Day 9, January 8: Kampot Province

We headed out at 8 am this morning, after a haphazard, though tasty enough breakfast at the Diamond Hotel. We backtracked 40 km to the office of the Cambodian Organization for Children and Development (COCD). We met Bin Bora, the Project Coordinator, and Hem Sangva, the assistant to the Executive Director, who told us about the COCD’s work. Kosal and Sita, who work jointly for FWC and Holt International, were there, too, as they oversee the funding to COCD from FWC.

COCD Women's Self Help Group in village of Doun

COCD Women’s Self Help Group in village of Doun Yoy

We drove to nearby village of Doun Yoy, where 11 members of one of COCD’s Women’s Self Help Groups was prepared to meet with us. Bora and Kosal translated as we all asked questions of each other. The women each save about $1 per month and loan out the capital raised to each other for projects from buying piglets to purchasing materials for home improvements.

Doun Yoy village

In Doun Yoy village

COCD plans to begin offering some seed money to the different groups, too. Creating some sort of a business is every member’s goal but building self esteem is a big factor, as these are the poorest of the villagers. No one expects them to succeed. Yet, with COCD’s oversight and training, they do. In my opinion, this is what is so amazing about Cambodia, namely that providing women with access to even very modest capital and encouragement over time can build a better life.

Thatched roof houses in the village

Thatched roof houses in the village

We toured the village made up of small compounds, with thatch-roof houses perched five feet off the ground, and we chatted with the kids just getting out of school.

At the COCD office, we ate our lunches from Epic Arts, a small café in Kampot that hires and trains deaf youth to work in restaurant settings. The manager, from LA, is deaf herself. She told me that there are almost no facilities in Cambodia for training of the deaf and that they are just ignored and left to beg.

A short siesta on the cool floor of the office terrace restored us, and then we were off to another village to learn about daily life in rural Cambodia.

Palm leaves are cut in preparation for sewing,  to create a thatched roof.

Palm leaves are cut in preparation for sewing, to create a thatched roof.

Making palm thatch roofing shingles was the project of the day. Dad’s razor sharp machete prepared the palm leaves, and then Mom showed us how to fold them over and stitch them together with a length of palm fiber using a homemade needle. Cindy picked it up pretty quickly but the rest of us who tried were all thumbs.

Tour participants learn how to sew palm leaves to make a thatched roof.

Tour participants learn how to sew palm leaves to make a thatched roof.

We certainly provided some entertaining stories for the family to share that evening, but it was nice to slow down our tourist pace to sit with and learn from people for whom these were life or death skills.

That evening, after dinner at the funky little Moliden Guest House, we had a party to celebrate the birthdays of Ruthie and Carol. They had ordered a carrot cake from “Two Sisters” Bakery.

Happy Birthday to Carol and Ruthie!

Happy Birthday to Carol and Ruthie!

Carol had pastis, a French liqueur, and sherry from Duty Free, and I arranged with the hotel to provide the ice, plates, and the space for our gathering. Happy Birthday, Carol and Ruthie!

Day 8, January 7: Phnom Penh to Kampot

This was another beautiful day along the Mekong. Our 8 AM departure was delayed while a misplaced passport was relocated. On our way out of Phnom Penh, we stopped at the trendy (and socially responsible) Java Café for box lunches.

Krouser Themy Shelter for street children supported by Friendship with Cambodia

Krouser Themy Shelter for street children supported by Friendship with Cambodia

Then we headed to Krousar Thmey (KT), where Phanna, the manager of the drop-in street children’s shelter, Chetra, Coordinator of KT’s Child Welfare Division, and Ari, an advisor from France, talked about the street kids’ situation. Friendship with Cambodia helps fund this shelter.

Tour participants learn about the street children's shelter

Tour participants learn about the street children’s shelter

It was a school holiday (celebrating liberation from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese), so we missed the usual classroom clamor, but we heard the firsthand reports by these three dedicated men. Krousar Themy is a French NGO that counsels street kids, provides resources, and resettles many with foster families, which KT employs and monitors.

