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“Teachaaaah!” for a day

“It’s surprising how hard it is to convince someone to let you work for them for free.”

This realization came to us even before we left on this trip, as one of our goals was to give back to some of the people and places we would be visiting along the way – particularly given the stark poverty and lack of social infrastructure in the countries in which we were planning to travel. But before I go sounding all philanthropic on you, I should admit that while we are certainly interested helping out where we can, our motives are not entirely selfless: we also want to use these sorts of opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the places we see. Perhaps the experience would even lead to something longer-term for Steph, now that she’s a PhD-carrying microbiologist! At the least, maybe we’d learn a useful skill or two that we can bring back home (anyone need help building a self-composting toilet?!).

Anyway, some initial research on various organizations led us to find that volunteering in foreign countries not only usually requires lengthy time commitments and complex application processes, but it’s expensive as well (as in, you pay them to work for them – often a lot, too)! This makes good sense actually, as the work that organizations do here requires training, and it takes time and money to transition a volunteer from a burden to an asset. But this realization also meant that it would be difficult for us to serendipitously find opportunities along our way, given that we rarely know where we’ll be a week from now, nevermind 3 months from now! In Thailand, we contacted 3 different WOOFing startups to offer our skills time, but unfortunately, never heard back. We hoped this wouldn’t be the case for the entire trip!

Alas, in Battambang, Cambodia we came across an opportunity that sounded too good to pass up. KNGO (stands for “Khmer New Generation Organization”) is a local Cambodian-run organization that aims to “provide a free education program with a curriculum of several workshops, such as: English literacy education, computer skills, moral education, primary health education, environmental education and vocational skill training.” Essentially, they offer free education, primarily in English skills to kids every weekday afternoon, after the kids get out of state-run school around noon and would otherwise be susceptible to drug use and all sorts of atrocities that aren’t as common in more developed countries.

Kids at KNGO
Some of the kids we worked with at KNGO. Photo credit:

Saveth, the founder of KNGO, saw the need for more comprehensive education for the kids in his village (including his own children), and convinced the state to let him keep the school buildings open in the afternoons to conduct his classes. To do it, he recruited the help of 5 or so Cambodian teachers, most of whom are currently studying English at university, and foreign English-speaking volunteers who are asked to help for a day, a week, or more as they pass through town. In return, Saveth and his family offer a homestay at their own house in rural Cambodia, and 3 home cooked meals a day, all for $10 – sounded like a good deal to us!

The beautiful road to KNGO:

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KNGO Headquarters:


The moment we arrived and registered, we were put to work. We had a couple of hours until the kids arrived, and the few other volunteers there with us that day were editing a proposal that KNGO would send to a few organizations in hope that they’ll help with funding. Like all-to-many charitable organziations, KNGO is strapped for cash, and at any time, it’s unclear whether they’ll still be open even two months from then. Fortunately, they don’t have a lot of operating costs: the facilities are all free and the school supplies were graciously donated by a couple from Australia, but they do need to pay their teachers and some other administrative fees. And of course, most of their budget is based on donations from foreign contributions to their website. We spent an hour or so editing and brainstorming some websites and organizations that might be good for stirring up some money.

KNGO school runs from 3-6pm, but most of the kids like to get there around 1pm. Yes, you read that right: the kids in Battambang are very fired up to learn! So between 1 and 3 the two days we were there, the kids picked out books – usually of the “name that animal” variety – and read them aloud to us volunteers, while we helped with pronunciation. This made for a good opportunity to meet some of the kids that we’d be teaching later that day.

By 3pm, all the kids arrived and we made our way down to the school for classes. Here’s Steph on her way to the classroom:

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Each day, there were 3 hour-long class sessions divided up into 4 classrooms, and each session had a slightly older group of kids. We started each session by walking into the classroom after all the students were seated and introducing ourselves, writing our names on the board in classic teacher style.


