Salesforce in Cambodia March 2024 March 5, 2024

Posted in on March 5, 2024

Friday, 1 March 2024

Salesforce team posing in front of temple Cambodia

We arrived to a nearly vacant Siem Reap International Airport (SAI) at about 12:30 coming from four days in a cold rainy Paris followed by three sweltering, radiant days in Bangkok.  Out ATR 72-600 from Bangkok Air was the only plane anywhere at the airport as it taxied to a stop at a gate equipped for much larger aircraft.  Because the jetway would not accommodate our little prop plane, we walked down the aircraft’s own steps and across the blazing tarmac to a ground-level entrance.  From there, we walked in the empty halls to immigration.

The immigration hall had about a four-to-one passenger to agent ratio, but still look longer that necessary.  We’d completed our immigration and customs cards on the flight and had hard-copies of our eVisas, but that didn’t seem to speed things up very much.  Our agent was picky about the photo he took of each of us and seemed to really enjoy stamping things with his three different red-inked stamps.

Our bags were on the carousel by the time we made it that far and Paren, our Cambodia contact for the trip, was waiting for us at the door.

The weather was just like Bangkok with hazier skies due to some burning rice fields we saw on the aircraft’s approach.

The road in from the airport was new and uncrowded. We passed barren rice fields, cassava, and orchards of cashew trees laden with red cashew “apples” with the dangling nut below. Farm carts were along the road as we’re many large, white Brahma cattle and their calves.

Paren told us about his background, saying that his parents had split when he was young and that he’d struggled to go to school, walking four kilometers each was to school in the primary grades and then, for “secondary” (i.e., middle school) biking 15 km each way, just happy to have gifted a bike by a local charity.

He told us about the constant pressure on children to drop out of school to help parents farm or fish and how few opportunities there were for many. He had been tempted to drop out many times, too, and sounded grateful that he’d stuck to it.

He’d managed to go to high school as well and then got a job as a nighttime hotel receptionist working nights and staying in a simple apartment room. The hotel gave me at least one meal per day, but after rent and electricity, he was netting only one dollar per day.

His break came when he was offered a job by an NGO named Plan International where he worked and learned English, ultimately becoming an English teacher. He then moved to Bridge of Light, his current employer and is our primary contact and driver for the project.

Paren took us to a cell phone store on the way to the hotel and I bought a Samsung Galaxy A14 replacement phone for my Pixel 6a that died in Bangkok, leaving me anxious about connection to an extent that was both depressing and surprising.

The sales clerk was very helpful and installed my Pixel SIM card. Ultimately, the phone worked, but the SIM did not. I would have to rely on WiFi and tethering to Becky’s hotspot with her Pixel 7 to stay connected and get a new SIM when we returned to the States.

We checked into the hotel at about 3:30pm and moved into our spacious room after having the entire complex explained. It was a remarkably nice, quiet place, well above where we stayed in Costa Rica last year.  The Khmer House Resort has both a fresh and a salt water pool, restaurant, laundry service at only $2 per kilo.

In the room, we found that the air conditioning worked well. We spent much of the remaining afternoon moving into the room for the next ten days. I also set up my phone, trying unsuccessfully to work out the SIM card issue with Google Fi technical reps by phone.

At dinner, we met Natashe and Chinoo who had also arrived early. Natashe had been traveling in the area as part of a family celebration. Chinoo had arrived from Phnom Penh via Taipei, originating in Toronto.

The outdoor restaurant served excellent local food and the service was friendly and helpful, if very slow–even to bring out a cold beer. Prices were very cheap: $1.75 for a 12 ounce bottle of beer and most main course plates at only $5 apiece. They had some craft cocktails, too, that were $4 to $6 each.

We got to know Chinoo and Natasha and talked about each of our travels to date. Chinoo was very jet-lagged and left first. Becky and I were in bed by nine and slept fairly well.

Saturday 2 March

I left early for a walk around from the hotel after our 7am breakfast at the hotel. At breakfast, I’d had eggs Benedict and sent a photo of the plate to the team via WhatsApp. I told Becky that I would be back by 10am and started a loop (or an intended loop) using Google Maps as my guide. My intention was to walk by several restaurants that I had researched as well as judging the distance to Pub Street and the downtown area. Most of the rest of the team were landing at about 9:45am with Paren picking them up and driving them into town. Given the long drive, I didn’t expect them to arrive before 11am.