We left Krousar Themy at 11 AM and battled the traffic for an hour to reach Choung Ek, Phnom Penh’s major killing field where prisoners from S-21 (Tuol Sleng) were executed and buried.

Memorial at the Killing Fields

Memorial at the Killing Fields

We picked up audio-phones and individually toured the site and the new museum. Much of the information was provided by personal stories.

The horror of genocide

The horror of genocide

Like at Tuol Sleng, it is hard to grasp the horror that occurred here. We ate our lunches in silence, each lost in thought as we drove towards Kampot, stopping just once for toilets and cold drinks at a new and modern gas station.

At 4 PM, we arrived at the Diamond Hotel in Kampot. At 6:30 PM, we had dinner at Moliden Guest House, where we were free to order from the menu.

Group dinner at Moliden Guest House

Group dinner at Moliden Guest House

Most of our meals prior to this had been pre-ordered, due to the size of our group. It was interesting to see what people ordered when freed from the set menus we had been having—fish amok or a cheeseburger. I enjoyed my green peppercorn steak and a large Angkor beer.

Day 7, January 6: More Adventures in Phnom Penh

This was a very busy and interesting day. Panha, the Executive Director of Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), met us at the hotel. CWCC is another of FWC’s partner organizations. She delivered an informative PowerPoint presentation on CWCC and the problems of domestic abuse, violence, rape, and trafficking in Cambodia.

CWCC Director Panha gives an informative presentation to trip participants.

CWCC Executive Director Panha gives an informative presentation to trip participants.

A banner at CWCC thanks sponsoring agencies, including FWC

A banner at CWCC thanks sponsoring agencies, including Friendship with Cambodia

We all signed statements saying that we would not use any images made here in ways that might reveal the identity of the women taking refuge and receiving training or care here at CWCC. Two of the young women here were training to work in a coffee house and served us the best café lattes and cappuccinos we’d had since leaving the States. They had both run away from an abusive employer who had kept them as slaves since they were small children. We met the children in the nursery, and then we drove back down to the Russian Market.

The Market was the go-to place for the Russians, who were stationed here during the Socialist era in the 1980’s after the fall of Pol Pot.

Created by the Soviets in the 1980's, the Russian Market is a fun place to explore.

Created by the Soviets in the 1980’s, the Russian Market is a fun place to explore.

A delicious lunch at Cafe Yejj, where poor children learn how to work in upscale restaurants.

A delicious lunch at Cafe Yejj, where poor children learn how to work in upscale restaurants.

After exploring 30 minutes, we met for a delicious lunch at Café Yejj (Café Grandmother).

The Café hires poor, rural kids from remote areas and trains them to work at upscale cafes. Tapas and fruit drinks are the specialty.

After lunch we visited the new location of Rehab Crafts, which provides training and a sheltered workshop for landmine and polio victims. The director, Sophan, had been shot in the knee as a child and was unable to bend his leg. The bookkeeper lost his lower arms in a landmine explosion and writes holding a pencil in the stubs of his arms. It was inspiring to see how these and other workers had overcome their physical limitations.

The bookkeeper at Rehab Crafts has overcome the loss of his lower arms.

The bookkeeper at Rehab Crafts has overcome the loss of his lower arms.

In the evening, Joyce organized a group to attend the cultural performance at the nearby National Museum, and the Lorbers were flying to a business meeting in Bangkok that night. We said, “Goodbye, y’all!” to our good friends from Atlanta.

Day 6, January 5: Around Phnom Penh

We headed out at 8:30am to walk to the Royal Palace, where our guide, Sarum, gave us an interesting and informative tour.

Royal Palace

Royal Palace

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum was once a high school

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum was once a high school

Then, Mr. Tang, our driver, drove us to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former high schoolwhere Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured thousands, including fellow cadre members who had been accused of some disloyal act.

