Indonesia – the land of a million smiles

After Cambodia, we traveled to Indonesia. We had no previous knowledge or expectations and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. People really are incredibly friendly and helpful. They really enjoy it when you try to use some of their language; they try to teach you more!

Tarsier - worlds' smallest primate

Tarsier – worlds’ smallest primate on Sulawesi island


There is a lot of variety in Indonesia, with 17,000 islands ranging from enormous to tiny and many different cultures. On one island alone, there are 80 different languages and 4 major religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The country is united in the core official language – Bahasa, but you can imagine that it takes time for all these diverse groups to begin to see themselves as a cohesive country. We participated in an incredible cultural event on Bali, snorkeled in some of the most beautiful coral we have ever seen, enjoyed white sand beaches, traveled to see the savage and weird komodo dragons, hiked to a volcano crater, and saw the world’s smallest primate at dusk.

Indonesia is all of the area outlined in red - it is a huge collection of 17,000 islands

Indonesia is all of the area outlined in red – it is a huge collection of 17,000 islands

Things we noticed in Indonesia

Char and Turtle

Char and Turtle

Terrific snorkeling and diving. We visited many healthy reefs with crystal clear water. If you need a fish photo you know who to call. Some of our favorites are in a slideshow in another post.

How taxis find things. In the US we use the address or a GPS to locate an office or home. Here, if we offer a taxi driver the address of our destination, or show them where it is on a maps app, they give us a blank look and ask for the phone number. They call and ask whoever answers for directions. There’s a conversation about landmarks such as “across the street from the BNI ATM”, and then we’re off to the races.

No beggars. There are plenty of poor people in Indonesia, but we never encountered a beggar. In many cases it was almost laughable how many people were employed. Sometimes they almost seem to trip over one-another. In one hotel there were six to eight people taking care of us in the restaurant, and we were the only guests. They seem to have a great time socializing together. One hotel owner told us he pays most of his staff the equivalent of $75 per month.

No drugs. When you board an airplane and they are going through the various normal announcements about seat belts etc, they include, “Dear Passengers: May we remind you that no drugs are allowed in Indonesia. Possession is punishable by death”. That gets your attention. On one tour we took there was a couple from Singapore and another from Amsterdam, arguably the two most draconian and liberal societies when it comes to drug policy. We had some interesting discussions.



A sleepy Luwak.  It's hard to know how they can be sleepy after eating so many coffee beans

A sleepy Luwak. It’s hard to know how they can be sleepy after eating so many coffee beans

There are a number of interesting things about coffee in Indonesia

They grow delicious coffee beans. Sumatra, Java, and Flores islands. You may not have heard of Flores but the coffee there is great!

The common way to brew a cup of coffee is to simply put a spoonful of incredibly finely ground coffee beans in a cup and add hot water. It’s like our cowboy coffee but even better.


Luwak poop containing coffee beans on the left, and after rinsing on the right.

Indonesia is the home of cat poop coffee, aka Luwak coffee. Luwaks are related to cats. They eat the coffee beans and them poop them still intact. By hand, humans then wash the beans, sort them by hand, remove the outer shells and roast them in an iron skillet over a wood fire. Then the beans are ground and brewed like any other coffee. We tasted some and it was good but not drop dead great. If you don’t believe the poop story, you can read more here. This includes a funny excerpt from the movie The Bucket List with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

You can’t find espresso coffee, or even coffee with milk, except in the seriously touristic centers.


Wine made from grapes is imported, rare, and expensive. A small glass of wine may run you $10.

Palm "wine" and herbs

They make palm wine, which is actually similar to rum. They tap a particular type of palm tree to obtain the sap. This sap may be boiled down to a substance very similar to brown sugar, or it can be distilled. Unlike rum, there does not appear to be a need to ferment the sap before distilling it – evidently it is already fermented when it comes out of the palm tree. Generally this stuff is cheap. During one ferry boat ride we sat on top of the cabin with a bunch of locals. One generous guy mixed a little coca cola with a bottle of this wine and then passed a cup around to everyone. On another occasion we tasted a fully fermented version you could ignite with a match. Various roots had been added to the bottle for flavor. Good stuff but it’d give you a hang over if you drank very much.


Almost every man we met in Indonesia smokes. We’re told that a package of 20 Marlboros costs 10,000 Indonesian rupia, or about 80 cents. The Marlboros are made in Indonesia and each cigarette is hand rolled. This is a major source of employment. There is a theory that unemployment breeds dissension in a society. Perhaps the government purposely set up this system as a strategy for reducing dissension.



