Saturday, March 31, 2012

Top 3 Destinations in Taiwan - Taipei, Green Island, Taroko Gorge

Top 3 Destinations in Taiwan - Taipei, Green Island, Taroko Gorge.

Living in Taiwan and setting up a translation company is no easy business; however it is a challenge that brings great rewards. The past few years have been full of ups and downs, successes, disasters, and lots of fun along the way. We've picked up some great experiences and a good knowledge of Taiwan and Taiwanese culture. For now, here's our guide to the top three places to go in Taiwan:

1) Taipei 101. Formerly the tallest building in the world, this skyscraper in the shape of a bamboo stalk is one of the must-sees in Taipei. 101 stories high, it dominates the Taipei skyline. Take the super-fast lift to the viewing area and take in the sights of Taipei and the surrounding area. The view is even better at night, the lights of Taipei spreading out far and wide in all directions. The streets around 101 are well worth checking out too: beautiful Chinese lanterns hang from the trees, and the restaurants offer everything from dumplings and noodles to waffles and coffee. If you have some time to kill in Taipei, head here and soak up the atmosphere: our top Taipei recommendation.

2) Green Island. It's a little hard to get to, but well worth it. A little island off the East Coast, that not even most Taiwanese people have been to, quiet, get the picture. Head to Taidong and take a boat (1 hour) or plane (15 mins) over to the island. You'll find a place to stay with no trouble (as long as it's not a national holiday!). Settle in, rent a scooter, and head out to explore the island. Snorkeling equipment can be rented very cheaply, and the underwater sights are the best we've found in Taiwan. As night falls, head out for some local seafood, then head up to the salt water hot springs and enjoy the starry night sky. Don't miss it!

3) Taroko Gorge. Really, anywhere on the East Coast will be well worth a trip, and now that we've been here a while we feel that the deeper into the countryside you go, the more fun you'll have, especially if you're willing to learn a few words of the local dialect and try out the local brew. However, if it's your first time here, you'll probably want to play it safe and head to Taroko. this beautiful gorge offers camping, hotels, hot springs and plenty of hiking. Take your boots, and have fun!


Grammar: Whoever vs Whomever

Grammar: Whoever vs Whomever.

Whoever vs. Whomever

Rule 1

To determine whether to use whoever or whomever, here is the rule:
him + he = whoever
him + him = whomever

Give it to whoever/whomever asks for it first.
Give it to him. He asks for it first.
Therefore, Give it to whoever asks for it first.
We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend.
We will hire him. You recommend him.
him + him = whomever
We will hire whoever/whomever is most qualified.
We will hire him. He is most qualified.
him + he = whoever

Rule 2

When the entire whoever/whomever clause is the subject of the verb that follows the clause, look inside the clause to determine whether to use whoever or whomever.

Whoever is elected will serve a four-year term.
Whoever is elected is the subject of will serve.
Whoever is the subject of is.
Whomever you elect will serve a four-year term.
Whomever you elect is the subject of will serve. Whomever is the object of you elect.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Chinese, Ibero-American Educators Meet to Promote Chinese Teaching

Chinese, Ibero-American educators meet to promote Chinese teaching.

Education officials from China and the directors of Confucius Institutes in the Ibero-American countries have opened a conference to consider ways of boosting the overseas teaching of the Chinese language.

The Second Congress of Confucius Institutes in Ibero-America, which opened Saturday in this Chilean coastal city, is aimed at sharing experiences among Confucius Institutes directors.

It also seeks ways to better teaching, improve teaching materials and provide additional training for educators.

The three-day event groups delegations from Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and China.

Meanwhile, like its first session in the Spanish city of Valencia in 2008, the congress is also committed to strengthening cooperation between Confucius Institutes in Latin America and Hanban, the headquarters of Confucius Institutes in Beijing.

As part of the event, a group of university students from Shanghai on Saturday staged a variety of Chinese dances, songs, fashion shows and martial arts in the Hall of Honor of the Chilean Congress in the adjacent city of Valparaiso.

The artistic performances highlighted the motif of the ongoing World Expo in Shanghai, namely "Better City, Better Life," and its goal of promoting understanding between peoples.

The latest figures from Hanban show that 316 Confucius Institutes and 337 Confucius Classrooms have been set up around the world.

The establishments, named after an ancient Chinese scholar and educator whose thoughts remain influential worldwide after 2,500 years, are dedicated to promoting the Chinese language and culture.

Twenty-five Confucius Institutes and two Confucius Classrooms have been inaugurated in the Ibero-American countries. In the host country Chile, Chinese has become the second most popular foreign language, after English.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Top 30 Universities by Reputation 2012

Top 30 universities by reputation 2012.

Harvard University came first on a list of the top 100 universities by reputation, released Thursday by Times Higher Education (THE), a weekly magazine based in London.

The survey, the second of its kind, received a record sample of 17,554 detailed responses from individual academics from 149 countries, up 31 percent on last year.

Georgraphically, the United States has 44 unversities on the annual list, followed by 10 in the United Kingdom and 6 in China.

Of the six unverisities from China (2 from the mainland, 3 from Hong Kong and 1 from Taiwan), Tsinghua University was the highest ranking, 30th on the list, moving up from 38 in the previous year.

In a competitive higher education market, a strong global reputation provides tangible, real-world benefits - helping institutions attract and retain the best faculty, helping faculty locate the best universities for partnerships, and helping students in their quest to identify those elite universities whose names carry serious weight in the jobs market, said Times Higher Education.

Tsinghua University (Beijing, China)

World rank: 71

Reputation rank: 30

Overall Reputation score: 10.9

Reputation for teaching: 11.7

Reputation for research: 10.5

Originally founded in 1911 as Tsinghua College, Tsinghua University is today widely recognized as one of the top two universities in China. By the late 1920s, the university had already distinguished itself in terms of academic excellence and talent cultivation capabilities. Its professors are highly esteemed: 36 are members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and 32 belong to the Academy of Engineering. Of its 28,000 students, 2,400 hail from overseas.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Fed Learner is a Productive Learner

A fed learner is a productive learner.

A hungry learner is an unproductive learner and it is for this reason that the Tiger Brand Foundation has joined with the Department of Basic Education to provide the learners of Alexandra in Gauteng with a nutritious breakfast each day.

The project, which will run for three years, currently provides breakfast and lunch to 13 schools in Alexandra, an area infamous for its adverse economic conditions. Twelve of these schools have also been provided with container kitchens to provide tasty nutritious meals to the learners.

Representatives from the National Department of Basic Education, the Gauteng Education Department and the Tiger Brands Foundation gathered at Ekukhanyisweni Primary School on Tuesday 6 February, 2012, to share in the milestone of the millionth breakfast served by the project.

The project also has a research aspect, with data collected from the scheme to be used to analyse the impact of school feeding schemes that include breakfast for learners.

Addressing learners and dignitaries at the school, Gauteng Education MEC Barbara Creecy thanked the Tiger Brands Foundation for “this important partnership”.

“We are very excited to work on this project which puts food in the tummies of these young learners. If learners come to school hungry they are unable to concentrate; unable to learn, so this project will allow us to handle our core business of learning and teaching knowing that learners are well fed,” said MEC Creecy.

Deputy Director-General at the National Department of Basic Education, Gugu Ndebele hailed the programme, saying that it fits in perfectly with the Department’s National School Nutrition Programme.

“Currently the NSNP provides all learners at no fee schools with a healthy, nutritious and balanced lunch but we are looking at expanding the programme to breakfast as well, depending on the outcome of this project,” Said the DDG.

“If breakfast was available at schools it would definitely help these learners concentrate in class and hopefully also ensure that they are all here on time every morning ready to learn. We will be monitoring the research from this project very closely to see how it could benefit the NSNP.”


Should You Volunteer at a Cambodian Orphanage?

Should You Volunteer at a Cambodian Orphanage?

Cooking classes, cultural performances, massages, orphanage visits, adventure, festivals – this is the complete list of things to do in Siem Reap, as per the city’s Wikitravel page. Over the years, orphanage visits have seemingly become part of the Cambodian travel experience. As the popularity of visiting and volunteering at orphanages continues to rise, so does the controversy surrounding it.

Some say it is an excellent way to make a positive contribution to the country. Others fear that well–meaning voluntourists may be doing more harm than good. 

The Orphanage Boom

Earlier this year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that while the number of Cambodian orphans has decreased, the number of orphanages has rapidly increased. UNICEF says that the number of orphanages jumped from 153 to 269 in the past five years. Only 21 of those are run by the state; the rest are privately operated.

Perhaps even more troubling, UNICEF says that of the nearly 12,000 children living in Cambodian orphanages today, only 28 percent have lost both parents. If nearly three out of four of these “orphans” have at least one surviving parent, why are they living in orphanages?

While parental illness, disability, abuse and desertion account for a portion of these situations, the International Organisation for Adolescents (IOFA) and Friends International say that extreme poverty is behind most of these cases. Friends International says that parents are sending their children to orphanages believing they will have better access to food, shelter and an education. That decision, which may initially have been intended to be temporary, morphs into permanence.

Days after these findings were announced, the Cambodian government launched an investigation into the country’s orphanage system. Some fear that the orphanage boom is a product of Cambodia’s increasing tourism trade and the influx of tourist dollars that comes with it.

Might the Children Be Better Off?

When poverty is this severe, the question is often asked, might the children be better off in institutional care rather than with parents who are unable to support them?

International studies have shown that children are better off in a family than in an institution. Many countries worldwide have moved to de-institutionalise childcare in favour of foster care programmes and community-based support. Orphanages, says UNICEF, should be the last resort.

Tessa Boudrie, a qualified social worker who has spent the past ten years helping street children and sex workers in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, agrees that the family unit is the best environment for a child. She says that research shows it’s cheaper to care for children in a family unit than in an orphanage.

