May 13th, 2015 - Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - Day 271

Checking out of the White Linnen

Today was a travel day and for the first time on this trip we took a bus to get from city to city.  We had our last wonderful breakfast at the White Linen hotel and then packed up and headed over to the bus stop. 

The view out of the back door of our hotel

 It was a little over 7 hours on the bus, but was pretty easy and we arrived in Phnom Penh with no issues.  The only drawback to the bus was that the road was ripped up for most of the route, so it was a bumpy ride.  Other than that it was fine.  

Once we arrived in Siem Reap at the bus station a man that was helping us with our bags asked if we needed a taxi.  We said yes and started walking with him.  When we arrived we saw that his Taxi was actually a Tuk Tuk.  We don't have a lot of bags, but we have more than can fit in a tuk tuk, but this guy so no problem.  He started piling bags here in and indicated that we should just jump in as well.  We were tired and ready to get to the hotel so we just complied with his instructions and let it go.  9 months ago I doubt we we have rolled with it, but we are a little different now :-).

It was only about a 8 minute ride to the hotel and while it was uncomfortable we were there before we knew it.  We checked in quickly and were asleep before we knew it.  

May 12th, 2015 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Day 270

Today was our last day with Koy, Reny and the team at Cambodia Care.  This experience has been so moving to all of us, that I feel compelled to tell you a little more about the story of how Cambodia Care came about.  

Koy was working as the Executive Director for another NGO called Teen Challenge who helps drug addicted teens to clean up and put their life back together.  It is painfully important work, and Koy was very good at it, however, he had bigger plans.  He wanted to reach more kids and kept pushing the organization to grow.  The board was not comfortable with moving so fast and finally Koy had enough and decided he needed to resign.   He told the board and they were very dissapointed and asked him to stay.  He had made his decision and remained committed to it.  However, knowing how important the work was he stayed in his position for three months in order to provide Teen Challenge with enough time to find a new director.  

Once he was done, he needed to figure out his path forward and needed to do so quickly.  He had enough money to survive for three months before being completely broke.  Being a deeply religious person he prayed and fasted for 10 days.  After the fast he went into one of the poorest areas in Phnom Penh near the train tracks in order to minister to the drug addicted and the prostitutes.  It was on this trip that his new journey began.  He met a young child who’s mother had left him and who’s father was addicted and did not know how to care for a child.  He had been feeding the baby condensed milk and as a result the child was extremely frail and bordering on death.  Koy and Reny already had four children to take care of, but they agreed to take the baby in order to nurse him back to health and then return him to the family.  

After that experience Koy decided to fast and pray again, this time for 15 days.  When this period was over he had the answer - Cambodia Care.  Cambodia Care is dedicated to opening schools in the poorest areas in Cambodia in order to provide education to the kids who are otherwise left to fend for themselves and will almost certainly end up on drugs, on the street and troubled for the rest of their lives.  Koy and Reny believe so deeply in this mission that even with no money in the bank and no means to begin the made the commitment to make it happen.  Shortly thereafter one of Koy’s former colleagues came through with a $5000 donation to the organization and they were off and running.  Fast forward to today.  They are now serving three communities - all of which we toured - have opened two schools and are working on their third.  They provide food, healthcare, education and are working on a plan for sustainable development for each of the communities so they can self fund the programs.  When they open school #3 they will have 450 students.  Their goal is 200 schools all over the country.

This was our last night in Cambodia, and Koy and Reny invited us into their home for a wonderful dinner.  During the dinner they continued to share their vision for the organization and it was so hard to to be swept up in the passion energy and unbridled enthusiasm they have for their mission.  Reny shared with a huge smile on her face that she dreams one day of having one of her students become Prime Minister of Cambodia, and with these two working on the project I can imagine it happening. 

The time we spent with Koy and Reny was easily the most impactful of the trip and probably of our lives.  The poverty we witnessed was staggering - well beyond anything I could ever imagine.  I did not take photos of the worst of it because it was too uncomfortable, but the images are burned into my brain forever.  To see these two bring such energy and passion to these people who the rest of the world has forgotten was one of the most touching things I have ever been in the presence of.  We were so lucky to be able to give back in our small way, but in reality what we received was far more than we ever could have given.  

On this day we visited the tomb village.  This area is literally a cemetery which people moved into when they were displaced by a new development across the river.  The village is built in and around the tombs of the Chinese and Cambodian people in Phnom Penh.  When we arrived we were greeted again by all the children of the village who were thrilled to see Koy, Reny and us.

 Koy showed us around the building they want to use for the school.  Unfortunately we learned the day before while we were painting that the government (who owns the building) had changed their mind and would not allow Cambodia Care to lease the building.  This was a big blow to Koy and we could feel his disappointment as he showed us around.  

