musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Sand Art at Preah Khan

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One of the most impressive things that I saw during my recent visit to the Preah Khan temple at Angkor was not a bunch of ancient carvings but some creative “sand art”. On the dirt path leading to the main entrance, several children have put their artistic abilities to use and are making drawings in the sand. The sand art all has a distinctive Angkor and Khmer look.

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I thought that this was a supremely cool idea and a good way for the children to make a bit of money (hopefully, a few passing tourists will see fit to tip them). It sure beats being pestered by flocks of kids peddling postcards.

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Preah Khan Surprise

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While I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia late last month, a spent a half-day touring various temples around the Angkor archaeological complex. One of my favorite temples there is Preah Khan, a spot I visited with my friends Chamrong and the four Try brothers; Hach, Hoich, Channo, and Pov.

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From the road there is a long path leading to the first gate of Preah Khan. While walking down that path I heard a woman call my name. I looked to my left and say a young Cambodian woman waving at me. Who was she, I wondered? She repeated my name again and asked I was indeed that person. I replied in the affirmative, still wondering who this lady was. “You remember Lyna and Moey?” she asked. Indeed I did. “You took us to Kbal Spean when I was little. I still have the photos you gave me.”

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Ah, it suddenly dawned on me. This girl — er, rather young woman — was one of the group that I took to the waterfall at Kbal Spean one time. Must have been a dozen or more kids in that group, all from the same village near the West Baray reservoir where I had first met them. This must have been 2001 or early 2002, before I opened my bookshop in Siem Reap. I asked the woman two questions: What’s your name? How old are you?

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She reminded me that her name was Serey Nieng, and she was now 27, married with a young daughter of her own. Damn, does time fly or what? I did some quick mental calculation and figured that Nieng must have been about 14 years old when we took that trip to Kbal Spean, a fairly remote location, but one of the more tranquil and atmospheric spots in the Angkor area. Or at least it used to be. If even a small percentage of the hordes of tourists now trampling the ruins of Angkor are also visiting Kbal Spean, the tranquility has probably vanished completely.

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Thankfully, Preah Khan wasn’t completely overrun with tourists when we visited. Step off the main paths and there are plenty of fun detours and rubble to explore, and you feel like you have the whole place to yourself, a rare feeling in Angkor nowadays.

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90-Day Travel Itch

About every three months, basically a 90-day cycle, I get the itch to travel. I think it’s some sort of Pavlovian response that dates back to the days when I was forced to make 90-day visa runs to renew my Thailand visa.

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Now that I have a work permit and a year-long non-immigrant visa (getting both are complicated, annoying procedures that must be done each and every year) I no longer am forced to make the 90-day visa runs, but I became so accustomed to having to leave the country every three months that all these years later I still end up doing it. If nothing else, it’s just a good excuse to get out of town. Three consecutive months in Bangkok already? Time to travel!

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I finished my latest round of visa renewals last month, and then had extra pages added to my U.S. passport (what used to be a free service now costs almost as much as getting a new passport) at the embassy here in Bangkok (the good news is that they still do it while you wait; less than 45 minutes after arrival you are set to go), so I was once again free to travel, plus that 90-day mark was coming up soon, so last Thursday (Thanksgiving Day in the USA) I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I spent the next three days there seeing friends and basically not doing much more than eating meals at the Hawaii Restaurant and reading books. A half-day touring the ruins of Angkor was the most strenuous activity I undertook. I’ll post photos from that excursion later this month.

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Siem Reap has changed a lot since I lived and worked there ten to twelve years ago. What was once a charming, sleepy little town is now a busy and bustling city, packed with noisy vehicles, generic-looking hotels, and gaudy bars. Frankly, most of this rampant growth all looks a bit ugly and unsettling to my eyes. But the Cambodian people are still sweet and most haven’t yet been tainted by all the changes.

At the Siem Reap airport, going through the security check of personal belongings before boarding my flight, a female security guard was organizing two lines of passengers. This woman was perhaps the most patient and amazing airport employee I’ve ever encountered. She was taking the time to talk to each and every person passing through her post. It didn’t matter if the passenger was Cambodian or Western, she chatted with them, a big smile on her face the whole time. And her pleasant manner didn’t seem forced or fake whatsoever. This young woman truly looked like she was enjoying her job and was eager to talk with every passenger. A true Cambodian jewel!