“A development dollar is better spent on helping families to create a sustainable livelihood. If that means you actually have to look beyond the family and into the community, because the whole community is facing the same difficulties, then that is where the development dollar should go,” says Tessa.

Research recently conducted by IOFA found that young adults who left orphanages experienced a variety of problems, including damaged or severed family connections, homelessness, exploitation, trafficking and drug abuse. Its findings, IOFA says, challenge the widespread belief that institutional care is better for children from poor families.

Tessa says it is naïve to believe that removing a child from the family unit will solve the underlying problems. “It is short-term thinking and definitively not in the best interests of the child and family.”

The Rise of Orphanage Tourism

Volunteer placement organisations, universities and hotels promote orphanage tourism to travellers as a way that they can “make a difference” while having experiences that are “rewarding” and “life-changing”. Volunteers are told that they can sing songs, draw pictures, paint, play, teach English and wash the kids, while being a “role model” who can “build [the children’s] confidence and hope in life”. 

UNICEF says that the trend in orphanage tourism is borne from the best of intentions. Whether travellers spend an afternoon or a few weeks at orphanages, these short-term volunteers donate time and money with the aim of helping the children of Cambodia. The desire to lend a helping hand is gaining traction in everyone from backpackers and gap-year students to luxury travellers. 

Majella Skansebakken, a Singapore expat and entrepreneur who has been involved in charitable work for Cambodia orphanages for over ten years, says that the enthusiasm to volunteer is a positive thing. 

“Cambodia is still a country very much in need of help. In fact, most orphanages are crying out for help,” say Majella. “I do, however, oppose people seeing an orphanage as a tourist destination where they pat a child on the head, take a photograph, then walk away.”

Concerns About Short-term Orphanage Tourism

While some orphanages have stringent child protection policies and structured volunteer programmes in place, NGOs worry that those with open door policies may not have the best interests of the children in mind. Concerns include:

Ineffective volunteer work

Reading, playing with and hugging the children may make a tremendous impact on the volunteer, but does little to support the needs of the children. Aid workers report situations where volunteers perform work that is unnecessary, such as teaching “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to children that have recited it hundreds of times before.

Though the goal is to help, volunteers sometimes confuse the impact that they are feeling with that which they are making. Emphasis is placed on the volunteer’s emotional response, rather than the effectiveness of the help itself.  One volunteer summed up his experience by saying:

“The kids at the orphanage changed my life completely. I can honestly say I am a different person. The 14 days I was at the orphanage taught me so much…Just having been able to make a difference by working at the orphanage and to share my time with [the children] was so incredibly rewarding. It was one of the most genuine experiences of my life.”              

Tessa noted the difficulty in attracting tourists towards responsible volunteer projects when the feel-good factor of working with children is so strong.   

Emotional loss from revolving door of volunteers

UNICEF is concerned about the emotional loss that the children may feel from exposure to a revolving door of volunteers. Donor educator Saundra Schimmelpfennig writes about the trend of “hug-an-orphan vacations” on her blog Good Intentions are Not Enough.  She says that that although volunteers feel that interacting with orphans is a great way to give back, it can have harmful effects.       

“While at the orphanage, most volunteers seek to build emotional bonds with the children so they can feel they made a difference. Though well intended, this leads to a never-ending round of abandonment,” says Saundra.

Tessa agrees, noting that most short-term volunteers lack experience in dealing with institutionalised children. “No child benefits from spending intimate time with a total stranger, especially those who are uneducated in social work and education.”

She says that the effect of a continuous stream of foreign volunteers is usually traumatising in the long run. “When I arrived in Asia ten years ago, I vowed never to work with a target group directly. I didn’t want to take a job away from a local, I don’t know the local culture and language, and my work is temporary. Instead, I offer my knowledge and skills to other social workers, which affects not just one child, but a much larger group of children in the end.”

Exposure to child predators

Earlier this year, the British owner of the Cambodian Orphan Fund, Nicholas Griffin, was sent to prison in Cambodia for sexually abusing several minor boys in his care. According to the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, he ran “a number of orphanages in a tourist hotspot” in Siem Reap. Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases involving sexual abuse by directors of private orphanages.

Orphanages with open door volunteer policies may unwittingly expose children to predators. In a recent interview, Scott Neeson, a former Hollywood executive who gave up his career to start the Cambodian Children’s Fund, cited safety as one reason why his organisation requires at least a one-month commitment from all volunteers. “We have to protect the children both emotionally and physically…We require police reports in advance and references. It’s not worth the time for the volunteer or CCF to go through that for a couple of days.”

As the children’s home, an orphanage must also protect their privacy rights. Voluntourists often take photos of themselves with the children, some of which turn up on Facebook and personal blogs. “Most orphanages have adopted a policy whereby the children’s privacy is paramount. I have never taken photos of children on holidays in London, so I am definitely confused by people doing this in Cambodia,” says Majella.

Exploitation by unscrupulous orphanages

NGOs in Cambodia report that some orphanages’ primary focus is to take advantage of Cambodia’s voluntourism boom.

“Volunteers come with money. In some cases, you have to pay to volunteer; in other cases, people donate after their time is up. Volunteering can be a lucrative, income-generating activity for orphanages,” says Tessa.

Friends International has discovered cases where unethical orphanages have recruited and even paid parents to give their children away. In other cases, children are rented for a short stay. The children are used to tug at the heartstrings of tourists and volunteers, who are compelled to open up their hearts and wallets to help.

“Orphanages that keep kids in squalor can attract far more funding,” says Daniela Papi, a long-time resident of Siem Reap and founder of an organisation focusing on youth education in rural Cambodia.               

Saundra agrees. “The best way to keep [foreign] donations rolling in is to keep the children at a substandard level, so that any volunteer or donor showing up will see with their own eyes how critical it is to donate to the orphanage,” she says. “A portion of these funds may be put into caring for the children, while large percentages could easily be pocketed for personal profit with few the wiser.” 

Daniela describes watching children being paraded around Siem Reap’s bar areas late at night. “They play music, hand out fliers and ask people to visit their orphanage. Countless travellers clap for the little performers, handing $20 bills to their ‘caretakers’ and promising to visit their orphanage during the week.”

“Sometimes, doing good can cause harm, and the practice of visiting orphanages which you have not properly vetted, and which have not properly vetted you, can be a harmful practice,” she says.

What You Can Do

With an estimated one-third of Cambodian children living below the poverty line, there is no doubt that help is needed. Before you visit or volunteer at an orphanage, consider the following:

DO your research. Ask local educators and NGOS about reputable organisations that are helping orphaned Cambodian children. Look for one that is legally registered and employs an active family reunification programme.

DON’T go to any orphanage that actively solicits tourists.

“People always ask me, ‘What is a good orphanage I can visit today?’ My answer is always – any orphanage that lets you visit today, unplanned, is likely not a good orphanage.” – Daniela Papi

DON’T work with the children directly. Instead, assist the permanent staff; this keeps the locals in charge and minimises attachment issues.

DO sign on for a long-term project. Choose a placement where you are supervised and working within a long-term curriculum.

DO bring special skills. Medical specialists, teachers and human rights educators are often needed.

DON’T volunteer at any organisation that doesn’t ask for a CV, references and police reports in advance. The more that is demanded, the greater chance that the children are being protected.

DO ask to speak to a volunteer who came before you.

DON’T post photos of children online. The orphanage is the children’s home, and their privacy should be respected.

DON’T hand over large volunteer placement fees (which can top US$1,000) without ensuring that a portion is passed directly to the organisation.

DO donate goods in kind. Ask the organisation, rather than a tuk tuk or taxi driver, about their needs. A common scam involves exorbitant charges for rice on the advice of a profiteering driver.

“While bubbles and balloons are great, there may be a greater need for milk, rice, fruit and vegetables. Phone the organisation before you arrive.” – Majella Skansebakken

DO consider helping community-based programmes, which support families and enable the children to live at home.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fun Science Fair Projects That Capture Kids Attention

Fun Science Fair Projects That Capture Kids Attention.

So, how do help your child decide what are fun science fair projects for them to do? Well, it depends on what activities your child enjoys doing on a daily basis. For primary age children, parents should ask, "Does my child like....outdoors activities? outer space? getting their whole body involved in whatever they are doing? quietly contemplating the world?"

For middle- or high school-aged kids ask yourself what your children wonder about or what they enjoy doing for long periods of time. Together, discover what they actually perceive as fun. Why is fun so important? Because for a child to own the project, to get invested in doing their project, they must enjoy the process.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Elementary School Projects

Elementary school-aged students are originators of fun. They are also excellent at asking questions, which is what science is all about. Instead of answering their questions with a lot of "because" sentences, encourage them to experiment with things to find their own answers.

* Why birds fly south for the winter?

* Does chewing on one piece of food affect your sense of smell?

Coaching your young child can be very rewarding and give you plenty of quality time together.

Middle School Projects

* Middle school students will love chemistry experiments such as mixing vinegar and baking soda to see what happens.

* Build an electro-chemical cell using potatoes to build an electro-chemical cell.

* Biology is a good topic for those kids who like to play in the yard or at the park. How about going around to different parks in your neighborhood and testing the soil's nutrients. Determine what nutrients are needed to grown healthy plants. Or is there a difference in nutritional value of foods when plants are grown in natural organic materials and chemically laden soil?

* If you are right handed does that mean that when you walk you will begin with your right foot?

High School Projects

High school students like to have fun too. It's important that the science projects for this age group are cool.

* Experiments to test the sense of taste would work well because partners are needed and high school kids often like to be with their friends.

* Do violent video games affect your blood pressure?

* Are fingerprint patterns inherited?