Photographs of the prisoners were displayed, and we could see that many were young children.

Photographs of young genocide victims

Photographs of young genocide victims

Interrogation room

Interrogation room

It is a very hard place to experience but so important as a space to honor and remember those who lost their lives during the genocide. Bun gave us an orientation, then let us proceed through the exhibits at our own pace from 10-11am.

One of the few people to survive Tuol Sleng was there selling his book. Chou En was his alias. I recommend reading “Voices from S-21” by David Chandler to learn more about Tuol Sleng and the atrocities committed there.

We had lunch at Sugar ‘N’ Spice, a very pleasant café and coffee house. It is operated by Daughters of Cambodia, an NGO that provides women who have been victims of human trafficking with shelter and training to learn a skill and make their living. The Cambodian manager told us a little about the project while we enjoyed an opulent and rich lunch with a wonderful meringue for dessert.

Picking up our gifts for FWC’s university students we drove to the FWC/Holt Office and student center where we met Kosal and Sita, who coordinate the Student Sponsorship program. FWC funds the program in partnership with Holt’s Cambodian NGO. FWC arranges scholarships for 54 students. Thirty-eight of these students are in university. We met with about 30 of the students who are sponsored by FWC donors.

Student Sponsorship Program Director Cheam Kosal and University Student Chea Both

Student Sponsorship Program Director Kosal and university student Both

We all introduced ourselves, and many of the students used this opportunity to practice conversing in English. Sita showed us on a map where each student was from. Then we broke into smaller groups so that each sponsor could meet their student(s). Carol, Daniel, and I met with several students for a very interesting discussion about how job applicants can best present themselves.

Tour participants enjoy an afternoon with FWC-sponsored university students

Tour participants enjoy an afternoon with FWC-sponsored university students

By 5:30pm, it was time for happy hour at the Rooftop Bar overlooking the Mekong River, which was very soothing after an emotionally charged day. We had dinner just around the corner at Friends Tapas, where we had a wonderful time with great food (the best yet, in my opinion). We also enjoyed an informative conversation with one of the teachers, as this is also a training restaurant. The Friends fair trade shop next door was an excellent stop for some post-dinner purchasing. We were back at the hotel by 10pm.

In December 2013 and January 2014, Friendship with Cambodia led a 12-day socially responsible study tour to Cambodia for 16 people from the US and Europe.  The trip leader was Don Lyon, FWC board member, professional photographer, and owner/founder of Close-up Expeditions. CLICK HERE for Day 1.  

Day 5, January 4: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

Bun picking out sticky rice - "road food"

Bun picking out sticky rice – “road food”

We departed at 8am from Frangipani Green Garden in Siem Reap. On the way, we dodged pushcarts, tuk tuks, and perilously overloaded trucks stopping for a snack of sticky rice cooked in bamboo tubes. Bun explained the process and filled us in on many aspects of Khmer daily life, as caught glimpses of rural Cambodia unfold along the highway. Houses are just for shelter and storage; life is lived outside.


Jayavarman VII bridge

Our next stop was at an 800 year old bridge built by Jayavarman VII. Dried fish from Tonle Sap is famously sold along this route. It looked tasty, but we just photographed, as we were headed to lunch.

By 11:30am, we had beaten the crowds to the KMG Prey Pros Restaurant along the shores of Tonle Sap. Bun and I ordered a selection of dishes, including a phahat omelet made with tiny dried fish fermented with chilies. We had selected it especially for Ruthie, but it seemed everyone wanted a bite. We also ordered green mango salad, spring rolls, sweet and sour fish, stir fried vegetables, and fresh pineapple for desert.

Cambodian fiddle player

Cambodian fiddle player

We lounged in hammocks and enjoyed the breeze while waiting for our lunch. An elderly man played the Cambodian fiddle to entertain the travelers.