I was immediately impressed by how much cleaner Siem Reap was compared to my memory from ten years earlier. The town seemed quiet as tuk-tuks, scooters, and cars scurried around the relatively uncrowded streets.  I made a few wrong turns, but eventually found the Haven Restaurant where we would be dining on Sunday evening as well as a few other attractive places that I would research.  I walked

I finally found the Haven Restaurant after a few wrong turns, but also found a couple of other attractive places. My walk took me by the very large Angkor High School that seemed to have hundreds of students in two big white, four-story colonial style buildings.

I made it to downtown in about 40 minutes and crossed the bridge towards downtown. The river was fairly clean and there was evidence of many lights in the trees and on railings and decorations.

Pub Street and its area was clean and being cleaned by many workers. Signs displayed beer prices as low as one dollar US. There were pizza and Mexican food restaurants, massage parlours, souvenir shops, and the typical touristy shops one would find in any city.

The walk back was uneventful and I returned just before 10am. The team and Paren arrived just before 11am and we had a quick chat before releasing everyone to their rooms to recover. Some were very jet-lagged while others had also already been in the region (e.g. Hana and Tarek had been traveling in Japan and Vietnam). We agreed to meet at 3:30 to go on our scheduled city walking tour organized by Deepak.

Some of the group did meet for lunch at the hotel and I explained the policy towards alcohol and meals–everyone was on their own for all alcohol, but DWC picked up meal costs.

I spent some time at the pool and did exercises (push-ups) early in the afternoon and Becky enjoyed lounging by the pool and on our room’s terrace/patio.

We traveled to the walking tour meeting point in two groups of six using the hotel’s free tuk-tuk service. Once there, we met our guide, Tee, and two 60-ish Londoners that were also joining the tour.

Tee was very engaging as she led us through one of the smaller city markets and explained what products were Cambodia and which were actually imported. As usual, I enjoyed taking market and people photos.

We next walked along the river, through town. Everyone was impressed by the beauty of the city.

Salesforce team posing in front of temple Cambodia

Tee led us to the Royal Residence and a main memorial square and told us about the current political situation in Cambodia as we stood near a large billboard with a picture of King Sihanouk commemorating the 70th anniversary of Cambodian independence from France.

She told us that the current government was suppressing much of the country’s disastrous recent history, including the 70’s genocide under Pol Pot and the civil war that followed. She said that social media was monitored closely by the government and that she had to be careful of what she posted.

We continued to walk through the city and entered a small craft market set up as a charity by a Taiwanese businessman. Artisans at the store paid no rent, kept all of their profits, but had to agree to only sell items produced and crafted in Cambodia.

We bought some Compost pepper as did others and a few bought Cambodian ice cream (much like Thai ice cream).

We completed the tour at Pub Street and told Tee that we would take tuk-tuks back to the hotel. Those cost us $1 per person.

Back at the hotel, we met for dinner at about 7pm.

At dinner, we all sat at the same table with me at the head and, after ordering drinks, we covered trip and DWC policies.  The team was enthusiastic and happy to have all arrived on time.  We answered several questions and then ordered our breakfast for the next morning that the staff said would be ready by 7am for our 7:30 departure.  I spoke with the staff again–that was VERY helpful–and made sure that all food charges would be put against our room bill (covered by DWC) and that anyone’s alcohol bill would be separately charged to their own room.

Monday 4 March 2024

Houses on stilts Cambodia

Neither Becky nor I slept well Sunday night.  I was up before 5:30 and then over to the restaurant to load photos and use the stronger wifi.  I was pleasantly surprised that they were setting up breakfast quite early.

The team arrived on-time and our plates were brought out beginning a few minutes before 7am. Everyone ate quickly and we were ready to go at 7:30.

Paren arrived in a 15 passenger van that had exactly 15 seats. We were very cramped in the van and the air conditioning to the rear was poor. Tarek and I discussed getting a second vehicle and Paren agreed to talk about that possibility at the end of the day.

The drive out of Siem Reap, on very good roads for the first 60-plus kilometers was uneventful. The land was very flat, dominated by brown, barren rice fields. There seemed to be villages, homes, and merchant stands asking the road the entire trip to Kompong Khleang, the Floating Village, of which Outaput was a small neighborhood.