* Here is an eyeopener project needing two people. One person is the questioner and observer: determine if the pupil of an eye changes sizes (gets smaller or larger) when you lie. Ask a question of your partner and have the partner tell the truth. Note the size of the eye pupil then ask a question and have your partner lie. Does the eye pupil get larger or smaller or stay the same. Ask about 10 questions of each person.

Whatever the age or what science topic is chosen, there are other steps that must be included. Different schools may have different requirements for their science fairs. Most schools require that you to write a hypothesis, materials used, details of the experiment including graphs and charts of your data and conclusions. Some require background information and bibliography.

Encourage your kids to keep a journal and to record every detail of what they observe when conducting their experiments. From their journal, they will be able to gather all the important information to include in their reports and displayed at the science fair. Although this may not seem like fun at first, they will enjoy documenting their progress if the project and the experiments are exciting and fun.

So there you have to find fun science fair projects that will capture the attention of any age kid.


Do Backpackers Do More Harm Than Good?

Do Backpackers Do More Harm Than Good?

I know that this is probably not the most popular question to have on this forums, but in my efforts to plan my own independent trip around the world (which will be in November) and learn more about backpacking, I've seen more and more articles that appear critical of backpacking and budget tourism and its effects on local communities.

One notable criticism is that backpackers spend so little and endeavour to bargain as much as possible that they starve desperate local artisans, hostel owners and traders of profit and force them to sell for unreasonable prices. Some tourist areas such as Goa and the Philippines have been known to discourage independent backpackers from coming as they are not deemed to provide enough money to make their presence justifiable. Paradoxically, I have heard of some taxi drivers in Bangkok and Phnom Penh (and this is hearsay so I apologise that I cannot quote an internet source for this) refusing to take locals and waiting for foreign backpackers that they can charge more from. Equally, there are the backpacker enclaves around the world (i.e. Earl's Court, Khao San Road etc) where backpackers have little interaction with locals.

Also, there are the stories of a section of backpackers who enrage local cultures by dressing and acting inappropriately and insensitively and commiting acts of drunken or drugged antisocial behaviour, although evidently this is not limited to backpackers but also package holiday tourists.

I personally regard backpacking as (from what I have seen) quite benign, at least somewhat more in touch with the local population than package holidays and no worse than any other form of tourism, however it seems that it could cause as much harm as good. As experienced travellers, I would like to know your opinions.


Monday, March 26, 2012

A Science Fair Survival Guide

A Science Fair Survival Guide.
It's a scenario many parents dread: your child comes home from school and announces that he has a science fair project due – in three weeks! With little or no guidance on how to get it done, students and parents often leave the project until the last minute. And we all know how the results of that experiment work out.

“This type of scenario can send a parent into panic mode, especially someone who does not have a science background,” says Tina Lanese, director of Science Buddies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting hands-on science learning. But, she says, with some advance planning and perseverance on the part of your child, the science assignment can be a boon for independent learning.

The first step in the process is to choose a project – no easy task when you consider the sheer volume of options out there. Will your child be exploring genomics? Mammalian biology? Applied mechanics? Before you get ahead of yourself, take a step back. Discuss with your child what interests her the most. Is it animals and plants? Or machines and computers? Once you have a sense of the direction that your child wants to go in, Lanese recommends asking these questions:

* Is the project interesting enough to work on for the next couple of months?
* Are there at least three sources of written information on the subject?
* Is the experiment safe to perform?
* Are all of the materials needed for the experiment readily available or can they be obtained to the complete the experiment?
* Is there enough time to complete the project by the due date?

Choosing a project is hard enough, but once you get to the science fair floor, just what are the judges looking for? Heidi Black, Science Fair Coordinator for the East Side Union High School District, says that there are certain kinds of projects that tend to take home the blue ribbon:

* Innovative and new. “Judges have seen colored lights on plants and rust so many times that they get a little tired of that,” says Black. Using creativity will not only catch the judge's interest, it may also reveal new discoveries in the process!

* From the heart. Students who are inspired by a favorite hobby or specific interest really care about their projects, and it shows. One winner of the International Science Fair, says Black, designed a tracking device for his model airplane.

* Solid science. You don't have to go crazy to take home top honors. Doing a simple project, but researching, analyzing, and presenting it thoroughly, can be just as impressive as a complicated project.

* Just plain cool. If you can make the judges say “Wow!,” you're on to something. Doing your research and finding a project off the beaten track will help knock their socks off.

* Serves a need. Things that can be used are universally liked, from wheelchairs that can climb stairs to devices for water filtration. These projects tend to follow current events, says Black. “This year we had a lot of oil cleanup projects, last year it was 'how do you make a better levy?'.” These types of project show that you are interested in using science to solve world problems.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

What Makes a Good Science Fair Project?

What Makes a Good Science Fair Project?

A good Science Fair project involves the student in a journey of discovery, driven by curiosity. It typically starts with a student proposing a question or hypothesis, and doing some background research. The student then develops an experimental apparatus or procedure that will produce data, from which the student can draw conclusions to prove (or disprove) the hypothesis, or answer the question.

A good hypothesis typically takes the form of "If I do this, then that should happen." A question typically takes the form of "Can I improve results by doing this?", or "If I try different ways of accomplishing something, which produces the best results?" An example of a poor question is "If I do that, what happens?". A good Science Fair Project directs the student's efforts toward a particular result or expectation; undirected experimentation just to find out what happens is play, not science (although notable discoveries have been made in this manner, they are notable because they were "accidents").

After selection of a hypothesis, the most important parts of the scientific process are to:

* conduct background research
* develop an experimental apparatus or procedure to investigate the hypothesis or question
* operate the apparatus or conduct the procedure to collect experimental data
* perform iterations of data collection
* reduce or analyze the experimental data
* arrive at conclusions

The final step before coming to the Science Fair is to prepare a display and rehearse (but not memorize!) an explanation of how the display shows the means for conducting the experiment, developing the results, and arriving at the conclusions.

Students are advised that getting the right answer is NOT the purpose of a Science Fair project. It is the intent of a Science Fair project that you go through the process of asking questions and performing experiments in an attempt to find answers. Making the attempt without answering the question still satisfies the intent of your discovering knowledge on your own. At the Science Fair, the judges appreciate a display that clearly shows the intent and results of experimentation, and a presentation that concisely describes what was done and what was concluded. The judges want to feel that you are familiar enough with your project to discuss it comfortably and answer questions about it. Memorized speeches or rambling descriptions of minutiae (trivial details) are frustrating to judges, who need to be able to pose appropriate questions in order to thoroughly understand the project. If you work on a team project, the judges will expect more substantial science in your project, and every team member should be able to represent the project.

Teachers and Parents are advised to encourage students to develop a genuine interest in their projects. Judges will occasionally ask students why they chose to do a particular project, and it usually turns out that the best work is done by students who are motivated and inspired by their curiosity about what they are investigating. Students who developed a project simply because you expected them to do so will generally produce mediocre results.

Judges are advised that students are expected to have a thorough understanding of the work that they have done. The students must know why the experiments they have assembled and operated can provide the answers they seek. They must correctly interpret the data they have collected. As judges, you should expect a logical answer to any of your questions about the technical terms they use or the equipment they have employed. Some students will attempt to accomplish research that is beyond their understanding, skills, or the capability of their equipment; it is preferable that they complete projects they have the ability to thoroughly grasp.

County coordinators are advised that some types of poor attempts at Science Fair projects are relatively easy to identify. In order to maintain the integrity and excellence of projects entered in the State Science Fair, it is preferred that you NOT recognize the following types of projects with awards at the local level, and that you NOT invite them to submit an application to the State Science Fair:

* Artwork, photographs, or replicas (physical or computer-generated) that illustrate concepts but were not used or are not useful as experimental apparatus to collect comparative data; depictions of known scientific concepts are in this category

* Experiments that indicate the students have not done rudimentary background research (e.g., they could have seen the experiment described in a textbook)

* Displays of collections of things (unless the collections are used for comparative research that leads to scientific conclusions)

* Experiments that merely find out "What happens if I do this?", without having a scientific reason for performing the procedure

* Pontification of theories with no credible attempt at proof (e.g., using literature search of quotes to provide evidence for the theory)

* Experiments that present results without analyses that predict the results, quantify results, show why those results occurred, or explain how they occurred

* Experiments that do not check data points for repeatability or resolve widely divergent results

* Experiments using apparatus so crude that measurements could not be realistically acquired to show the intended results


What do I need to Teach English as a Second Language in Asia?

What do I need to Teach English as a Second Language (ESL) in Asia?

What are the Job and Working Requirements for Foreigners in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Indonesia?

This is what I found out when I was laid off from work in Telecommunications in the US. My job had allowed me to travel to parts of Asia which included Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia and experience the culture and lifestyle while working there. So I considered teaching overseas for a better quality of life. Since I am a native English speaker the answer seemed obvious. Teach English.

Searching for TEFL and TESOL programs online raised many, many red flags. All it seemed was that this overwhelming information was a ploy to help me part ways from my hard earned money. I was read conflicting things from different places. Like you need a degree, yet somewhere else it would say you don’t need a degree. What did I really need?

While my wife and I were traveling in Cambodia, we visited with a principle at a University in Phnom Penh. He had worked as an English teacher in Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia for over 33 years. He gave me good guidance as to what would be required to teach English in Asia and to be totally legitimate with those countries foreigner worker regulation.

What I needed was:

1) TEFL - Teaching English as a Foreign Language or TESOL - Teaching to English to Speakers of Other Languages

He said that I needed either a 120 hours TEFL, TESOL or CELTA Certification

University of Cambridge's CELTA and Trinity College London's CertTESOL. These two courses both have 120+ hours with 6+ hours supervised teaching.

He said that online TEFL or TESOL certificates weren’t considered as real training. They work out cheaper but you get what you pay for in the long run.