At the stone carving village, the land was significantly greener, with a new crop of rice growing where small canals

Bun, our guide, and his tarantula

Bun, our guide, and his tarantula

carried water for the rice paddies from the lakeshore. One final stop along the road was at a junction town, where fried tarantulas and various insects seemed to be a popular snack with the bus travelers. No durian fruit was allowed on the bus, but the jackfruit was quite tasty—thanks Bun!

As we approached Phnom Penh, we saw huge garment factories with razor wire fences and security guards, as there were strikes going on for higher wages. Jitneys were loaded with garment workers going home. The strike was slowly being beaten down by private security firms and government inaction. We had been reading about the mass protests in downtown Phnom Penh and knew there had been several deaths. The workers wanted an increase from $90 per month to $150. It all seemed very similar to the early union organizing days in the USA.  The workers were making such modest demands, yet were not able to make much headway against government corruption and private interests.

Royal Palace, Pnom Penh

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

By 5:45pm, we had arrived at the Frangipani Palace, our hotel in Phnom Penh, perfectly located near the palace, the National Museum, and the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, which has been the preeminent place to watch the sun set over the Mekong for 100 years or more.

IMG_0895We had dinner at the Frangipani Palace Hotel at 7pm. There was not much ambience, but we ate a very tasty fish amok and a sour fish soup that were just wonderful. Some members found the rooftop bar, others their beds.



Thanks again to Don Lyon and Close-up Expeditions! Feel free to check out more on the Close-up Expeditions Facebook page. 

by Shoshana D. Kerewsky

Shoshana in Cambodia

Shoshana in Cambodia

Like many readers, I was deeply moved, and very distressed, when I first read the Cambodian memoir The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam. Mam’s tragic experiences as a trafficked girl inspired me to donate even more to anti-trafficking causes. I assigned her book to my students. It seemed that every new film on trafficking included a segment on Somaly and her foundation. I was inspired by her courage and tenacity. She made me a better donor, educator, and advocate for human rights.

Also like many readers, I was shocked by allegations, soon substantiated, that important parts of her story were untrue. I felt emotionally manipulated and taken advantage of. I had been lied to. Now I questioned where my all of my charitable donations went, and what I was advocating for. My first impulse was to be cynical and disgusted.

In some ways I was lucky. I had already read Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and I, Rigoberta Menchu, both memoirs alleged to include inaccurate depictions of some events in the authors’ lives. I’d read Three Cups of Tea, and A Million Little Pieces. I’d had time to think about and learn more about these distortions. Now I had an opportunity to reflect on Somaly Mam’s possible motives.

When I’m angry at someone who has behaved like Mam, I tend to start with my negative assumptions—she’s avaricious; she’s power-hungry; she’s self-serving. I might even assume that she thinks of me and other credulous readers and donors with contempt. From there, I could make a quick jump to reducing my donations and voluntarism. It’s natural that we respond to our vulnerability with anger and a sense of betrayal when a person or cause we believe in misrepresents something important to us. Stopping here, however, may lead us to an overgeneralized mistrust that doesn’t help us to support real people with real needs. Stopping here distances us from our best natures.

Instead, we need to consider some of the reasons why memoirists (and organizations and governments) might exaggerate or lie. This helps us to become more informed and sophisticated donors with better skills for separating fact from fiction and evaluating where we want to put our money and time. Yes, some people, and some organizations and governments, lie for their own gain or protection. But not all of them, or even most of them.

It’s also true that disaster and misery sell. I’ve read a lot of memoirs from around the world. Many that are translated into English are about surviving wars, genocides, famines, droughts, and other disasters or extreme adversity. It’s no secret that publishers, and sometimes writers or media producers, may opt for a dramatic narrative over an accurate one. An “escape” that is billed as “harrowing” attracts more readers than a calm departure. To give a domestic example, James Frey first proposed A Million Little Pieces as a novel, not as a memoir. However, true-life stories are more compelling to readers, and the book was repackaged and published as a memoir.

