Side-saddle Moto Rides are NOT for the Faint of Heart| June 6, 2011
I have been in Phnom Penh now for two days shy a little over three weeks and so far so good. Andrea arrived in Phnom Penh on Saturday and we spent the day wandering around. We ended up at the Olympic stadium and there was an international soccer game playing. We made friends with a Khmer man at the stadium and he informed us that Cambodia was playing for the President’s cup. That weekend they were playing Sri Lanka and definitely kicked some butt. Afterwards we had a nice dinner and went to bed. Unfortunately a two day flight tends to take several days to recover from. On Sunday we decided to take a tour around the city. Unfortunately we arrived at the palace just as it closed down for its midday break. We wandered for a while around riverside and eventually arrived at Wat Phnom where a very well spoken TuK Tuk driver finally talked us into taking one around the city for an extremely escalated price (as we now know). We drove by the US embassy and stopped by a temple that had an elephant and two monkeys. The architecture was pretty striking and I enjoyed it. After about 40 minutes, our Tuk Tuk driver took us to S21. S21 was the primary prison and torture site for the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. In its final years it held over 5,00 prisoners. The prison cells still smell of death and decay. The pictures of the tortured victims of the Khmer Rouge are gut wrenching. After that cold dose of reality, we decided we may as well travel to Cheung Ek. Cheung Ek is the proper name for Khmer Rouge killing fields. Thousands upon thousands of people were brought to those fields, stripped, and then shot and buried in unmarked mass graves. The graves were not reserved for men or soldiers who fought against the Khmer rouge, instead they were equal opportunity. Some of the graves are filled solely with the remains of women and children, the families of those the Khmer Rouge most wanted to destroy. We couldn’t bring ourselves to talk much, but before I left I took two pictures of the memorial built in the center of the fields. The memorial was similar in nature to many I had seen, but I wonder if its message won’t eventually be lost like all the others (Auschwitz, the West African Slave castles etc. ) Ena arrived on Tuesday and this past after one week in our original hotel, we moved into a $15 p/night guest house on the river side, an area with a much more active night life than our original location.
The first two weeks at work have been quite interesting. Our firm is currently going through a leadership transition, and so we have been given both short and long term projects to tide us over until the transition is complete. Our first assignment was to write a memo suggesting terms to be included in a condo-type contract, something that hasn’t really been established in Cambodia. We also did some editing and review and worked on a long term project regarding inter-country adoption; an area of law that is currently being revised by the Royal Government. In 2001, the US put a ban on adoptions from Cambodia because they did not adhere to international standards established by the Hague Convention on Inter-country adoptions. Cambodia did not accede to the convention until 2007, and upon its accession the UK, Germany and the Netherlands objected and installed bans similar to the one imposed by the US. In 2009, the Kingdom imposed a halt on all international adoptions and it is currently working on a new law, but a recent visit from a US envoy has confirmed that the US is not ready to lift its ban on Cambodian adoptions. The issue made a splash in US headlines when Angelina Jolie first adopted Madox—right before the ban was imposed—but it soon escaped the nations notice. The issue is still quite alive in the international community, and many parents and needy children are left waiting on the side lines while Cambodia continues to revitalize its adoption system. Although the international community is right to fear improper adoptions and child trafficking , I wonder if a total ban that does not allow any case by case analysis is wise. While some people do seek to pay off parents, buy children and cheat the system, there are also thousands of children with a real need and no family in site. The labor needed to review individual adoptions would be extremely costly, but the true aim of the Hague Convention—the best interest of each child—cannot be served by a complete ban. This is certainly an issue I have not been particularly aware of, but one I hope to keep track of as time goes on.
One of the most interesting things we have done was attend a Cambodian Mock Trial. The trials were funded by USAID and several other US companies. From what I understand, the Cambodian legal system does not really function on an adversarial basis and the courts are not huge fans of cross examination. This contest, however, seeks to impart bits of the American Legal system and train prospective attorneys in the skills they will need in the growing and progressing Cambodian legal system. The students were very composed and better at tone and intonation then some American trial teamers I have seen. The whole trial was performed in Khmer, but the competition provided headphones and a translator for the few ex-pats that were present. In addition to the Khmer trial we have also been given a long term assignment which requires us to provide summaries of important legal industries in the country. These projects are meant to occupy us for now, but as things settle down we will have a bit more hands on work. The firm has a really interesting system which provides 2 training sessions a week regarding pertinent Cambodian laws (one for tax and another topic assigned weekly). The Cambodian tax system is fairly simple and in some senses it is in the early stage of its evolution, which makes for an interesting comparison with the US system.