2) Clean Police Record Check

To teach you need to provide documentation of a clean police record from where you live. This can be obtained from your local police station within your country. It’s best to get the process started as soon as possible because it can take a few months.

3) University Degree

You need to also provide original documentation of a university degree and transcripts. As an aside for American's. In some parts of the world there are High Schools that are known as Colleges. You need to be careful to not be disqualified for this reason.

When you have all of your documentation in order you will be able to find work teaching English as a Second Language.

I received my TESOL certification because that is what the principle had done. I also took the course here in Vietnam. There are many courses all over the world. I could have taken it in Houston Texas, USA, but it was more expensive and the living expenses for one month was much higher than staying with my brother-in-law in Ho Chi Minh City.

Now all you have to do is to be able to find, separate and qualify the good and bad teaching jobs when you are in your search. Once you understand how to search for these positions and understand the pay scales, you can search for decent positions.

By Edward Hui

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Taiwan a Cyclist’s Dream, Canadian Newspaper Says

Taiwan a Cyclist’s Dream, Canadian Newspaper Says.

A Canadian newspaper praised Taiwan as a cyclist’s wonderland and recommended the country as a perfect model for Canadian officials attempting to encourage more city dwellers to get on their bikes.
“With a huge choice of bike paths, mountain trails, bike parks and other tourism sites along the routes,” Taiwan has been transformed into a “cyclist’s paradise,” the Ottawa Citizen daily said in an article on Saturday last week.

“The Taiwanese have suddenly taken to riding bicycles by the millions, and today the island is criss-crossed by hundreds of smooth paved bike paths,” the article written by Mike McCarthy said.

McCarthy wrote that twin setbacks — SARS a decade ago and the more recent global economic recession — caused a drop in international tourism and led many locals to switch to more affordable cycling vacations at home.

A Taiwanese film on cycling around the island — Island Etude (練習曲) — also helped fan the flames of this health revolution, the article said.

Keen to develop a new industry, the government began funding bike trails and bike parks. Bike hotels and bed and breakfasts have sprung up all over the country to lure city dwellers to the countryside for cycling adventures.

“Today, the majority of Taiwanese, young and old, are frequent or occasional cyclists, and the demand for more bike paths continues to grow,” McCarthy wrote, adding that “the bike trails and mountains have also attracted serious cyclists from Europe and North America.”

McCarthy referred to the Guanshan Bike Trail in Taitung County as the “perfect bike trail,” with its scenery of lush green rice paddies and rolling hills dotted with water buffalo and fragrant flowers, along a smooth paved path over tiny bridges and past shops selling tea, ice cream and lunchboxes.

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said at the opening of the Taipei Cycle Show on Wednesday that the government would extend the nation’s bike path network to 2,000km, of which 900km would be mountain biking trails and 1,200km would span along coastlines.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Those Who Know English Will Travel China or The USA

Those Who Know English Will Travel China or The USA.

A novel concept is marrying budget-conscious travelers to the nation with hungry-for-English yuppie Chinese. Shi Yingying reports

When 22-year-old Ammon Cunningham and his wife Marissa from Utah's Salt Lake City decided to visit Shanghai in the middle of June, accommodation was the last thing on their mind, despite it being peak time for hotel occupancy, thanks to the on-going Expo. The young couple had arranged to stay in a 140-square-meter apartment in Putuo district for free, in exchange for English conversation everyday with their hosts - 18-year-old Wu Siwei and his mother, Jin Yujun.

This was made possible by a non-profit Chinese organization called Tourboarding, which offers a virtual platform for free lodging in Chinese homes in exchange for English tutoring. Guests are required to speak at least two hours of English every day in return for their stay, giving their Chinese hosts the chance to learn from a resident live-in English teacher for free - lessons that can otherwise costs 200-350 yuan ($30-50) an hour, and even more than 1,000 yuan an hour at some training institutions.

"I think it is very nice to actually be this close to the local culture," says Ammon. "We would like to not only visit tourist spots, but also see how a Chinese family lives, what their customs are like, and what's their favorite television show."

Although Ammon's company in the US would have covered his cost of accommodation as one of the aims of his 15-day trip is to expand business with the Shanghai branch of Gymboree (an early childhood education company), the young man chose the Shanghai family over a star hotel.

He chanced on the Tourboarding website while "looking for information on Chinese culture and what's okay to do".

"I thought this might be fun to try," says Ammon. "So we contacted Wu's mother and the rest is history."

Wu, a recent high school graduate, was most excited when he heard that two English-speaking foreigners would be staying at his home. The teenager is currently preparing for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for his future plans to study in the US.

"Unlike the formal teaching in my school, the conversations I have with Ammon and Marissa are more like everyday conversations between friends," Wu says.

"To spend more time with them, I show them around Shanghai and that means far more than two hours of English every day."

Ammon says they talk about diverse topics. "I think that's really good as in China, students usually memorize everything so they can clear a test. This kind of conversation is a lot more difficult for them."

As to suitable US universities for Wu, Ammon's 20-year-old wife Marissa, who is still in her last year at university says, "I'd definitely encourage him to go to the University of Utah. It is very famous and near our city."

Marissa says the biggest cultural shock for her is the lack of personal space. "Here in China people are always right next to each other, but in the US, everyone tries to keep away as much as possible.

However, the couple have their own separate bedroom and bathroom in Wu's house.

"Our bedroom is done up in the Japanese tatami style, while the living room is decorated with traditional Chinese calligraphy, and that's cool," says Marissa.

The Cunninghams usually have their breakfast and dinner "at home", talk to the family in English and spend the day either traveling or working.

"We even did dumpling together once with Wu and his mother," says Ammon who first picked this up from his father who lived for a while in Taiwan and is good at Chinese cuisine. "We're grateful for the treat and are thinking of preparing an American-style breakfast for them before leaving."

The most interactive moments between the American couple and their Chinese hosts come after dinner, when they either watch the popular TV matchmaking show If You Are the One (Fei Cheng Wu Rao), play the card game, Beat the Landlord, or Chinese chess. "It (the show) is so funny," says Ammon.

Wu says his mom Jin loves to try new things and her English is so good that she could communicate with the Cunninghams without any problem.

But doesn't Jin worry about their safety with two complete strangers in the house?

"Shanghai is my city, even if anything goes wrong, they will be more afraid than us," says Jin. "However, I have no concerns, the Cunninghams seem nice and friendly."

Tourboarding is the brainchild of an intrepid backpacker, 38-year-old Ken Chen. He says he found that 80 percent of tourists to China come as part of tour groups, while the comparative figure for Europe and America is 30 percent.

"That's when I came up with the idea of accommodating backpackers with ordinary Chinese families," says Chen, adding that the English tutoring is tailor-made for the Chinese.

Chen quit his job at Nike Sports China and joined forces with Nuno Zhang, 28, a former Google employee and a few expats to launch Tourboarding in April.

Their research showed that about 130 million Chinese fall in the 18-40 age group - their target host families - who are open to foreign cultures and eager to learn English. About 47 percent have evinced interest in the Tourboarding concept and 21 percent are willing to give it a try.

"In the past two months, more than 10,000 users have signed up on our website," says Chen. "We are especially popular in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Our overseas promotion now extends from English-speaking countries to Europeans and Japan."

According to Chen, most Chinese families interested in the program are those with children. "But they are also those with apartments that are big enough. Even some of young white collar workers are interested in Tourboarding, although they might still be renting their apartment and are not allowed to bring strangers home."

Spurred by the enthusiasm for Tourboarding, Chen is also thinking about building a "foreigners' city".

"Why should we not bring an English-speaking environment to China?" he asks.

"We can build a mini-city peopled with foreign backpackers who can be encouraged to live like they do in their home countries. English will be the only language of communication

"The Chinese can visit this 'city' and quickly improve their language skills," he says.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Children of China's Future Part II

Children of China's Future – Part II 

Aging population and poverty require stronger investment in China’s rural youth.

DINGXI PREFECTURE: Wang Hongli, 8 years old, lives in a remote rural village on the Loess Plateau in one of China’s poorest and most agricultural provinces, Gansu. His prospects for living the good life are as bleak as the landscape. He is not on track to become part of China’s emerging middle class, the free-spending, computer-savvy, person-of-the-world often featured in the western media.

Hongli is a pseudonym. His parents work in a faraway industrial zone, coming home for only three weeks at Chinese New Year. His grandmother takes care of him and his siblings on the weekends, and during the week he lives in a dorm, three to a bed with 36 other students in an unheated room 4 by 4 meters.

Hongli suffers from iron-deficient anemia, but neither his family nor his teacher knows he is sick. Even if his anemia is discovered and treated by the researchers who have documented 30 percent anemia among children in poor rural areas, it likely will recur after he finishes the study, with furnished dietary supplements. Despite educational pamphlets, he’ll likely revert to a diet of staple grains and bits of pickled vegetables.

Unsurprisingly, Hongli’s grades are not good. In China’s competitive school system, he has only a slight chance of attending high school, much less college. In China’s future high-wage economy, all Hongli can hope for is a menial job in the provincial capital, Lanzhou, or as a temporary migrant elsewhere. Without urban permanent residency, hukou, he will have limited access to urban social services. He may suffer chronic unemployment, or resort to the gray economy or crime. He also may never marry – one of the millions of “forced bachelors” created by China’s large gender imbalance.

Hongli is not alone. In fact, he’s one of 50 million school-age youth in China’s vast poor rural hinterlands. Recent studies by Stanford and Chinese collaborators show that 39 percent of fourth-grade students in Shaanxi Province are anemic, with similarly high rates elsewhere in the northwest; up to 40 percent of rural children in the poor southwest regions, e.g., Guizhou, are infected with intestinal worms. Millions of poor rural students throughout China are nearsighted, but do not wear glasses.

