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Why we call it Myanmar

Jan 22, 2013   //   by David   //   Blog  //  Comments Off

Britain conquered the land east of India in three waves. This area was divided into principalities and ruled by kings and chiefs. The British united the area under one name, Burma name for the majority tribe the Bama. But many other ethnicities live in this area. And despite an early democracy, they have not been so keen to be part of a union. Even today some of the ethnicities have their own militia. Even today some continue to fight for separation. Since independence, retaining the union is the greatest challenge governments have faced. That’s why the military government changed the name of the country to Myanmar. It is meant to represent all ethnicities who live there, not just the majority Bama.
Myanmar was the name of a 10th century kingdom ruled from Bagan.


Jan 21, 2013   //   by David   //   Blog, Cambodia  //  1 Comment

“Cambodia’s developing economy and institutionalized corruption have concentrated wealth into a new rich class that now supports Phnom Penh’s new fancy hotels and restaurants.” (Good insight from Wikitravel)

In the 1997 coup the Cambodian People Party (CPP)’s militia overthrew the government and since then have begun instituting a Chinese model in Cambodia. Large signs, small signs and posters of the three leaders of the party are very present. Signs with faces of the three ruthless leaders were cemented into the road at 10 meter intervals along one village road paid for by the CPP. Village life remains as it once was. Some villages have wells, others rely on stream water. People share house space with animals although unlike in Africa the people and the animals here have separate quarters.

The cost of goods and people is low. A meal in a vegetarian restaurant serving locals and us cost $0.75. For $1.50 you could eat your fill. A tuk-tuk (taxi) around town cost $2. Interestingly, although the Riyal is the currency most things in the city are quoted in US$. I haven’t seen a city as blatantly use the $ in place of the local currency. I’ve seen items quoted in $ elsewhere around the world but in Cambodian cities almost every vendor can give you change in $. It’s a full two currency economy.

Yesterday (20th Jan) in Siem Reap I took Yannay’s computer cord to a local computer shop for repair. It was shorting out. The technician was expert, courteous, patient and charged $3 for the repair and $1 for a replacement cord. This is the likely future of Cambodia. Those who get a professional education will create a new middle class. There is currently a seemingly large upper class as the number of vehicles we saw outstrips the number we saw in Vietnam. The palace build by the owner of Tiger Beer is enormous. But, vehicle prices are high and salaries are low. Policemen are paid $25 per month (one cause for police corruption) and a typical office clerk receives $45 per month so less than $2 per day. The vast majority of people are not well off.

Near Phnom Pehn we visited a free English school set up by Terra Mackie’s mother Anne. The villagers still draw their water from wells. There is certainly no sewage. Kids have never watched sport on TV. Most rise at 5am to do chores before going to school. There’s a big gap between this and a motor vehicle. And many of these very smart kids would not be able to remain in school if not for Anne Mackie. The parents need their help on the farms. Anne has offered to supplement parental income in return for keeping their kids in school. As a result of this, for many of these people life will be quite different in 10 years time.

But some will not. Interestingly when offered the means to increase their rice yield from one harvest to two harvests per year and thereby increase their income and food security, most or all of the villagers in the above village opted not to. One harvest is still the norm and in the non-rice growing season it seems that people just hang out. Compared with three rice harvests elsewhere in the country this choice seems to imply that these villagers, though very rural, are happy with their current lot.

We visited Friends-International a charity helping street kids learn a useful skill like food service or bike maintenance so as to join regular society. The kids then work in small businesses (restaurants, repair shops) owned by Friends. Their success rate though low in % is numerically high. Considering that they are dealing with mostly illiterate, drug using kids their success is remarkable. And their restaurant food and presentation is outstanding.

We also visited a home based silk weaving factory. Having studied industry this was fantastic to see.
Under each house each family has about eight to ten looms on which they weave specialist products out of silk for the local market. Prices are so different from the west the arbitrage opportunity is huge.

Of course we toured Angor Wat and related buildings built by the glorious kings of the Khmer’s glorious past. In doing so we took a crash course in the history of Hinduism so as to understand what we were looking at. Then a crash course, still ongoing, in the various Buddhist sects. And all I want to do is have some fun…

(Interestingly, the later Khmer kings adopted Buddhism for much the same reason Rome adopted Christianity. Both were very democratic religions without hierarchy or central place of pilgrimage. Adoption may help create a common culture among a diverse people from Bagan to Champa or from Spain to Armenia with the king as head of the church or an incarnation of God.)