There are other reasons that a life story might be unwittingly or intentionally distorted. A number of disaster memoirists, including Beah, have responded to assertions that they fabricated material by stating that they presented the story as best they could recall it, but that at the time they were trying to stay alive, not memorize or account for every objective fact. This may be particularly true of children giving retrospective accounts. Chun-Won Kang’s memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag includes two contradictory statements about a physically arduous task the child prisoners were forced to engage in. While neither of his versions seems likely, one is simply impossible. I understand this to be an error of memory (or math), not an attempt to deceive the reader. In another story from the Khmer Rouge genocide, a then-child Cambodian memoirist recounts seeing bodies on the ground, frozen and blue, in a locale that online weather records show has never been below 70°. However, I have seen Vietnamese and Cambodian teenagers shivering, sneezing, and miserable in down jackets and mittens at 76°, so I don’t doubt that to a child, this could seem to be “freezing.” This form of unintentional inaccuracy is like me misremembering my third grade teacher’s name. It’s wrong, but unintentional.

Sometimes memoirists condense events to increase the drama or tighten the “plot” for storytelling reasons, but again, not as an attempt to mislead. More experienced writers and more scrupulous editors often include a note stating that the order of events may have been changed, for example, or that some conversations or events depicted are representative but fictional. The intention of this note is to be sure the reader knows that at points, the story takes precedent over the truth.

In the more problematic form of this style of autobiography, however, memoirists sometimes add fictional events in order to tell a “better,” more illustrative story. The intention is not to deceive the reader, but to tell a story that is compelling and representative. The big caveat here, though, is that in postindustrial Western cultures we place a high value on the “reportage” form of truth in which facts are to be accurate and verifiable. This is not always how “truth” is understood cross-culturally. For example, Menchu has acknowledged that she described some events in her life inaccurately because this made her story more persuasive and more characteristic of the experiences of people in her circumstances. In her biography Buddha, Karen Armstrong points out that historically, biographies of religious or political figures were not intended to present factual truth, but to tell iconic or archetypal stories attributed to those figures’ lives. The biography was not meant to report actual life events, but, for example, to teach moral precepts, demonstrate points of doctrine, or show lines of spiritual succession.

For me as a contemporary North American raised with an expectation of verifiable, supportable, evidence-based “truth” in personal accounts, this is hard to accept. Ultimately, wrestling with this concept opens me to the idea of different forms of truth as the storyteller understands it and uses it to make her argument or tell her story. It gives me a way to recognize my own values and storytelling preferences, as well as to recognize that the memoirist may have good intentions and may have a world view different from my own. For me, this is not just about cultural proficiency, but about compassion for and valuing of people who may not think and believe the way I do.

Knowing why a memoirist may, with all sincerity, misrepresent her story helps increase our understanding and broaden our perspective, but it doesn’t answer the question of what we should do in response. Fortunately, the same processes and tools that we use when first deciding to donate are useful for responding to this dilemma as well.

Performers with Disabilities, Cambodia

Performers with Disabilities, Cambodia

Starting from the emotional end, it’s important to be aware that showing a picture and a presenting a brief life story are effective techniques for soliciting donations. They associate a face with a need. This is a reasonable and humanizing fundraising approach, but as a donor, you need use your research skills as well as your heart in order to be sure that the organization is honest. When you hear a moving or inspiring story, make your preliminary decision about donating based on the representativeness of the story, not the particular, individual memoirist or poster child. Learning that the story is typical of a group of people, and that the general circumstances are reported accurately, you can feel confident that your donation responds to the verifiable needs of a real group of people. Work through reputable organizations, using online tools such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar to have a better understanding of the organization’s mission, accountability and transparency, and use of funds. A good rule of thumb is to look for organizations that have both in-country and international oversight and governance, with periodic visits to evaluate the agency’s work and legal/ethical compliance. Keep yourself up to date on the work and reputation of NGOs, governments, and spokespersons. This can be as simple as reading The New York Times or going to BBC online, or setting Google alerts for topics of interest.

