Strike a beat

Cambodia Orphan Save Organization (COSO)C.O.S.O, Cambodia Orphan Save Organization is located in tiny Sra Shrang (Pool of Ablutions) just east of Ta Phrom. We had learned  about this newly established, non-profit, non-governmental and non-political organization 12 km from Siem Reap Town but still within the walls of Angkor, while dining at a community aware café in PP.  A small black and white flyer was taped to the bathroom wall and it caught my attention by one small but hugely significant sentence ” YOU DON’T NEED ANY SPECIAL QUALIFICATIONS, JUST A DESIRE TO HELP OTHER PEOPLE AND A FEW HOURS TO SPARE”. That was enough for us to make the trip. C.O.S.O.’s  main objective is to offer food, shelter, education and safety to local street kids living in extreme poverty. Their orphanage resemble a makeshift wooden shelter with a tiny open air dirt floored room acting as a school house. The children are barefoot, dirty but are content and cared for. Their wish list – rice, food, sleeping mats, mosquito nets (Dengue epidemic killing 1000s of children), blankets, medical and school supplies, clothing, shoes which is sadly a far cry from most of our kids wish lists – iphone, ipod, skate board, watch, new laptop… and the list goes on. C.O.S.O provides Khmer and English lessons, 3 square meals a day, a safe place to sleep, evening traditional Khmer dance training and love. We are keeping our eye on this one too for future involvement and hopefully by next summer we will be back with a group of interested yogis ready to invest a bit of their time and love. Website:

With good karma and Vishnu for protection we survived our biking adventure (quite a miracle!) had the most delicious swim in the River Garden’s newly installed pool and then off on tuk tuk to listen to Dr. Beat Richner, a true saint. If you have never heard of him and are depressingly down on mankind check out his web site: You will be inspired and your life will never be the same. This tiny Swiss-German man of little charisma nor power has humbly moved mountains, those large than the grandest. With a dream and a determination stronger than the political corruption that he constantly encounters, Dr. Beat Richner has successfully opened 3 children’s hospitals saving close to 8 million Cambodian children in the past 15 years. All medical services are free of charge and they even pay the transportation to and from the hospital. Yearly they receive 600’000 visits with 55’000 admitted for severe illnesses and accidents, they perform over 9’000 surgical operations, inject over 100’000 inoculations and deliver over 5’500 babies a year. Without these hospitals, close to 3000 children would die each month. Dr. Beat Richner has a staff of 2’600 qualified doctors and nurses and best of all all but 2 are Cambodians and paid between 250USD -1000USD! What is humbly amazing is his down to earth approach and presence. Every Saturday evening at precisely 19h15, Dr. Beat Richner shows up at the Siem Reap auditorium to play his cello for donations only. He begins with ” We need your help. It costs 17 million USD to run our hospitals per year. With 7% of donations coming from Switzerland another 3% from the Cambodian government we depend on individual donations.  If you are old give money. If you are middle aged give money and blood and if you are young give blood.” It was as easy as that. No elaboration or exaggeration just hard cold facts that make your blood rush and your heart tear. He then beautifully stroked his cello, talked a bit more and showed an inspirational documentary on his work. One cannot leave unaffected! There is so much to be done but remember ”small acts with a big heart” go a long way.

Philippe talking to people We leave tomorrow and my tears prepare for the journey.

P.S. We did end up dropping by the last hut at the top of the road just before the park. The crooked wooden door hung loosely on its rusty hinges, a pair of pink tattered children’s slippers  were scattered on the stone floor and the sound of cartoons whispered from a small T.V. A young man in his early 20’s met us at the doorway. Our friend had left after the death of his wife just a few months after our departure last December. Saddened, we sent warm thoughts his way and hope that our paths will cross again one day soon.

P.S.S. Internet connections failed so this portion of our journey is an aftermath but still so real.

Road mantra

Temple in CambodiaDon’t look, don’t hesitate, do pray !

Siem Reap is quite flat which is a good thing especially when you rent bikes with no brakes and no horns!  But as WE have the right away in all circumstances and in all directions it didn’t seem to matter too much except that everyone else has the right away too. I kept pedalling away along the dusty ochre roads with Noa straddled on the back seat bouncing up and down with each bump as I chanted my road mantra ”Don’t look, don’t hesitate and do pray” over and over again.

Just before 7h00 through the main entrance,  we entered Angkor or ”Holy City”, the capital  of  Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire, a mystical masterpiece dating as far back as 802 AD with God – King (devaraja) Jayavarman II reigning.  A golden hallow of a rising sun filled the sky illuminating the 1.5km lotus sprinkled moat protecting the early 12th century royal temple of Angkor Wat comparable to the Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal and undeniably the Pyramids of Egypt. Under the power of King Suryavarman II, the protector of the sun, Angkor Wat with its perfect symmetry  is adorned with  three-tiered pyramids crowned by five lotus shaped pillars towering 65 meters into the heavens above. Oriented west, the direction symbolising death, this royal monastery was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu and was thought by many to be a funerary temple. Angkor Wat’s exterior walls are densely carved depicting mythological and historical Hindu epics.