He then gave us a tour of the village.  As we wandered through the area we were once again devastated by the conditions these people are living in and at the same time mesmerized by the smiles and “hello’s” coming from every direction.

 When we reached the middle of the village we stopped and Koy jumped up on to a table and gave a speech.  He told the village the government would not let them lease the building but reassured the villagers that they were staying and would be opening a school.  When Koy announced that the people cheered and clapped and you could tell they were relieved.  

Koy delivering the good and bad news

Then we passed out the food we brought along with us and received many thanks for our kindness.  

Koy then showed us around the rest of the village as we went door to door to pass out the remaining food.  There is not much more to say, other than it was heartbreaking.  

After the village we had our Tuk Tuk driver drive us around to the Palace and to the central market because we were close and were not going to have another time to see these sights.  We bought a couple gifts at the central market and picked up some flowers for Koy and Reny and then went back to the hotel emotionally drained.  

Our dinner with Reny and Koy was wonderful.  We are so lucky to have been introduced to them and can call them friends after the three days we have spent with them.  We will miss them but hope to stay connected and helpful even when we are back in Boise.

May 11th, 2015 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Day 271

Peter's POV

Today was our biggest day in Phnom Penh. We woke up and went to breakfast. By 8:30 we were in our tuck-tuck driving to another one of the slum areas to see another school. When we got to the area, we met Koy, our guide and the co-founder of Cambodian Care, an NGO that builds schools in the slum areas of Cambodia. 

The area that we walked around was the craziest poverty that I have ever seen. We thought that yesterday was bad, and it was, but this was insane.

This is what the locals sell to make money - they are salted river clams

We walked over this "bridge" to get from one street to another

When we were done walking around we helped feed the community breakfast. After breakfast we hopped in our tuck-tuck and headed back to the hotel.

When we got back to the hotel headed out to grab lunch. When we were done with lunch we relaxed until about 2 when we headed out to paint a school. We went back to the school / area that we saw yesterday. When we got there there were about 15 kids waiting to show us to the school that we were going to paint.

The walls of the school that we were painting drank paint so it took a while to paint the whole room. When we were done we were very happy with way it turned out. The room actually looked like a class room without chairs or posters. 

After we were done painting we headed back to the house to get all of the paint off of us. When we were ready to go to dinner we asked our tuck-tuck driver to take us to one of his favorite restaurants. He took us to a place called the Tuck-Tuck Cafe. When we got there we invited our driver Mr. Vira to have dinner with us.  He has been our driver every day and is so nice.  We had a great dinner with him - it was nice to get to know him a little better. When we got back to the hotel we all went right to bed after another big day in Phnom Penh.   

May 10th, 2015 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Day 269

Peter's POV 

Today was a big day. We woke up and had breakfast at our hotel. After breakfast we drove out to visit one of the schools that we are planning to help paint.

Here are some scenes from the drive out to the school:

The peanut man - none of us could figure out how he did not drop any

Little helper

When we got to the school our driver told us to walk down a road that the tuck-tuck couldn't fit down. He pointed to a guy on a scooter that would show us the way. 

The poverty of the area was like nothing that I have ever seen. We didn't walk around the worst parts of Africa but I don't think that anywhere could get much worst than what we were walking through.

When we got to the church we we found one room with 75-100 kids and adults. As soon as we walked in a little girl walked up to Lea and grabbed her hand - just like in the orphanage we visited in Tanzania. They became quick friends.

We listened to the pastor give a sermon (in Khmer). After the speech my dad got up and told all of the kids about what we had learned on the trip.

After my dads speech we walked to the school with the kids. The pastors wife, , told us about the community in the area and what life was like. About how some of the parents in the community are opposed to the school because if the kids are at school than they can't work. 

After we got back to the church, we played with the kids for a while. After we finished playing with the kids we helped pass out food and said our goodbyes.

While we were driving back to our hotel we saw one of the kids that I met in the school biking by. While we were passing him he handed me a rubber wrist band. We don't know what the band says but its still very cool to have. 

My friend who gave me the wrist band

When we got back to the hotel we walked to get lunch at the Sugar and Spice cafe. When we were done with lunch we walked to the Russian market to do a little shopping. When we got to the market we were amazed by how cheap everything was. Yesterday my dad bought a pair of Beats headphones just to see how fake they were. But if they were fakes they were very good, so we wanted to buy a couple more pairs. We got a couple of pairs and started to look for presents for friends in Boise. When we were done we had purchased a bunch of stuff. I am not going to mention because some of you  getting gifts might read this.  

