothels; they are just less concerned about those kids than their own kids or their next meal.
I was constantly intrigued on the roads with the people I saw. There were 30 people or more loaded into the
back of a pickup truck. One pickup had a wooden board sticking out the back and people were sitting on
that. You see NGO workers in SUV’s. But my favorites were the orange-robe-wearing Monks on bikes.
During the trip my group had a code “M.O.B.” when we saw them.
There may well be an EPA in Cambodia, but they don’t regulate anything. There are no emission standards.
The smog is thick. Sometimes you wind up behind a car or truck that is spewing black plumes of diesel
smoke. I had liberally applied bug spray and sun block in the morning and had been sweating all day in the
Cambodian heat; now, bits of black soot were sticking to me as we raced through traffic at break neck
Arriving safely at the airport, I changed my clothing and toweled off using a packet of hand wipes. Fifteen
hours later, I would spend an hour soaking in an onsen back home in Japan.
Arrival: Visa Requirements in the Third World
“Bring at least 5 passport photos, more would be better”, Advised my travel agent. You may need copies of
your immunization records from your childhood. So, being something of a Boy Scout, I prepared a binder with
copies of everything I might need. “Also don’t forget a $20 bill to get in and another $25 cash to leave the
On the flight in from Bangkok (where, by the way, they have excellent Thai Food), I spoke with a Khmer native
who had been working in Europe, but his visa was expired so he needed to return home. In the airport, he
gave me his phone number, “in case you have any problems,” and directed me towards customs.
At the brand new airport in PP, your first stop at the visa window. Here, a line of bureaucrats in military style
uniforms are seated behind a long counter. Three lines feed to the first officer, but there is no real
adherence to the “line” (first clue you aren’t in Japan anymore).
You surrender your passport, visa application, photo, and $20 to the first officer. He hands it to the next and
it travels through the hands of each of the officers collecting stickers, stamps, signatures and code along the
way. Then you wait. I was one of the first ones to the front, and I had to wait about ten minutes for mine. At
the end of the counter, a man holds up the passports and you push through the now slightly agitated mob of
foreigners waiting to retrieve their passports.
Receiving your passport, you proceed to the immigration counter. A South African man whose family splits
their time between Phnom Pehn and Dubai told me that the lines had gotten longer since they started using
Microsoft Access software to administer their country’s borders. “But it doesn’t change anything here,” he
said. “You can get just about anything done you need with a small bribe. Want your one month tourist visa
changed into a 1 year working visa? Fill out the forms and submit them at a government office, wait a few
months, and they may get to you. Or, you can walk in with $30 and walk out with your new visa stamps in five
One man on my flight didn’t have the mandatory passport photo for the application process. An agent asked
him to pay a $2 “No Picture Fee”, and then issued him the visa anyway.
“Please don’t give money to begging children. They don’t get to keep the money. It doesn’t help them.
There is a pimp somewhere who will take the money once the child is out of sight. Same goes for the girls
selling flowers. The flowers are beautiful and so are the children selling them. Buy a flower if you want to, but
know that you aren’t helping the baby who is selling it to you.”
On the street in Phnom Pehn or Siam Reap you will quickly meet street children, especially in the touristy
area. Sitting in a café, children will likely come up to you to offer you sun glasses, a shoe shine, tee-shirts
and bootleg books. You can get just about anything you want for $1. Want a brand new copy of “Lets Go:
Cambodia” or “Lonely Planet”? It’s a dollar.
There are also the beggars. One common one is a woman or young girl holding a small dangling naked
baby. “Please Sir, Help me. Yum yum. Please Sir, buy milk for baby.” A friend of mine gave in and took a
small girl to a store where she bought a can of condensed milk. The scam we knew about had the girl selling
the milk back to the shopkeeper and keeping the money. My friend opened the can and handed it to the girl.
The girl got a mischievous look in her face seeing the open can and drank the milk. “No, it’s for the baby!”
my friend implored. “This one for me, you buy one more for baby!” the girl chuckled then ran off.
Sitting outside one afternoon with some friends a beggar came over to me asking for some food. We were
drinking fresh coconut milk out of coconuts. I handed her my mostly finished drink. By her expression, you
would think I had given her a thousand dollars. She took a few steps back, then gave the milk to her son and
started breaking the coconut into pieces to feed her baby.
I tried not to give money. I gave out packets of peanuts, leftover food from the restaurants, and the like. I
remind myself that I had just raised $1,000 for an orphanage and was here to do volunteer work. When I did
give, it was small amounts, and I found the recipients to be quite grateful.