A girl and her dog.  They gave us directions and asked us to take a photo

A girl and her dog. They gave us directions and asked us to take a photo

A girl and her dog. They gave us directions and asked us to take a photo

We never really understood why, but people seem to love to have their picture taken with foreigners. People would come up and ask if they could take a picture with us. If we agreed they’d click into producer mode and tell us just how to stand etc.


Trash in the river.

Trash in the river.

There is quite a bit of litter around, and it was not uncommon to see someone simply throw a plastic wrapper or bottle over their shoulder. We were told that until recently there was almost no plastic. Food, for example, was commonly packaged in banana leaves. Of course it is OK to throw a banana leaf over your shoulder when you’re done with it. In many locations garbage collection is still non-existent, and a “don’t litter” ethic has not yet been established.

Sandwich, wrapped in banana leaf

Sunsets, Snorkeling, Beaches in Gili

Gili Islands –  Drop dead sunsets, great snorkeling, and holiday time beaches

Beach Gili Trawangan

Beach Gili Trawangan

If you want to feel like you are really on vacation, on an island getaway, and don’t mind if it is a little bit touristic, the Gili islands are terrific. We relaxed there for 5 nice sunny days. They offer beautiful snorkeling, blazingly beautiful sunsets, a relaxed happy vibe, and almost everyone there is wild about the song Hotel California! You can walk or ride a bike around the main island, Gili Trawagan, in less than 2 hours, going from beach to beach,

Char looking happy, Gili Trawangan

Char looking happy, Gili Trawangan

enjoying ocean side beach bars, easy snorkeling, and swimming. We even went horseback riding on the beach one day. If you want less company you can stay on one of the other Gili islands – Menos or Aire. We were happy to stay put on Trawangan. One thing that makes these islands so delightful is the absence of motor vehicles.  Everything from construction materials to tourists are transported by horse cart.

Horse cart, Gili Trawangan

Horse cart, Gili Trawangan

A current runs parallel with the shore so we did a drift snorkel. First we walked up the street in our bathing suits, carrying our masks and snorkels. We were passed by horse carts carrying tourists and their luggage, horse carts carrying building supplies, kids going to school, a trash pickup horse cart. We swam out off a beach to find a couple of handsome turtles, and then drifted down on the current to the other end of the island, marveling at the colors of the parrot fish and taking photos of clam lips. Later we went out on a boat snorkeling trip. The most amazing thing we saw on that boat trip was a Muslim woman in a full body black suit and a hijab who dropped down 20 feet to swim with a tortoise on the bottom. A 30 second video of a turtle and a puffer fish from this snorkel trip is here.


Other favorite photos from Gili Trawangan are below.  Click on a photo to see a slideshow with captions. The fish we saw on Gili are mixed into the Fish Photo post.


Bali – Ancient Hindu Traditions

Local Dan met on a morning run

Local Dan met on a morning run near our hotel

On Bali, we skipped the beaches and traveled to an inland town called Ubud. There we stayed in a beautiful small hotel in the middle of the countryside, which meant lots of rice paddies. It was peaceful and serene. 

Our timing in Bali was amazing as it fell on a holiday called the Nyepi, or Hindu New Year. Nyepi involves one day of amazing parades and one day of 100% silence. 

Preparation for Nyepi involves (mostly) boys and men in the villages, who build giant statues called ohgo-ohgos out of styrofoam, papier mache and paint. The statues are really

Our favorite Ogo Ogo

A funny ohgo ohgo in a Bali village

scary creatures, e.g. half men, half animal, with huge claws, fangs, in scary stances. Or sometimes a female monster, with a creepy face and HUGE boobs or sometimes an animal like a tiger or dragon. These are carried by the men and boys with huge bamboo palettes for the parade on the night before the silent day. The different villages compete to make their statue look really fierce by careening it almost out of control as they walk along the parade route. We stood on a corner in a crowd and this huge tiger-like ohgo-ohgo was careening left and right and came super close to the crowd and stared down at us from way up high and very close. We were crushed in the mass of humanity lining the streets for the parade. It was a bit scary, as the guys with the tiger monster seemed to be enjoying scaring the crowd we were not sure how far they would take it! Dan was standing at the back of the crowd so he wouldn’t block the view for all the shorter people.  Twice the surging crowd knocked him backward into the bushes.  A video is here.

