03 May 2008

Travel Experience - Bangkok to Phnom Penh

I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for around 24 hours last week of March. I work in Thailand. After a hectic day at work last Wednesday, attending a workshop, seating for my French class exam, and arranging for another trip to the Philippines, I was finally ready to set off for the international airport, which is about a one hour drive from my office (medium traffic). My flight was at 630 pm but since I already checked-in by internet the night before, I had plenty of time. I had to wait for some time for my re-entry permit application. While waiting I ran to the mini-shop to buy some chocolates as pasalubong for my contacts in Phnom Penh and some throat lozenges and inhaler. In my rush to leave I forgot to bring them. Finally I got my passport back and it was time to queue for the immigration. After maybe half hour or so of waiting in line and watching the funny antics of people from different countries, I was finally able to go through. I wandered around the duty-free area and went to find my favorite snack place as I was already getting hungry. I ordered whole wheat tuna sandwich with vegetables and green tea.

Having a full stomach now, I again wandered around near my gate. I had one bottle of water which I had to finish as it was not allowed to bring in some liquid. I felt like bursting already! It was a pleasant wait though at the Suvarnabhumi (pronounced Soowanapoom) Airport in Bangkok with so many things to see (and buy, especially). I was even able to check my office email for some important messages through the airport computers which are scattered all over. Even our office follows us everywhere, thanks or no thanks to the internet. The flight to Phnom Penh was just around 55 minutes. I was glad that I ate something at the airport because the food served during the flight was so ugggh! I only ate the vegetable side dish and salad.

I was met by the Executive Director of the NGO partner of our project. As always, I was asked whether it was my first time in PP. I replied that it was already my 5th time or so. The way from the airport to the hotel was quite crowded with vehicles and pedestrians. I could see a difference between Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Garbage was piling in most places. And some kind of chaos. Maybe because it was night time and people had already finished their business in the streets. Such as selling things. And left those items to be cleaned by their version of metro aide or street sweepers. I never saw one, by the way. I saw some changes as the last time I was there was 5 years ago. Now new buildings have come up, and there are many areas which were just fields before that have become construction sites. So urbanization is coming to the place. I do hope they have good urban planning measures so the environment and other social issues will not be detrimentally affected. The hotel was a nice one. I booked this hotel from the internet and the reason I chose it, even though it had some bad review from former guests, was that the workshop I was attending the following day would be held there. It would save me from traveling. And the room cost was within my hotel budget. And it was a nice place considering.

The following day I attended the workshop and was even able to give an impromptu speech about our project and what we are doing in Cambodia. It was nowhere in the program about the speech and I was informed only the night before that I have to speak even for five minutes. Well, with the translation, it went beyond that in actuality. The people were nice
and they were genuinely listening and looking interested, I hope. Anyway, the workshop went ok with very active discussions. In the afternoon, I went to one of the study sites of our project. We are doing some research on indoor air pollution, women, health and kitchen design.

We went to a nearby slum area. It was a depressing sight. One could not imagine how to live there. I have never seen anything like it. They were really poor. They built houses on an area that was supposed to be a wide drainage area. But now, it might not be able to function as such because of the thick garbage thrown under the houses. The houses were on stilt, and the walkway is made of wooden planks. Not the strong ones. I was afraid to step on them as I was imagining that what if they broke and I fell. Even the project staff accompanying me who was like 1/3 my weight was very careful to step on those flimsy wood planks. But I survived. We went to see some of the improved stove being used, aimed to reduce indoor air pollution from too much smoke from the old stoves, reduce cooking time and efficient fuel use. Poor as they are, the households are still using both types, as they would not throw away the old ones. It’s sayang! They can still use it. But to the detriment of their own and family’s health. We did some small interviews with a couple of women. It was an eye opener for me of the many needs not only here but in similar places in Asia. I felt helpless though. So much of it depends on the persons living there, in deciding to live there instead of somewhere else, although some do not have a choice.

At least the government is trying their best to help them improve their living conditions. They have some resettlement programs wherein the municipal government negotiates with them where they want to resettle. And once they agree, the government provides the infrastructure in the new place, including training the people on local governance and income generation activities, how to form a community and manage it together. When I returned to the hotel, I brought back with me not only the smell of the slum and stagnant water, but also the images I have seen there. I felt a bit depressed but I didn’t really know why. Maybe I just felt sad about it. I could not do anything much about it, though. Anyways, there was still time to get the night flight. And with nothing much to do already, and thinking of the work that was left in my office, I decided to get a flight that night instead of waiting the following morning. Thank God there was a seat for me so I was back in Bangkok before midnight.

I had a small chat with the taxi driver from my hotel to the airport in Phnom Penh. He said that actually he is a soldier and working as a taxi driver for the hotel for additional income. His salary as a soldier is just US$60 per month. With fuel prices of US$ 1.20/liter and other commodities with rising prices, who can survive on that monthly salary? So he doubles as a taxi driver, and the hotel also pays him a monthly salary. Plus tips from passengers, he said he has a substantial enough income for his family. He said things are much better in the Philippines and Thailand than in Cambodia. I told him that in the Philippines, there are some conditions that are not so different from Cambodia. As for Thailand, well it is a different story.

So there, just some tidbits of my 24-hour adventure into the former land of the killing fields. I’ve never gone to that country as a tourist as I always travel there for work. Not enough time to get to know the place better, as always, but one can learn much in that span of time. And
hope that with that tiny learning, I can share it with others as I am doing now. And something might just change in us to make us value our lives, what we have and our country more.

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