As we got closer to Tonle Sap, the road narrowed and we could tell that we were on a tall earthen jetty with homes and businesses on either side of the road, but water or marshland below us. Kids, dogs, scooters, carts, and pedestrians crowded the road and we made very slow progress.

Ultimately, the road turned to dirt and narrowed more. We crossed a bridge with a giant, gold Buddha statue and temple and then were in Kompong Khleang.

When we arrived, we saw the home sites as a barren, dry area along the water and below permanent homes mounted on stilts 15 to 20 feet (4-6m) high. The water had receded to a fairly narrow channel we’ll below the base of the tall log pedestals, with barges, floating gardens, and fish nets still in the water. Narrow dragon boats sped up and down the channel at high (and very loud) speed.

Merchant stands had corn drying as well as fish and frogs.

Paren showed us where to place our equipment in a large, elevated home near the work site and introduced us to the lady of the house. We would have lunches there prepared by her and use the toilet there as well. The steps from the dry-season road to the main living area were very steep.

We walked to the worksite and Paren introduced me to two of the four locals with whom we would be working, Kwon and Muk. Neither spoke English but seemed very friendly.

A shade tent was set up near the worksite and a cooler of ice and water bottles places there as well as two rest benches.

We started work with a quick situation and safety chat and then brought down tools, hardware, and lumber from beneath and inside the nearest stilted house to our north.

Our local leads quickly laid out two foundational grids of roughly 2”X4” boards that was about 6×9 meters. They measured for placement and then we nailed the board together into the grid for both houses.

We next cut stakes from dry tree limbs, each about one meter long and five to ten centimeters thick. The local crew used hand axes to sharpen one end of each and then we pounded them into the soft ground framing (inside and out) each grid. We must’ve used nearly 100 stakes.

Next, the locals used a long, clear piece of plastic tubing with water as a long-distance level as we lifted each grid and nailed them to the stakes to set the entire structure level on all sides and corners.

Once this was done, two large drills were brought out and holes were drilled for securing half-inch bolts at every conceivable wooden junction, fastened on each side by washers and nuts.

We all worked together drilling, bolting, and tightening together the grids as a local used an angle iron to cut excess bolt length once secured. The remnants were ground again at each end for reuse. Each original headless bolt was nearly a meter long, while each securing segment was four to eight inches deep.

The team and ocals worked very well together, but the heat was taking a toll and we took many breaks.

Once the bases were leveled and secured, the locals nailed in vertical columns of 4”X4” lumber about three to four meters tall. We drilled more securing holes in each and bolted them to the frames, as well as adding additional, fortifying horizontal cross pieces (stringers) to the base.

It was time for lunch now and we went back to the home to relax. Our chef had made some excellent egg dishes with fish and also served noodles and bowls of chicken soup. We had plenty of cold water, plus another jug and plates of bananas for dessert.

Everyone continued in high spirits, but needed a break. We relaxed until 12:45 with Paren taking a short nap inside.

The afternoon continued with much of the same work. We brought in more lumber and made a second level of grid about one-half meter above the original, securing those boards to the verticals as well. This took the whole afternoon, but we were happy to complete it all before the end of the on both houses.

Paren explained that the next day we would be setting the floor atop the second level grid using boards planed and cut on-site the next morning. We hoped that meant a little less intense work in the heat!

We jumped into the vans (or rather, crawled) all of exhausted by the day. We did a quick debrief once started and I admitted that I should’ve done a better job of taking breaks myself and was totally exhausted. My smart watch told me that I’d spent several hours of the day with a heart rate over 110 and 120 bpm, peaking a few times at 140 bpm.

The ride was otherwise quiet and several tried to sleep. We arrived at the hotel at 6pm and decided against going downtown as a group for dinner. Rather, we mostly at the hotel and relaxed. Deepak and Bella went directly downtown for dinner, while Alex and Anna joined them after dining at the hotel.

We showered and met back in the restaurant arriving at different times and ordering in a long series.

Dinner was again excellent, but slow. We enjoyed fruit smoothies and beer. And Becky had a mango Margarita with an extra shot of Tequila.

We went back to the room and I put on my swin suit for a dip in the pool. No one else was at the pool, but dozens of small bats were swooping over the water picking off insects attracted to the water and light. I did a few laps in the fresh water pool, the bats dodging my head each time I surfaced.

Back in the room, we went to bed quickly, putting off most admin work for the morning.

