Monday, August 30, 2010

Zeppelin Bar

On first sight the bar is just about as plain as plain can be. On second sight too.

A shoebox of a place, deep and narrow. Simple wooden bar, aluminum stools, some boothish tables with padded wooden benches. A basic selection of beers and spirits - Lao, Tiger, Angkor and the like. Another glance around reveals a bit more trimming - a few rock & roll posters - Kiss, Led Zeppelin and ELP - the Stars and Bars emblazoned with a Lynyrd Skynyrd skull & crossbones tacked high, some splats and stars adorning the walls. Still nothing to write home about, at least quite yet. Elbow up to the bar or stretch back into one of the booths and the service is right there, often with limited English, but earnest and ready to please, hinting at the homey space this is.

Zeppelin Bar has been well more than a decade in Phnom Penh, a truly well-hidden gem. Until a few months ago blessedly unknown, lost in little corners of the city until its recent move to bar-busy Street 51, but for years frequented by only a few - those who could find it, those who knew the secret and selfishly (but understandably) tried to keep it that way.

This is a music bar. Let me repeat, a music bar. Specifically, a rock & roll bar. You won't find any taxi girls or hostesses in Zeppelin. Or any bobbing headed Xters. Or sex tourists or single malts or the snooty wine & spa crowd. Or any pretension whatsoever beyond what it is. This is a music bar, a rock & roll bar. No trance, no techno or house or nu rave or any other sort of electronic drivel. Nothing post-80s. Such 'music' shouldn't even be mentioned in this place.

Zeppelin is Mr. Jun's, a crusty old Taiwanese rocker that been in the Land of the Khmer since the days of UNTAC. Back in the 90s he brought his teenage collection of 2000+ pristine R&R vinyls to Cambodia and made a bar of them here in Phnom Penh. Much more a rock&roller than a barman he sits quietly, almost invisibly, tucked in the corner at the back of the bar, surrounded by his albums, drinking Chinese tea from a thermos, chain smoking cigs and playing 60s, 70s and 80s rock & roll like he's in his living room. One of those guys I remember from my youth - the kind that always handled records edge only, carefully dusting them before needle touched vinyl, lecturing about piling albums versus standing them. The kind that never played anything from AM radio. A connoisseur. A man that knows his shit, and knows no playlist. A tutorious aficionado of a severe musical genre, spinning choice B-sides and whole albums, the rare and obscure, stuff before-they-were-anybody, and even a few classics so you don't get lost, all with the subtle crackle and hiss and wonderful tonal depth only vinyl can offer.

He leafs and pulls one from the shelf, scans the jacket counting tracks and places album gingerly to turntable. "Ahh, listen to this one," he mutters.

Make a musical request, an appropriate request, not some electro-lint but rock & roll, preferably something heavy. He's got it in there somewhere. Make it a difficult - first album Kansas, the 17-minute version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida - and you may get a smile, but he's still got it in there somewhere.

Unlike the shallow commercial overcrowded Heart of Darkness up the street, this really is a place with heart, the bar is filled with it - the sparse sincere decor, the attentive staff, the blue air and musty smell of beer, the lovingly selected music wafting across the room - this is somebody's home, a rock&roller's home.

Many will miss the whole thing, the ambiance lost on them. They'll see a non-distinctive little watering hole with no air-con, no dancing and old-man music. They'll last for a drink and leave. Their loss. But for those with ears, let them hear. Zeppelin Bar is a rock lover's must. A place to sip your drink and smoke your smoke and lose your soul in rock and roll. The best damn bar in Southeast Asia as far as I am concerned.

(Zeppelin Bar is located at #109C Street 51 next to the Walkabout Hotel. It opens at 5PM in the afternoon and doesn't close till very very late, often after 4AM. Drinks are very reasonably priced and munchies are available including some pretty good Chinese dumplings, boiled or fried.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Six on a moto at the corner of Street 182 and Street 107 in front of the Capitol Guesthouse in Phnom Penh. Not a wholly unusual sight in the city.

