Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Spirit of Christmas

When I told a friend of mine that we were coming to Cambodia for Christmas, he joked 'what better way to say Happy Birthday Jesus than to visit Angkor Wat'.

As it turns out, the highlight of Christmas Eve Day was a visit to the S-21 prison; a high school that was converted to a prison/torture compound during the Khmer Rouge regime. We followed that up on Christmas Day with a visit to the killing fields at Cheong Ek, where something like 20,000 of the S-21 prisoners were brought for execution and disposal.

Though the peasant-based agrarian communist movement lasted less than four years, the Khmer Rouge continued to be a lethal nuisance for 20 years after its fall. Wiping out intellectuals, women, children and enough men to bring a population of 8 million to be comprised of approximately 64 percent women. This country has been through a lot.

Being that I am not Christian, the original meaning of Christmas has little significance to me. I associate its true meaning as being more than a birthday; something related to a message of love and non-violence. In that regard, I think we found a fine way to recognize the occasion.

Merry Christmas from Cambodia.
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Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Different Kind of Tourism

Sometimes I'm embarrassed to be a westerner. When I visit places like Koh Phi Phi, Bali, Cabo San Lucas, etc. It seems a shame that the impression we leave of western culture is that we like to be loud, drink-till-we-puke, and buy tacky souvenirs. Could we leave a worse impression? I was reminded tonight that the answer is yes.

Erik and I arrived in Phnom Penh this afternoon, marking our return to urban Cambodia and the return to a heavier flow of tourism. A different kind of tourism. The kind marked by solo male 'tourists'.

The sex trade itself is something that I have never fully understood, but I realize that it is one of civilization's oldest professions and that scientists have recently shown that even monkeys will engage in forms of prostitution. But in civilized society, the service itself seems something that should not be exchanged for money, unless it is entirely voluntary. For this reason, I can get my head around Heidi Fleiss style prostitution, in which buyer and seller engage in trade on fair terms (i.e. neither party is compelled to trade as a consequence of some other factor). But situations in which buyer and seller are on completely unequal economic terms (for example, the seller's alternative is extreme poverty) and the service involves something of this nature, does not qualify as trade.

People come here to do something that they can't do at home. More specifically, to do something that they wouldn't admit to with their friends or family (isn't that the basic rule to know if what you are doing is right or wrong?). Sex tourists are filth. And this is the impression that the western world leaves in Phnom Penh? Really unfortunate.
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I Should Have Been an Ice Cream Truck Driver

Our discovery of Cambodia started in Siem Reap, a small town whose raison d'etre seems to be serving the masses who come here to see the infamous Angkor Wat. There's a reason this has become a mandatory stop on the 'ancient ruin' circuit; the abundance of fine stone carving and gigantic stone architecture is mind boggling. Impressive as it is, the excitement doesn't stop with Angkor Wat. There is a seemingly endless list of Angkor era temples and ruins (many of which have recently been cleared of land mines) available for your viewing pleasure (sans the crowd).

For many people, this is the only Cambodia they will experience. That's a shame. Only once we hit the road on our bikes did we really get to see the country. Getting away from the sewage filled river that runs through Siem Reap, away from the dime-a-dozen Dr. Fish foot massage and other tourist gimmicks. Into the countryside, where people manage their rice paddies, drive ox-drawn carriages, and serve freshly processed sugar cane juice from a stand in their front yard.

The best part is that people are really, really excited to see you. Of course, it helps that the underlying assumption seems to be that, since we are white, we must be working for an NGO and helping their community in some way, like providing freshwater wells to households.

Naked and half-naked children alike drop what they are doing and come running toward the road yelling an enthusiastic 'Heeellloooo!'. Occasionally, this is followed by some more complex english phrases; 'What is My Name? or How are You Today?'. Adorable. I could really get used to this. Maybe I should have been an ice cream truck driver. Either that, or a Spice Girl.
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Thursday, December 17, 2009


Erik arrives in Singapore tonight. It will be cool to finally show him where I live and go to school, but that's about all of the city he will see on this visit. We will be heading to Cambodia tomorrow evening for a two week bike trip.

Why Cambodia? Triangulating 1) Erik's time constraints and desire for some beach time with 2) my desire to see more of SE asia and 3) our joint love of bicycles, this is what I could pull together on in a relatively short time frame.

I know embarrassingly little about Cambodia. What I do know is that it has a long and rich history that has been marred by decades of civil disputes. Sandwiched between two more popular destinations, Vietnam and Thailand, my intuition tells me that its unlikely that we are going to discover a cultural void.

I'm looking forward to spending some time with Erik and learning more Kampuchea. I'm also looking forward to getting on the bike again. I haven't sat on a bike seat since the first weekend of August!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

End of Period Party - First Goodbyes

We are now through 2 of the 5 periods of the year. At this point, some students will now move to France for all or part of the remaining time at INSEAD, while others will remain here. I have decided to stay in Singapore until the end of February.

We have spent an intense 4 months together, in and out of class, getting to know each other and making some great friends. To celebrate these things and to say our goodbyes, we held a little party after our last exam. You know a night is going to be awesome when somebody shows up with an ice sculpture that says "AWESOME".
Another good indicator is when there is a pool. Always a good way to unwind.
whether you want to or not, that means that you are going to get in the pool.
whether you want to or not, that also means you have to say goodbye.
Goodbye friends. See you in France in March.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Singapore Marathon - 2009

Emma suckered me into the Edinburgh marathon in May, but I have only myself to blame for this one. I signed up in July with the idea that I might take up running as a substitute for the cycling that I would not be able to do in Singapore. Indeed, the cycling scene in Singapore is not as good as that in Calgary, but my lifestyle over the past four months has not exactly been conducive to marathon training.

Now, I know that all athletes sandbag, but I've spent 9 of the last 12 weekends touring (without running shoes) other countries. Further, my weekday schedule has been squeezed as I attempt to keep up with intense course work that I am spreading over 5 days, instead of 7 (in order to accommodate my discovery of southeast asia). The icing on the cake has been my diet of deep fried asian cuisine, which is unavoidable on account of its convenience, cost and deliciousness.

But, not one to throw in the towel, I gave it a shot anyway. I was joined by one other student, (Robin), for the full marathon, and five friends (Samuele, Alysha, Samantha, Yan Yan and Prabhu) did the half marathon concurrently.

Due to my time constraints, as well as the oppressive heat, I my training was focused on shorter, higher speed runs. On balance, I think this is a good strategy for me to break out of my hobble pace. For the first half, I was on fire. Then the sun rose. The last half was not so pretty. I finished a bit faster than my Edinburgh time, 4:29:50, but in a lot more discomfort.
Next up is Paris in April. Let me be on record that I'm going to do it differently this time. Serious goal: break 4 hours. It's gonna be hard, but hey, that's why. Plus, I've got some friends (Shawn and Claire) coming over to do it with me. Anyone else?