Tuesday 5 Mar

Becky didn’t slept well, but my night wasn’t bad. I woke at about 5:30am to see a message from Chinoo that he had slept very little, suffered from chest pains, and had a doctor arriving to check him at 7am.

Hana was not feeling well either and decided to stay home for the day and rest as well.

I worked on some photos on my laptop in the restaurant and tried to keep track of Chinoo. Breakfast was served on time and the rest of the crowd was ready to go on time.

I went to Chinoo’s room and chatted with him and his doctor. The doctor was prescribing him antibiotics for suspected bronchitis and suspected that Chinoo had some underlying cardiac artery disease. He said that Chinoo’s blood pressure was normal and saw no other symptoms. If he had any more chest pains, though, the doctor said that Chinoo would need medication for angina.

I passed the news to Joy and DWC. Chinoo said that he would stay behind and rest for the remainder of the day and hope to join us on Wednesday. The first van left on time and Becky and I departed in the SUV with Paren about five minutes later.

We caught up with the van about a kilometer from the worksite at a checkpoint.  Paren told us that they needed our visitor’s permit to enter.

We went through the usual set-up, dropping bags off in our headquarters home and carrying the tools and supplies to the worksite. Tarek (especially) helped move the shade tarps and position them for maximum effectiveness.

The first thing we did was complete quality control on all of the bolted joint, making sure that the nuts were tight–as Alex had been doing at the end of Monday.

While the bolt quality control was going on, we moved out large 2”X4”12’ boards from under the closest stilt house and brought them to an outdoor table saw that ripped rach one into a 2”x2”. These mounted on the frame as the final base for the floorboards and more bolts held them in place.

We next moved many, many bundles of six floor board each to where an outdoor planer had been set up. It was gas powered and very loud, throwing wood chips and sawdust everywhere. We had two volunteers feeding them into the planer while two others accepted the planed boards and stacked them. Finally, volunteers were given electric angle grinders with solid grinder wheels to take the edge off of the planed sides’ edge.

Salesforce team carrying beams Cambodia

With the quality control done and all of the base for the floors complete, we began hammering the floor boards into place. We worked well in teams of three to five with someone using either the circular saw or the jigsaw to square the ends of some ragged pieces.

Time was moving quickly and we broke for lunch after finishing about half of the south house’s floor.

Floors finished on home Cambodia

At lunch we had the same very good food and relaxed until 12:45pm. We dicded to not to to the Cambodia Circus on Thursday night and I confirmed dinner reservations for both tonight at Jomno and Friday back at Haven. Some said they wanted to go out on their own on the last night.

Nastashe told me that her flight left Friday night at 8:50pm and we discussed arrangement getting to the airport in time that evening.

Based on our feedback and recommendation, DWC approved a second car for us (a five seat SUV) that Paren would drive. This would make it much easier to send Nastashe, and potentially others, back to the hotel early on Friday.  I assured Nastashe that we would take care of her and get her to the airport in plenty of time.  I assured everyone that they would have time for dinner Friday, too.

Wednesday 6 Mar 2024

Volunteers taking a break Cambodia

I woke early and slipped out of the room to do some administrative things.

Kids picking up trash
Burning trash
Heat warning
Ear plugs

Breakfast ran a little late and Paren said he might be late, but in the end, the vehicles left just a few minutes after 7:30am with the larger van in the lead and three of us with Paren just two minutes behind.

When we arrived, the locals were already working on substantial strengthening additions to the base and also to adding the vertical stringers on the side walls to which the corrugated steel walls would be attached. Ceiling cross boards were also added. Almost the entire day consisted of attaching (with nails) these vertical pieces and then, once the horizontal ceiling beams were tacked onto the existing structure, drilling and bolting all of the upper lumber together.
The ceiling beam were only about five feet, seven inches above the floor (1.70 meters). I know this because I’m just over 5’9” (1.77m) and smacked my head on many of them.

The team continued to work together very well on all of this, rotating in and out. Tarek and I did almost all of the drilling, while Alex continued leading the quality control team that marked and made sure that all bolts were securely tightened on both sides.

The heat was even worse that the day before and we constantly emphasized breaks. The locals were even taking more breaks, too.
We broke for lunch at a natural stopping around 11:25am as the locals were working on the roof sloping pieces that attached to the top framework. The roof slope was fairly shallow and looked to be no more than 20 degrees.

