Thursday, March 31, 2011

Be careful out there

Tuk-tuk outfitted with anti-bag snatching netting
Two weeks left.

Every year at this time, in the weeks before Khmer New Year, there is a spate of petty crime against foreigners in Cambodia as some less than honest locals try to collect some coin to finance their planned New Year festivities. There will be shakedowns, moto-thefts and muggings, bag snatchings, bar raids and a few break-ins. Not that these sorts of things don't happen throughout the year but such crimes spike in these weeks leading up to Khmer New Year. Like the shopping season before Christmas, this is crime season in Cambodia.

To be up front, I don't have any statistics to back this up, not that there are any reliable crime statistics available anyway, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and accords quite well with my casual observation over the years. And if you mention a tale of a recent robbery or some such crime to a long-term expat, he will likely just shrug his shoulders and mutter "Khmer New Year."

'Tis the season to be careful.

On that note, a few quick tips…

- Bag snatching is not uncommon. When in a tuk-tuk place your bag in the middle of the seat or floor. Do not put it to the outside at the end of the seat where it is easily grabbed. When on a motodup, place your bag either between you and the driver or have the driver set it in front of him between his legs. Whatever you do, do not wear it on your back. More than one foreigner has been pulled off of a moving moto by a thief trying to pull the bag off their back. When on foot, carry your bag/camera on your inside shoulder away from the street. And lastly, do not wear expensive jewelry around your neck if you plan on walking around, especially near the traditional markets.

- Street robberies in Phnom Penh, though not common, are reported with some regularity. Most occur at night, near popular tourist destinations and expat areas, and almost always happen to people on a motorcycle/motodup, in a tuk-tuk or on foot. The robbers are sometimes armed with a handgun and usually only want money. Though there have been some unprovoked assaults, they generally avoid applying violence, but will if challenged. Give up your money and they will likely leave post haste.

- Consider traveling about town in a car, especially at night, whether that be a taxi or your own vehicle. You are far less visible, exposed and vulnerable in a car than in a tuk-tuk or on a moto.

- Muggers work areas frequented by foreigners - the riverfront area, Boeung Keng Kang 1, the Street 51 area, near markets and clubs and other tourist haunts. They lay in wait at the periphery of these areas looking for passing or lone foreigners. You are much more likely to be robbed in these areas than in some dark, lonely all-Khmer neighborhood deep in Phnom Penh. Whereas foreigners tend to let down their guard in tourist areas, it is in fact a place to be extra cautious.

- Sadly, muggers seem to target women more than men. Women need be especially careful.

- Do not dawdle at the gate. Over and over again people have been robbed at the point they arrive home and stop to open their door or gate. The robbers descend while you fumble with your keys or wait on an exposed moto or tuk-tuk for the door to open. Best strategy is to have somebody inside the house (maid, guard, family) open the gate as you arrive. Call home as you leave the bar, tell them you'll be there soon so that they can open the gate as arrive and allow you walk or drive in without ever stopping.

- Pick-pocketing is generally limited to the traditional markets and occasionally discos and clubs. They target both locals and foreigners. It's done in usual fashion, taking advantage of close situations, crowding and such. Tourists often fall victim to seemingly friendly beggar children, allowing them too close, only to have their purse or pocket relieved of its contents while distracted. I have heard several such reports from Phsar Tuol Thom Poung (the Russian Market.) And at the clubs, as the t-shirt reads, "Beware of pickpockets and loose women." 'Nuff said there. Keep your radar up when in close situations. Do not allow people, especially 'innocent' beggar children, to touch you.

- Home owners and renters remember, the thieves rarely come through the front door. They come from above. People usually take great care to make sure the ground floor of their house is well locked and secure. But the thieves often come from the roof or upper windows, climbing walls and traversing roofs to access some weakly locked upper door or window, or cut through unsecured fenced openings. Don't neglect to lock the upstairs doors and windows. Another common trick is for them to use a long stick with a hook to fish your belongings through an open window. When possible, keep windows closed and locked. And do not leave you’re your wallet, phone or purse on a table or draped over a chair near a window.

Two weeks left. Khmer New Year will fall April 14-16. That week, many businesses will close and Phnom Penh will become a ghost town as revelers take to the countryside, traffic accidents on the national routes will skyrocket and Crime Month in Cambodia will come to an end.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Notes on the death of a friend

Notes on the death of a friend, a bit more than a month ago…

4:00PM - Terrible news. Our friend and colleague, Mrs. Dam Bopha, has died.*

She committed suicide, poisoning herself today around 10AM. Her husband discovered her at 11 when he came home for lunch. She was about 50 years old, the mother of 4, well-known and respected in the community here in southern Cambodia. We know the whole family. Apparently there was some sort of public confrontation with another woman at the market this morning. Comparatively minor stuff, problems between their teenage children - teenagers in love, girl's family doesn't want boy around their daughter, complains to boy's family, etc. A not uncommon tale. But apparently there was a loss of face. Mrs. Bopha, mother f the boy,  went home, locked herself in her room and did herself in with rat poison. A rough way to go.