Pool side view from our "prison" on the silent day

Pool side view from our “prison” on the silent day

On the silent day we were “imprisoned” at our paradise hotel. The silent day is a stark contrast to the night before. Truly silent! Can you imagine they shut literally everything down? ATMs don’t work, restaurants are closed and there are special police who keep you off the streets. At night you can use lights but you have to close all your curtains. All transportation, except for ambulance traffic, is banned, and this includes closure of the airports! The idea is for everyone to have a shared day of reflection, being with family, and giving thanks. Sort of cool actually. We did hear that many Balinese people like to escape it and vacation on nearby islands to party! 

Outer welcoming door, and inner wall to block spirits

Outer welcoming door, and inner wall to block spirits

There are lots of traditions and beliefs in Bali. On a bike ride through the country we saw numerous houses that have a double gate. There’s an attractive outer one to welcome visitors, and a horrible inner one to dispel bad spirits.

We also saw cows

Cows that make manure, Bali

Cows that make manure, Bali

that are kept tied up in their stalls 24×7. Their primary job is to generate fertilizer for the rice paddies. In another location they employed crop rotation by planting each year in sequence, rice, corn, lentils, chilis.

A typical daily offering

A typical daily offering

Appeasing and pleasing Gods and Demons is a daily ritual practice.

Women carrying offerings to the temple

Women carrying offerings to the temple

 Offerings are left every day on ground – everywhere – in little leaf baskets, with flowers, leaves and burning incense sticks.  We also saw lots of women carrying offerings to the temple on their heads.

The Ubud Monkey Forest  describes its mission as conservation of the area within its boundaries according to the

Char with a monkey on her back.

Char with a monkey on her back.

Hindu principle of Tri Hata Karana (“Three ways to reach spiritual and physical well-being”), which seeks to make people live harmoniously during their lives.  It’s pretty fun to wander around among the monkeys watching them doing various things from grooming one another to stealing tourist wallets.

NE Sulawesi Isl. – Beaches to Volcanoes

Paddle powered ferry crossing the river, Manado, Sulawaisi

Paddle powered ferry crossing the river, Manado, Sulawesi

We flew a couple of hours to the Northern end of Sulawesi Island. Here in we found an odd juxtaposition of modern and undeveloped. The city of Manado was the only place in Indonesia we saw where there are more automobiles than motor bikes, and many tall office buildings. (But then we did not spend time in Jakarta). We also spent 5 days on the island of Bunaken, right off shore, which was far more primitive. Every day we snorkeled, typically along coral walls, seeing new things every time.

Getting to Bunaken Island was a bit of a cultural adventure. We decided to try to public boat because it was ridiculously cheaper than a private boat. The public boat “dock” was an incredibly grimy affair – including rats and people peeing on the steps to the boat, tons of litter in the muddy river – you get the picture.

Inside the Ferry Boat

Inside the Ferry Boat

Our boat was loaded heavily with water bottles, construction materials, mattresses, people, a live rooster, water, food and many other boxes and crates. Many of the passengers sat on the roof. Dan sat on top with the owner of the inn where we would stay and a weathered older man who chain smoked and drank from a bottle of palm wine, but was really friendly!



Our boat to Buanken Island, waiting for the tide to rise.

Our boat to Bunaken Island, waiting for the tide to rise.

In the US we occasionally hear of fatal ferry accidents. It was easy to see how they could happen here. This boat was a wooden one about 70 feet long and 12 feet wide. It was powered by a 40 HP outboard. The Captain sat with the outboard in the back, where he could see absolutely nothing. There were no life jackets, life boats, compass, lights, and no evidence of a bilge pump. There were two spare engines. Our passage was perfectly calm but we were told that 2 meter waves are not uncommon.

Tarsier - worlds' smallest primate

Tarsier – worlds’ smallest primate

After our trip so Bunaken we returned to Sulawesi and drove to the town of Tomohon, which is known for its greenery, beautiful (active) volcanoes and flowers. We trekked up to a volcano crater that was still venting sulphur and visited a park where they have the cutest little pocket sized monkeys, called Tarsiers, and animals they call Sulawesi bears which look more like possums.