Every single time, our introduction was met with a piercing, “HELLOO TEEEACHAAH!!” (spoken with an English accent, likely due to a former British volunteer), and questions, “how old are you?,” “what’s your favorite flower?,” “do you like Cambodian food?,” etc. (29 & 28, lotus, and YES, for what it’s worth).

For the first session, we sat at the back and observed another volunteer help conduct the class along with the hired Cambodian teacher. The process went as you might expect, with the kids filling out worksheets on basic sentence construction, reading aloud, and writing on the chalkboard.


After class was over each day, we headed back to KNGO headquarters for dinner, cooked by Saveth’s family. Here they are prepping a fresh rice (straight off the fields without drying) and coconut dessert, and below, one of the sweet Thai-basil noodle salads they made for us.


Our second day at KNGO was a Friday, which meant that day’s sessions ends in playground games. Steph and I were asked to introduce a new game or two, and the kids really took to Duck-Duck-Goose and Red Rover. Here’s Steph uh, roving, below:



Our time with KNGO was short, but we left feeling really good about the organization and our small contribution there. Saveth and the others at KNGO clearly have their priorities in the right place, particularly considering that 50% of the population in their country is under 22 years old. It’s also uplifting to see a great example of Cambodians beginning to help themselves (albeit with outside assistance) out of some of their major problems, especially in a place where foreign-run NGOs are commonplace.

Teaching at KNGO School, Battambang, Cambodia

If you’re ever in Cambodia, we’d recommend looking them up! Their website is here for more information:


Battambing Battambang! A recap of our short stay

When we were trying to figure out where to go after Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, we considered the beaches of the south, and the mountains of the east. But we’d been lucky enough to already see some spectacular beaches, and we figured we’d see a lot of mountain life later on in Laos; what we really wanted to see was some more everyday, Cambodian life. The town of Battambang, the 4th largest city in Cambodia, sounded like it had some interesting cultural things to see, so off we went! Here’s a quick recap of our time there…

We spent our first day there touring the outskirts with our tuk tuk guide, Happy:


Wait, who’s Happy again? 🙂

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With Happy, our first stop was the gigantic statue of a man who used to live in Battambang, after whom’s story the town is named.

Battambang, Cambodia

Then we made our way to the bamboo train, which Steph already covered in greater detail in another post. After that, Happy took us through some rural villages for a glimpse of Cambodian life on the Mekong River:

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Battambang, Cambodia

Battambang, Cambodia

Fish smoking over coals under a corrugated tin “lid”:

Battambang, Cambodia

Rickety suspension bridge!

Battambang, Cambodia

Finally, we sped off to the countryside to see our first Angkor-era ruins at Bannon Temple!

Sadly, many areas at Bannon Temple were cordoned off due to the danger of mines that still dot the hillside:


Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

Demining Equipment

This climb was not for the weak of heart…

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getting closer…


Alas!  Our first pre-Angkor ruins…


Many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair, which landed a creepy Indiana-Jones-esque quality to the whole experience.

Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

That’s it for our time in Battambang (much of the rest of our time there was just spent working from internet cafes and plotting our next move— tough life!!)!  Up next: a few days living and volunteering in rural Battambang…

Getting derailed in Battambang

What do you do when you don’t have a lot of money, you live far from the nearest town, and you’ve got a set of abandoned train tracks at your disposal? You build your own train, of course – a bamboo train, to be exact! The “bamboo train” is essentially a platform “train car” made out of bamboo slats that rests on 2 axles taken from abandoned tanks left after the war; add an old go-cart-style engine to the back to turn the axles below, and you’ve got yourself a homemade train!


