The Sihanouk, Cambodia, Photo Dump

February 22, 2013

I taught this young lady (above) how to eat Oreo cookies American style. She learned only too well, deftly separating the two chocolate cookies, licking out the creme filling, and then handing the two cookies back to me before reaching for another one from the package and repeating the process…

My hotel; across the street from the beach, and $22/night, double


Jumbo prawns, fresh from the grill, 50 cents apiece...

Jeeps through the ages...

This is Frank. Frank is a bit fuzzy around the edges. He says it is due to my ineptness as a photographer. I think it is due to the fact that many 50-cent beers blur his lines. The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between…

Kimleng and the Cambodian Silk Scarves, Part 3

February 21, 2013

I had not even posted pictures of the scarves here in Mysterious Orientations before queries started trickling in: one from the UK, two from Canada, one from Tennessee, another from Japan. All of this transpired after I left Siem Reap, so as of Valentine’s Day, I had not had a chance to tell Kimleng about it.

As it happened, however, I would see Kimleng one last time this trip, as the only bus I was able to find north from Sihanoukville was bound for Siem Reap. She and two of her brothers met me at the bus station, where an undoubtedly bedraggled figure awaited them. She had secured a hotel room for me at the nearby Mandalay Inn, not that I got a lot of use out of it; she and I sat up on the front porch of her shop, chatting until the wee small hours of the morning. Occasionally a customer would drop by for a Coke, a pack of smokes, or a fresh coconut, hand husked by Kimleng with a speed and strength that belied her small stature.

At one point, an English fellow named Morgan brought a guitar over, and the two of us put on an impromptu show for Kimleng and her customers, handing off the guitar to one another after each song. After he left, Kimleng mentioned in passing that it was the first time she had seen or heard anyone play the guitar in person. On TV, of course, but never before in person. Morgan was quite talented, and he wrote some great tunes; he was, however, close to passing out, and although I gave him my business card, and we parted with promises to get in touch, I haven’t heard from him yet. I hope he writes; I would really like to write and/or perform with him again.

I had to be up at 6am for my bus/minivan ride back to Bangkok. Kimleng walked over to the bus station with me, and we said goodbye for the second time of my holiday, after which she hopped onto her mom’s scooter, and went off to school.

As of this writing, enough of the scarves have sold to pay for all the ones we have already bought, and we have perhaps forty left; when I get back to Japan, I will send her an order for a bunch more, and perhaps try a couple of different materials and/or designs. And then we will keep our fingers crossed!

What Happens in Sihanoukville, Stays in Sihanoukville (Mostly…)

February 21, 2013

While I was in Siem Reap finalizing details of the scarf venture with Kimleng (see blog posts entitled “Kimleng and the Cambodian Silk Scarves, Parts One and Two), I got an email from my friend Frank, a fellow Maritimer who teaches biology in a Shanghai high school. He had some time off around Chinese New Year, and he was interested in joining me for a few days in Cambodia. I had been thinking to go north to Laos, but I am nothing if not flexible when it comes to strange travel suggestions–and so it was that I found myself (in the company of my new brother-of-the-road, Doug) meeting Frank’s flight at Phnom Penh International Airport. Frank had evidently taken full advantage of the free libations aboard the plane, and thus was in full-on holiday spirits (or vice versa, haha) when we met in the exit hall.

The dusty, bumpy, and altogether too-long bus ride to Sihanoukville, on Cambodia’s southern coast, put paid to his high spirits (and Doug’s and mine), the cute and loquacious Cambodian girl seated alongside us notwithstanding. By the time we got there, Frank wanted nothing more than a shower, a beer, and the beach, in no particular order.

Doug surveys truckload of chickens also bound for Sihanoukville...

Sihanoukville is well known among old Asia hands for its party atmosphere, some of the finest Western food in Cambodia, 50-cent beer, and its ladies of, um, less than Presbyterian levels of virtue. It seemed that all of these could be found in abundance at every turn. And, as Frank might say, given that he can rarely resist an awful pun, the girls were in a-bun-dance.

The party atmosphere had bubbled to a high rolling boil by the time we got there, thanks to the synchronicity of spring break and the Chinese lunar new year. Virtually any excuse will suffice to throw a party in Southeast Asia, and this the Cambodians excelled at: fireworks galore; barbecued baby squid en brochette; fruit trays in a riot of colors; and kids running around everywhere.

Golden Lion Circle; note four people on motor scooter!