If you give directly to a homeless person in NYC (instead of giving it to one of the many fine organizations the
provide disservices to the homeless there), unless you give at least enough money to buy a soda, you may
find the recipient acting insulted. Try giving food to a homeless person in NYC. It does not get a great
response. But on the streets of Cambodia, 100 Reil (2.5 cents) is treated as a gift from the heavens.
Giving money on the streets however, has its negative consequences. If a child is good at begging and he
starts to support the family, his parents will not let him attend school so as to maximize his income. Later you
will read about jobs that are far worse than this. Nevertheless, helping support a system where children’s
current economic value for begging or their labor is valued higher than their future does not help lift a nation
out of poverty. I was conflicted the few times I gave money, but am not sure what I would advise someone
else in the same situation.
S21 / The Killing fields
First stop was a former high school in the center of town. The Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison /
processing center for the residents of Phnom Penh when they took power. They used brutal torture methods
to find people guilty of being intellectuals, educated, artists, bilingual or of having any political affiliations.
People were warehoused here before being marched to the killing fields.
When you arrive at the killing fields the first thing you see are the children begging. They sing "1,2,3 smile,
1,2,3 smile" and ask you to take a picture of them. Then they ask to see the display on your digital camera.
Finally, they ask for money. "$1 we all share please?" They are young, cute, barefoot, and filthy. There was
a mother standing not to far away. She coached one of the boys at one point. I gave a small amount like, I
believe, most everyone will on most days.
I went in expecting something along the lines of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem or the Holocaust Museum in DC.
This was not what I found.
************* Warning, This Section is extremely graphic *************************************************************
A large monument has been built in the center of the park. Inside, are glass cases filled with human skulls
that go up towards the sky. A woman near the entrance is selling incense for the Buddhists to use in their
Behind the monument are the pits. Our guide led us into the field where over 15,000 people were
butchered. Our guide said, “The villagers only removed the skulls from here so we are now standing on the
dead.” Still walking, he pointed out bits of cloth in the ground, and then he picked up and showed a tooth. A
bit further, pieces of bone, then whole and broken bones, piled up at some points.
Two of the begging children followed our group. The boy looked to be about 4 and his sister might have
been 7. "Take a picture. Take a picture. 1,2,3 smile. 1,2,3 smile," they sang. The girl picked up a bone and
posed with it. I walked away from the group, back towards the parking lot. I said Kaddish with another Jewish
Back in the parking lot I spoke with the tour guide and some of the children. After I told them “no money”, the
guide spoke to them. They live near the site. They, like all kids here, have limited hours of schooling, so
coming to this place is something to do. They get to see all kinds of foreigners. It’s a game for them, to get
some money if they can. In a country where $2 is a day’s wage, children who beg successfully greatly benefit
the family income.
Went to the Cambodian Children’s Foundation for a performance. Upon arrival we were all given necklaces
(similar to Hawaiian leis) made that day out of fresh lavender. The children were seated on the ground and
special wicker chairs had been set for us, VIP style, with bottles of water and a plate of fruit in front of each
Here, the children’s standard Cambodian education is supplemented with English, Computer and Arts
education. This school was founded by a man named Scott Neesy. He was a wealthy executive at Sony
Pictures, when he took a vacation to Cambodia and decided to do some good. He asked a driver to take him
somewhere where there was poverty. He met some children who were working in Steung-Mechey. Scott
gave money to their families so they would be able to stop working and attend school.
A few months later, he visited to see how his kids were doing. Predictably, the families had lost the money he
had given them and the children were back at work. He started building an orphanage / school in Phnom
Penh while traveling back and forth between Cambodia and the States.
One day he was in a meeting at Sony when a subordinate burst into the room and told him they had an
emergency to deal with. Sony had chartered a jet for one of the B-list actors in a film they were making. The
actor was standing on the tarmac, refusing to get on the plane because it did not have the specific brand of
Champagne he had requested. The subordinate told him that they had dispatched people to area liquor
stores, but were unable to find the specific Champagne.
Shortly after that incident, Scott quit Sony and moved to Cambodia full time where he runs the CCF. The
orphanage was originally built for eighty children, but as Scott learned, even if you have eighty beds, the
children in each room will wind up sleeping in the same 2-3 beds together anyway. Now the center has 160+
residents and is opening an additional school to provide advanced training to older students.
At the performance, children performed traditional dances and a few children practiced their English with me
and the others on my trip. One boy speaking with me said "Long ago, America made war with Vietnam.