To summarize: by all means be moved, and also, do your research.

Has Somaly Mam told her story for her own gain, to help others, or for some combination of these goals? I don’t know, though I hope to know more in time. What I do know is that while The Road of Lost Innocence includes some elements that are not true of Mam’s life, they are representative of the brutal experiences some girls and women have in Cambodia and the world. Trafficking is real. Coerced sex and labor are real. People’s suffering is real.

My privilege and resources are also real. I strongly encourage you be an informed and sophisticated donor. Make a difference to respond to big needs and big truths, not to the details of one person’s story.

Shoshana Kerewsky is a former Board President of Friendship with Cambodia and is Director of the Family and Human Services program at University of Oregon. 

On Tonle Sap – Copyright 2014 Don Lyon

In December 2013 and January 2014, Friendship with Cambodia led a 12-day socially responsible study tour to Cambodia for 16 people from the US and Europe.  The trip leader was Don Lyon, FWC board member, professional photographer, and owner/founder of Close-up Expeditions. CLICK HERE for Day 1.  

Day 4, January 3: Siem Reap and Tonle Sap

Bride and father

Bride and father

We were greeted on the morning of Day 4 with a great noisy commotion. Joyce investigated and found a wedding ceremony in full swing.

Leaving the hotel at 8:30am, we drove SE of Siem Reap for almost an hour in our huge bus on the narrow dirt roadway to reach the stilt village of Kompong Khleang. At this time of year Tonle Sap was beginning to recede, so the houses were high and dry, ten feet above the lake’s waters.


Stilt village of Kompong Khleang

At the height of monsoon season, though, the water regularly rises up to the floorboards. The journey through the village, with each house tethered to the road, was very interesting. As the water levels were dropping fast, many houseboats were being towed to deeper water, where their residents could fish and tend their fishponds more easily.


Tour group on the Tonle Sap

The lad piloting our 30 foot riverboat tied up to a tree and cut the engines, while Bun and I explained the fascinating eco-system of the Tonle Sap. This lake fills up each rainy season with the backwater of the Mekong River then drains slowly until reduced to a third of its former size. It is estimated that nearly 80% of the protein consumed in Cambodia comes from this lake and that fish up and down the Mekong all the way to China are born and nurtured here. Unfortunately, both Vietnam and China plan to dam the Mekong, destroying this timeless natural phenomenon so crucial to Cambodia.


“Every dollar makes a difference”

By 11:30am, we were back on dry land. As we tried to extricate our full-size coach from this tiny crowded space, everyone was so good-natured about the inconveniences we caused. We were back in Siem Reap at about 12:30pm, and we lunched at Common Grounds, which provides training and supports various community welfare projects, including an orphanage. We spoke with Matt, a pleasant young man from Atlanta who came over to Cambodia for his wife’s senior project. The couple stayed on to manage the restaurant and oversee the projects.

Silk to be spun

Silk to be spun

He was a fount of information about current situations, and we could have talked all day, but Artisan’s d’Angkor and their hungry silk worms were waiting.

Turning silk into thread

Our guide at Artisan’s d’Angkor walked us through every stage of working with silk from growing the mulberry leaves to raising the worms to dying and weaving the silk threads. The organization trains and employs people in a craft that was all but wiped out by the Khmer Rouge.

By 4:30pm, we were back at our hotel, and everyone headed in separate directions to explore, shop, and dine on their own. Connie and I went down to the Old Market for some browsing before having a pedicure by hungry but gentle fish—ooh, that tickles!

Thanks again to Don Lyon and Close-up Expeditions! Feel free to check out more on the Close-up Expeditions Facebook page. 


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 138 other followers