I sat for an hour at the Capitol sipping ice coffees and snapping photos of overloaded motos to get this one. I've seen more on a moto - 8 including a baby. And I once saw 5 adults on one moto. But no photo to prove it. Anybody out there been able to catch more in a photo?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ch'kei Khmei Pookei

Cambodian dogs look both ways before crossing the street. Really. They also get out of the road when honk your horn.

I have a vision...of an NGO named 'Ch'kei Khmei Pookei' dedicated to spreading this knowledge across the land...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Was the Thaksin gambit worth it?

Back in late 2009, tension between Thailand’s Red Shirt faction and the Thai government was building dramatically, as were tensions between Cambodia and Thailand over the disputed border area around Preah Vihear. The Thai Red Shirt/Yellow Shirt conflict was born of the 2006 military coup in Thailand in which Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was forced from office and the later legal dissolution of the subsequent pro-Thaksin government, leaving Thaksin’s supporters, i.e. the Red Shirts, disaffected and Thaksin a wanted fugitive. It also gave rise to the Yellow Shirts, i.e. the Royalist/anti-Thaksin faction, thus creating the political instability and conflict that continues in Thailand to this day. The current tension between Cambodia and Thailand at Preah Vihear is connected to this political instability in Thailand - a decades old territorial dispute between the two countries which is being exacerbated anew by Thai nationalists attempting to exploit it for internal political purposes. It was in the midst of these rising tensions in November 2009 that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen chose to very publicly and ceremoniously appoint former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an ‘Economic Advisor’ to the highest level of the Cambodian government.

When Thaksin was appointed an economic advisor, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared him an “eternal friend” and the Cambodian government claimed that it was a purely practical and internal matter designed to take advantage of Thaksin’s unique knowledge and experience to assist Cambodia navigate difficult economic times. After all, Thaksin is a multi-billionaire telecommunications mogul and former head of state of a Southeast Asian nation. A starry and relevant CV to be sure. But most observers saw more than mere practicality in this new embrace. His appointment seemed an obvious jab at the Thai government where he was a wanted fugitive and the central figure behind the anti-government Red Shirts. The Thai government was predictably infuriated, so much so that it severed diplomatic relations with Cambodia, greatly increasing tensions between the two countries. Many observers suggested that a slap at Thailand was the entire point of the Thaksin exercise – to thumb noses at Thailand, to show that even though Cambodia might not be able to match Thailand militarily at Preah Vihear, it still, at the very least, had the ability to get their goat. You could almost hear the snickering coming from Takhmau.

Since then much water has passed under the bridge, especially in Thailand. Back in late 2009 Economic Advisor Thaksin gave a couple of speeches in Cambodia, attended one or two rubber chicken luncheons and then buggered off to other parts of the world to attend to his own troubled situation. Meanwhile in Thailand the Red Shirt confrontation with the government was building to a nasty head. Protests formed in Bangkok and then dragged on for months. The city was all but paralyzed. It was rumored (though untrue) that Thaksin was in Cambodia waiting to return to Thailand in triumph when the Red Shirts broke the government. The protests in Bangkok then exploded into a violent and ugly climax – riots, bombings, arsons, dozens of deaths, a city in flames, with Thaksin’s Red Shirts far less than the innocents in it all. They ultimately caught the losing end and scattered back to the countryside from whence most of them came, not broken but certainly far worse for the wear. With Bangkok trashed and smoldering, the Red Shirts and by proxy Thaksin lost a lot of favor in the eyes of the region, the world and even many otherwise sympathetic Thais for the damage done.

Through it all Cambodia had surprisingly little to say about her formerly vaunted “eternal friend” and Economic Advisor. Tensions and rhetoric between the countries continued to rise over the border dispute at Preah Vihear but Thaksin became an unspoken sore point, all but unmentioned by Phnom Penh for months, until day before yesterday, when it was announced that Thaksin had resigned his position as Economic Advisor. The resignation was readily accepted (if not requested) by Cambodia and almost immediately thereafter (literally within hours) Cambodia and Thailand announced the resumption of normal diplomatic relations. The Thaksin episode had come to an unceremonious end.

