Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back Home!

Wow! What a trip!

The travel back home was not fun - after a 2 hour flight to Hong Kong and a 12 1/2 hour flight to L.A., I started feeling ill. Fortunately, we had already planned to stay overnight in L.A. It was not a fun night in the hotel, but I was feeling better the next morning and we got home safe and sound and I even went for a run - well, a jog and a walk - this morning.

Some final thoughts about our trip:

  • If you are going to go on a long trip, it is essential to go with a group as good natured as the 14 members of our delegation. I mean - I had to beg someone to complain so it would be more natural (thanks, Susan!). What a great group of people!
  • While when I was younger it was fun to go on a totally unplanned trip, at my age, I prefer advance planning - preferably by someone else! Our tour manage, Shiv, was wonderful and all arrangements were absolutely perfect.
  • Both countries were highly interesting, but Cambodia surprised us the most. Everyone we met was friendly, welcoming and gentle. While admittedly we only saw a small section of its society, what we did see what totally at odds with the Cambodia we saw in visiting the prison and the killing fields where horrible atrocities were committed. In fact, we noticed how few old people we saw - it's a very young population, due not just to the deaths, but to the large number of people who left during the Pol Pot years.
  • Still, we were impressed - in both countries - by the efforts to improve the legal system as exhibited by the lawyers who met with us. Both legal systems, particularly Cambodia's, are comparatively in their infancy. Improving them is critically important, not just in family law, but to encourage foreign businesses to invest. In both countries, we met with lawyers who are working hard to accomplish this.
Now for some fun observations:

  • Tuk-tuks are great vehicles and should be imported to the U.S., especially to New York.
  • Vietnam should rename its currency to something other than the "dong" to avoid cheap humor (OK, I was mostly guilty of it). And, they need to revalue it - 20,000 dong to the dollar (no, I'm not making that up!) makes converting prices in one's head a bit difficult.
  • Cambodian woman are the most beautiful anywhere I've been!
Two great things about traveling: One, it's great to get away. Two, it's great to get back.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Last day in Cambodia

Today consisted of two interesting and informative professional meetings - the first meeting, shown above, was with the faculty and students of a private law school in Phenom Penh. The students were, as students are wont to be everywhere, enthusiastic, curious and, well, quite cute. In addition to their professor giving us a primer on Cambodian law, the students were quite curious about American law.

The second, shown above, was with the Cambodian Bar Association. There are 712 lawyers in the entire country (there are more than that in the men's room at the Wisconsin Bar at times).

Their challenges are immense, including a civil code adopted in 2007 but, for reasons which are not clear, is still not implemented. One of the bar association members actually practices family law and we able to answer many of our questions.

Although Cambodian law in general and family law in specific, is in its infancy, these meetings with lawyers, professors and students trying to establish a rule of law was incredibly encouraging. There are a lot of people who are trying to create a legal system from infancy. While the difficulties are staggering, they have made great progress.

After the meetings, we held our farewell dinner and thanked Shiv, our tour manager. A lot of us would like to be part of a People-to-People to his home country, India, with Shiv and he invited us to his home if we do so!

This will be my last blog "in country". Tomorrow, we leave in the morning for the long, long trip back. As usual, I will do a summary of final thoughts when I'm back in the states.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

Today's "highlight" was a tour of one of Pol Pot's prisons, followed by a visit to the killing fields.

We started the day with a tour of the palace - Cambodia still has a constitutional monarchy, meaning that there is a king who has limited power. As you can see above, the palace is quite nice, if lacking the opulence of Buckingham.

After the palace, we visited one of the notorious prisons of the Pol Pot regime where Cambodians were tortured and killed. There were only seven survivors of the prison, in fact, one of whom comes to the prison everyday in memory of his comrades and we saw him sitting on a bench under a tree. Below is our guide describing life in the prison.
Then, we visited one of the numerous places were Cambodians were murdered by the Khymer Rouge in the notorious killing fields. Nearly two million Cambodians were killed - an astonishing number under any circumstances, but even more shocking when you realize that the entire population of this country is only about 14million. What is remarkable is how few old people you see on the streets.

What is really shocking is not just the fact that these horrific acts were fratricidal, but it seems so contrary to the nature of the Cambodians we are meeting. Uniformly, they are extraordinarily friendly, outgoing, even sweet. We even offered to take out waitress to the U.S. with us in a suitcase, she was so incredibly adorable. Of course, we are hardly seeing a representative sample of the country, but it is still difficult to understand.
After the killing fields, we went on a cruise of the Mekong River.

Tomorrow, our final two professional meetings, then our farewell dinner.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Phnom Penh

This morning, we flew to Phnom Penh, arriving around noon. The hotel is located in the center of the city and is perfectly lovely.

Afer lunch, the delegates went to the BNG Legal firm in Phnom Penh. Once again, we were delighted to be greeted by an American of foreign parentage - this time by Attorney Seda Norodom, who is from California, but has been living in Cambodia and working for the BNG Legal firm, doing primarily adoptions. With her colleagues, particularly Mr. Hem, we learned about the progress of the Cambodian legal system. Some of it was adopted in 1993 and more is being adopted all along, including a new criminal code which goes into effect next year. While much remains to be done for improvement, in 234 years, the American legal system is also a work in progress. While they have a way to go, there are making substantial progress and we truly appreciated the lawyers in the discussing it with us.

Tomorrow, the National Museum and the killing fields.
P.S. to Sandy Walsh: Please note picture of Tom above!
P.P.S. to Denise: Please note pictures of David and Deb.
P.P.P.S. to anyone else who reads this: Yes, I take requests!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Angkor Wat

Today was a day of sightseeing and relaxing.
The highlight was Angkor Wat, a 12th Century temple which is the symbol of Cambodia. It is one of the largest temples in the world and is mostly intact.