When we got back to the hotel we relaxed for a little bit and waited out the heat of the day. Around 6:30 we drove to get dinner. Cambodia is not the prettiest country in the world, but the people are some of the nicest we have met anywhere. We find it fun while we drive to places to smile and wave at little kids riding in the front of scooters - they almost always smile back.

The restaurants we have been to are little oasis's where you can almost forget about the poverty all around you. We had a great mothers day dinner and did a little shopping in a the restaurant gift shop.  It turns out that this restaurant is another one that helps to take kids off the street and give them a better life - so cool.  After dinner we headed back to the hotel after a great mothers day.    

May 9th, 2015 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Day 268

Big Pete's POV

Today was our first day in Cambodia and because we are spending the remainder of our time here working with a charity (Cambodia Care) we knew we had a difficult day ahead of us.  The one thing we knew we had to do while we were in Phnom Penh was to visit the killing fields.  After having been to Auschwitz while we were in Krakow, we knew this would be a difficult day, but an important one.  

We arranged for a Tuk Tuk to take us out to the fields and then to the infamous Prison S21.  After a wonderful breakfast at the hotel we went up to our room and got ready and headed out.  This was our first Tuk Tuk ride and it was quite the adventure.  The driving in Phnom Penh is by far the craziest we have seen on the trip.  It is like Vietnam but with a ton more people.  There are no real rules, but everything just seems to work out - especially because everyone goes about 15 miles an hour.  

We made it to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, which is the official name for the killing fields, about 30 bumpy minutes later.  The road there was rough and so were the sights and smells.  Since I am writing this several days after we actually went I can tell you that Phnom Penh is a mix of highs and lows that is a place you have to see to truly understand and appreciate it.  It is a city undergoing a huge transformation and is still recovering from the genocide which ripped it apart only 40 years ago.  

When we arrived at the center, our tuk tuk driver - Mr Vira, told us he would wait for us in a cafe and showed us the entrance.  We paid $6 each, which included our entry fee and an audio guide for each of us.  We plugged in and started the tour.  

The audio tour was excellent and was narrated by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime.  We slowly walked through each of the 19 stops and listened to what happened at each location.  It was heartbreaking and maddening at the same time.  

The most moving part of the audio tour was hearing survivors tell their story.  

The sights were difficult to see as well.  Mass graves were enclosed in simple structures, and people had left bracelets there as prayers for the deceased.  

By far the most emotional location at Choeung Ek was the killing tree, where the Khmer Rouge killed babies by holding them by their feet and hitting them against the tree.  It was simply terrible.

It was shortly after this that we learned Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, stayed in power until 1997 ruling a small faction of the Khmer people in the jungles of Southwest Cambodia.  He and his party was even nominally recognized by the UN, the US, Great Britton and many other countries as the ruling party of Cambodia during this time.  They mention him being able to play with his grand kids and live a full life until he was finally put under house arrest in 1997.  He died one year later.  Most theories think it was either suicide or poisoning, but the fact that he lived a full life after causing the death of up to 3 million people is beyond comprehension.  

After the killing fields we had our driver take us to Tuol Sleng Prison - called S21.  This was the prison where people were interrogated and forced to confess to their crimes.  These were usually educated people; monks, teachers, doctors reporters - anyone who was part of the oppressing class.  

It was a dark and depressing tour and while not quite as well done as Choeung Ek, it was moving in its own way because of the photos.  Many of the rooms were lined with mug shots of the victims which were taken when they arrived at the prison.

After the long emotional morning at the two sites we were ready for a break.  We headed back to the guest house and escaped the heat (which is completely oppressive here) and then headed out for lunch.  

We went over to Sugar and Spice, which is a restaurant operated by the same organization that runs our guest house.  It seems so many of the businesses here are purpose driven.  Everywhere we go we seem to find organizations trying to help the individuals who are being victimized here - its amazing.  

Sugar and spice is a fantastic place with smiling faces greeting you for every interaction.  

Peter at Sugar and Spice

We had a great lunch and then headed back to the guest house to rest for a while during the heat of the day.  After a good rest Stacie and I decided to head over to the Russian Market to check it out.  The market gets its name because the Russian ex-pat community shopped here during the 80's - not because the goods are Russian.  We wandered in and were immediately overwhelmed by the size and mass clutter surrounding us.  They sell everything from angle grinders to underwear here and most of it is of questionable authenticity and quality, but it is ALL very inexpensive.  

We bought a few things just to sample the quality including some headphones and then headed back to the guest house.  The headphones (Beats), which cost $10 were extremely good and set off a frenzy with the kids, who had always wanted Beats, but the market was closed, so they needed to wait until tomorrow.