Trying to make sense of the affair, yesterday’s Cambodia Daily (August 25, 2010) asked the question “Was the Thaksin Experiment Worth the Trouble?” This, in my opinion, is the wrong question, or at least a mischaracterization. The relationship with Thaksin was not an “experiment.” It was a gambit.

Most observers can agree that the appointment of Thaksin as an advisor to the government was not to be taken at face value. The Cambodian government did not appoint Thaksin and raise tensions with Thailand to the point of severing diplomatic relations simply because it wanted his wise words on attracting tourists and marketing rice. Many observers have suggested that the appointment was for the purpose of tweaking the Thais and scoring a few cheap political points in Cambodia. Political researcher Pavin Chachavalpongpun commented that from the start the appointment was “superficial, political and temporary” and that,

…the decision of Hun Sen to appoint (Thaksin) served the purpose of irritating and attacking the Thai leadership…Hun Sen was not only successful in using Thaksin to tarnish his opponents in Thailand but also gained some political points amongst his Cambodian supporters…(Cambodia Daily, August 25, 2010)

But this gives far too little credit to the strategic prowess of Prime Minister Hun Sen. While the Prime Minister is not above a bit of self-serving schoolyard antics, the predictable and very high price paid for the appointment of Thaksin belies a deeper purpose and a potentially greater payoff.

At the time of Thaksin’s appointment in Cambodia, Thailand was in a precarious and unstable political state. Thaksin’s Red Shirts represent a significant portion of the Thai population (perhaps even a majority,) which bears a valid political grievance. Their elected leader (Thaksin) had been removed from power by the most undemocratic means and they were arguably being deprived the proper democratic process to which they were entitled. Further, their complaints and cries for democracy were enjoying a certain degree of international support even outside the region. Back in late 2009/early 2010 the Red Shirts were trying to force new and unrestricted national elections in Thailand and at the time the outcome of that pressure was as yet unknown. If they had achieved this goal there was the very real possibility that a Thaksin sympathetic party or perhaps even Thaksin himself could have regained power.

On a different front, though it is beyond impolite to speak of such matters, and with all due respect, the King of Thailand is old and frail and likely not long for this world. When he passes, whether his son the heir apparent becomes king or there is political upheaval and some other faction achieves power, there is the significant possibility that those who gain control will be from a camp sympathetic to Thaksin.

It was these possible futures on which Hun Sen was betting when he appointed Thaksin an advisor and declared him an “eternal friend.” Thaksin regaining power may not have been the most likely possible future, but with Reds pushing hard for elections and the King in flagging health, it was still well within the realm of possibility and the potential payoff was significant. Far from forming some “superficial and temporary” relationship with Thaksin for short term political gain, Hun Sen was gambling on a possible future in which Thaksin would regain power and, by standing with Thaksin when he was down, Hun Sen was laying the groundwork for a deep and lasting relationship with a potential future key player if not leader of Thailand.

In retrospect, was the Thaksin gambit worth the trouble to Cambodia? Was the price paid in broken diplomatic relations and increased tensions worth the potential payoff of warm relations with a potential future key figure in the Thai leadership?

First it must be acknowledged that the gambit has probably been lost. The disastrous Bangkok riots have so soured the position of the Red Shirts and Thaksin that regardless of how the Red/Yellow conflict eventually plays out, it is unlikely that Thaksin will be able to return to Thailand in a position of power anytime in the foreseeable future. But a lost gambit is not necessarily one that should not have been made. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Though diplomatic relations with Thailand were temporarily broken, they have now been restored with smiles all around. And though the tensions at Preah Vihear have intensified, they may have anyway as this incarnation of the dispute is as much a toy of Thai internal politics as a product of Cambodian-Thai relations. Regardless, the intensification has not amounted to any actual significant military confrontation or loss of territory. In sum, for all of the ill words and poor relations of the last nine months, little or nothing material has been lost by Cambodia. On the other hand, even though not won, the potential payoff if Thaksin had regained power could have been monumental. And even though formal relations between Thaksin and Cambodia have ended, they appear to have done so on good terms. The positive feelings generated between Cambodia and the Thaksin camp still exist – a card in the hole should that camp achieve power at some later date.