Mountains of vegetables

Mountains of vegetables

Tomohon has one of the most fantastic markets we have ever seen. It is huge, and appears to be almost like a regional distribution center for the overwhelming amount of produce grown on the island. We have never seen so much green lettuce in one place. But the other thing this market is known for is its rather gruesome meat area. There you will see dogs, rats, bats, snakes etc., in various stages of preparation for the dinner table. To us it was a very macabre scene. There was a cage of live dogs right next to a counter where there was a dead one, and we know they do the killings right there in the market, but fortunately we did not see one. By the way, not all Indonesians eat dogs! Many people we talked to said they would not consider it. If you wish to see these photos follow this link.

Other favorite photos from Northern Suluwesi Island and Bunaken Island are below.  Click on one to see a slide show with captions.

Komodo Dragons Eat People

Flores Island and Komodo National Park

Sunrise at our campsite in Komodo National Park

Sunrise at our campsite in Komodo National Park

Flores Island is  the key entry point to Komodo National Park, home of the scary looking komodo dragons.  The best part of our voyage to see the komodo dragons was getting there. We went by boat, snorkeling at numerous stupendous coral reefs, and camping on a beautiful little private island at night. Our six fellow travelers were all delightful and interesting. We had a fascinating debate about drug policy because one couple was from Singapore, which has the worlds most draconian drug policy and another was from Amsterdam which is renown for its liberal drug policies.

Komodo Dragons

Large male komodo moving toward the smell of a dead deer

Large male komodo moving toward the smell of a dead deer

You may have seen videos about komodo dragons on the National Geographic or other documentary programs. They are as creepy as they look on the videos! They resemble super large crocodiles, they can grow up to 3 meters long, and they weigh up to 200 pounds. They really are dangerous, as they have been known to eat humans (children).

On Komodo Island they mostly eat deer, and occasionally water buffalo. The hunting

Komodo claws.  This guy was sleeping under a porch

Komodo claws.

technique of this carnivore is to lie very quietly, and then bite the calf of their victim extremely quickly when they pass by. In addition to their lethal bite, their saliva carries 80 different bacteria that will weaken or kill the victim over the course of several days. They just take a bite, and then follow their victim while the bacteria do their work. When the victim dies, they get their full meal. At one meal they eat 80% of their body weight, but then they don’t eat again for a month or two. When they eat, they eat everything, bones, hair, muscle. We could see remainders of all these things in the komodo poop.

As a result of all this, two rangers accompanied us everywhere we went, on in front and one behind. They carry forked sticks. If a komodo approaches too close, they put the forked stick against the komodo’s neck to hold him back. One ranger told Dan they need to do this every day or so.

A young komodo near the water hole

A young komodo near the water hole

Komodo dragons have an unusual way of raising their young. The mama komodo lays her 15-30 eggs in a 4 foot high mound of dirt that is actually the nesting ground of a particular bird. Then she guards the eggs day and night to keep other komodos, and other animals, from eating them. Finally the eggs hatch, but it seems that mama’s mood changes immediately. She suddenly does her best to eat the hatchlings she was just protecting, along with everyone else. The babies make a bee line for the closest tree and climb up as quickly as possible. They then spend about 3 months living in the tree eating newts and whatever else they can find. Eventually they grow so big their arms are unable to hold them up in the tree, so they move down to terra firma.

People travel from all over the world to see komodo dragons. We’re fascinated by creatures that can eat us. Actually mosquitoes are much more dangerous. Around here they may carry Japanese Encephalitis, Malaria, or Dengue fever. But we see few tourists traveling to see the mosquitoes.

Man who made our Komodo Dragon carvinga

Man who made our Komodo Dragon carving

Fishing Village

We also visited a Muslim fishing village, remarkable in its evident poverty and self sufficiency. The Muslim fishing communities in the area subsist on islands with no fresh water and no government services. They make a living solely by fishing and selling the fish in markets in the larger towns in the islands. The living standard is poor, with no medical service or utilities in sight. But the people are friendly to tourists, knowing perhaps they are a potential source of income. We bought a small komodo dragon carved by a local man.

A slideshow of this colorful village is below.

A few other photos from this trip are below, and a remarkable sound we heard one night is here.  We think it is frogs.

Favorite Fish Photos

Perhaps our favorite things about Indonesia was the snorkeling.  The waters are warm and crystal clear, the reefs are comparatively healthy, and the life forms are very diverse.

Below is a select one percent of our fish photos.  Click on one to see a slideshow.