Because China’s urbanites have fewer children, poor rural kids like Hongli represent almost a third of China’s school-aged children, a large share of the future labor force. These young people must be healthy, educated and productive if China is to have any chance of increasing labor productivity to offset the shrinking size of its aging workforce.

Many observers presume that China’s growth will continue unabated, drawing upon a vast reservoir of rural labor to staff manufacturing plants for the world. In fact, to a considerable extent, China’s rural areas have already been emptied out, leaving many villages with only the old and the very young. The growth of wages for unskilled workers exceeds GDP growth.

Better pay should be good news for poverty alleviation. However, rising wages push up the opportunity cost of staying in school – especially since high school fees, even at rural public schools, are among the highest in the world.

It’s myopic to allow rural students to drop out of junior high and high school – mitigating the current labor shortage, but mortgaging their futures. Recent studies demonstrate that eliminating high school tuition – or reducing the financial burden on poor households – improves junior high achievement and significantly increases continuation on to high school. Yet unlike many other developing countries, China does not use incentives to keep children in school, such as conditional cash transfers. The public health and educational bureaucracies also do not proactively cooperate to remedy nutritional and medical problems – including mental health – that school-based interventions could address cost effectively.

The educational system, based on rote memory and drill, doesn’t teach children how to learn. The vocational education system is ineffective. Instead, China’s schools tend to focus resources on elite students. Tracking starts early, and test scores are often the sole criterion for success. A recent comparative study documents that China’s digital divide, with lower access to computers in poor rural areas, is among the widest in the world.

China’s government is increasing expenditures for school facilities and raising teacher salaries. However, these steps are far from adequate. During South Korea’s high growth, almost all Korean students finished high school. Today, less than half of youth in China’s poor rural areas go to academic high school, and the percent going to college remains in the single digits.

Greater investment in public health and education for the young people in China’s poor rural areas is urgent. If the government waits 10 years, it may be too late to avert risks for China’s stability and sustained economic growth.

Surely China could easily address this problem? A third of Chinese were illiterate in the early 1960s; now, fewer than 5 percent are. By 2010, about 120 million Chinese had completed a college degree. Chinese also enjoy a relatively long life expectancy compared to India and many other developing countries, and basic health insurance coverage is almost universal.

But the pace of change and citizens’ expectations are higher as well. Most Chinese assume that basic nutritional problems and intestinal worms were eradicated in the Mao era. China’s mortality halved in the 1950s; fertility halved in the 1970s. As a result, China will get old before it gets rich. Population aging, rapid urbanization and a large gender imbalance represent intertwined demographic challenges to social and economic governance. The policy options are complicated, the constraints significant, the risks of missteps real and ever-present.

Timely policy response is complicated by competition for resources – pensions, long-term care, medical care for the elderly and more – as well as significant governance challenges arising from a countryside drained of young people. The well-intentioned programs for what government regards a “harmonious society” create large unfunded mandates for local authorities. Attempts to relocate rural residents to new, denser communities provoke anger at being uprooted and skepticism that local authorities simply want to expropriate land for development.

Millions of migrant workers – like Wang Hongli’s parents – return to their rural homes during economic downturns. Urbanization weakens this capacity to absorb future economic fluctuations. Government efforts at “social management” – strengthening regulatory control of informal social groups and strategies for diffusing social tensions – expand the bureaucratic state, a central target of popular discontent.

Premier Wen Jiabao’s announcement of a 7.5 percent growth target – the lowest in two decades – has been expected. Future economic growth will moderate partly because of demographics, but mostly because productivity gains slow as an economy runs out of surplus rural labor and converges on the technological frontier. Costly upgrading of industrial structure will squeeze the government’s ability to deliver on its promise of a better future for all, stoking social tensions.

China’s stability and prosperity, and that of the region and the globe, depends on how well today’s youth master the knowledge and skills that enable them to thrive in the technology-driven globalized world of the mid-21st century. Resilient public and private sector leaders of the future must be able to think creatively. Therefore, China’s government should respond to population aging by acting now to invest more in the health and education of youth, especially the rural poor.

Karen Eggleston, Jean Oi, Scott Rozelle, Ang Sun, Xueguang Zhou
YaleGlobal, 14 March 2012
2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Children of China's Future Part I

Children of China's Future – Part I

On tour in Europe, China’s privileged children reflect inequality and self-confidence.

BRUSSELS: On a blustery February evening in the Tyrolean town of Kufstein, pandemonium reigned inside the usually lugubrious Thaler Hotel. Gaggles of Chinese children swarmed the corridors. “Hi!” one called out. My Chinese was rusty, but adequate. “Ni hao,” I replied. “Have you had a fun day?” Nonplussed, the boy fell momentarily silent.

“Are you Chinese?” asked another bespectacled child with braces flashing silver across his teeth. “Do I look Chinese?” I countered.

“You speak Chinese,” he parried. A girl with bobbed hair and grownup expression sighed. “Don’t you know?” she said with a frown. “These days it’s normal for foreigners to speak Chinese. It’s no big deal.”

And it’s also increasingly normal to see hoards of Chinese children hitting Europe’s ski slopes, shopping malls and chocolate shops. If it’s school-vacation holiday in China, then it’s study-tour time in Europe.

I joined one of six groups of children visiting Europe for the Chinese New Year break in late January, a trip arranged by a German company, ECS Tours. Run by a young couple – German lawyer Rudolf Reiet and Xing Li – ECS is a new player in the lucrative market for Chinese study groups in Europe.

In a country where many workers earn an annual income of around $1,500, parents paid up to RMB 60,000, or US$9,500, to send their children on whirlwind tours of the continent’s sights. In addition to holiday photos, the children were expected to bring home skills like eating with a fork and knife and learning the appropriate time to clap at a classical music concert.
Chinese tourists, some 3 million of whom visited Western Europe in 2010, have already remade the traditional European Grand Tour according to their own tastes and consumer culture. Typical stops include Paris for romance and Louis Vuitton; Switzerland for mountains and chocolates;  German towns like Trier, the birthplace of Karl Marx; and Metzingen, home to several factory outlets and the headquarters of Hugo Boss.

Chinese travelers have also emerged as the travel industry’s knights in shining armor, riding to the rescue of Europe’s industries suffering the effects of stagnant economic growth. In 2011, Chinese travelers accounted for 62 percent of Europe’s luxury goods sales according to one estimate.

The 35 children in my group were from a primary School in Chongqing and receive a truncated version of the new Chinese Grand Tour with a few days each in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Talking with them offered a glimpse into the attitudes and aspirations of the country’s future workforce. These children were born in 2000 amid  anticipation of China’s imminent rise to superpowerdom, an idea that would have seemed improbable even a decade earlier.

Collectively, the children provide a snapshot of China’s new elite. Many are sons and daughters of officials of China’s ruling Communist Party. “They talk just like little lingdao [leaders], ready to launch into a politically correct speech at the asking,” Reiet said. Others are children of entrepreneurs. Reiet smiled, recalling a child who had brought along packets of instant noodles to sell to classmates bored with European fare at the inflated price of €5 each.

Over dinner, the conversation at our table was about money. One jolly, plump 11-year-old grinned and pointed to her friend: “Do you know how much cash her father gave her for this trip?”

“Stop it, stop it!” gasped Xue, trying to put a hand over her friend’s mouth.

“€4000!” the girl exclaimed, undeterred. “Can you believe it?” Fan then happily explained that her father had given her €2,000. The children were comfortable talking about money, but ask a question about politics, even something as basic as whether their parents were party members, and they immediately went quiet.

Another girl at our table had looked on, disapproving of the conversation, and when others demanded to know how much spending money she carried, she refused to tell. I asked what her father did. Reluctant to answer, she finally confided that he was a bank executive. One girl let out a whoop. “You must be really rolling in it!” she laughed.

China’s per capita GDP might still be about a sixth that of the United States, but these are China’s children of privilege. The West would not automatically associate the professions of some parents– including policemen, municipal government officials, army officers and investment bureau bureaucrats – with wealth.

Despite decades of economic reform, China’s state-led capitalism has created a murky, often corrupt world, where the line between government officials and entrepreneurs is blurred. Local officials still have power to dispense patronage and lubricate business deals.

The result is scenes as when the scrawny 11-year-old daughter of a police officer waved a platinum credit card a Swarovski Crystal shop. She had picked out a crystal-encrusted watch that cost €2,800 and explained she was buying it for an auntie. Over the course of the next hour she spent a total of €4,200 on gifts for her family.

Another son of a policeman joined children snapping up crystals like candy and held up his crystal dog. “You know what I like about this?” he said. “It’s not ‘made in China!’”

Half the staff at the Swarovski shop were Chinese, and some of the local Austrian clerks had even learned basic Mandarin. Most of the children took this in stride. And for children of an emerging superpower, first impressions of Europe only confirmed their childlike sense of cultural superiority. There was a distinct touch of condescension when I asked the children how they had enjoyed Europe thus far.

“The hotel rooms are rather small here,” said the bank executive’s daughter. Another 11-year-old girl was critical of the traffic. “So many rules to follow on the road. I’m not sure who gets right of way. It must be scary to drive here!”

Another girl, whose father is an engineer and mother a housewife, dissed the breakfasts. “All that ham,” she muttered darkly, missing the typical morning fare for Chinese, hot buns stuffed with pork or a rich bowl of congee, rice porridge. “But,” she continued, “it’s a lot more peaceful out here than in China. Quiet.”

I thought about the children’s hometown, Chongqing, a municipality in China’s southwest and one of the largest urban centers in the world – home to 32 million people, four times that of Austria’s population.