 

Festival of Death

Thailand’s annual holiday of death and delight, otherwise known as the Songkran water festival, starts today. Songkran is officially a three-day holiday, but invariably stretches out to last nearly a full week when you factor in weekends and bank holidays. Songkran can be an especially fun and festive time with people — both locals and foreigners, many of them tourists — playfully squirting, throwing, and dumping water on one another out in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the “playful” antics can sometime escalate into mischievous or even cruel forms of water warfare. And then there is the powder that celebrants enjoy smearing and wiping over the body parts of anyone that orbits into their range. So no, it’s not always good-intentioned fun.

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I have very fond memories of Songkran, my first exposure to Thailand having occurred during a water festival 22 years ago. What an amazing sight: thousands of people riding around town in trucks and motorcycles all day throwing water and laughing and singing. But there is/was a downside to the happy vibe; some of those celebrants also consumed large quantities of alcohol, became shit-faced drunk, yet reasoned that they could still operate a motor vehicle and of course had an accident, maiming or killing themselves or some innocent bystander. Another happy holiday ending in tragedy.

Death and destruction have become synonymous with Songkran in Thailand. The headline of an article in yesterday’s Bangkok Post blared: Nine Killed in Fiery ‘Danger Day’ Smash. The only reason that this article didn’t make the front page was because the casualties (9 dead and 12 more injured, 4 of those in critical condition) were “only” Cambodians, and probably not deemed important enough for the editors to devote major page space. The Cambodians were travelling in a van that was taking them from Rayong to a border checkpoint in Chanthaburi when the van hit a tree and burst into flames. Most likely these Cambodians were migrant workers heading home to celebrate the holiday in their native country. Like Thailand, Cambodia (and also Myanmar and Laos) have similar water festivals in mid April. In fact, this is THE major holiday in every one of these countries.

I have a Cambodian friend who is working a construction job in Samut Prakarn, a province bordering Bangkok, so whenever I hear about accidents like this (not only vehicle crashes, but also when buildings collapse at construction sites, another sad but common occurrence), I worry about his safety. I always breathe a sigh of relief when he calls and checks in, his laughter assuring me that he’s fine. But with so much constant chaos and a lack of attention paid to safety over here, I’ll always remain worried. Hell, while I was in Myanmar last week, my Thai friend Thanayut was in a fairly major road accident. His car was pretty much totaled but thankfully all that he suffered were some bruises and cuts. It could have been much, much worse.

Like most foreigners who have lived in Thailand for many years, Songkran has lost most of its charm and appeal for me. And yet, I still enjoy the happy vibe that pervades during this time, not to mention the fact that traffic jams in Bangkok are almost non-existent for a full week. So, during this extended holiday, I’ll stay inside my bookshop and work as usual every day, open till close, thus avoiding most of the water craziness, taking taxis to and from work instead of walking or using motorcycle taxis.

Today’s update in the Bangkok Post: 102 Killed and 893 injured. How scary is that? And so, each day when I read the newspaper or check online, I’ll be horrified at the spiraling tally of road accidents and casualties. Have fun folks, but be very, very careful out there.

 

Good Hearts & Loving Kindness

I had dinner last Tuesday with two of my favorite people; Janet Brown and Ma Thanegi. Janet, now living in Seattle, had been in town for a week already, but Thanegi has just flown in from Yangon that morning. We met at my bookshop and then made plans to eat at a Thai restaurant on Thonglor. To make the journey easier I called one my motorcycle taxi friends, Bay, and asked him to bring a couple of other moto drivers to the shop to pick us up. Traffic was looking scary-bad, but within 20 minutes he and his buddies arrived and then whisked us away to the restaurant. I tipped the drivers generously and told Bay that he and his friends were welcome to join me for dinner whenever they had free time. Of course getting that free time is no easy task for these guys. They work insane hours with no days off. Anyway, Janet and Thanegi and I had a feast at the restaurant. Good food and good conversation; it was the perfect night.