Cambodia was friends with Vietnam so America got very angry at us and dropped many bombs here. We
were wrong to help Vietnam." This boy had been living in this orphanage and studying English for only about
2 years. Before that time, he was a resident of Steung-Mechey.
Eighty percent of the students at the Cambodian Children’s Foundation are found at the Steung-Mechey
Poor families migrate away from some of Cambodia’s poorest rural areas to find a better life in the city. They
hear about jobs in PP. Sadly, when they arrive they find only more poverty and no prospects. One place
these people wind up is in the Steung-Mechey dump on the outskirts of town. Here, one can earn 1000 reil,
about 25 cents, for a day’s work.
Old and young scower the piles of trash for valuable soda cans and plastic bottles. They collect plastic, bits
of cloth, and anything saleable. Food scraps are picked through for anything edible. This is the bottom of
the bottom of poverty and gloom. One and two year olds run naked through the filth. Mortality before the
second birthday is around 20% (twice the national average). At around age three, when youth from my
country are starting nursery school, the children here are beginning their lives as scavengers.
Methamphetamines are widely used. The drug makes it possible for a child to work harder, longer and
faster. Parents may start their children on the drugs so they will bring in more income.
For the girls here, life is particularly horrific. Rape is common and widespread even among the youngest of
children. Pimps prowl these areas and kidnap or buy young girls for the brothels. The going price for God’s
children, in Steung-Mechey by accident of birth, is about thirty dollars.
We visited this place with Scott Neesy and some of the children from his orphanage / school. These children
visit their families on weekends and holidays. "We make them sign a contract that they wont let their kids
work" says Scott, "but we know they do anyway."
CCF serves 160 children at one site, and a second one is opening this month. He met a girl, probably 6 or so
with her mother on a garbage pile. They spoke, and he asked the mother to bring the girl to the center the
next morning. He gave her a dollar to buy food and a moto ride to the orphanage. Perhaps they will come,
and perhaps that girl will join the program. Another boy, around the same age, was not so lucky. The child
took us to his home, a shack in the dump. His father would not allow the boy or his 3 siblings to go to school,
because he wants them to work to bring in money. As I gave some bags of raisins and peanuts to the 4
children, the father smoked a cigarette. I wondered how much of each child’s earnings went to support their
Royal Palace / Museum
The contrast from morning to evening is stark. We visited the Royal Palace which is still home to the nation’s
King and Queen. There you can see giant Buddha’s made of gold, a Temple where the floor is solid silver,
and ornamentation covering every square inch of the place.
Mekong River / Silk Island
Took a boat ride up the Mekong River from Phnom Pehn to a small village where cotton and silk are woven
into souvenirs for the tourists. The ride on the Mekong was beautiful. A cool breeze relieved us from the
On the island, weavers made silk and cotton cloth on traditional looms. Hordes of women and children
swarmed around the members of my group to sell their scarves. Ostensibly, they weave some of their wares
here, but I suspected that they might be importing some from elsewhere, hopefully not China. Maybe it doesn’
As the women and children flocked around our group to sell their wares, the men from the village sat in the
shade drinking beer and playing cards. This was all well before noon.
Sankum Center / Volunteering
The Sankum Center is an orphanage for street children from around Siam Reap and Ankor Wat. Seven
children live in small houses (like a nice bunk on stilts) with an educator in each. Children go to the public
school across the street and take extra English and computer classes in the afternoons at the center.
Children help take care of their orphanage and farm. In the afternoon, at the peak of the sun’s heat,
students have nap time in shaded hammocks under the houses. The smallest children are tied in so they can’
t fall out, and are rocked to sleep by their care takers. The whole scene is very tranquil.
Many children from the surrounding community come to the Center on a regular basis for classes in academic
and non-academic subjects. There is a sewing class where young women learn a skill that can support their
families. There is also a new farm school, here, older students who have lived at the orphanage will learn to
grow crops and raise livestock. It was here that my group did volunteer work for three of the days we were in
Cambodia. This project is also the recipient of my fundraising efforts.
About twenty local builders had been working for a few days when my group arrived. On a Habitat site, I
consider myself fairly handy. Sure, there are plenty of things I can’t do, but there are lots of things I can do.
But, arriving in a field, in the middle of a tropical summer’s morning, with NO electrical power, or power tools,
well shit, I found I wasn’t really so handy after all. I did my best to help, though, and learned a thing or two
about traditional building methods. At one point, I was using bits of wood twine to attach dried banana leaves
to a frame that would become the “siding” for one of the houses. This type of siding is easily replaced and
can last for 3-5 years. The wooden part of the house should stand for a long time to come.