We had the same excellent lunch, but extended the break a little longer due to the heat and wait for some of the other work to be done that we couldn’t complete.

After lunch, I returned to the site and saw some local kids playing volleyball at the site with a well-marked out-of-bounds rectangle. I played a few points with them. The kid on my side (we played two-on-two) was excellent. He looked to be no more than 10 or 11 years old and could bump like a champ. They served by kicking the underinflated volleyball over the net with amazing precision. They scoffed at me just a little when I served conventionally. Carolyn and Tarek joined us for several points and all had a good time.

Another kid showed up with an American football and I showed him how to throw it. We played catch on the road for a while. He had excellent hands for catching, but they were too small to effectively grip the full-sized ball and throw a spiral regularly.

The afternoon was more of the same, with some pauses as we ran out of nuts and washers for the bolts and some of the cut sections of long bolts needed to be ground down so that we could rethread nuts on them and use them in other places.

Local children with cart Cambodia

We finished the day just before 4pm as all that could be done prior to attaching the roof was done. We cleaned up the area, as usual, and loaded the vehicles, every bit as tired and sweaty as any other day even though we had probably worked less. Again we remarked at how much energy it took to fight the heat. We tried many strategies to mitigate the issue during the day. I put ice chips under my hat and let them melt on my scalp. Many kept them bandanas/buffs constantly wet, but we were still overheated.

The drive back was uneventful and calm. Natasha rode back with Becky and me in the SUV. We agreed to meet Paren at 6:45pm to go to our cooking class that evening. Much of the group had post dinner massage plans in town, too.

I took a short swim when I returned–after an outdoor shower at the pool to remove most of the grime and sweat. Everyone was able to relax for over an hour before departing on-time to dinner.

We drove into town and stopped at a small corner restaurant called Angkor Pulled-Noodle and Dumpling Restaurant.

Thursday 7 March 2024

Salesforce volunteer arm wrestling with local child

Breakfast ran a little late again, but we had no issues being on the road by 7:45am. Chinoo and Hana remained behind again.  Chinoo had decided to rebook his flights and leave early on Friday morning.  Becky and I rode in the van today.  

We arrived by 9am and went through the typical set-up.  I spent a few minutes visiting the Bridge of Life School classroom set up for the community in the same stilted building where we stored the tools for the project.  The poorly lit room had a large white board in front, a single teacher, and about 30 kids that seemed to be five to seven years of age seated at low desks.  The teacher was working on their alphabet with them in both Khmer and English and they were repeating the letters and sounds that they make after him, all in unison.  They seemed to break in a Cambodian version of the Alphabet Song that American kids learn, but repeating it many times over.   I took a short video and a couple of still photos of them.

At the work site, the weather was even worse than the previous three days–and the worst of the entire week, it would turn out.  By now, we were getting used to the routine, though, and everyone was taking frequent breaks.  The work continued to consist of adding frame pieces for the back two rooms on each house (bathroom nook and kitchen) and then the opening/doorway that led to a back or stern deck.  

Paren was very helpful helping us set up all of the verticals that would support the corrugated steel walls for these inside rooms as well as more work that needed to be done on the sides.  The locals concentrated on the rafter work running stringers along the top arches that were supported by the main frame.  In other words, the rafters were not unitary pieces placed atop the structure like we had done in Kenya or is done in building most American houses, but were built onto the main structure one piece at a time.

We had started the day thinking there was a chance that we might have a chance of coming close to completion on Thursday, but those hopes were dashed pretty quickly as we saw how much work we had to do.  More measuring, cutting, placing, nailing, and bolting continued through the entire morning.

The eight pieces of what constituted the painted frontice were given a second coat in the morning and two were placed on the arch roof facing just under where the roof metal sheets would be attached later.  Eventually, the same was done on the back of each house.  We now had a red and a blue house.

Just like in past days, the whole team seemed able to do almost every task.  Tarek and I did most of the drilling and Alex led quality control of all bolted joints, but everyone else helped in those areas while sharing painting, measuring, pilot-hole drilling, and nailing work.  I did climb up into the gables to nail a few pieces.  This whole project was remarkably equitable in terms of everyone being generally able to do every task assigned to us.