The culture in the firm is also intriguing. Although we are interns, and in a US firm would be counted as quite low in the totem pole, in the Cambodian firm we are treated with a bit more deference simply because we are white and from the States. The Cambodian legal consultants don’t really seem to understand the concept of an internship, and don’t seem to truly understand that we are there to help them. As a result we have been getting most of our assignments from the other foreign attorneys/ lawyers. Although the legal consultants don’t understand our position, they have been very kind and welcoming. We have had a few lunches with them and they working on acclimating us to Khmer food. Thus far, we have tried chicken insides with vegetables, and a few of the popular soup and meat dishes. One of the attorneys seems to be dedicated to having us try fertilized egg. Sounds strange? Well it is. Apparently, half grown duck embryos are considered a delicacy here, as are tarantulas. Although I am pretty big on trying new foods, especially when I am living in a foreign country, I am not sure I could stomach eating a duck embryo---as hypocritical as it may seem. I will probably also stay away from the tarantula but that is more a result of my terrible fear of all things bug or arachnid.
This past weekend we took our first trip outside of Phnom Penh. Since we only had one weekend, we took a night bus on Friday and then spent two days in Siem Reap an visited Angkor Wat and the adjoining temples. Some of the Angkor temples were built over a millennia ago. Siem Reap is a much cleaner city then Phnom Penh, but it is also much smaller. The old market in Siem Reap has a great selection and had souvenirs that are quite different from those found in Phnom Penh. After spending a profuse amount of money at the markets, we went to see the sunset from one of the Angkor temples. Although it was too cloudy to see the sunset, it was still a great view and we burned a bunch of calories taking the trek to the mountain. The stairs up the temple are over a foot tall, and their width has worn away during the years. Climbing up was a trial, and climbing down was even scarier, but it was well worth standing on a ruin that was almost 1000 years old. We spent the night out on pub street, and enjoyed a Cambodian Discoteque and the bar Angkor, What? the first bar to be established on Pub street. That night we slept about three hours and woke up at 4:30 and left at 5:00 to try to catch the sunset at Angkor Wat with the tour guide we hired for a day. The day was long and hot, but the temples were amazing. It is a true wonder to see what ancient cultures once did without any of the common conveniences we now use to complete our monuments and buildings. Towards the end of our trip I bought a pair of old Khmer style linen pants that look a bit middle eastern, but the fabric is cool and it breathes which is about all you can ask for in a piece of clothing here. After the about 9 hours at the temples, we drove back into Siem Reap and decided to try a new experience: fish massages.
Up and down the streets of Siem Reap there are big outdoor tanks full of small fish. Those small fish feast primarily on dead flesh and are used to give foot “massages.” Basically, they give you a pedicure, without the nail polish. These fish massages are supposedly gaining popularity in DC, but I have never seen one and after one day of contemplation we decided to dunk our feet for 20 minutes before catching the bus back to Phnom Penh. The initial 5 minutes of having my flesh feasted on by fish were strange and the Khmer men who ran the tank found our squeals and insane giggles hilarious. After about 5 minutes you get used to the sensation, and once you don’t think about the fish, or what they are doing to your feet, it gets a bit easier. Now I know you are all wondering one thing: Did it work? I have to say it did. Although I only kept my feet in 20 minutes, I am pretty sure that if I had 20 more my feet would have been as soft as a new born babe’s. Although it worked, I am not sure if I will be indulging in that again as it does not seem to be very popular in Phnom Penh and I don’t know if I will have a chance to travel back to Siem Reap.
To explain the title of my entry, I have to explain about motorides. As you may have read in my previous entry, tuk tuks are the main taxi service in the area. However, if you are by yourself and want to save some money, you can simply catch a ride on the back of someone’s motorbike. In general, the bikes are safe once you get used to the melee of Cambodian traffic. Another factor that influences your comfort is whether your are sitting the bike normally, or sitting side saddle. Unfortunately, when you wear a skirt there is no option but to sit side saddle and the only way to stabilize yourself is to grab a small side rail on your left or right (depending on which side you are sitting towards). I have now ridden a moto twice, and both times I have been unlucky enough to be in a skirt. Although you get your balance fairly quickly, you never quite get used to passing a large bus or car that is only 2 inches in front of your face, especially if you chance upon a moto driver who is in a hurry to drop you off. It is even more interesting to try to ignore almost being smashed into a car, hold on to the side rail, your purse, and keep your skirt down as you wiz by at 40-50 km p/hr (which although slow in a car is quite the adventure on a moto and a rutted road.) In short, while a moto ride is quite the adventure, I must recommend two things: pants and no fears.
Well, that’s about all for now. I will try to get better and update once a week, but after work and a trip to the gym which is halfway across town, sleep tends to be the first thing on my mind. Hope everyone is enjoying their summer as much as I am.