What I remembered most from my own visit to Chongqing in 2008, was the ceaseless aural assault: churning cement mixers, sizzling spicy noodles at roadside stands, spluttering exhaust pipes and heavy thudding of wrecking balls. Everywhere were sounds of trade and movement, the old giving way to the new.

“You mean it’s a lot more boring out here,” giggled another girl. Both grinned in agreement.

For a vast, emerging country like China, defined by continuous change and a headlong rush towards trade and infrastructure development, Old World Europe could understandably appear a tad dull. And while the children did accomplish their mission of learning proper use of fork and knife and filling cameras with pretty pictures, they took away more – a conviction that China is more developed and urban than Europe, though Europe is cleaner, quieter, with plenty of expensive crystals and watches to buy. And yes, foreigners speaking Chinese is normal.

Pallavi Aiyar
YaleGlobal, 12 March 2012
2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization


Monday, March 19, 2012

Travel Cambodia in and Around Kep Open But Undeveloped

Travel Cambodia in and Around Kep Open But Undeveloped.

ON a sunny weekday in Kep, a seaside village about halfway along Cambodia’s coast, the crab market was heaving. Women in straw hats and rubber boots stood knee deep in the surf shouting out prices, periodically darting into the sea to pull writhing specimens out of wicker baskets. Children of all ages ran through the stalls; it seemed as if the entire town had congregated in this one main square.

Nearby, suspended over the water overlooking the South China Sea, rickety open-fronted restaurants were perched on stilts. At one of the smallest, the Seagull, I sat with my son and husband watching wooden fishing boats move slowly along the coastline as the family who owns the spot prepared what would be the finest steamed crab I had ever tasted. Even my one-year-old tucked into the white buttery meat.

It was a scene that felt quaintly out of time, made all the more novel because we were somehow able to exist seamlessly within it. No one tried to sell us souvenirs or offer to guide us around town. It was just life as it had always been and always would be.

But of course this wasn’t true.

While we sat, lucky guests in this rustic tableau, not far away new bridges and roads were being completed; luxury resorts, casinos and golf courses mapped out; shopping malls planned.

All this in an area of Cambodia occupied by the Khmer Rouge as recently as 1995.

Like so many places that have dropped from, and re-emerged in, the traveler’s gaze, this area of southwestern Cambodia is in the midst of a now-familiar cycle. First come the backpackers, lured by tales of simple coastal villages and untouched island beaches. Next come the pioneering hoteliers, establishing in-the-know outposts of taste and luxury. Finally the big money arrives and, with it, the big plans.

Right now the area around Kep is still in that traveler’s sweet spot — mostly itself, but with roads and a few boutique hotels here and there for those who want them.

Yet as I would see over the course of two weeks, change is afoot. The crowds will surely be coming, but before they do I wanted a chance to see it for myself.

JUST a few hours from Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, Kep started out as a stylish retreat for the French in the 1920s, and by 1960 was called the St.-Tropez of Southeast Asia (Kep-sur-Mer), with modernist colonial villas built along the coast and weekenders arriving in vintage convertibles. When the Khmer Rouge set up camp here in the 1970s the French beat a retreat, and the villas fell into disrepair.

In the last five years, however, a number of these structures have been turned into boutique hotels — properties like Villa Romonea, which opened in 2010, and Knai Bang Chatt, which opened a few years before.

Villa Romonea was the dream second home of a Khmer woman who built the house in 1968 with the help of a famous local architect, Lu Ban Hap. It was the last villa built before the war, and the owner and her husband, a pharmacist, were killed in the early days of the Pol Pot regime. Now British developers have taken over.

The six-room hotel with its saltwater infinity pool and tropical grounds is representative of the kind of small-scale enterprises that have been spreading across southwestern Cambodia. Many are run by foreigners who discovered the area early on and wanted an excuse to stay. Jef Moons, Knai Bang Chatt’s Belgian owner, first saw Kep in 2003 while on a vacation. He then proceeded to buy a Le Corbusier-influenced villa, which he restored initially into a vacation home and then, in 2006 — a hotel. “I first fell in love with the people in Cambodia,” Mr. Moons said, “but also with the nature. It still feels remote.”

Over the course of my stay last year, I tried out both hotels. Each, set along the tranquil rocky coast, proved difficult to leave. One could camp out for days, sitting at waterfront tables watching the boats pass by and taking brief strolls into town. They were also incredibly good spots to be with a baby; everyone from cooks to hotel managers treated my son like a visiting celebrity.

But I was eager to explore the surrounding countryside, in particular the inland region to the northwest and the beaches and islands up the coast — areas, I had been told, whose futures were already being plotted by Chinese, Russian and Cambodian conglomerates eager to make their mark.

Our first trip was to Kampot, about an hour away. One can arrange to hire a car and driver but we decided to rent motorcycles. After leaving the baby in capable hands at Knai Bang Chatt, we sputtered along, passing countless oxen knee deep in rice paddies, bustling markets and clusters of little villages made up of traditional stilt houses. 

Decades-old Toyota Camrys seem to be the local car of choice (I noticed one with California plates), which shared the road with an assortment of scooters, bikes and vans that double as buses, not to mention the water buffalo, chickens and pigs that shuffled about amid the traffic.

In Kampot, a quiet city set alongside pepper plantations and forested hills, we drank coffee at one of the cafes that have sprouted in the crumbling 1920s verandas that front the lazy Praek Teuk Chhu River. Kampot was once one of the country’s most important ports, and is still the center of Cambodia’s pepper production; its streets are lined with turn-of-the-century colonial buildings, now mostly in disrepair.

As we sat watching boats make their way along the river, we were again struck by the startling lack of hawking here — especially compared with many tourist towns in Vietnam and Thailand.

Another observation: There were few people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. The reason for this speaks to the horrifying fact that between 1975 and 1979 a fifth of the population was wiped out under the regime. The Khmer Rouge endured in Kampot through much of the 90s, much later than other parts of the country, and almost every person I met lost at least one close family member or friend.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Educational Tablet To Be Made in Thailand

Educational Tablet To Be Made in Thailand.

Getting closer to becoming a reality, 800,000 tablets at 3,000 baht each could jumpstart Thai-language content such as ebooks and learning games.

Forth Corporation has introduced the first Thai-made educational tablet computer priced at 3,000 baht in a bid to join the government's 4-billion-baht One Tablet per Child programme.

Mr Sawat says controls on the tablet help ensure only appropriate content can be used.

The SET-listed electronic equipment manufacturer spent three months redesigning its controller board to integrate it with a base to reduce size and bring the cost down from 5,000 baht earlier, said R&D director Sawat Erbchokchai.

As well, he said, the fact that the government wants as many as 800,000 tablets means the company can achieve economies of scale to keep costs low.

"We're confident our current tablet price could easily compete with those of Chinese manufacturers, while our production capacity could serve the government's demand," he said.

The tablet programme was one of the high-profile election promises of the Pheu Thai Party. Responding to critics who said the cost would be too high, party strategists said they believed they could source cheap equipment from China.

Forth is in talks with advisers to the Education Minister and local software companies about cooperation on educational content development.

Featuring a 7-inch display and both a pen- and touch-based interface, Forth's tablets enable students to automatically receive educational content after they register their personal data and log in - without the need for downloads.

The management software enables screening of content and applications supplied to students to make sure it is appropriate. "This will facilitate primary school pupils, considered too young to download applications by themselves.

Mr Sawat said it was not easy in the past for Thai companies to make tablets, given small local demand. However, the school tablet project opens the doors to local IT and technology firms.

"If the government promotes greater use of local content and opens more opportunity for local IT and telecom firms to participate in state bidding projects, the ultimate result will be a new ecosystem and a new momentum for the industry," he said.

Mr Sawat said that if Forth's tablets proved successful, it would attract other industries to commercially adopt the first Thai-made products. As a result, he said, both hardware makers and local application developers would benefit.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Chinese Teaching and China Learning Cooperation

Chinese Teaching and China Learning Cooperation.

Ms. Churairat Sangboonnum, the Deputy Permanent Secretary for Education, presided over a signing ceremony of cooperation under the project of quality learning and teaching of the Chinese language in educational institutes located in Bangkok Metropolitan and networking schools, Thai - Chinese networking schools and, the Center for Chinese Language Development (Hanban), Beijing Normal University. This event took place at Ratchavallop Meeting Room in the Ministry of Education.

 The Deputy Permanent Secretary informed all in attendance that the government had delivered a policy on moving forward to the ASEAN Community  in 2015 through human resource development in order to provide access to quality education and lifelong learning  as well as to develop innovation, research and development and ASEAN integration for all Thai citizens.

 The provision of basic education is a crucial educational system in borderless communication. It must achieve educational standards in response to the free trade areas both in ASEAN and in the WTO. In this regard, educational cooperation amongst neighboring countries is important, especially as China is developing educational standards which will stimulate internationalization and international standard schools. This will also facilitate collaboration in developing teachers, students and educational administrators and an information exchange. Thus, it was a great opportunity for Thai educational administrators and distinguished delegates from the Chinese government to strengthen their close cooperation in quality Chinese learning and teaching under the support of the Center for Chinese Language Development (Hanban), the Beijing Normal University that reflects the valued friendship which exists between both countries.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Eating Your Way Through the Streets of Bangkok Thailand

Eating your way through the streets of Bangkok Thailand.

Sweet and spicy flavours - often combined - are the specialty, from pad Thai to suckling pig.

Bangkok is like your favourite e the one you carry a secret torch for, the one that could have been - should have been - the best thing that ever happened to you and was wrong for all the right reasons.

It's a city that you can feel against your skin, taste on your lips. Your clothes still reek of it weeks later when you return home. You'll smell it on your suit coat driving into work or when you open your wallet at the corner store to buy a litre of milk.