All things considered, actual losses weighed against potential and real gains, the answer to the title question is ‘yes,’ whether there is ultimately a big payoff or not, the Thaksin gambit was worth it to Cambodia.

(I realize that my rendition of the Thai political situation is superficial. My purpose here was to analyze Cambodia’s relation to Thailand in regard to this specific episode, not to offer any great insights into Thai politics. My characterization of the Thai political situation, while comic book, is IMO sufficient to my point about Cambodia’s Thaksin gambit.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Monks walk on Street 19, behind the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Field Guide to the Tourists of Southeast Asia

Touristus Touristus
The Fat Bottomed Watcherbird, a.k.a. the Tourist: (Touristus Touristus)
A plump, colorful, non-intrusive species known for its varied yet strict migratory patterns and strong tendency to stick close to the flock. Though the Touristus Touristus migrates to a different destination in each of its annual forays from its native nesting grounds, it does so only briefly, rarely for more than a three week period, and only as part of a flock, usually consisting of 15 to 30 Watcherbirds, which remain grouped tightly together for the duration. Interestingly, upon returning to their native nesting grounds, these flocks disperse, never to see their flock-mates again. Aside from their distinctive flocking habits the Touristus Touristus is most easily identified by its clean, bright plumage, a fat wallet and its appearance exclusively in well-established roosting areas. Though not a gregarious species, often treating the locals with noisy disdain, the Touristus Touristus is nevertheless a highly prized species at its migratory destinations due to its habit of defecating money when pleased. The Fat Bottomed Watcherbird is ordinarily welcomed and treated with great care by the locals who often go to extraordinary lengths to entice or even trick it into roosting at their location.

Touristus Denialus (alt: Touristus Touristus Denialus)
The Lesser Fat Bottomed Watcherbird, a.k.a. the Traveler: (Touristus Denialus)
Often indistinguishable from the Touristus Touristus, so much so that some experts have concluded the Touristus Denialus not to be a separate species but a mere sub-species of the Touristus Touristus (i.e. Touristus Touristus Denialus.) This species has a similar appearance, tends to travel to the same destinations and stays about as long at each destination as the Touristus Touristus. Nevertheless there are some distinguishing features. Unlike the Touristus Touristus, the Touristus Denialus tends to move in much smaller groups, sometimes only in pairs or individually and is much more likely to be observed away from the well-established roosting grounds. Comparatively speaking, their plumage is not as bright and their wallet is not as fat as the Touristus Touristus and they rarely defecate money. Most distinctively, when in the presence of a flock of Touristus Touristus, the Touristus Denialus will cling together and sing 'Notmeeeeee, Notmeeeeee, Notmeeeee' repeatedly. They are known to continue to mutter the 'Notmeeee' call amongst themselves for hours after the Touristus Touristus has departed. Though generally welcomed by locals at their migratory destinations, they are not considered a particularly desirable species and are largely ignored. The female of the species is especially vulnerable to exploitation by the locals and is often hunted by local beggars, children and volunteer organizations for her cache of funds.

Touristus Vulgaris
The Dirty Plumed Tit, a.k.a. the Backpacker: (Touristus Vulgaris)
A cliquey, communal, migratory, low-end species with a permanently engorged backpack, a tight money-belt and a haughty attitude about any species outside of the clique. Considered a pest species in many countries, particularly in Asia. They tend to travel in pairs or small groups along well-trodden routes and roost for extended periods in great raucous flocks that can take over entire islands or sections of cities. They are in a constant state of shedding plastic bottles. They thrive on a diet of beer and whatever is cheapest though they do require regular feedings of banana pancakes to maintain health. Due to their docile and naive nature they are occasionally baited, trapped and consumed by the locals. The Dirty Plumed Tit displays chameleonesque qualities, sporting a tousled plumage which vaguely mimics both the local inhabitants and the now extinct Touristus Hippius (i.e. the Hippie.) Their migratory cycle is determined by the complex interplay of the monsoons and the school year and their primary migratory patterns follow those of the extinct Hippies, though most of the roosting grounds along the traditional migratory routes have been environmentally and culturally decimated, largely due to the adaptive success of Touristus Vulgaris.