We were wiped out for lunch and not only stopped for that break earlier, but stayed a little later.  The heat was oppressive.  I did a few volunteer interviews for use by DWC on their social media accounts at lunch as in past days, but we did not go back to work until almost 1:15pm.

The afternoon tasks would be fixing the very shiny, reflective corrugated stainless-steel sheets to the side walls.  These sheets were remarkably light and thin.  The locals put up each sheet (about two or three feet by eight feet, or maybe one-and-a-half or two by three meters).  They would tack top nails through the steel into the wall’s vertical wood boards and then we would put additional nails about four “ridges” below, continuing to the bottom of the sheet, with sheets overlapping by two waves in most cases and about 10 centimeters side-by-side.  

The nails had free-spinning, circular steel caps and were each about three centimeters long.  They were made of very soft steel, though, and bent easily when pounded into the beams even if they pierced the steel sheets as if it was aluminum foil.

We all eventually learned that if you could not be deadly accurate with each hammer blow, then you needed to be patient, taking 20 or more lighter, precise taps to get one into the steel and support.  It was very frustrating, but it seemed to be a difficult task for the locals, too, as there were many bent nails either replaced, nailed over, or just pounded in, bent.  The job would easily take over one thousand of these nails, not even counting the rooftops.

The Sun’s reflection off of the steel as it slipped lower in the sky made the unshaded sides deadly for this work.  We could put in 20 or 30 nails and then need to take a break, all of us sweating profusely.  The team was pretty discouraged, really, as the day ended.  We weren’t near completion and it didn’t seem that we would complete the project in another day.

The nail patterns were also not consistent around the houses, with spaces between nails on individual rows varying from three to six ridges and side-by-side ridges looking very different.

We loaded the vehicles and left shortly after 4:00pm.  It was probably the least amount of work, in terms of actual time, that we had put in–again due to the weather conditions.

We had no plans for dinner.  Becky and I decided to stay in and eat at the hotel while the others eventually met downtown at a restaurant called Mesa.  Carolyn put the dinner on her card and collected money from everyone and I reimbursed her (with Becky’s help) via PayPal.  Paren took Karthik for more shopping–this time for some gemstones and jewelry.  His shopping list for family and friends was being completed.

After dinner, several volunteers got their usual massages, and others came straight back to the hotel.  Becky and I retired early, anxious about the last day of work.

Friday 8 March, 2024

Temple Cambodia

On our final morning, it was cloudy with some light rain showing on the radar with but no sign of rain at the hotel. With the clouds, it was even more humid–something I didn’t think possible.

At breakfast, we talked about the day ahead and later plans. The van was going to be driven by Paren with most of the group.  They were planning to stop to buy house-warming gifts (home wares) for the two families that would be receiving the houses. Deepak organized all this as well as a plan to buy ice cream for all of the local kids sometime during the late morning.

Carolyn, Becky, and I went in the SUV directly to the work site with Saro driving us.

Driving in Cambodia is interesting. The car drivers seem very calm and they don’t tend to drive fast. The roads are generally in very good condition, with many being redone during the pandemic when no tourists were visiting. More than half of the vehicles on the road are scooters of one sort of another.

The scooters drive everywhere and in every direction and lane and seem to be governed by only one rule: don’t die. Many of even the larger intersections are completely uncontrolled and so virtually all drivers slow on approach and work their way through based upon a first come, first served right-of-way rule.

Passing on the highways is constant and when cars do so, they ignore any oncoming scooters because it’s the scooters responsibility to avoid death, not the car driver’s job to avoid the scooters.

Scooters pull small trailers and tuk-tuk carriages (remorques) and have panniers for cargo. Many carry four or more people–I’ve seen as many as six–including toddlers, grandparents, and whole families. Almost all drivers wear helmets, but fewer passengers do.

The highway to the work site includes a section of the airport road, but the main artery that we take is lined by many small shack businesses selling sticky rice in bamboo, fresh, dried, and smoked fish, duck, and chicken, fresh fruits and vegetables, noodles, and all sorts of prepared street foods.

The land is incredibly flat with roads and paths elevated by one or two meters to avoid flooding. White Brahma cattle are in the fields cleaning stubble from the harvested rice fields.  I wonder when the elevated paths and jetties were first built–probably centuries ago in many cases.