The food was a cornucopia of excess, with restaurants representing the four corners of the world (that is really a weird expression, when you think about it…): Greece; Italy (several entrants); Poland; Russia; India; France; Thailand; China; I know I am missing some. Those so inclined could secure a real American breakfast (a rarity in SE Asia outside the pricey hotels that cater to Yankees): bacon; pancakes with real maple syrup; eggs over easy; sausages that would hold their own against anything in a Brooklyn deli.

Great eats, and some more of that 50-cent beer!

Roasted peanut vendor (peanuts were roasted, not vendor...)


Burgers, BBQ, Pizza and (of course) 50-cent beer!


Gilligan's Ireland...


The 50-cent beer had every attribute you might expect: it was 50 cents, and it was beer. Cambodia runs on the US dollar (even the ATMs dispense funds in US currency). with 4000 Cambodian riel to one dollar. There are no coins used, either US or Cambodian, so if you buy a 50-cent beer and pay with one US dollar, you will get 2000 Cambodian riel in change. Because riel notes go all the way down to 20-riel denominations, you can easily see that it would be little problem to amass a prodigious quantity of Cambodian notes, with which you could not buy so much as a can of Coke (which typically costs more than a can of beer, by the way).

Remi sports lates fashion accessory, necklace made of beer pull-tabs...

Last but not least, there were the sun-bronzed Cambodian beach bunnies–easy on the eyes, friendly and flirtatious to a fault, and present in numbers to boggle the minds of libidinous Western males. And that’s really all I am going to say about that, because, as I promised to Frank and Doug (particularly when it comes to chronicling events in a blog), what happens in Sihanoukville, stays in Sihanoukville…


The Siem Reap (Cambodia) Photo Dump Part 2

February 13, 2013

Sweet little restaurant


Kids jump into river from fishing platform...


Tropical fruits a-gogo!


Is this woman renting a room in her right breast?


Up the steep staircase the hard way!


Ewa, Michal, and Doug


Kimleng and me (eyes closed)


Hotel room sign; see #3, sad that there is a need for that rule...


Latin name: Plantamus Unknownicus


Silk farm: mulberry plants, whose leaves are silkworm's fave!


Silkworm larvae


Silken thread


Claire de loom...


Part way there...


Kimleng's first french fry ever in her life, seriously!


The Siem Reap (Cambodia) Photo Dump, Part 1

February 10, 2013

A day at the lake, where tiny fishies nibble at you relentlessly

Doug Davis, mere moments before the hammock malfunction...


Kimleng's bro, aka "Number 3"




Number 5 (front), Number 4 (LR), Number 3 (RR)


Number 5, in living color!


Chrissie (UK) and Kimleng, Same Same...


"Same Same, But Different", popular SE Asian saying...


Kimleng made Cambodian supper for a crowd; delicious!


Silk weaving, Siem Reap


Do not, I repeat, do not, run into this guy!


Flower girls Kimleng and Ewa (Poland)


And one flower boy, channeling his inner femininity...


Buddhist cemetery, outside Siem Reap

The next group of pictures are of a village on the edge of huge Tonle Sap Lake, which can rise enough in the rainy season to make the stilt houses appear to be floating on the surface of the lake. Other houses are tethered, and simply rise and fall with the water. Just now we are at the end of the dry season, and the river is barely navigable by the tour boats that take visitors into the heart of the village, and out onto the lake to watch the sunset.


Kimleng and the Cambodian Silk Scarves, Part 2

February 10, 2013

As of when I wrote to Kimleng, I knew I would be coming back to SE Asia in the spring, but I didn’t have any particular plan to visit Siem Reap again. Instead, I had planned to visit my European friends Jean-Louis and Kerstin at their new guust house in Koh Rong, an island off the south coast of Cambodia. Between the time of my deciding on the destination and the time of my booking the ticket, however, Jean-Louis and Kerstin’s situation changed rather dramatically, and they sold their half of the guest house to a Cambodian investor. Thus it was that I was a bit at loose ends at the end of my stay in Chiang Mai, so I decided to go to Siem Reap for a while and see about getting the silk scarf enterprise going with Kimleng.