Photos and videos to come in separate posts. It has been a full ten days so we’ve had limited time to post updates. They’ll come thick and fast this week. Including an experience will elephant snot from Wednesday.

more photos from the Ta Mao zoo, Phnom Penh

Jan 16, 2013   //   by Eva   //   Blog  //  Comments Off

Around Phnom Pehn

Jan 16, 2013   //   by Avia   //   Blog  //  3 Comments

Phnom Pehn is now another of our favorite cities to visit because it is easy to get around, it’s cheap and services are plenty. Tuk-tuks are plentiful, cheap ($1-3 per ride) and no hassle. Restaurants are varied. And the weather is fine.

Here is short photo-essay of our time (though little of the city until Yannay or Dani uploads some).

Where we stayed








Where we ate

Where we ate. Curry and Rice $1; Spaghetti with wild mushroom sauce 0.75c; 2 egg Omelet 0.75c. Excellent quality. I wanna go back.














English Language School

Meeting the children of Anne Mackie and Chourn Im’s English language school in a village 40 minutes south of Phnom Pehn. Like other rice growing villages in Cambodia, it has no running water and no sewage. Water is drawn from wells.

Waking up at five to do house hold chores, they go to school at seven and come back home to work on the fields or in the house for the rest of the day.  They attend this school on Sunday, the only day they don’t have school. These children are going through amazing efforts to learn  better English which might secure them a better future.

Washing at the well

Soccer with the boys and the spectating white cows (see video)

Newly automated watering system








A closer look












Home Industry

Most village homes are built on stilts so that the living area is one floor above the ground. Chourn Im took us to a village south of Phnom Pehn at which each household has installed a number of weaving looms on the ground floor below their houses. For David, involved in industry and Eva who worked in cloth making factories this was an extraordinary site. Each family employs their children and cousins in the cloth making. But “employ” is not accurate. The looms run, the family does chores, Dad adjusts the saw, daughter spins the cloth, other daughter goes off to fetch the kids from kindergarten, the looms run…It is an integrated work, family day. Days are long and production only stops when people sleep. There is a sense of serenity and stress free living having your whole life right there in 90sq meters; work, home,  family, chores. And a store down the road. But when I personalize it, I ‘m not sure I’d like a small factory in my front yard.

Weaving loom on the ground floor of a home









And finally, a haircut







What didn’t make the cut?

Friends International

This organization tries to train street children for employment. Typical skills train people for work in salons, motorbike repair stores, restaurants. Read about Friends International see:

We think that their restaurant, which helps fund activities, would do very well at the Waterfront in Cape Town.

Ta Mao Zoo

See separate post

Ta Mao Animal Park, Phnom Pehn

Jan 15, 2013   //   by Eva   //   Blog, Cambodia, Videos  //  Comments Off

There and back on an old, open top Vietnam war era jeep. No dashboard indicators worked. No idea of speed or fuel level. Avia rode sometimes in the jeep, sometime out.

This large animal park’s animals were taken from traders in exotic animals. It holds two spectacular Asian leopards, leopard cats, many tigers, Asian antelope we’d never heard about and a few large Captain Hook type crocs (teeth exposed along the line of their mouth like the below photos from an internet site) and the world’s smallest bear, the sun bear and related moon bear. These are the bears you see in circuses and are hunted for their bile, used in local ‘viagra’ formulae.








Unique Petting Zoo

It’s also a unique petting zoo. You can pet the Gibbons. In fact they like getting scratched and tickled. And you can scratch and feed the elephant. For a family that like to touch animals (except for Dad) this is a satisfying way to spend time.

How a piece of cloth may save your life

Jan 14, 2013   //   by David   //   Blog, Cambodia, Videos  //  2 Comments

In an entertaining and funny demonstration, Chourn Im shows us how to properly use a towel or other piece of rectangular cloth.