Mobile phone coverage seems to be everywhere and there are phone shops (primarily for Chinese brands like Oppo, Vivo, Huawei, etc) in every little village.  Coverage is pretty good because the land is so flat.  Everyone you see has a phone, including kids under 12 – at least in the city.  At the floating village, we saw fewer phones, but the center of town had phone shops and ATMs.

Despite all of the trash we see around the Floating Village site, there are active measures to clean up the area. We saw troops of uniformed elementary school kids alongside the road before school picking up trash with large rice bags. Unfortunately, most of the trash seems to be just dumped into a pile and burned. Small trash pile fires seem to be everywhere and, even though it’s the dry season, there doesn’t appear to be much concern about the fire spreading or getting out of control, presumably because of the high humidity and amount of green plants and grasses that are near the piles.

Most homes outside of the Floating Village are made of the same red brick that we used ten years ago to build latrines near Kept, Cambodia. The larger homes are well-appointed and maintained, with stucco over the brick walls.  Many are built on stilts or with only storage areas on the ground floor.  We were told that that is a tradition based in part for the security of the occupants and provides a “barn” area to gather domestic animals overnight.  We saw this in Nepal and India, too, especially in rural areas.

Older wooden homes are still common with many on stilts of heights ranging from one to two meters even in areas that appear to be far from any significant water. 

We passed several nurseries for flowering plants and fruit trees. Bougainvillea are common among the former. Fruit trees we see near the road include banana, mango, papaya, jackfruit, and (so I’m told) lychee and passion fruit.

Temples are frequent, surrounded by many ornate family stupas that contain ashes of ancestors.

As we approach the work site, having turned off of the main Highway 6 south towards Tonle Sap, the raised nature of the roads becomes more pronounced. Now we’re driving on wide, stable jetties. Closer to the water, some of the flats have bright green dry season rice growing, supported by the high water table and some irrigation. There are rectangular ponds retaining water after the lake has receded, some farming fish, others serving as lotus flower farms, and others to support irrigation. There is also one small crocodile farm near the work site.

At the turn to the south this morning, the Sun started to burn off the cloud and any home of better working conditions vanished. Paren assured us that this would be a fairly light day with much of our time devoted to cultural affairs like meeting the families getting the homes as well as other locals–and, of course, ice cream with the kids. 

We knew that we had many nails to pound attaching the corrugated steel panels to the side walls and roof and wondered how much our local friends had done between our departure Thursday afternoon and our arrival Friday morning. Paren was concerned about the status of the homes and whether they would be presentable to the accepting families.

When the three of us started (Becky, Carloyn, and me) it was clear that the locals had been hard at work.  Steel sheets were on the roof and that’s where they were concentrating their efforts.  We added nails where they had been omitted and filled in whole sections.  But, due to the low Sun and breeze, the conditions were almost pleasant and we worked non-stop until the rest of the group arrived about an hour later.

We finished the last rows of nails that we could reach and went to work attaching capping boards on exposed edges of steel on the sides of doorways for safety.  This would require eight pieces per house for the two external and two internal doorways.

This involved lots of measuring and cutting and the entire team was up to the task, enjoying the weather and working quickly together.

Before long, the left or “red” house was getting close to being finished and Alex, Thomas, Carolyn, and Karthik swept the floors and removed all sorts of scrap metal and wood.  Where we could, we helped the locals with the remaining cut pieces of corrugated steel attached to the front and rear gables.

Near 11am, we took a break to give out $25 worth of ice cream for the local kids, bought from the local vendor.  That amount bought about 200 popsicles of one sort or another.  Tarek, Alex, Anna, and really the whole group walked down the center of the street handing out popsicles to kids before they would melt.  They looked like Pied Pipers with all of the kids following them.  Some tried for a second and I’m sure a few succeeded, but it was remarkably calm and orderly.

Meanwhile, others completed painting the front awnings.  All work was now progressing rapidly in the much better weather, easily 2-3C less than past days with a nice breeze.  We commented that if the weather had been like this all week, we would’ve finished by Thursday’s close.

We broke for lunch feeling good and in better spirits.  No one took a break after eating today.  We all went back to the worksite and either did cleaning, final touch-ups, or began bringing the house-warming gifts to each home

Coming back and doing more painting, trim, and clean-up as the left house was done and all of the workers moved north to the blue house.  Only roof work remained and that was going well.