The moment I leave Suvarnabhumi Airport, it all comes rushing back to me. Everywhere I look during the drive into the city, people are eating. A girl dangling helmetless off the back of a scooter feasts on fried rice out of a Styrofoam container. A young mother and her son sip cola out of plastic bags with straws. A taxi driver alternates between smoking and gnawing on pineapple chunks.

Four years ago when I first came to the Kingdom of Siam, the food here was a gut-wrenching spicefest. All sweat and tears. Let's just say that I've come back to get my fill. Thais eat up to eight meals a day and I plan to do the same.

Before my flight, chef Angus An of Maenam fame in Vancouver made me promise to visit Nahm at the Metropolitan Hotel on my first night in Bangkok. David Thompson is expecting you, he told me. These five simple words will prove to be the blueprint for a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience.

Bangkok rush hour, 30-minute traffic jams at every intersection, forgetting to ask the concierge at the VIE Hotel to write down the restaurant address in Thai - this is exactly what not to do on your first night in Bangkok, but our pilgrimage to Nahm is worth it.

In London, Thompson runs the first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. He has been both praised and skewered as the Westerner who had enough cajones to open a Thai restaurant (also named Nahm) in Bangkok.

"When I first came here in the 1980s, Thai cuisine had become a take-away culture," he tells my business partner Steve and I during a behind-the-scenes tour of his kitchen. "You would never eat it in a fine-dining environment."

Even though he's reluctant to talk about it, halfway through dinner, it's clear that Thompson is an expert at isolating the key flavours of traditional Thai dishes and combining them with surprising new textures.

His spicy pork with mint, peanuts and crunchy rice on betel leaves is the ideal example of this - the crunch of the leaf and rice and the play between mint and spice is sublime.

His blue crab coconut curry juggles sweetness and eye-watering heat perfectly.

Thompson brings us a durian rice pudding to close our meal.

"You'll either love durian or hate it," he says.

I tell Thompson about a poet I know who wrote a series of odes to the fruit - she couldn't get enough - and then tell him that his pudding tastes like someone shat in the middle of a smoking lounge.

"Your friend, she sounds like my kind of poet," he laughs.

After dinner, Thompson joins us for a few bottles of wine on his poolside terrace. He is more comfortable joking about politics and staying out until 9 a.m. than he is talking about food. He loves what he does and lets his cooking speak for itself - in other words, the perfect chef.

He suggests we visit the twisting Yaowarat Road in Chinatown tomorrow night to "eat in the dragon's belly."

The following evening, Bangkok smells like an overripe papaya slowly roasting over a charcoal fire. The city is on edge. This is the day the flood water is supposed to break through the levies and consume downtown Bangkok. Sandbags line the fronts of businesses and the tourist districts are deserted.

Bangkok's Chinatown is located in a low-lying district close to the Chao Phraya River and Hua Lamphong Station, the end of underground MRT subway line.

We are repetitively warned by wellmeaning locals to stay away from this part of the city, but the temptation is too high.

We catch a cab, expecting to find empty streets submerged under waistdeep water.

Instead, we find a three-ringed circus of food carts and curbside diners divided down the middle by an unrelenting cacophony of honking cars and scooters. During the resettlement of the Chinese community to this district in the late 1700s, Yaowarat Road was built in a series of twists and curves - like a dragon's body. The vendors fight to sell here because they believe it will make them rich.

It's a dizzying crush of bodies and smells, the complete antithesis of North American dining culture.

Corner barbecue huts offer traditional Chinese and Thai delicacies - from bird's-nest and shark fin soup to pepper blue crab and chestnuts handcooked in steaming vats of black sand. Space here is at a premium. Long common tables are packed elbow to elbow with friends, strangers and entire families, and it's legal to drink open liquor on the street.

Our final destination is Tang Jai Yoo, a restaurant at the intersection of Yaowarat and Yaowa Phanit. Its signature dish is roast suckling pig, which to me represents the kind of gluttony and gastronomic excess I've dreamed of since I was boy. After all, who in their right mind would settle for a mere pork chop in place of the whole pig?

This dish is served in two courses, beginning with the roasted skin sectioned off into two-inch squares and the fat removed. Served with green onion, cucumber, hoisin sauce and flatbread, you can opt to make crispy pork skin tortillas or try crunching on the cartilage and soft skin from the ears, nose and feet.

When finished, we asked the kitchen to deep fry the moist meat and bones with garlic and black pepper. The end result is similar to pub-style dry ribs - make sure to have this last course with a local beer.

On our final day in the city, we have enlisted a Thai guide, Sam Doungpraton, and a driver under the guise of a city tour, though we really just want them to take us out for lunch. We ask them to take us to the best street pad Thai in Bangkok. It's the one Thai dish that every westerner knows, but Sam tells us that it didn't become popular locally until the 1930s or '40s.

He takes us to Pha Tu Pee, a fourtable open-air restaurant next to Wat Saket in the Pom Prap Sattru Phai district.

After parking the car, our driver asks Sam if it's okay to join us. Sam translates, "He has heard of this restaurant from friends and has always wanted to try it."

The pad Thai is prepared out front over a charcoal fire by a young woman in flip-flops and shorts.

"The charcoal fire is the key," Sam explains. "This is the best in the city because of the way they cook the noodles."

We order the Super Special with Egg and Prawns for a whopping 70 baht - roughly $2 Cdn - and it's served with bean sprouts, green onions, limes and something unexpected: banana flowers. This bitter garnish tastes like Lily of the Valley and helps combat spice and heat. The pad Thai arrives plain and we are expected to customize it individually with chilies, sugar, peanuts, fish sauce and vinegar.

Sam didn't lie.

The noodles are so soft it's like eating a mouthful of butter. Mid-meal, a cat chases something up and down the aisles, but nobody seems to care. There's even an elderly man snoring in the back, shifting every few seconds to follow the cool breeze from a rotating fan. Our driver admits that it's the best he's had in Bangkok before shyly vanishing across the street. I have to agree.

The most rewarding meals in Thailand are usually small and simple. There are chicken/pork noodle soup and iced Thai tea stalls on nearly every block in Bangkok-and it's in these places that you really get to know the city and the people who live here.

On the way back to the airport, I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment, the same kind you have when you meet an old ex again for the first time in years.

I've grown up and so has Bangkok - the skyline is dotted with construction cranes and new buildings and communities have sprung up everywhere, rendering parts of the city virtually unrecognizable.

Sure, I'll eat anything nowadays, but I still feel like I'm about to return home, hungry for more.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Travel Trends in 2012

Travel trends in 2012.

I can see it now. The travel crystal ball for 2012 shows amazing destinations, interesting price trends and, wait, is that Myanmar? Here’s a look at where travel is headed this year - what’s hot, what things will cost and must-dos for people who want to be on the cutting edge.

Hot destinations for 2012:
Myanmar (Burma)

Best deals:
Costa Rica - still cheap
Japan - needs visitors
Mediterranean - ship glut
Orlando - many deals
Thailand - still cheap

Don’t go here:
Syria. Danger and conflict destroyed fragile tourism efforts

Or here, either:
Republic of South Sudan
Cote d’Ivoire
North Korea

Trending up:
Abu Dhabi

Lodging fads:
Women-only hotel floors
Renting out your backyard to travellers

In-crowd hangouts:
Sri Lanka
St. Vincent / Grenadines
Guimarães, Portugal
Abu Dhabi
Costa Navarino, Greece
Xishuangbanna, China

Cost of U.S. travel:
Coach airfare: Will go up 2 percent-5 percent
Business class: Will go up 5 percent-7 percent
Car rentals: Will go down as much as 1 percent
Hotel rates: Will go up 1.5 percent-6.5 percent

We plan most trips:
4 or fewer weeks ahead: 21 percent
5-7 weeks ahead: 15 percent
8 or more weeks ahead: 64 percent

Be the first on your block:
Try this tour: "Forgotten Corner of South America" - Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, 19 days, Geographic Expeditions (

On the horizon:
Toronto: Construction of a rail link between Pearson International Airport and downtown’s Union Station starts in the spring and should be complete by 2015, when Toronto hosts the Pan Am Games.
Las Vegas: Construction of an entertainment complex, Linq, featuring the High Roller (a 550-foot wheel like the London Eye) is supposed to get under way any day now on the Strip near the Flamingo. It’s expected to be finished in 2013.

Splendid but few tourists:
Russia. Despite the Hermitage, palaces, incredible history and architecture in Moscow and St. Petersburg, tourism is lacklustre. Visit now before the Winter Olympics in 2014 makes it a hot destination.

Travel trends for this year:
"Ends of the Earth" journeys to remote destinations
Personal growth trips
Ancestral travel - discover your heritage

Boom! In 2012:
It’s the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, plus the continuing Civil War sesquicentennial in the U.S.. Look for trips and commemorations galore.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Tour Group Cycles from Saigon Vietnam to Bangkok Thailand

A tour group cycles from Saigon Vietnam to Bangkok Thailand.

In March, my partner and I cycled from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Bangkok - a memorable two-week holiday that took us through three distinct countries in hot and humid South-East Asia. The trip was both more, and less, daunting than it sounds.

So don't stop reading. You can do it, too, if you are reasonably fit (if you can easily cover 60 kilometres in a day) and don't mind traipsing through strangers' chicken coops to get to the outhouse. You don't have to be a buff 30-year-old, in other words.

Nor did we cycle every single kilometre: we covered some distance in river boats, an air-conditioned backup van and even an antique "bamboo train." We also enjoyed regular rest days swimming in the hotel pool - when we weren't drinking icy beer at cheerful bars, or poking through glittery, local markets filled with dollar-store junk and all manner of mutant fruits and vegetables.