Although I am glad I took this trip as a volunteer and did something to help, I am not sure about the utility of
flying first world citizens to the third world, for a cost of several thousand dollars, where we spend three days
working side by side with builders earning between $2 and $8 a day, but that is another matter.
Let me offer a huge thank you to everyone who contributed to my fundraising efforts. I was able to bring
$1,000, which is enough to build one of the houses plus a few months worth of a teacher’s salary. Small
amounts can do tremendous good in such a desolate place.
Angkor Wat is the ancient capital of Cambodia. There are hundreds of ancient Temple compounds just
waiting to be seen. Neither myself, nor anyone I know has seen the recent movie “Tomb Raider”, but
evidently the exterior shots were all done here. One of the amazing things about Angkor Wat is how well it is
preserved, despite that fact that almost no preservation work is done on it. You can climb anywhere and
touch anything. Many of the Buddha’s have been stolen or had their heads stolen.
The buildings and compounds stretch on and are beautifully made. There are beautiful carvings on the walls
that depict elaborate religious stories and scenes. UNESCO has deemed this area as a World Heritage Site
and it is considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.
The estimates are for a few million tourists a year within the next 2-3 years. They are building hotels
everywhere. You see a lot of tourists from Japan, Korea and India. There are also the ubiquitous American
and European backpackers. The luxury hotels that are being raised indicate that they anticipate a real up-
tick in the affluence that will flow their way.
We visited the sites with about 50+ students from the PEPY Ride School. The school is located about 2
hours from here, but due to extreme poverty, these students have never been able to make the journey. For
most, they were the first members of their families to visit here in generations. Seeing the ruins was a cool
experience, something I would recommend to anyone planning to be in South Asia. Seeing the ruins with
these children and being a part of the best day of their lives, that was hands down, the highlight of the trip.
After an early morning flight from Siam Reap, a friend and I had a few hours to spend in Phnom Penh. Our
first trek was to Wat Phnom. The temple was nice, but by no means the point of the trip. I went to see the
monkeys I had heard about.
I first encountered a monkey on the sidewalk. He walked right up to me and grabbed my water bottle. Having
a strong opposable thumb, I was able to rebuff the would be thief. Then he reached higher, grabbing the top
of the bottle. I thought, ‘maybe this monkey has some rare tropical monkey disease and maybe I only paid 20
cents for this water’. Immediately, I released the bottle. The monkey turned and started walking away with my
water. He stopped, looked at the bottle, and threw it on the ground in disgust before climbing back into his
I was able to buy some lotus flowers and bananas and to make many more monkey friends. I also started
talking with a kid who works in the evenings and hangs out in this park all day to practice his English with the
tourists. I later learned that visitors to this park are often attacked and bitten by the monkeys.
I returned to the Friends Restaurant, I had visited earlier with the PEPY tour group. The restaurant would
probably get 4 stars in NY or DC. It is run by Mith Samlanh, a Cambodian NGO that provides shelter and job
training for former street children. The food is unbelievably good. May is the peak of the Mango season so
Mangos were used in almost every dish. At this restaurant, you can get an appetizer, salad, a few tapas
dishes, desert, and a Mango shake all for about $5.
I sat under a shady tree on the bank of the Mei Kong river. A boy, probably 8 or 9, pushed a gurney towards
me. His partner, a man with serious physical deformities and a grim expression, was tied onto the gurney with
his hand out stretched. I gave him 100 reil (3¢) and they thanked me. Then they waited under the tree right
by me. I smiled, and they smiled back. This man’s countenance changed upon receipt of this small gift. We
sat there out of the sun for a while. The breeze picked up and we rested. In a few minutes, the boy spotted
some Westerners in business suits walking down the sidewalk. The man put on his grim face again, and they
went back to work. I walked a few blocks, then realizing the time, looked for a tuk-tuk to take me to the airport.
I feel a need to return to this place someday soon.
The organizations I mentioned included:
The Cambodian Children’s Fund
The PEPY Ride School
The Sangkheum Center for Children
My tour was organized by the incredible Daniela Papi of The PEPY Ride
If you are interested in corresponding with Cambodian children via email, please let me know. I am in-touch
with a teacher from the PEPY Ride School and some of his students. They would love the opportunity to
practice their English communication skills with native speakers.