Several local leaders arrived along with our two recipient families and lots of other kids.  Lots of kids playing with Tarek and Hana (expectant parents, themselves).  Paren introduced the female community organizer that helped decide the recipients of the homes.  She spoke first followed by two men who were local/city chiefs.  Paren did the translation for all involved.

Next, we were introduced to the two fathers that would get the homes and then the team was introduced and they asked for a few words from Hana and me.  There were thanks and words of appreciation on all sides, of course.

The fathers drew numbers to decide which family got which house, red or blue, then each family came into their new house and saw their house-warming gifts.  We went to the red house first.  The family sat on a bed mat and thanked us.  Meanwhile, the workers were still pounding the final nails into the blue house.  They were asked to take a break so that we could hear each other speak.

We took photos at both sites with the families and then we went outside for group shots in front of the houses.  The whole team glowed, almost as happy as the receiving families.

Our lead group of three left at 3:30 to get Natasha to the airport.  The locals continued to apply the final touches and we were told that they would do a few more things in the following days, but the houses were “complete.”

I decided to go for a photo walk for a few kilometers thinking all were almost ready and they’d pick me up on the way.  I put my best lens on my camera and walked the kilometer back to the giant golden Buddha statue by the bridge, taking about 100 photos along the way, mostly of people, bicycles, scooters, and houses.‘After walking a mile, I turned around, wondering where the others were.  I was afraid that they’d passed me at some time when I wasn’t looking or wasn’t visible because I’d climbed onto the tall elevated area around the Buddha.

Then I realized that they were probably back at the house drinking beer with the workers, so I hurried back to find exactly that.  I enjoyed two cold Ganzberg’s and cooled off for one last time at the work site.  We thanked the workers on final time and left just before 5pm.  I emailed Haven Restaurant telling them we’d be late, arriving at 7pm, and sent a message alerting the rest that we wouldn’t be back until just after 6pm and that we would be leaving for dinner at 6:45.

On the way back, we talked more with Paren about birth control, marriage, alcohol, and other issues in the community.  He told us that alcohol was a problem because of the easy, cheap availability of rice liquor that could sell for as little as $0.75 USD per liter.

He also said that girls married very young and that it was not uncommon to see girls that were only 15 or 16 with a baby.  Birth control was (obviously) not widely practiced despite encouragement from the government.  He attributed that to a lack of trust in the medical/health institutions in the country and the high cost of health care for all.  He was as frustrated by what he saw as we were.

We did return at 6pm, cleaned-up quickly and took tuk-tuks to the final team dinner, arriving on time.  Deepak and Bella went to dinner on their own and were missed.  We ordered appetizers, beer, and enjoyed a great meal.  Before the main courses and dessert we renewed the now traditional, individual speeches or testimonials of what each of us like most about the project.

Everyone spoke of the same general issues:  team cohesion and warmth; the sense of family; the oppressive heat; the fun of having a project where everyone could make a big contribution; the satisfaction of helping in a village where so much help is needed; the appreciation of the community; etc.  Becky pointed out the many roles that Paren played from driver, to NGO lead, to project foreman and translator.  We have not been on a project where one person did so many different tasks.  We thanked him deeply.  More than a few of us became teary and emotional.

I thanked Hana for making the project happen despite pushback and changed policies at Salesforce.  She had been the driving force that ultimately made the trip go.

As usual, we returned to the hotel while some went for their final Cambodian massages.

Saturday 9 March, 2024

I was up by 5:30am to work on photos and see the others off. There were many tears in the hotel lobby as Paren took the first nine to the airport, departing at 7am.  We tracked their progress on WhatsApp and all shared their favorite photos from the past week, as well as photos of their journey either home or to a real vacation spot like the Thai coast and Phuket.

Becky and I spent the day doing all kinds of admin stuff, posting photos, and responding to WhatsApp messages.  I hit an ATM to get cash to pay Paren for the extra vehicle and we saw Thomas and Kellie off just after lunch and were now the only ones left.  Everyone made their flights on time and to their destination.

That evening, Becky and I arranged an evening/sunset tour of Phnom Bekhang Temple with the hotel as well as a late checkout on Monday for flight to Ho Chi Minh City.  We toasted the team’s success again that night on Pub Street with a $1 beer and a lychee daiquiri and looked forward to our next adventures:  a one-day tour of more temples (Beng Melea and Koh Ker) the next day and then our departure for Vietnam on Monday.

Posted in on March 5, 2024