The idea for the bamboo train was borne during the near-collapse of Cambodian infrastructure during the civil war and Khmer Rouge reign of the 1970’s, much of the Cambodian countryside was abandoned or, at best, poorly maintained: ancient Khmer temples were reclaimed by jungles (stay tuned for a future blog post on that!), roads became impassable, and the few railway tracks that span the country were no longer used. Today, old train tracks remain where trains used to pass through these fields, and the unused tracks are just a sad reminder of Cambodia’s decline over the past few decades.  A small village on the outskirts of the town of Battambang has no roads connecting it to other towns; surrounded by miles of rice fields and thick weedy bushes, these train tracks are literally the villagers’ connection to the rest of the country. But instead of abandoning the train tracks when the trains stopped running, resourceful villagers realized that they could still capitalize on these old tracks as a way of transporting themselves and their goods into the main village—thus the “bamboo train” was born.

The ingenuity of the whole thing seems almost too good to be true until you realize that there is, in fact, only one set of train tracks, presenting the problem of what to do when an oncoming bamboo train appears. In this case, both bamboo trains come to a stop, and the one with fewer goods and/or people has to be disassembled and moved off of the tracks. Tip from the locals: just drive a motorcycle up onto your bamboo train, and you’ll never have to move for anyone. A water buffalo would work well in this situation, also.

Today, Battambang’s bamboo train is still used by villagers to transport goods to and from the market early in the morning, and even when we arrived around 10:00 in the morning, locals could still be seen flying by on the tracks. Due to the novelty and sheer ridiculous fun of this thing, it has also become quite a tourist attraction, with mostly foreigners riding its tracks later in the day.

So we decided to take a bus from Phnom Penh to Battambang, where we hired a tuk-tuk driver named Happy to take us to the fabled bamboo train.  We took a seat on the platform of our personal train car and set off on a slow roll down the tracks through walls of thick green vegetation, opening up to vast expanses of rice fields as far as we could see. After only a few minutes, we were seemingly so far from civilization: nothing but grassy fields as far as we could see and a thatch hut with two little kids standing outside, waving and screaming “hello!!” at the tops of their lungs.

After a few minutes, the train had picked up from a nice, safe cruising speed to a truly terrifying/awesome thrill ride. Only about 12 inches from the ground, we flew down the tracks at what felt like 40 miles an hour and was probably more like, well, 60.  With each new segment of the track, there was a jarring “clack” that threatened to make me bite my tongue or fall straight off the tiny platform. “This is SO dangerous!” I yelled to Scott, laughing, trying to hold on to something (there was nothing) and simultaneously tuck in any and all fingers and appendages, lest they be lost to a low hanging tree branch or an imminent derailment of the car at any second. “Yeah! This is great!” he yelled back. All I could do is laugh and yell back, “Yeah!”

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After half an hour, we reached an old brick factory (just a convenient spot for the train to reverse direction and take us back), where we were allowed to see bricks being made and talk to a nice woman who owned to factory. Then we piled back onto our train car again and headed back where we had started. On the way to the factory we had been lucky; we had never had to disassemble our train car for anyone else (several people had disassembled theirs for us on our way there, however). On the way back from the factory, we weren’t so lucky and we had to pile off to let a passing train go by (this was still better than the English family that we passed, who said they had had to get off of their train 5 times already!). Luckily, this consisted of little more than lifting the bamboo platform off of the free axles and then moving the axles off as well.


As we were riding this crazy thing back to Happy and our awaiting tuk tuk, I just kept thinking how ingenious it was to keep using these tracks in the first place. In another place, a place with the riches to do so, we would just plow down some trees and build a road for our cars to drive down. Until that day is possible for these rural people (or until the government finally repairs the tracks so that they can be used by real trains– whichever comes first), the bamboo train serves as just another amazing example of poverty-driven resourcefulness literally driving innovation forward.

Haircuts around the world: Cambodia edition

In keeping up with the “haircuts around the world” series, Scott recently received his second of the trip!

This time, the setting was street-side in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where young men set up barber chairs and vanity desks underneath umbrellas, offering their barber skills for around a dollar a cut. All the while, the city bustles around you with steaming food stalls, swirls of dust kicked up by motorcycles, and monks walking by. There’s no power supply, so even the “clippers” for buzzing shorter hair are manually powered with scissor handles.