Indonesia travel tips

We learned that you need to plan plenty of time for transitioning from place to place. There is typically air travel, maybe boat travel, and ground travel to arrange and then accomplish. In 4 weeks we basically saw 4 places. So if you have a short time to travel, try to plan it all ahead from home to avoid wasting time. If you have a fairly long time to travel, you can plan as you go. We just had the 30 day tourist visa, and could have seen more if we had planned better.

Lion Air and its affiliate Wings are the key low cost carriers to and from the various Indonesian locations. But they do not accept N. American credit cards online. So you need to either register with a web site like or or buy tickets through a travel agent or in person at an airport. This was an unanticipated time sink for us and we were not able to succeed in registering with the web sites.

Anticipate the need to be patient with Indonesian internet. In many of the places we stayed, free wifi was a feature (which we required) but very frequently it was sporadic or too slow to count on. This was frustrating, particularly if we had a time-bound task, like organizing travel. We did have data plans on our cell phone SIM chips, so sometimes we’d use them as wireless hot spots when the lodging’s internet failed.


Many Cambodians we met look forward with optimism despite the challenges.

Many Cambodians we met look forward with optimism despite the challenges.

We spent about 3 weeks in Cambodia. It’s a country with a grand ancient history, grim recent history and very cautious optimism (and some pessimism) about the future. We learned a lot which gave us pause to be thankful for our lifestyle and opportunities in the US! We don’t pretend to have any broad understanding of Cambodia. In this blog we are just writing some things we learned when we were there.

A collage of photos of Cambodian people, which we feel conveys the resilience and gumption of the people, is at the end of this post. 




The people of Cambodia carry a heavy burden as they move forward.

The people of Cambodia carry a heavy burden as they move forward.

The recent history of Cambodia is very complex. Much of the recent history is influenced by interventions from Cambodia’s neighbors, as well as the big guns of the world including Russia, China, and the USA. From about 1965 until 1999 there were terrible things going on in Cambodia. We are not going to attempt to record the details here. This web site provides a brief history of Cambodia.


Ancient history – Center of a great empire

One of the many temples. This one is Bayon.

One of the many temples. This one is Bayon.

At one time the area that is now Siem Reap was the center of a great empire.

Temples are really the reason we came to Cambodia. Angkor Wat in particular is famous. But the entire country side is littered with them. The Khmer civilization during the the Angkor period from 800 to 1300 A.D. included lands in what is now South Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and even Myanmar. It was a very advanced civilization with a series of about 1,000 kings, each of whom built temples,

Strangler fig trees enveloping the ruins.

Strangler fig trees enveloping the ruins.

reservoirs and health care systems to prove their kingliness / godliness. Many of the temples are incomplete because every time there was a new king he started a new one from scratch! Angkor Wat is the most famous, but there are many other temples in various states of ruin and restoration. We particularly enjoyed seeing the ones where the giant strangler figs have roots that are growing in, over and around the stones. They sometimes cause the building or wall to fall apart, but occasionally bind it in place.

Plentiful fish from Sonle Sap Lake fueled the Khemer Empire.

Plentiful fish from Sonle Sap Lake fueled the Khemer Empire.

The empire was powered by both plentiful rice resulting from their sophisticated irrigation systems, and plentiful fish from the huge fresh water lake. They needed plenty of rice and fish – Angkor Wat was built over 40 years, from 1012 to 1052 by a million people.

The people of Cambodia are justifiably very proud of their ancestor’s accomplishments.

A slide show of our favorite temple pictures is at the end of this post, below the collage of pictures of people.




The People

Pots, Pans, and a dog in a cage on a motorbike

Pots, Pans, and a dog in a cage on a motorbike

All the people we have met are friendly, helpful, and they smile easily as they go about daily life. There are markets, motorcycles carrying almost anything you can imagine, people growing rice, building houses, minding their families, selling things, repairing things, lots of people in the streets because the businesses are all inside/outside. People living their lives. Hopefully enjoying many of the good things in life.  A collage/slide show of the people is at the bottom of this post.


A sign from a Khmer Rouge Prison spelling out the rules.  Number 10 says, "If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either 10 lashes or 5 shocks of electric discharge.

A sign from a Khmer Rouge Prison spelling out the rules. Number 10 says, “If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either 10 lashes or 5 shocks of electric discharge”.