Touristus Phallicus
The Dogbird, a.k.a. the Sex Tourist: (Touristus Phallicus)
A rogue migratory species, usually traveling individually, often welcomed by the locals at its migratory destinations, but shunned by other members of the Touristus family. As the name suggests, this species displays great sexual disparity with over 90% of the observed specimens being male. The stereotypical Dogbird is rotund and sometimes pear-shaped, usually a middle-aged male, sporting bright flowery plumage and Faginesque facial features. But in fact Dogbirds are multi-varied in appearance and age and are more accurately identified by behavior and migratory patterns. This species migrates the year round, but to a much more limited range of destinations than other members of the Touristus family, including Southeast Asia, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka, Russia and Costa Rica. Females of the species frequent different destinations. Also dissimilar to other species of Touristus which tend to engage in a variety of behavioral activities, the Touristus Phallicus generally shows little interest in local culture and engages in a much more limited range of behaviors, focusing primarily on non-productive mating behaviors with the locals. The Touristus Phallicus is considered an exploitative species by many experts, similar to the Catbird which lays its eggs in the nests of other species. But the Touristus Phallicus is exploited by the locals as well, often falling prey to its own narrow range of behaviors. Properly manipulated, some have been known to disgorge their entire fortune to a local bird less than half its age.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Kids say the darndest things

We (my family and I) just returned to Cambodia last week from our annual family trip to the US. We did the usual - three weeks in the States for the kids to see grandma and grandpa, a little road trip, a day at Universal Studios, etc. The tourist thing. Since our return to Cambodia the kids new school year has begun and I've been playing mad catch-up here at work, clearing three weeks of paperwork from my desk. As I plow through my piles of paper here, I reminisce about our holiday, and a story from last year's trip to the States comes to mind:  

We flew from Phnom Penh to Taipei and then Taipei to LA to begin our trip in the States. When we first arrived at the Los Angeles airport (LAX) and were making our way through the baggage collection area my 7-year-old daughter looked around  and casually but rather loudly observed,

"Dad, there sure are a lot of black people here."

Black people (those of African heritage) are, after all, a rather rare sight back in Cambodia where she's grown up. There are plenty of Asians and whites of various sorts but for whatever reason very few blacks. I cringed, took a quick glance around to see if anybody had noticed and then gently shushed her, explaining that it's not really polite to comment on the color/race of others in the US - that somebody might take it the wrong way. She seemed to understand and made no further comment on the subject. About a week or so later we walked into a McDonald's in Tallahassee Florida which was 100% black - the customers, the staff, every single person in the place was black. My daughter looked around and, following my instructions to the letter not to comment on other people's race, announced, rather loudly again,

"Ya know, we're the only white people in this place.

Kids say the darndest things.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Because somebody broke its legs and tied it to the handlebars of a motorcycle on its way to market.

It is not an uncommon sight in Cambodia to see farm animals - chickens, ducks, rabbits, pigs - being transported to market in the most cruel and inhumane manners. Live chickens and ducks tied to motorcycles in great feathered bouquets, hanging upside-down by their broken limbs, or crammed sardine-tight into caged trucks, their limbs broken to keep them from fleeing, bodily fluids draining from their gasping mouths as they slowly bake unprotected in the tropical sun. Pigs laid on their backs and strapped perpendicular across the seat of the motorcycle, head and ass ends hanging over the edge, each bump in the road slowly breaking its back, the pig squealing the whole way in terror and pain. Absolutely nothing is done to ease the discomfort of these animals - to cushion them, to hydrate them, to shield them from the elements - nothing.