We then headed out to dinner at K'nyay, which we found in Lonely Planet.  The restaurant is in a really charming old french colonial house which made us feel like we were in the Bahamas.  The food was great, the service was tremendous and we were even entertained by a frisky little cat who came to sit with us.  The cat had a nasty little streak in her and at one point while I was relaxing with my arm draped over the back of my chair the cat decided to give my hand a little love bite.  I nearly jumped out of my skin because I was not expecting it at all.  Everyone got a big kick out of dad being scared by a little kitty including me.  

It was a massive day, but a really good one.  So far we are all loving Cambodia, especially the people - they are so kind and always have a smile ready and waiting to give to you.

May 8th, 2015 - Travel day, Koh Lanta, Thailand to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Messages like these are everywhere at the White Linen Guest House

Peter's POV 

Today was one of our last travel days. Today I woke up and realized that I hadn't packed and our driver came to get us at 10. It was 8. The packing took me 30 minutes and afterwards Lea and I went to go and get some breakfast at the buffet next door. 

When we got back we finished packing and waited for the car. Our drive to Koh Lanta was great, we were in a big minibus and our driver drove very fast so we got to our house in record time. This driver pulled up and we first thought that he was looking for someone else because he had a tiny car. But we made it work. 

When we got to the airport we all stretched out our backs and got ready to check in. We did some shopping to look for stickers. but after trying all of the stores we decided that it was a hopeless cause. When we walked over to the check-in counter we found no one working at any of the booths. We decided that we still had a while before our flight so we walked to get lunch before we checked in. Ironically, our most expensive meal in Thailand was 4 sandwiches and 3 bags of chips at Subway. When we got back to the check in counter we checked our bags and headed off for security. As we were hustling through security my dad told Lea that she didn't have her immigration departure card. So once we were through security Lea was told that she had to go back to the check-in counter and fill out another. 

When we landed in Bangkok it was 4. Bangkok airport is probably the biggest airport that I have ever been in. We had a two hour and 15 minute layover in Bangkok but we only waited for 15 minutes because it took us two hours to get from gate to gate. 

When we landed in Phnom Penh we got our visas and got out of the airport easily. When we got outside we needed to get a taxi. We told the driver where we were going before he got into the car he said that he knew were it was. When he got into the car and my dad asked him if he knew were we were going he didn't know. My dad, having gone through the same thing in Ha Noi had the address pulled up on his phone in preparation. 

When we got to the place that google maps told us to go the hotel was nowhere in site. We asked someone and drove around the block again but we still couldn't find it. After asking again and having someone walk my dad to the hotel we did finally find it. We checked into our room and went right to sleep after a long day of travel. 

Big Pete's POV

Friday May 8th     

Today was a travel day from the wonderful island of Koh Lanta to the madness of Phnom Penh Cambodia.  Stacie and I woke up early because I had a call I needed to be on at 7:00 and we wanted to get our walk in before the sun came up and started to bake the beach.  We had our coffee, our walk and then I had my call.  After the call we had breakfast and packed up and before we knew it we were on the road.  We had a two and a half hour taxi ride followed by a one hour flight from Krabi to Bangkok.  Then after a two hour layover in Bangkok we had a one hour flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh.  All of the travel went really smoothly.  We arrived at the Krabi airport about two and a half hours early and we were all hungry.  We have not eaten fast food since we left the US with the exception of one visit to Subway in New Zealand.  In the Krabi airport we spotted another Subway and decided it would be nice to have a sandwich for a change.  We ordered two foot longs (for the kids) and Stacie and I both had 6 inch subs and we had three bags of chips - no drinks. The total bill was about $32.  Now $32 is not all that much for a meal in the airport, but it was a stark contrast to the meals we had been eating over the past couple of weeks.  Those meals were generally full blown affairs with entrees like Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Garlic and Pepper Prawns, Fried Rice, Naan, etc.  They all included drinks and were all LESS expensive than our meal at Subway.  Welcome back to reality.  

The rest of the trip was eventful, just the way I like it.  I will say that arriving in Cambodia was by far the easiest entry into a country we have had in a LONG time, even though we had to get a visa in the airport.  They were efficient as all get out and we were in our taxi no more than 20 minutes after we touched down.  Oh, and another nice surprise - Cambodia uses US Dollars - no conversion :-).  It was nice to hold some greenbacks again!

We arrived at our guest house - the White Linnen, which is owned by the Daughters of Cambodia, with the proceeds going to help protect and rehabilitate women who have been targeted by human traffickers.  

The rooms are perfect and impeccably clean - they have done an incredible job.  

We are happy to be here and are looking forward to working with Cambodian Care on their school projects.