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The next day Thanegi stopped by my bookshop to buy a few more books. This time I remembered to snap a photo! A few days later I was treated to a surprise visit from Beth Goldring from Phnom Penh. Beth founded the Brahmavihara Cambodia Aids Project in 2000, the same year I met her. She’s also there in the top ranks of my favorite people category; a truly amazing, inspirational lady. It was a busy Saturday when she dropped by my bookshop, but I made time to sit down and chat for a while. As usual, Beth is in the middle of several projects and planning another fundraising trip to the US later this year, but she stocked up on mystery novels while she was in my shop.

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And later that night, Bai and three of the motorcycle taxi drivers on my street dropped by my apartment to hang out and listen to music, the usual “Songs for Life” fare such as Pongist Kampee and Carabao. They’re a curious bunch — I don’t doubt I’m their first farang friend — and they pepper me with all sorts of questions, and I return the favor and ask them a bunch of stuff too. My Thai is still not fluent, so some of what they are saying doesn’t always register, but for the most part, we can carry on a semi-coherent conversation … and that thrills me. I truly enjoy their company.

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Today is Valentine’s Day of course, but here in Thailand the date this year also falls on an important Buddhist holiday, Makha Bucha. Loving kindness and love the one you’re with; a great combination! That got me thinking that I should expand the theme of my post today and write about life and love and good friends, all those things that I often take for granted. This year I’m reflecting more on this sort of stuff as one of my best friends remains bed-ridden in a local nursing home, basically waiting to die. And mortality reared its ugly head last week when I got an e-mail from another good friend, So Penh Thay in Siem Reap, Cambodia, telling me that his father had passed away the day before. I wrote back, and also called him, but I feel that any words of sympathy on my part were inadequate.

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Another one of my favorite people, Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay, sent me a couple of e-mails last week, attaching MP3s of some Burmese songs for me. She’s also been helping me keep track of people and things around the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay where I have many other friends. There’s a troubling issue with one of the kids there, but I’ll save that story for another post. But the main thing is that she is supportive of my efforts to help these kids and I really treasure our friendship.

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Also in Mandalay, I can’t forget about Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung, two stalwarts of the 90th Street crew who I take on field trips when I’m in town. During the past two trips to Mandalay, Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung have also become my nightly dining companions, usually at Aye Myit Tar Restaurant on 81st Street. It beats dining alone, and they are nice, polite kids, so I’m always happy to have them tag along. My birthday happened to fall during the time I was in Mandalay last trip and Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung gave me gifts, one of which was this cute little stand with plastic swans and hearts that lights up when you flip a switch. “When the light comes on you will remember us,” Moe Htet Aung told me. Indeed I will!

 

On this Valentine’s Day, I send out hearts and arrows of love to all the friends and fine folks who continue to put up with me. And a Happy Makha Bucha Day too!

http://www.brahmavihara.cambodiaaidsproject.org/

 

Keeping the Kids in School

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Amidst the recent exchange of New Year’s greetings, I got a note from my friend Kazuko in Japan. She is a frequent visitor to Tat Ein village in Shan State, the same village where I sometimes teach English language classes and take the students and novice monks on field trips. Kazuko visits even more often than I do and she has been a very generous donor to various projects in the village and at the primary school over the years.

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In a post last month I wrote about Maung Thwe, one of the boys in the village who had been a novice monk at the local monastery for several years. Kazuko knows his family well and has tried to encourage the children (the family has 8 kids!) to stay in school and study foreign languages. I had asked her, now that Maung Thwe was finished at the monastery and back at home, why he wasn’t attending classes. I’ve never asked how old he was, but he can’t be much older than thirteen or so. Not exactly a good age to drop out and start working, and yet that appears to be what’s happened. Kazuko said that she wasn’t sure the reason either. Money is not so much a factor as much as the father wanting his son to work. The father, she added, can’t read or write, so maybe he thinks that attending school is a waste of Maung Thwe’s time.

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Whatever the case, children dropping out after only a few years of school is a common problem in Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries. Despite the persistent efforts of Western governments and NGOs to eliminate child labor, the reality is that many children are working to help their families. For many poor families the children are considered valuable bread-winners and any income they earn helps to supplement the parents’ often meager earnings. In Myanmar it’s fairly common to see boys in their early teens, or younger, working in teashops and restaurants. And those are the good jobs. Less fortunate children can be found working long hours in workshops and factories. And those less fortunate than that are either homeless or walking the streets and collecting bottles, cans, and other recyclable items that they can sell.