All this is not done without reason. Refrigeration at the traditional markets, let alone refrigerated transport, is unknown in Cambodia. To get meat to the market fresh so that it is safe for human consumption, it must be delivered live and then butchered only hours, sometimes minutes before being sold as meat. And, for whatever reason, the humane treatment of animals does not seem to figure high (or perhaps even exist) on the list of Cambodian priorities. The only thought that seems to be given is to the ease and efficiency of handling and transport to the market, nothing else.

I have sometimes wondered which system is better, or worse, if either. The western way of factory farms where animals often lead dull, miserable lives trapped in barren little cages or crowded into warehouses from birth to death, but in the end are given a relatively humane, painless death. Or the Cambodian way, where almost every farm animal is free-range and leads a largely unrestrained outdoor life wandering the village and fields, but then suffers its last few days on this Earth in unfathomable horror and pain.

*Photo of motorcycle with chickens, Phnom Penh 08/10
*Photo of Butcher section of the Old Market (Phsar Chas) in Siem Reap, 04/10

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cup Chawl

Fresh coining bruises, Cambodian Cup Chawl
Me, with fresh coining bruises
As a rule I am deeply skeptical of traditional Southeast Asian forms of medicine and, given the option, will always opt for a western approach. Generally speaking, traditional SEA medicine is useless at best and harmful at worst. Smelly liniments, herbal teas, massage and old wives tales. But I am a something of a convert when it come to the practice known as cup chawl ('coining' or 'scraping') - a common procedure used across SEA in which the skin is repeatedly scraped, using a coin or coin-like object, raising long welt-like bruises in a tiger stripe pattern over parts of the body. The procedure is used to treat minor ailments, aches and pains, headaches, colds, light fevers, menstrual cramps and the like. When in Southeast Asia you may notice the occasional person with bruises born of cup chawl peeking out from under their clothing.

I've never received a satisfactory explanation of how it is supposed to work. Cambodians have told me that it helps restore the "balance of hot and cold" in the body. Others have said that it is to relieve an excess of "wind" in the body, which does correspond nicely to the name - 'chawl' in Khmer translating to 'wind' in English. This seems to relate to the Eastern notion of yin and yang and the necessity for balance between the two. Still sounds like hocus-pocus to me. One local friend tried to put a more scientific spin on it suggesting that it helps to promote blood flow, but I think he was just speculating, trying to make it more palatable to my western ears. Explanations aside, my experiences with the practice itself has been a positive one.   

More than a decade ago here in Cambodia, suffering from back pain of unknown origin and having exhausted most of the available western options, I relented to pressure from my Cambodian maid and allowed her to take me to a traditional doctor (a massage shop) to get coined. I figured that at worst it would be a difference that didn't make a difference - that it wouldn't help, that I'd still have the same back pain plus a few minor bruises and a story to tell.

Coining tools. Left from Cambodia. Right from Vietnam
They laid me out on a thin mattress and coined the front and back of my torso, tracing the pattern of my ribs, scraping the same places over and over again, focusing especially on the afflicted area of my back. It went on for the better part of an hour and was not painless, but not a wholly unpleasant procedure either - like an odd sort of focused massage. Within two days, a problem from which I had been suffering for weeks had disappeared. The back pain was gone. A result of the cup chawl? Impossible to say for sure. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but a happy one at the very least.

Since then I have had it done a few more times for similar problems, usually when I have reached the end of my rope, but almost always with a positive outcome. I don't know why it works, or even if it does actually work, but I do seem to consistently get better within a few days.

I just had it done again for the first time in more than a year, bruised tiger stripes front and back, to deal with some rib/back pain probably born of being old and spending too much time hunched over a computer. Cup chawl hurts, especially as they apply an alcohol based liniment while they do the scraping, but I am anticipating feeling better in short order.