From Angkor Wat we headed north beginning our 17 km tour on our rickety bikes with no brakes chanting our road mantra for protection. The  late 9th century Hindu hilltop temple, Phnom Bakhengof,  was our first stop, then cycled past Baksei Chamkrong’s single 12m tall brick tower built by King Harsharvarman I in the 10th century and onward toward Angkor Thom, built in the early 13th century. The paved path leading to the South Gate of Angkor Thom (meaning BIG City) tells a story, a mythic battle between demons and gods coined in the Hindu epic ”Churning of the Ocean of Milk”. Before the actual gate, we were escorted along a widen pathway lined with 54 giant stone gods to the left and 54 giant stone demons to the right (many beheaded during the civil war).  Funneling through the squeezed entrance of  the South Gate where dozens of  overloaded mini-vans, motorcycles, tuk tuks and the crazy ones on bikes with no brakes took turns passing.  The south gate, one of 5,  ascends vertically 20m and is crowned with the 4 faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the ”compassionate spirits” each  facing the cardinal directions under the construction of King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century.

Biking in Cambodia We zigzagged successfully through the bottle neck pedalling on a road that opened onto a long stretch of just more dust and bumps before tumbling upon the most divine and omniscient of the temples, BAYON,  clusters of 4 gigantic headed statues towering 15 meters into the heavens. Smack in the middle of Angkor Thom, we discover 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or as some contemporaries see them, replicas of the egotistical legendary King, Jayavarman VII himself. At almost any vantage point, a dozen or more heads are visible at any one time provoking a feeling of being watched or for those that see the glass half full, a feeling of being protected.. Mysterious, alive, serene, protecting and powerful, this Buddhist stone temple of the late 12th C.E. draws us into its trance. Coincidentally, Bayon, which we discovered later, symbolises ”between heaven and earth” ( the name of our yoga centre, for those that have forgotten).

Continuing on our way to Baphuon, the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas, Preah Palilay, Tep Pranam, the Preah Pithu, the Terrace of the Leper King and the Elephants, the Central Square, the North and South Kleang and the 12 Towers of Prasat and finally exiting through the Victory Gate of the eastern wall. Ta Prohm was our last extended temple stop. Made famous to westerners by Angelina Jolie casting in the film ”Tom Raider” and also the sentimental film ”Les deux Frères”, Ta Phrom is an intricate labyrinth of stone temples intertwined with overgrown silk cotton trees and massive fig. The overbearing roots seem to have taken over this Buddhist mid 12th C.E. temple which was dedicated to the mother (or possibly Mother Nature) of King Jayavarman VII. Ta Phrom is a display of  the power of nature, the desire of humans to conquer it and Mother Nature’s uncontrollable forces.

For a good cause

For a good causeThe River Garden makes wonderful breakfasts like most but served in an enclosed lush courtyard toward the back of the guest-house. The sun was already quite strong when we headed out on foot through the centre of town, across a few open air markets making our way dead east in search of the Green Gecko, a local NGO run by an Australian. We did receive some vague directions via our phone call and trusted that someone would be able to guide us along the way if lost. After an hour of following their directions ”walk  past  the local high school continue down the road, turn onto a dirt road half way down then make a right then a left then a right then a left and somewhere in the middle of rice paddies you will find us but there is no sign.”  We were lost, well kinda because I believe that one can’t get lost if one doesn’t know where one is going in the first place.

A huge storm was preparing, the wind picked up which is a tell all sign and sure enough within minutes, the sky was black pelting rain drops bigger than gummy bears onto the population below. We sought shelter in an open air movie theatre which I had mentioned in a previous mail is probably more interesting for a westerner than the movie (s) itself! Picture a thatched roof shading some 40-50 plastic lounge chairs occupied mostly by  men eating rice and dried fish, smoking strong tobacco and drinking coca cola. With 7-8 different TV screens (no flat plasma screens just a few 30″) blaring 7-8 different voices and 7-8 different images from Discovery Channel to Top Gun, there is choice and choice in this case gives one a major headache!

Storm came, storm went leaving only one obvious sign- water and lots of it! We never made it to the Green Gecko on foot, they had to come get us with a tuk tuk and as we ”turned onto a dirt road made a right and then a left and then a right and arrived in the middle of some rice paddies”. I realised that what seemed so simple to them was just so difficult to us. The Green Gecko Project is doing some amazing work. A Cambodian NGO working with street kids employing only Khmer staff. Sustainability is the key and so is respecting Khmer traditions.

”For a good cause”. There are so many ways to make a difference in Cambodia and certainly most other disadvantaged countries too. Give blood, shop responsibly, donate one’s time, one’s skills, one’s heart or one’s money. One can also dine or sleep in community aware cafés and guest houses. Every little act of goodness counts around the clock, around the heart, around the world.