Jan 11, 2013   //   by David   //   Blog, Vietnam  //  4 Comments

Only 30 years ago most of Vietnam’s population lived at, under or near the poverty line. Today the percentage of people living below the poverty line has dropped below 20%. The intervening years has seen Vietnam move from a completely agrarian society to a partially mechanized society. This movement to more money and more technology is most pronounced on the road. The poor ride bicycles. The middle-class (most urbanites) ride motorbikes. The elite drive cars. all the cars we saw in Vietnam were new. This is not a country where your 1970s car goes to die, that’s Africa. This is a nouveau-riche, upwardly mobile, wannabee state. Consumerism is coming, along with increased wealth. It is easy to project where Vietnam’s consumer economy will be in 20 years time. Unfortunately it is equally easy to predict the state of the roads in 20 years when people can afford cars. There is motorbike gridlock now. Traffic jams will be endemic. Invest in consumer goods and income producing property. Vietnam is independent, intelligent and driven by the god of wealth. How driven by wealth? On the gate posts of traditional homes stand two dogs. Yes, dogs. Not lions or dragons, Dogs. Because the sound of a dog’s bark, wooh, is the same sound as the word “rich”. It’s an advertisement for ambition.

There are 91 million people in Vietnam. It seems that 70 million of these are street vendors all of whom are determined to approach me with a deal, all the time. They are all genuinely friendly and don’t get annoyed when I talk to them about all kinds of stuff not related to a sale. But after 8 hours of continuous sales offers one gets saturated (thanks Romi). The other 20 million people live in the Mekong Delta. They seem genuinely surprised when a tourist is interested in their wares. Visit the Mekong Delta. It’s genuine, interesting, attractive and fun.

The government of Vietnam is controlled by a communist party. Really it’s more party than communist. There is no free medical care nor free education. If you can’t afford to go to school, you don’t go. (That is unless you are a member of the 54 recognized minority ethnic groups for whom schooling is free. That is in order to Vietnamize the minorities.) Nothing is free. Income tax is 10%. There is no sales tax. There is a big brother who gives directions over a loudspeaker in each village and town.

The North Vietnamese are very proud of their heritage. The southern Vietnamese are equally proud to be Vietnamese but not necessarily communist. Central Vietnamese seem apolitical. A clash of political cultures between north and south seems imminent. I think that the Southerners want a welfare state. The Northerners will march to the tune of their leader, whomever he is. If the communist party begin providing services a clash will be avoided.

Cycling War Stories – Level One

Jan 10, 2013   //   by David   //   Blog, Videos, Vietnam  //  Comments Off



Cycling the Mekong Delta

Jan 10, 2013   //   by Avia   //   Blog, Vietnam  //  1 Comment

Flat as a pancake, the Mekong Delta is good biking terrain for recreational bikers. Off any road small paths suitable only for bikes or cycles quickly lead to little villages along rivers and streams. This is where people live. There are a few towns in the delta and some major roads but most people live along the water accessed either by boat or two wheeler. Our guide, Ute Ho, grew up in the delta and happily new how to shorten a 35km cycle to 12km when necessary by using short cuts and back paths. He was also willing to race Yannay 1 km up a 45- 60 degree mountain road.

Here is a summary of the 5 days we spent in the delta: The food was unbelievably good.

Spectacular Water Forest near Chau Doc







$300,000 of fish live in the river in nets under this house








Fish are fed through a hole in the floor

Life on a house on the Mekong River









Town life in the Mekong Delta








Flat roads, lots of rice paddy fields and water








Wholesalers bring fruits to sell at the floating market









Or to sell to visitors












Life in a Crocodile Farm. Grown for meat, leather, teeth. The only place Crocs survive in the Delta are in farms. Once they lived in the river.









Life in a rice packing factory








Lunch. Most things in the photos end up in soup.
What’s that? – something for soup.
How do you use that? – We eat eat in soup









Ferry Crossing












Fighting Cocks








Water Lilies under the Eco-Hotel, Pelican Island








Eco-hotel means “no frills” and shower in the toilet.
Romi seems refreshed after a toilet shower









Yannay  on the way to his toilet- shower








Did we mention, we cycled. Daily. All day. And we only stopped briefly when it was absolutely necessary, for boating, for lunch, to snack, to admire the flowers, to drink coconut, for sightseeing, birdwatching, canoeing, shopping and other good reason to stop.
















Canoe into the water forest.


Avia’s injury and her unique bandage

Jan 9, 2013   //   by Avia   //   Blog  //  Comments Off

Avia’s foot got caught in the spokes of David’s bicycle’s wheel in the middle of a small village. Immediately some women brought her treated herbs and tea leaves to soothe the pain and some cut up cloth to make a colorful bandage.

Boiled and cooled tea leaves are wrapped onto Avia’s ankle to try help her heal.