A friend came to our place around 2PM to inform us. We all immediately went to her house. Things were already in progress. Chairs and tables set out. An awning and tent with trimming ribbon in Buddhist colors had been erected in front of the house. Women were cooking food at a furious pace. Mrs. Bopha was laid out on a daybed in her living room, covered with a white sheet. Her best friend, Mrs. Lim (a health care worker) was performing a medical procedure, perhaps some sort of minor embalming. She worked quietly, with stoic expression and red eyes. Mrs. Bopha's youngest children, maybe 9 and 11, were burning ghost money in an urn at her feet. They worked with purpose. An incense pot and photo sat between her and the urn.

We spent maybe an hour at the house. After paying our respects we moved outside to one of the tables where we were served several dishes. Not feeling the least hungry I picked at the plate. Mrs. Lim came out and urged people to eat. I did, out of obligation.

9:05 PM - Back at our place. The amplified chanting of the monks from Mrs. Bopha's house wafts across the town. Here, a half mile away, the sound of the monks and funeral music rises and falls on the wind, from nearly inaudible to jarringly loud.

Foreigners, including myself, often complain of the seemingly over-amplified music that accompanies Khmer funerals and weddings. I think this time, for the first time, I got a little hit of the cultural logic behind it. The whole town is, in some sense, part of the funeral. We, her friends and those who knew her, though not at her funeral at this moment, are still participating. We know what's happening at her house right now. The sad and nagging question, "I wonder how the family is doing?" has at least some answer so long we hear the monks and music. They're receiving guests, burning ghost money, praying, talking about her, serving food... No matter how far away her friends in this town, we all derive the benefit, the comfort of continued inclusion.

The amplified music would seem a tradition of a smaller community, a village tradition in which every funeral and every wedding was an event that affected the entire community. In larger, more disconnected communities where the death or wedding of some stranger has no direct impact on us, it seems an intrusion rather than inclusion. I have felt so in the past. But tonight, it's consoling.

11:00PM - Just back from a smoke on the roof. Orion is already past the meridian at 8:30. At 11 he's low and there's a waxing moon further obscuring the view. Perhaps a month of Orion left. The funeral music continues, though much more softly.

My first reaction to this whole thing has been, 'How could she be so selfish?' She has money, a good job and dependent children... But there is probably more to it. Possibly depression. She survived the Khmer Rouge, she survived the war in the 80s including a rocket attack on a van she was in. It killed several and permanently maimed her best friend Mrs. Lim. She told me the story several times. She always seemed a very delicate, fragile person. Nevertheless, it is bullshit to leave those children without a mother. I can't get past that.

Two days later…

They buried Mrs. Bopha today. We went to their house in the morning around 10AM. Pallbearers lifted her in her coffin onto the back of the hearse - a flat bed truck with dragons painted on the sides. Her photo and a megaphone hung from the front grill. The funeral music started with the engine, blasting from the megaphone, a mournful droning bagpipe like sound at 120dB.

As the hearse pulled onto the road a local beggar who's a couple of bubbles off plumb unexpectedly jumped on the bed of the truck, pulled out a toy cap gun and rode shotgun, brandishing his weapon as if to protect the hearse. Nobody bothered him. The procession moved slowly through town, littering the street with ghost money dribbled by attendants from the back of the hearse. The money swirled in the wake of the passing motos and cars. Children ran along side, playing and collecting the ghost bills. We left downtown and proceeded up the mountain to the Chinese graveyard at Wat Leu overlooking city.

It was one of the the longest, largest funeral processions I have seen in this town. She knew a lot of people.

When we arrived at the pagoda her friends took the coffin from the truck and placed it on braces above the grave. The whole family was dressed in white, the boys shaved bald. Her teenage son held an incense pot and led the family as they walked in a line around the grave 2 or 3 times. The sun was high and hot. Monks prayed and most people squatted on their heels. Finally the mourners went to the soft, freshly dug earth around the grave and planted incense and flower bundles in the loose dirt. The family stood close to the grave and her husband received mourners as they passed. When I approached I saw her teenage son standing there, dressed in his white garb, holding the incense pot, his shaved head. He looked so miserable, so sad. This whole thing has been so unfair to him. We met eyes and I nodded gently. He responded similarly.

We offered our condolences, said our goodbyes, and left.

Rest in Peace dear lady.

(* Names and some other details have been changed for sake of privacy.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The 5 Gates of Angkor Thom

North Gate, Angkor Thom (2006)

Victory Gate, Angkor Thom (2010) 

West Gate, Angkor Thom (2002)

 East Gate, Angkor Thom (2002)

South Gate, Angkor Thom (2008)

 Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom (Big Angkor) is a 3km x 3km walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After King Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham in 1181, he began a massive building campaign across the empire and built Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began the new city with existing structures such as Baphuon and Phimeanakas, building a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall/moat and raising other important temples including the Bayon set at the center of the city and probably serving as his state temple. Five grand entrances allowed access to the capital city - five towering face gates - one for each cardinal point, and the Victory Gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with 4 giant faces and framed by elephants wading amongst lotus flowers. Most modern visitors and tourists first enter Angkor Thom by the South Gate, coming from Siem Reap town 9km south.