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A friend of mine in the US sent me a book a few months ago called Teacher Absent Often: Building Sustainable Schools from the Inside Out by Kari Grady Grossman. This book is the “youth edition”, a condensed version that was adapted from the original memoir that Grossman wrote, Bones That Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia. It’s the story of how in 2001 Grossman and her husband adopted a Cambodian boy, and in turn ending up “adopting” a village in Cambodia. Like many Westerners who visit countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar, Grossman found herself entranced and moved by the kind people she met, but saddened by the lack of educational opportunities that they had in poor communities. She decided to try and open schools in rural Cambodia that didn’t have them. I won’t rehash the whole story, but Grossman experienced a discouraging number of problems, disappointments, and obstacles. But this tenacious woman never quit and her determination finally won over the students, teachers, parents, and administrators. It’s a pretty incredible tale.

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Even in “modern” Thailand where I’m living, many kids never finish high school. Most of the motorcycle taxi drivers that I know, for example, are ninth grade dropouts. Back in Mandalay, some of the kids in my 90th Street neighborhood never made it past fifth grade. Sometimes money is a factor, such as the instances when the teachers don’t show up to teach because they have to work another job that pays better, or the students can’t afford to pay the extra money that the teacher needs to supplement their paltry salary. And there are the cases when the children are either asked to work to help earn money for their family, or they decide that making a bit of money is better than sitting through some boring, pointless lesson in an overcrowded classroom. Clearly, the system is broken.

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Kazuko is also frustrated by seeing kids in “our village” drop out and she has asked me to help her brainstorm and think of ways that we can encourage the local families to keep their kids in school. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think I will send her a copy of the Grossman book, hoping that might be a source of inspiration and ideas.

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The Need to Work

Earlier this week I had phone calls from two friends, both now working in countries where they were not born, trying to acclimate to a new language, new culture, new environment; the whole works. Since I pretty much did the same thing nearly twenty years ago, I can relate to their situation, although the obstacles and struggles that these two young men have faced pale in comparison to what I had to adjust to when I moved from the United States to Thailand.

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The first caller was Yan Naing Soe from Myanmar. I met him about five years ago when he was a teenager working at that Minthiha teashop in Mandalay. He always struck me as a bright, personable kid with poise, someone who would do well for himself if given the opportunity. But with only a sixth-grade education, his options were limited. He saved his meager salary from working long days at the teashop and used some of the money to study English when he had free time in the evenings. He left the teashop earlier this year to take an overseas job in Malaysia. Before he left I asked him if he felt scared to make such a move. “Yes,” he laughed. “I don’t know what will happen.”

But so far, so good. Yan Naing Soe  is working for a landscaping company in the Kuala Lumpur area, “cutting lots of trees” and working in the steamy outdoors. He gets Sundays off, which is a better deal than when he was working at the teashop and had no days off. He’s also making a higher salary, which I don’t doubt he’ll be saving and wiring home to his mother who lives near Bagan in Nyaung U. He sounds happy and content in his new home, working with a handful of other young Burmese men. I hope that I’ll see him again soon, probably in Malaysia next time.

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My other “foreign” friend is Chiet from Cambodia. He is back working a construction job in Thailand for the second straight year. This time around he is working at a construction site about an hour outside of Bangkok, in Pathum Thani province. He gets two days off work each week. Well, sometimes. The work schedule is erratic and in recent months he and the other workers have had to put in extra hours on the weekend to make up for any days that were rained out. Chiet is making only 280 Thai baht per day (less than US$10), but it’s still a higher salary than he got working jobs as a welder and security guard in Siem Reap. I hadn’t seen him since I was in Siem Reap earlier this year, but he came to visit me at my bookshop last week during a break from work. He’s still the same sweet and goofy kid that I’ve known for twelve years, but gaining confidence and experience. He’s learned a bit of Thai during his time here and he gets a kick out of trying to speak the language with me.