From about 1960 through about 2004 Cambodia has been torn by war. This reached an apex from 1975 to 1979 when the Khmer Rouge created their own holocaust, killing about 2 million intellectuals, doctors, policemen, anyone who wore glasses, and anyone who hinted at resisting them. They moved everyone from the cities out to the country where many starved. One result of all this war is that the country has very few intellectuals, teachers, doctors or older people. Another result is millions of land mines scattered across the countryside generating a continual stream of amputees as well as land that cannot be farmed.

A related topic is the USA’s action in Cambodia. When the Vietnamese moved the Ho Chi Min trail into Cambodia, the USA carpet bombed the areas of Cambodia where they thought it ran. And then for some reason we don’t really understand, the US bombed Phnom Penh. Several Cambodians said the bombs caused incredible horror, yet they don’t seem to hold it against Americans.



.Remember the domino theory?

Domino Theory.  Credit:

Domino Theory. Credit:

A number of Cambodians said that they worry that their country is being taken over by Vietnam. We won’t go into all the reasons here, but it is interesting. Remember the domino theory which was the rational for the Vietnam war? The theory postulated that if we did not stop Communism from advancing in Vietnam it would advance to take over all of SE Asia. Based on our conversations with Cambodians, it now looks like there was something to that the domino theory.


We had two experiences that suggested to us that involving the police in a situation costs a lot and does not help resolve anything.

Our friend Jim told us that when he had to return to the US for a month or so he lent his “moto” to a friend. When he returned, the friend refused to return it. Jim went to the police and requested their help. They asked for the equivalent of $600, which Jim paid. But then nothing happened. Eventually Jim had to re-possess the moto on his own.

The other experience we had with the police was when we were riding in a van as part of a tour. A lady driving a nice Mercedes rear ended us fairly violently. She and our driver got out, looked at the damage for less than a minute, returned to their vehicles, and drove away. There was no exchange of contact information, and certainly no asking the police for a police report. We asked our guide about this and he said it is always best to not involve the police.

We heard many stories about corrupt officials at higher levels using their positions and power to build their own wealth.

Cambodian weddings.

Wedding Tent before the guests arrive.

Wedding Tent before the guests arrive.

Wedding Guests Marching to a wedding at 7:00 AM on a Saturday

Wedding Guests Marching to a wedding at 7:00 AM on a Saturday

Our friend Jim told us that weddings are the biggest expense for families in Cambodia. A dowry may be $5,000 equivalent, and the wedding party costs are about the same. This is a big deal considering that the average annual income is about $1,000. Here we have seen several wedding “chapels”. Generally these are outdoor affairs where there is a tarp tent cover around a large area, and then lots of colorful fabric creating the “walls” of the wedding chapel. Peek in and you will see colorful furniture, often plastic, and people dressed in very fancy, shiny, colorful clothing. Music of course. In fact the little resort we stayed at in Battambang was near a wedding chapel and there was music going all the time. We were told that they have 3 weddings per day there.

Photos of the Cambodian People are below here. Click one to see a slide show.

Below them there is a slide show of favorite photos of the Khmer temples.

Favorite photos of temples

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People we met in Cambodia and their Stories

Expat Jim

When we were in Thailand we met an expat named Jim who lives in Cambodia. In Cambodia Jim exposed us to many things we would not have discovered on our own.

Jim’s a retired school principle who currently lives in Cambodia. He’s been working as the English language coordinator in an elementary school for 4 years or more. He came to Asia with the intent to volunteer somewhere, and almost instantly found this NGO funded school. It was a good match so he looked no further.

The library at the Spitler School where Jim volunteers

The library at the school where Jim volunteers

Jim took us out for a tour of the school and the village it serves. He explained to us that there are a number of problems with the public schools. Many children cannot afford school even though it is technically free. But they have to buy uniforms, supplies, and pay the teacher for extra lessons in the afternoons. The teaching day is just the morning. Not enough can be taught for the students to pass their tests, and the teachers will not pass them unless they pay the teachers for extra tutoring. It is necessary to pass to move up. When they get to the point of taking the high school exam, they have to pay the tester to pass them. They also pay to prepare for the exam. Recently the government decided the corruption in the system was mostly the kids cheating, so they proctored the exams, disallowed cell phones etc. That year the pass rate dropped from 87% to only 20%.


This translated poem is an example of English Language Skills

English is not taught generally. One person told us that it is hard to learn English, even when classes are available because English teachers usually don’t know much English; their skill level may be as low as just knowing how to pronounce the letters of the alphabet. We learned that the children are not taught in school about their countries’ recent turbulent history. Science is taught by the instructor reading text and the students memorizing it – there are no demonstrations, discussions, or hands on experiences.