Our visit started with a "tuk-tuk" ride - which is a two person carriage pulled by a motor bike. After braving the usual crowd of kids selling postcards and whatever, we visited first one of the side temples (which was a good time for the group photo above), and then the main temple. The temple was quite impressive and we finished the visit before the heat of the day got to us.

Afterwards, we visited an artisan school which, fortunately for all concerned, had a "factory" outlet store. Then, we had a free afternoon for swimming, massages or just resting.
Tomorrow we leave for Phnom Penh.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Siem Reap

After a short flight from Saigon, we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia early this afternoon. We went straight to the hotel to check in and rest for a few minutes before heading out for sightseeing.

While the highlight of this trip will be the tour of Angkor Wat tomorrow, there are plenty of other ancient temples to see and we spent the afternoon touring some of them, in between fighting off children selling guide books, bracelets and trinkets. Well, some of us fought off the omnipresent child vendors. Others, not so much!
Our hotel feels like we've been dropped into the "King and I" - it has the charm of a 1920s resort, enhanced by the antique Citroen cars parked in front.
In fact, so far our impression of Cambodia is that it is quite different than Vietnam, but we will get to see more of it tomorrow, starting with one of the top historical sites in the world.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mekong River

After many years of seeing pictures of the Mekong River during the war, it was quite a thrill to take a cruise along it and to visit the Mekong Delta. We thought of the soldiers who fought there - and died there.
Our trip was far more peaceful and had several parts: First a boat ride, then a horse drawn cart and finally, a canoe (fortunately, with some one else doing the rowing). The area was fascinating and exotic.

After a chance to rest up when we got back, a group of us went out to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant called "Fo 2000", which is famous because Bill Clinton ate there when visiting Vietnam. As expected, quantity was not a problem. Quality wasn't too bad either. Of course, dodging hundreds of scooters at each intersection was, like always, a challenge. At one point we watched part of some national celebration and a soldier or police officer tried to get traffic to stop for us - they treated him with no more respect than they did us.
In fact, very unlike Russia and somewhat unlike China, there is no feeling of repression here. People seem to be able to say what they wish - and frequently do so.
Also, two members of our group, David and Deb Sachs,were quoted in the Vietnam news. Here (hopefully) is a link:
Tomorrow we leave for Siem Riep, Cambodia.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Professional meetings in HCMC

Today's highlight was our first two professinal meeetings.
The first was with two lawyers and a future lawyer. The atttorneys, Phong Nguyen and Claire Lieberman (on the left - she is an American with Vietnamese parents) took us through the Vietnamese legal system, highlighting family law issues. Their legal system is still under development, much of the family law code was adopted as recently as 1996.

While there are many differences between our systems of law, one similiarity was the primacy in both of the best interests of children. We found it interesting that a judicial would meet with children and ascertain their preferences starting as young as 8 years. old

The afternoon meeting was with two attorneys from a business law firm, including Albert Franceskini (who practiced law in France before moving to Vietnam). We had a general and wide ranging discusson of the Vietnamese legal system, including criminal law, business law and the growing use of private arbitration.

This is an amazing city. I thought New Yorkers and Italians had a distain for traffic laws. That's nothing compared to here. There are thousands and thousands of scooters - sort of like Harley reunion week on steroids. Stepping into the street is taking your life in your hands.
There is a real energy and vibrancy to this city, who many still call Saigon. It is easy to imagine the Saigon of the 60s with its free wheeling reputation.
The money unit is the dong, although dollars are accepted everywhere. That's a good thing because it is about 20,000 dong to the dollar, so when Susan ordered a drink tonight at dinner for 53,000 odd dong, it seem at first like that was quite a lot of dong. When I paid 56,000 (not having exact amount of dongs on me at the time) they didn't even bother to bring change. So far, the lowest dong bill we have seen is 1,000 (we haven't seen any coins) so I'll guess exact change is not a big thing here.
Tonight, we have a group dinner, then an excursion to the "Night market" - described as flea market to buy things for a mother-in-law. Tomorrow: Cruise on the Mekong Delta.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Arrival in HCMC

We are all here, safe and sound in Ho Chi Minh City.
It took us four plane trips to get here, the longest of which was 14 and a half hours from L.A. to Hong Kong. It was as comfortable a flight as possible, with nice seats, a reasonable amount of leg room and lots of movies and TV shows on demand. But, any plane trip which starts at about 2 a.m. our time is exhausting.
After finally getting to Vietnam, our guides met us and took us to the hotel. We had just a short time to rest up before our orientation (two pictures of which are above) and going on a short bus tour of the city. We are now back at the hotel for a longer - and much needed - rest, before a group dinner tonight.
Tomorrow: Two professional meetings with Vietnamese lawyers.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Welcome to our blog!

Once again, I am honored to be leading a delegation for People-to-People, this time to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Our trip will be a mix of professional meetings and cultural events. Certainly, the highlight will be touring Angor Wat in Siem Riep, Cambodia. We are also looking forward to seeing Vietnam, the Mekong Delta cruise and the professional exchanges.

We are very pleased to have seven "veterans" of last years delegation to South Africa with us and we look forward to making new friends with the others.

I hope to be blogging daily, but that will depend on timing and internet connections. Please comment on this blog as it progresses and let me know what you think and how it can be improved.

Unfortunately, our big, friendly (but not too bright) yellow lab, Cinnamon, will spending the time at doggie jail. That's her getting the news, while thinking she's packing to go with us. Sorry, Cinn...

With any help from the gods of travel, we will be blogging next from Southeast Asia.