As it happened, the King of Cambodia passed away around the end of last year, and the country was in mourning. As a result of this, Kimleng was out of school for about a week, so she and I went scarf shopping, checking out the nearby silk farm, a couple of the high-end tourist shops, and the much more local central market, where, as you might imagine, we found the most competitive prices. We decided to start out small, buying about forty pieces, in several different colors and designs. We chose traditional Cambodian motifs, for the most part, with designs of elephants, and/or the main temple at Angkor Wat against the colorful background of the woven silk.  The workmanship was very nice, at least to my eye, and thanks to Kimleng’s bargaining skills, the prices were a fair bit less than I had paid for similar scarves the year before.  We made our agreement verbally with the shop owner, and arranged to meet the following day to settle up. Each scarf was individually packaged in a cellophane bag, folded nicely for easy shipping; of course, silk is very light, thus inexpensive to ship and virtually impossible to damage in transit. We plan to sell them somewhere in the $10-12 range, plus shipping, which I imagine will run about another $5 or so from Japan to Europe or North America. If we can manage to sell as few as a couple hundred scarves over the course of a year’s time, it will pay Kimleng’s university tuition.

I will not keep any of the proceeds, other than enough to purchase the next lot of scarves (assuming that the first lot sells…). Anyhing that we manage to generate over and above the cost of her tuition will go into a bank account for her in Cambodia, accessible via the signature of her teacher, and will be used for school supplies, books, uniforms, tutoring, and the like. With luck, there will be enough left for her school lunches and the occasional chocolate bar (and Kimleng is a girl who loves her chocolate).

This is a small initial investment for a Westerner (a few hundred dollars), but it has the potential, I believe, to make a huge impact on one person’s situation, without being in any way a gift or charity. The scarf venture will be some work for Kimleng, without a doubt, and she has more than enough work to keep her busy already. She will have to handle the banking, the purchasing, the packaging, and the shipping, and she will be the one responsible for negotiating better terms as the quantities grow. For my part, I will try to find outlets for the scarves: online auctions; the blog; a few strategically placed newspaper articles. And then we will see…

Kimleng and the Cambodian Silk Scarves, Part 1

February 10, 2013

With ChiangMai deep in the rear view mirror, I headed to Bangkok, then on into Cambodia, to Siem Reap, the city adjacent to the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat (arguably the most amazing example of architecture on the face of the planet).

I visited Siem Reap last year, and I met a girl named Kimleng, who worked at her parents’ tiny grocery store a few doors down from my hotel. She was cute, sweet, and she spoke a bit of English, all of which conspired to make me do my small shopping at her place. On a typical day, I would have a Coke there in the evening, and chat with her about pretty much anything: life in the West; life in Cambodia; music; her school work; whatever. They have only snacks, cold drinks and the like, and they are, I suspect, barely making ends meet. When I left Siem Reap, I stopped by to say goodbye, and she asked if she could have my email address, so she could ask me questions about English usage. I told her she could email me whenever she liked, and about whatever subject struck her fancy, and she took me up on it. Over the course of a year or so, we became pretty good pals, a situation that was enhanced when we became facebook friends several months later.

Now, a small digression: when I returned from Siem Reap to Japan last year, I brought some Cambodian silk scarves as souvenirs. They were unanimously well-received, and I was mildly chided for upping the game at souvenir-giving, as most of my friends typically brought back cookies or snacks as souvenirs from their travels. I assured them that they had probably paid more for the cookies than I had for the scarves, an assertion I am not sure was widely believed. I asked a couple of the recipients what they thought such scarves might be worth in a First World market, and the responses I got were in the $25-30 range. Hmm! A possible business opportunity.

Okay, back to the main thread of the story. At some point in my facebook chats with Kimleng, I asked her what she planned to do after high school. University perhaps? She said that she would really like to continue her education, but there was simply no money for that. She said she would probably continue to work at her parents’ shop, and perhaps get married somewhere along the way.  A shop girl in her situation can expect to make perhaps $60 per month. As it is now, she goes to high school in the mornings from around 630-1200, and then again from 2-6pm, then comes home and works until after midnight, sometimes as late as 2am.  When the shop is not too busy, she can work in some studying, and somehow she has managed to place 4th in her class of 75 students.

One night on facebook, I asked her if she might be interested in serving as the Cambodian end of a small silk scarf enterprise, in which she would buy the scarves at the local market, send them to me in Japan, and I would sell them either in Japan or in North America. Her command of the language, plus the fact that she was a local buying the scarves in some quantity, suggested that she might be able to secure a better price than I could ever negotiate as a foreigner. My access to higher-paying markets, on the other hand, suggested that there could be a decent spread between the buy and sell prices. She texted me back, and said that it was a lovely idea, but that she had no money to buy scarves, and thanked me profusely for thinking of her nonetheless. Of course I had no intention of her paying for them, and I told her that, but still there remained the problem of how to get money to her to get the fledgling business off the ground…