Of course a big part of the education challenge is finding teachers because almost all of the educated people were killed during the Khmer Rouge era.

Bottom line: Kids are not really learning, the system is geared so they have to “pay to pass”, limited material is taught and the standards are very low. The result is a population unprepared to either power an economy or assess what is happening in their country.

Touring a local village

Some of the kids in Spitler School live in these houses, that are built by squatters over a drainage ditch.

Some of the kids in school live in these houses, that are built by squatters over a drainage ditch.

Jim took us on a tour of the village served by the school. Parts of the village looked even poorer than places we saw in Africa. In one area we saw a slum of squatters living in temporary dwellings built over a dirty gully which had standing water in it. We saw people in various states of dress, mostly doing nothing because there is nothing they can do. Garbage was around everywhere (no place to take it to), naked babies (one woman handed Char her naked baby to hold, which she did a little reluctantly), and very cute smiling kids, who you know  would not have much future. These people in the squatters area of the village clearly did not have access to things like

Char holds a baby

Char holds a baby

dental care, medical care, mosquito nets, or electricity on a regular basis. They did have some hand water pumps which were donated. (Jim said sometimes people steal the pumps because the metal is valuable).

Many people were very small. We were told that undernourishment is a major contributor to this. Jim pointed to a girl and asked us to guess her age. We said 5. Jim said she was 10.

We passed a nice two story house and asked Jim about it. He said that the house is owned by a tuk tuk driver who speaks English, so he can give rides to tourists who will pay much more money than locals. Tourists will pay $2-3 for a ride that would cost a local 20-30 cents. Evidently English is one of the ways that people can work their way out of poverty. Imagine!

Using the Arts to Expunge the Horrors of the Past

Can you do this?

We  actually saw this particular moment in the Phare show.  It was dramatic. She shot the arrow to burst a balloon that represented the Khmer Rouge nightmare.

With Jim, we went to a circus event called “Phare”. It’s a little like a mini Cirque du Soleil. Evidently Phare was started by a man who realized how much emotional pain was entrenched in the people who were in the refugee camps near Thailand during the war years. Many of the children had started to dance, draw, and act sort of spontaneously. So he gradually formalized the activity, and now Phare provides employment, artistic training and funding for the education and training for dancers, artists and musicians. It also offers potential career possibilities to the performers.

What a performance it was! Super high energy, with great passion and feeling! The performers did numerous things demonstrating their flexibility, strength, agility, and balance as they told the stories of their history during the brutal Khmer Rouge era..


Romcheik Artists

Romcheik Artists

Later, in a town called Battambang, we visited a brand new art gallery called Romcheik that shows works of 4 artists, all close to the age of our son Alex. All four had experienced horrific childhoods, and been sold by their parents to work in Thailand. Then they were expelled from Thailand, returned to Cambodia and taken care of by NGOs. Eventually this remarkable French man learned about them through a chance encounter with one of the boys, and decided to sponsor them. The boys and the Frenchman built living spaces where they could paint. When we visited they were just completing a very impressive gallery to showcase their work. The art is even more impressive than the gallery. It is strong, emotional, and well executed. We tried to help them out by posting their brochure on the web and getting them listed in Trip Adviser. The brochure is here.


We hired a Tuk Tuk driver to take us around to some of the sites. He turned out to be so much more than a Tuk Tuk driver!

Lucky was born in a village during the Pol Pot (Khmer Rouge) era. When he was born his mother had no milk because she was starving. Each person got only a cup of porridge twice a day, and the porridge was very weak – only one kg. of rice was used for every 100 liters of water (2 pounds for 25 gallons). Several of his sisters starved to death and his brother was killed because he stole some food. His father was a policeman before the Khmer Rouge, so in 1978 they took him away. They told him that they were taking him to a meeting with the king. His father knew better but he had no choice but to go with the men. Lucky thinks they took his father to the killing fields – he never saw him again.

Lucky was the only one of his 7 siblings to escape the Khmer Rouge. He was the youngest. His mother put him in a hole in the ground each day when she went to work in the fields. That is why he survived, and that is why he is called Lucky.

When it was just Lucky and his mother, she escaped with him and they both walked to the Thai border. They walked for 2 weeks and finally found a refugee camp where they were taken in. He learned English there. He said he likes to talk to tourists to help them understand what is happening in his country.