But the cycling, about 570 kilometres in all, was the highlight. The road is often bumpy, but the terrain is mostly flat. The heat can be draining, but the reward - as with every cycling trip - is an intimate encounter with the culture (including the barnyards, convoys of orangeclad monks who studied us gravely, scooters nearly buried under their cargoes of live chickens, smiling toothless women in cone hats and some very excited children.)

In fact, we rode so close to people's simple thatch homes on the twisting paths through Vietnam's Mekong delta, it felt as if we were pedalling right into their daily lives, disturbing the mid-day siesta, or the friendly curbside cockfight. We thoroughly disrupted recess at countless country schools, and caused a sensation on rural backroads, as squealing kids ran to greet us with high-fives and exuberant cries of "Hello! Hello!" (This must be what it's like for Justin Bieber.)

In the company of our genial tour group - more on that later - we swooped, like some species of exotic bird, through villages buried in jungle, past dusty farmlands, spring-green rice paddies, remote hamlets and into damaged and depressing regional hubs, like Battambang, Cambodia, that look as if they haven't seen a tourist since Pol Pot was mercifully defeated in 1979.

Yet people were unfailingly warm and curious - although I did notice the odd amused smile. No wonder; it isn't every day a peloton of red-faced foreigners, dressed in their colourful native spandex, speeds past your shaded hammock in the noonday sun. Chased by the mad dogs.

Our route also hit the main tourist draws: the sombre temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia; the thriving nearby service town of Siem Reap, where fishes will nibble your toes in giant sidewalk tanks; and Phnom Phen, where a seedier form of massage is widely offered. Only $4. We stopped at a touristic silk factory (practically mandatory on an Asia tour, but fascinating), at stone carvers' yards and smaller, out-of-the-way, rice paper "factories" in simple bamboo sheds.

While cycle touring has become popular, especially in booming Vietnam, it still hasn't spoiled the region - in fact, in 14 days we saw only one other western cycle tour, and, in many places, we were the only foreigners.

On a bike, you get to places those giant tour buses can't manage (and there were many buses; Asia is packed with western visitors). That includes potholed country lanes, or narrow scooter paths weaving through the Mekong delta - not to mention the 10-person "ferries", made of rough planks roped together, that traverse the delta's thousands of rivulets.

Several companies now offer cycle tours of varying duration and ambition, with excursions along Vietnam's scorching coastal highway and in the mountainous interior particularly well-subscribed. (And more demanding than our ride, which only rated three chilies out of five in level of difficulty.)

We wanted to see three countries - Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand - and major attractions like Angkor Wat, along with a "quiet" Thai beach, so we chose a trip offered by SpiceRoads, a Scottish-owned outfit with good reviews and reasonable prices. Our tour cost about $2,500 each and included sumptuous meals, inscrutable snacks, adequate-toexcellent hotels, an air-conditioned support van, rental bikes - serviceable Trek hardtail mountain bikes - and three guides. (That didn't include airfare between Canada and Saigon.)

SpiceRoads turned out to be an excellent choice; the tour was well-staffed and the route well-chosen. The main guide, in particular, a 32-year-old American called Jonathan, was well-informed, professional and endlessly helpful. (So encyclopedic was his knowledge of local customs, languages, history, pharmacology and cuisine, he earned the tag WikiJon.)

We were 12 cyclists altogether, ranging in age from 27 to 63, from Australia, the United States and Canada - including a young American working in Afghanistan. No thanks to me, we were an unusually speedy group: a combination of young riders and some seasoned veterans. Any pressure to keep up was mostly self-generated; ordinarily, Jon assured us, this particular trip proceeds at a more stately pace.

We stopped for picnic lunches at park-like Buddhist temples in various states of disrepair; at ramshackle roadside cafés that, in one unforgettable instance, offered deep-fried tarantulas and crickets; at open-air, but well-shaded restaurants where we watched, slack-jawed, as servers paraded out trays of South-Asian specialties, each dish more enticing than the last. (The salty, tasty Vietnamese chicken noodle soup pho ga turns out to be perfect fuel for a sweaty ride through the tropics.)

The longest day was 92 kilometres (long if you are on a mountain bike), but more often we rode 35 to 65 kilometres, or not at all. Sometimes we were on corduroy dirt roads, sometimes on pavement, sometimes cutting across a rice paddy on a hard mud path, occasionally on busy city boulevards.

It was the heat, rather than distance, that was daunting. It was pushing 38 degrees at Angkor Wat, with intense sun and wilting humidity. In the Mekong delta, we were mercifully shaded by coconut and banana fronds, but on open roads the sun beat down relentlessly. Fortunately, on the longest day - through dusty and impoverished farm country in Cambodia, approaching the Thai border - it was unseasonably cool at 26 degrees, and overcast.

No matter when you travel in this region it is going to be hot, but December to February may be the smartest choice. We also took care: we stopped every 20 kilometres for salty snacks, fresh pineapple and watermelon, soft drinks and water. When it got to be too much - sore knee, bad tummy, imminent heat stroke - there was always the air-conditioned van trailing discreetly behind, equipped with water and yet more pineapple.

If you don't want to do the whole ride, you might consider a shorter trek through the Mekong delta, to me the most fascinating part of the trip. The delta is a lush maze of thatch homes, mango farms, temples, banana groves and hamlets that is home to 17 million people. It isn't the sandy, flat farmland, interspersed with broad Amazonian rivers, that I imagined. (It looks like an inhospitable venue for a war, by the way.)

A hundred spidery trails lead through this jungle - many paved and wide enough to accommodate two scooters, which, along with local cyclists and pedestrians, are the only traffic.

The twists and turns force you to slow down; so do the many small bridges, that rise suddenly, over chocolate-coloured, slightly menacing currents. One day, we crossed 51 of these little arched bridges; it felt like a tropical skateboard park. On top of one such bridge, we had to ride over drying rice while dodging young boys eager to show us the live mice they had dangling from strings. We momentarily lost one rider in the swamp, but she had never been on a mountain bike before.

Best of all are the small ferries - which are really just rafts with tattered canvas coverings. Sitting on the plank floor, crossing a turbulent channel the width of the Rideau Canal, eight bikes leaning on the flimsy bamboo railing, the driver operating the small submerged engine with a string tied to his bare toe, I thought to myself: I can't imagine a more exotic destination.

Cambodia was immediately different: poorer than Vietnam, drier, less forested and still haunted, somehow, by the memory of Pol Pot's brutal social experiments of the mid-'70s. I will always associate the country with human skulls and fanatically insistent child vendors.

We cycled to and through some of the famous killing fields - park-like, mass graves of the victims of Pol Pot, with glassed towers of skulls arranged according to gender and age.

The roads in Cambodia were mostly packed dirt and we shared them with water buffalo, scooters and luxury SUVs bearing Phnom Phen plates - evidence of a deeply inequitable society. We passed wooden houses on stilts and many, many children with torn, dirty clothing and poor teeth - but wide, excited smiles.

Despite the obvious poverty, we encountered few beggars. Instead, children swarm tourists like killer bees at every temple, or roadside attraction - thrusting their scarves, T-shirts and trinkets right through bus windows or into your face. They set up an irritating drone: "One dollar. Only one dollar, madame." (They don't get much education, but speak a confident English, tailored to ingratiate. One bright nine-year-old identified "David" Harper, as prime minister of Canada, when we quizzed him. Not bad.)

For many visitors, the celebrated rubble of Angkor Wat - the largest complex of religious buildings in the world, dating from the 12th century - is a historic and spiritual highlight. Maybe, but it was a fiendishly hot 30-kilometre cycle around the sprawling sight.

We arrived before sunrise - along with a few hundred other international tourists and early-rising coffee vendors - to watch the gloomy temples emerge from darkness in the rosy dawn. (Its one of those tourist fetish things.)

We breakfasted, wandered around, but by the time we got on our bikes at 10 a.m. to see the rest of the complex, it was already unbearably hot. Fortunately, it was only seven kilometres back to the hotel pool in Siem Reap.

What I will remember just as vividly is the less exalted "bamboo" train - a removable bamboo raft attached to rail wheels that whistles down a crooked track between two remote villages, an easy 10-kilometre cycle outside of Battambang. When you encounter a similar contraption coming the other way, one "train" stops, the driver moves the platform and wheels to the side, lets the oncoming "train" pass, then reassembles his own rolling platform.

There is no bug screen, no sides, no seats - just boards on wheels, travelling at bone-jarring speed. It was particularly exciting when a wandering cow got her rope caught in the track right in front of us and jerked free only moments before collision.

Travelling from this forgotten part of Cambodia to Thailand was like journeying from the Third World to the First. The moment we traversed the rural border crossing, the roads were better (than here, actually), the food exquisite, the mango groves lush and the bathrooms much fancier - even rivalling those in chic restaurants in Toronto. (We used all manner of toilets on our journey, mostly ceramic stand-ups in sheds behind cafés, temples or farmhouses. They were basic, but, unlike in India, did not smell.)

Our trip ended with a couple of days at a Chantchalao beach resort, mostly frequented by residents of nearby Bangkok and relatively free of the sex tourism so common throughout this part of the world.

A final easy cycle ride around the sleepy resort (including a visit to the King's mangrove swamp, a restoration project) and a magnificent, final moonlit banquet on the beach - featuring a stunning array of Thai seafood and yet more beer and pineapple - and our trip was over.

As I watched a rosy sunset over the ocean fade to black in the company of convivial new friends, sipped my Thai beer and felt the cooling breeze, I had to admit: that wasn't really daunting at all, as cycle tours go.

Susan Riley is a freelance political columnist for the Citizen and enjoys cycle touring. Email:


Tour company: Spice Roads

Cost: About $2,500 for the cycle tour, accommodations, meals, support van, rental bikes and guides, but not airfare to Asia.

When to go: December to February may be wisest in terms of temperature.