I thought again of my two friends when I read an editorial by Charles Blow in the New York Times last week. He was discussing a Republican senator in the US who did not support extending unemployment benefits past the current limit of 26 weeks. The Republican philosophy seems to be that helping people does them a “disservice” and unemployment benefits should be capped. But as Blow pointed out, this unemployment “safety net” is more than just a “handout” for many people, especially in these bleak times. Here is one excerpt from his editorial:

“Whereas I am sure that some people will abuse any form of help, I’m by no means convinced that this is the exclusive domain of the poor and put-upon. Businesses and the wealthy regularly take advantage of subsidies and tax loopholes without blinking an eye. But somehow, when some poor people, or those who unexpectedly fall on hard times, take advantage of benefits for which they are eligible it’s an indictment of the morality and character of the poor as a whole. The poor are easy to pick on. They are the great boogeymen and women, dragging us down, costing us money, gobbling up resources. That seems to be the conservative sentiment.”

Of course the dire unemployment situation and the perception of “poor people asking for handouts” is not just unique to the United States. A lot of people, most people in fact, want to work or need to work, but either can’t find a job or can’t find one that pays a living wage. Here in Southeast Asia, the meager employment prospects in many countries has caused an exodus of people — such as my friends Yan Naing Soe and Chiet — who have found higher-paying work in other countries.

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No, these people are not lazy and like the growing legions of out-of-work Americans they aren’t looking for handouts either. They just want to be able to earn a decent living and help their families. I agree with another thing that Blow wrote in his editorial: poor people are some of the hardest working people I have ever known.

I think about my own situation here in Thailand and consider myself very, very lucky. Not just because I’m living in a country that I love, but also because I’m now in a situation where I am self-employed and able to earn a sufficient salary for my needs. But if I was living back in the United States I shudder to think what I would be doing for a job. Would a company hire a middle-aged man like me? Let’s see; I have experience managing retail businesses (CD stores and bookshops) and also as a journalist. But those are not exactly high-demand professions nowadays. Would I be able to scrape together enough money to open my own retail business again? And if so, would it be able to turn a profit in this unpredictable, portable, online age? These are scary times and I fear they are only going to get scarier.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/opinion/blow-the-appalling-stance-of-rand-paul.html?ref=opinion

 

 

Cambodia Rocks

The national elections in Cambodia were held last week and it came as no surprise that Prime Minister For Life (or so he keeps hoping) Hun Sen and his CPP thugs — uh, I mean, party — won re-election once again. Actually, the big surprise was that their margin of victory was much less than expected, giving the rival CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) more seats in the National Assembly. The latest tally that I read gave CPP 55 percent of the seats, a sharp drop from the 73 percent that they won (Bought? Stole?) in the last election in 2008.

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The big pre-election drama was the return of Sam Rainsy, a longtime nemesis of Hun Sen and now the head of the CNRP, who had been living in exile in France the past couple of years. But a week before the election, Hun Sen apparently paid attention to veiled threats from the likes of the United States, who were calling for “free and fair elections,” and arranged for Sam Rainsy to be pardoned for a “crime” that was dubious in the first place. But that was a case of too little too late, and with only a week to campaign — and not even being eligible to vote himself — there wasn’t a whole lot that Rainsy and his supporters could do. Or so it seemed. The fact that they did galvanize and inspire a lot of people — many of them disgruntled and disgusted by years of intimidation, terror, and corruption by Hun Sen and his minions — was actually quite impressive.

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Before the election I asked one Cambodian friend living in Phnom Penh what he thought about it all.

“Of course I will vote. My opinion is I really would like this country that I live in to have the real democracy. And I think it is fair for the other party to have a chance for a try. I hope things would change a bit, even if we could not do much, but at least something.”

 

Another friend, this one living in Siem Reap, sent me an e-mail the day after the election.”

“The election in my country was very bad. Too much corruption and cheating from CPP. I feel ashamed to all people in the world about what my leader did. The reputation of Cambodian is gone because of him.”

So, the elections may be over, but there is definitely a defiant feeling lingering in the air and the whole situation feels very unsettled. It’s too early to predict that there will be marches and demonstrations or people will take to the streets and occupy public squares in Phnom Penh. If there was an Arab Spring could we be in store for a Khmer Summer?  

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One encouraging sign, in addition to the decrease in votes for Hun Sen and CPP, is the growing number of young people who are voting and taking to social media to express their opinions. Cambodians used to strike me a very timid bunch, afraid of challenging authority and not daring to voice their opinions. Perhaps that’s a legacy from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, which, if you’ll remember, wasn’t such a long time ago. But there is a new generation, those under the age of 30, who were born after the end of the Khmer Rouge era, and they don’t seem to share the same submissive and fearful traits that their parents did.