A shrine in the killing cave that contains some of the skulls of people who were killed.

A shrine in the killing cave that contains some of the skulls of people who were killed.

One of the places we visited was one of the many killing fields. This one was actually a cave. You could look up high and see a large hole in the top of the cave which was where they knocked people unconscious with a blow to the head, and then push the bodies down into the hole. Lucky told us he had heard about one woman who actually lived. She woke up at the bottom of the cave and was just strong enough to climb out to find help.






Bats leaving cave at night

Bats leaving cave at night

We went around to a bat cave on the side of the mountain opposite the killing cave. The three of us sat on a wall for about an hour watching the river of bats flowing out of the cave. There must have been a million or more. As we watched Lucky talked. A 20 second video is here.

Lucky was a monk for about a year. Many people were monks because it was about the only way to get any education. He had to memorize 5 books about Buddhism so that he could recite them word for word. Every night he would study by the light of burning incense. The incense only illuminated one or two words at a time. He felt this narrow focus helped him memorize the text.

Cat in a cage

Cat in a cage

Lucky told us how to make it rain – California listen! It was known that you should never hurt a cat because if you do the cat will find a way to make your life miserable – for example they might bring sickness upon you or your family. People used this trait to make it rain. You put a cat in a cage, and then throw water at it. The cat gets very angry at you and makes it rain so you will get wet and uncomfortable too.

Lucky also told us a story about a poor man who did not have gold with which to guild a Buddha statue, so he cut pieces of his own flesh off of his body and used the flesh to cover the statue. They say that he went to heaven.

And Lucky related this story from the time of the Angkor civilization.  A king’s guard grew watermelons. One night King Jayavarman VIII stole a watermelon. The guard did not recognize the king, and killed him. The guard became the new king because clearly he was powerful enough to kill a king.


Char and Sarin

Char and Sarin

Our Angkor Wat guide is the principle of an 800 student school, and our transportation was the schools’ Tuk-Tuk. Why would a busy principle spend his time guiding a couple of tourists? He wanted to use the fee we paid for guide service and a tuk-tuk to help fund the school.

Sarin is the principal of the school where Jim works. His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge because he was a teacher. Sarin, too, grew up in a refugee camp where he was selected for a special program because he was so poor. The program involved being fed three times per day, which was the first thing he said about it! But also he was educated in various topics including English. He decided he wanted to give back to his community. Through his guiding he met the the people who started the NGO that provided start up funding for the school and helped it grow. It started small but now there are 800 students.

During the era of the Khmer Rouge Sarin and his family fled to refugee camps near the Thai border.

En-route, the family was told that they could travel cross country to a place where they would be transported to the USA, but they decided not to go because there was a rumor that people were being fed to crocodiles. Sarin wonders what his life would be like if they had ignored that rumor.

Sarin explained that in Cambodia Sunday is not a religious day. Religious days are on the full, new, and half moons. So a religious day may fall on any day of the week. People get up early, go to temple, and then they get on with their day.

Conversations with war veterans and a visit to two museums

In the war museum there are 4 veterans who work as guides. ALL of them had their right leg blown off by a land mine. One was in the Khmer Rouge. Another fought for the Cambodia Republic. Our guide joined the Vietcong side of the conflict when his village was burned by American bombs. It seemed like they all did what they needed to survive. One story he told was how he was in a skirmish when he recognized his uncle through the site of his rifle. He dropped his gun, overcome by the thought that he might kill his uncle, but his uncle continued shooting at him. His comrades asked what was wrong and he said he had a headache. They persisted because generally he was their best marksman, so he shot over his uncle’s head. Later he told his uncle “and they both had a good laugh”.

Aka removing a landmine

Aki removing a landmine

Regarding landmines, which we learned about at the Landmine Museum, there were probably 6 million or more landmines and un-exploded bombs dropped in Cambodia. So many, no knows where they all are. It is estimated that there are still 1-1.5 million and at this rate it will take at least 10 more years to get rid of them all. There is a remarkable man, Aki Ra, who as a soldier personally planted many. But his mission now is to try to make his country safe again. He started an NGO to work on landmine removal. He has personally removed something like 30,000 landmines. He knows how to deal with them safely. We learned that the land mines were designed to maim a soldier, not to kill him, because if you maim a soldier then 3-4 of his buddies have to stop fighting and assist the injured man.