Years back, being the western-centric, science-oriented old-man that I am, I never could have imagined myself engaging in, let alone touting what I would ordinarily consider mumbojumbo medicine, but cup chawl has done me right. I am a satisfied customer and would recommend it to others.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Pity Industry

(The following is a C&P compilation of some of the main points I have made in debating the orphanage tourism/voluntourism issue on various travel forums between 2005-2008, primarily on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum.) 

Volunteering at a Cambodian orphanage is the newest western tourist fad. Many tourists now want to donate a day or three, maybe even a week at a Cambodian orphanage, perhaps teach a little English, play with the kids, clean the floors, patch the roof, ect, etc. Tourists now schedule this into their holiday itineraries - a day in Phnom Penh, 3 at Angkor, 2 days at the orphanage, a couple more in Sihanoukville for some R&R and then back home to the grind - but to what end? Are they actually helping or are they contributing to the exploitation of Cambodia's most vulnerable - children and orphans?

No doubt, some volunteer efforts have a positive effect, particularly if the volunteer has some special skill, and especially back in the days before they were arriving by the busload with volunteering as part of the tour itinerary. But this faddish wave of tourist 'volunteers' with no special skills and dubious motivations pouring into Southeast Asia is not helpful, even if they think they are. They are driving the development of an exploitative industry that uses children and the disadvantaged to draw in customers, i.e. 'volunteers,' who will pay for the privilege of acting like and feeling as if they are helping poor people. Given the exploding numbers of these tourist 'volunteers' and the amount of money that can be made off of these people, the potential for the exploitation of the commodity that sits at the center of this industry, i.e. orphans, should be obvious to anybody who can stop patting herself on the back long enough to think about it objectively.

Consider very carefully your real motivations before engaging in this sort of dubious 'volunteer work.' Those who are honest with themselves may very well find it's more about the warm and fuzzy feelings generated in themselves by supposedly helping these children than by actually helping them. Think about it, in a country with a huge pool of underutilized human resources, both uneducated and educated, these places don't really need a bunch of short time foreign tourists to play with the kids, wash their hair and teach them football. Well, except in so far as that generates funds/donations for the orphanage, which is what allowing 'volunteers' into the orphanage is really about. As much of the tourist industry treats the third world like a human zoo, these orphanages are the petting zoos of the Cambodian pity industry, allowing your average Jane to play Angelina-for-a-Day, whether it is actually beneficial to the kids or not. If the real intent is to help, help fund a reputable orphanage, let them hire real care givers/teachers - local ones who could use the employment, who can serve as role models and with whom the children can bond. Don't take up their time, make the kids dance for their dinner and entertain the tourists.

For those still considering volunteering, consider the following questions:

To what degree are the children being exploited to entertain the foreigners and draw in donations? Sure, the kids seem to be having fun playing with a new set of strangers every few days, but is this what is best for them? Wouldn't they be better served with a stable set of people from their own culture trying to give them some semblance of a normal life rather than an ever changing flow of pitying, gift giving foreigners playing the savior Santa? Leaving aside that the kids may be being exploited by the orphanage to draw foreign money and the kids' time wasted by the foreigners, what is all this activity teaching the kids? What are they learning from this example of pitying, gift-giving white people? And if the orphanage is so poor that it needs foreign volunteers to clean the floors and wash the kids, do they have the resources to do a background check on these foreigners? If not, is it really worth the risk of letting in pedos and other abusers? And if they have Khmers running background checks and supervising the foreigners, wouldn't those local human resources be better utilized to clean the floors and wash the kids?

I have no doubt that in some circumstances foreign volunteers can help fill a void, especially if you are a doctor, child care specialist or a real teacher with a year to spare. But the volunteer game as it is developing in Cambodia is quickly becoming part of the tourist industry, completely unregulated and open to huge abuses, especially considering that this sub-industry deals exclusively in easily exploitable children. Though I think there are good people out there with some knowledge of Cambodia that can find volunteer opportunities that are actually helpful, the volunteer game here is simply too dubious to be encouraged.