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This new generation wants change. They are tired of waiting. They are tired of being poor. They are tired of seeing Hun Sen and his buddies driving around town in their fucking SUVs and throwing lavish parties and wedding receptions, and then jetting off for shopping sprees in other countries. These people want a share of that pie too, instead of the meager crumbs that have been randomly tossed to them for the past three decades.

 A change is gonna come, baby, and with any amount of luck we may not have to wait five more years. Hun Sen, your days are numbered.

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Traveling with Karen Coates

I’ve never met Karen Coates, but we’ve travelled some of the same highways, rivers, and dusty back roads of Southeast Asia. Her journeys, however, have taken her into more countries, and much deeper into those places, than even my offbeat excursions have done.

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In her new book, This Way More Better, published by Things Asian Press, Coates has compiled travel articles and essays about her many Asian travels. As she says in the book’s introduction: “This book spans a dozen years through megacities and muddy jungles, happy times, sad times, times of love and death. It encompasses twelve years of growth within me, as a person and as a journalist.”

Indeed, this book is not all happy tales and funny stories. Some of experiences she writes about are certainly grim and depressing. But there are also plenty of sweet and inspiring tales too. As a journalist, Coates’s work took her to countries such as East Timor, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and India. Using Thailand as her home base, she ventures many times to some of the same destinations, befriending locals along the way. One engaging person we meet in This Way More Better is Shu, a young Hmong girl living in Sapa, Vietnam. By the end of this book, Shu has grown from a precocious 10-year-old who speaks English and sells souvenirs to tourists into a confident young woman running her own business and taking care of her own child.

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It’s these life-affirming personal encounters with locals that Coates meets that make this book so memorable. Coates’s vivid, descriptive prose is sharp throughout, each page immersing the reader into the specific locale she is describing. Another asset is the accompanying photographs by her travel companion and husband, Jerry Redfern. These striking photos are the perfect complement for Coates’s warm words.

I’ll borrow another passage from her introduction to sum up what is so special about this book:

“Each story in this collection has taught me something — other others, about the world, about myself. In this collection, my aim is not to preach the lessons I have gleaned or tell you what you should know. Instead, I hope to present these stories in such a way that you might find your own meaning in each encounter. Books often offer a vacation from life. I hope, instead, this book takes you traveling.”

Indeed, it does just that, and more.

For more examples of Karen’s great writing, along with Jerry’s fantastic photos, check out her food blog:

http://ramblingspoon.com/blog/

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Welcome to Cambodia!

“Welcome to Cambodia!” said my Cambodian friend. “Don’t believe anything here.”

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With that utterance we clinked beer glasses and took hearty sips. My friend smiled and shook his head. “In Cambodia, you can’t believe anything the government says.”

“Join the club,” I replied. “What you say is true about almost every country on earth. You can’t trust any government.” And keep in mind, we were having this conversation last month, before the latest privacy controversy erupted in the USA.

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We toasted glasses again and decided that we needed to order more beer. Just another night in Siem Reap with friends. My Cambodian friends impress the hell out of me. Whether they are working or still studying in school, they don’t take things for granted. They take their duties seriously, diligently doing what they need to do. But it’s a hard life in Cambodia if you are not wealthy, and none of my friends would remotely qualify as well off. They’re just trying to keep their heads above the economic water, raising families or trying to help younger siblings and/or parents by working, or trying to stay in school. Two of the Try brothers are in their early twenties and still trying to finish high school. But that’s what happens when you drop out in the sixth grade and work for a few years to help earn money for your family.  

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Talking to my friends this time, it was obvious that some of them have become quite disillusioned and frustrated with the government’s many promises, most of which have not come to fruition. Despite an obscene amount of foreign aid pouring in each year, not to mention an increase in tourism in the past decade, Cambodia remains a very poor country. One of my friends dreams of going to the United States to work, thinking it to be some sort of economic paradise. I didn’t want to burst his bubble too harshly, but told him that life there is also “very difficult” for many people.

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We talked, we laughed, we drank more beer; talking about good times in the past and contemplating the uncertain future.

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