A roller coaster

Yoga classYoga class has been scheduled daily at 16h00. Our days seem to revolve around this magical time and everything that we choose to do before paves the road to Street N°302 where Nataraj is found. Every day we extend the classes a bit more now up to 2.5 hours and even this doesn’t seem to leave us with enough time. There is much to share with them as they are so eager to learn. We have incorporated pranayama, meditation and finally some partner work which is the most challenging due to their past history where touch was associated with negativity. There is progress, an enormous amount, especially in their attitudes and their level of confidence. Feeling more and more at ease, they allow themselves to be guided  into some challenging asanas and  situations which are met with humour. Most of all, we are having fun and taking time getting to know each other a little more. I feel a bit uncomfortable knowing that in a short time we will be on our way and the moment will come when we will have to say good-bye.

After having removed the water tank from the roof top of the yoga centre,  the owner of the building connected the water system with that of the city’s causing high levels of pressure in the pipes and extensive damage to the toilets. Feet and hands soaked, Philippe repaired some leaky pipes, dismantled the existing system, installed a new system which hopefully ameliorated the evacuation of water and will be sustainable .

Aimlessly strolling through the crowed and not so crowded back streets of PP, we spend pockets of time in Psar Thmei (the Central or New Market) where everything from live frogs waiting to be skinned to fake name-brand watches are for sell. This market is far from the most economic but hosts a few excellent food stalls for lunch and amazing picture opportunities. We stumble upon Psar Tuol Tom Pong, known as the Russian Market specializing in copied Western clothing  and sold at a tenth of the price but it turns out that  Psar Chaa is where Philippe was able to supply his traveling tool chest with necessary pipes and gadgets. A worthwhile visit to the Angkor National Museum, leisurely lunches (our favorites being spicy banana flower salad, spicy papaya and mango salad with shrimp and rice paper vegetable  spring rolls with crushed peanuts in a transparent spicy liquid) in hidden garden courtyards at Friends, Boddhi Tree, BT Del Gusto, Aram (to mention a few), many run by aid organizations supporting Cambodian social programs where the proceeds of every meal go to former street kids for their schooling and some of these cafés even employ the older ones for a valuable work experience. In fact, we learned that there are more NGOs per sq. capita than anywhere else in the world and it seems rightful as 85% of the Cambodian population lives off of less than 32 cents a day making it one of the poorest countries in the world and the most under developed in Asia.

Noa with the childrenYesterday Noa  gave his first yoga class with the help of Dara to a group of children from the Klein Kleang orphanage which we visited later in the day. Twelve kids, most smaller in size than Noa but all older in age arranged themselves on their mats in a awkward circle ready to begin. Not once was it necessary to display discipline or order. They moved in and out of asanas with soft smiles and concentrated gazes. Noa taught them 1,2,3 Mother Hen (1,2,3 Soleil) which became ”muy, pii, bei pria aatuht”, cobra, tree, eagle and mountain. They had so much fun and I think Noa and Dara did too! These kids seemed considerably more disadvantaged than the girls that I teach every afternoon and we were soon to discover their ”home”. After a long search, no apparent web site exists.

After class we headed across the city, over the bridge above the muddy waters of the Tonlé Sap, down some bumpy dirt roads, passed small children chasing butterflies and finally arriving at Klein Kleang Centre orphanage occupying an abandoned church and its quarters for their clergy. This run down site was depressing, almost shocking, resembling a war zone. The kids of all ages were dirty, dressed in tattered clothes, flimsy thongs on bits of broken bricks and bits of odd trash with strong smells of urine and other unpleasant odours permeating  the air. The grandeur of the orphanage and the feeling of hollowness  was comparable to the site of S21. Six to a bed, 30 to a room, 150 in total, mixed ages and sexes and with no visible supervision . No one to greet us, no one seemed to be in charge, no organization just an uncomfortable feeling of loneliness and despair. Except for the colourful murals of children painted on a few random concrete walls and the narrative tour from beautiful Dara who had lived there for numerous years until just recently before moving to Nataraj Yoga Centre for convenience and comfort, the place was overwhelming to the naked eye. It wasn’t the level of poverty but more the feeling of emptiness that prevailed and uncomfortably touched the heart and soul.  I guess the best thing is that for the past year a handful of these kids make it via tuk tuk once a week for yoga sponsored by our friend and yoga teacher Estelle from Jivamukti and yoga teacher, Mia. There is always something that can be done.

I have decided that visiting Cambodia is like riding a roller coaster. At first there is great apprehension, butterflies in the stomach, not knowing what to expect, even moments of doubt. Then, once decided and installed in your seat with no chance of exiting, you go with the flow and it becomes doable even exciting until reaching the next summit where doubt and apprehension reoccur before plunging into whatever will come next. A mixture of not knowing, excitement, stimulation, apprehension, adventure and joy! That is Cambodia for you on a limb.

Tomorrow is our last day in PP before taking a local bus to Kampong Thum which is situated half way from here to Siem Reap. Supposedly there are some pre-Angkorian temples there hidden in the lush forests that are worth seeing. We will miss the girls and the kids but are looking forward to a bit of quietness and down time. PP resumed in a nut shell – ”sans intérêt”, big heart, hot and suffocating, chaotic in every sense, polluted, welcoming and just wonderful. The girls and the kids made PP worth every single second!