Haircut, Phnom Penh

Haircut, Phnom Penh

Unfortunately, much like the last one, this haircut turned out looking great. The barber did, at least, send Scott away with a sweet faux-hawk, which Scott couldn’t WAIT to get rid of as soon as we were out of view of the barber. Ah well, maybe next time will be more exciting…  🙂

Scott: 2, Barbers: 0

Haircut, Phnom Penh

Haircut, Phnom Penh



Phnom Penh in pictures

Scott and I flew into Phnom Penh thinking that it would be a dusty, old city with not much to offer. To our surprise, we found out that it was a (very) dusty, old city with a heck of a lot going on! We ended up absolutely loving Phnom Penh, and we often contemplated the possibility of just renting out an apartment near the river for a month or so….  It had great local restaurants on every corner, an incredible fresh market, with fresh donuts and steaming noodle soups being served up on the sidewalks, cheap cost of living, surprisingly impressive nightlife, a plethora of French-inspried cafes for reading and working, an edgy movie/ music scene, group aerobics on the commons every night :), and easy (fixed-cost!) transport all over the very navigable city… Unfortunately, we only spent a week in Phnom Penh, but here are a few snapshots that round out our time there pretty well:

We stayed at Europe Guesthouse for $12/night. Amazing staff, super clean, highly recommended!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Every morning for breakfast we ate at this place called “126”, which serves up delicious typical Khmer breakfast:

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

126 specializes in noodle soup with lime juice, pepper, chilies, bean sprouts, and whatever meat is available that day– usually chicken, pork, or beef. This breakfast is one of the things we will miss most about Asia, hands-down….

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(This dorky video makes me cringe every time I watch it, but it shows the Phnom Penh surrounds, at least):

Most days we spent our time catching up on work in one of the many cafes. The cafes all serve Vietnamese coffee, which is basically coffee with about an inch (!) of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom. This is the drink that officially turned me into a coffee drinker. Vietnamese coffee in foreground:

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In addition to the Killing Fields (mentioned in my previous post), we also took one day to visit the National Museum, which contains many of the artifacts that were removed from the old Angkor and pre-Angkor temples for preservation:

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

One night we visited the night market, where the whole city comes out to mingle, shop, watch karaoke, and just eat good food:

(below: This man is sending sugar cane through a grinder. The extracted liquid will be mixed with fresh-squeezed pomelo/tangerine juice– amazing!)

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Sugar cane/pomelo drink (in right hand); red bean ice cream deep fried in a waffle that is the shape of a fish (in left hand). I just can’t make this stuff up…  :

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One night, we visited yet another wacky Asian mall. On the roof of this one, there was insane full-contact roller skating going on! These kids were good.


Parting shots…

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia under my skin

(Just a warning: this is a very real account of some of the things we have seen in Cambodia; this could be depressing to some.)

It’s the dry season in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a persistent red dust stings my face and eyes as we fly north down National Highway 3 towards downtown; it clings to our sweaty skin, accumulating on the hairs of our arms as a fine, sandy powder. Our tuk tuk driver turns around to face us in the middle of heavy traffic, his helmet perched on his head – unbuckled. “Busy!” he shouts, smiling, as he turns back in time to miss a motorbike careening into our path. From every direction, tuk tuks, motorbikes, and 1970’s-era chrome bicycles fly at us from every direction. The only traffic light that we pass, suffering from a short circuit, cycles from red to yellow to green so rapidly that the street corner looks like a disco. A single policeman attempts to pull up the slack, precariously standing in the middle of hundreds of swarming motorbikes—many of which avoid the clog altogether by driving up onto the sidewalk to continue from there. At the other end of the sidewalk (at least 12 inches above the road below), one motorbike carrying two young men jolts to a halt; the back passenger gets off and locates a piece of cement to wedge up against the gutter, forming a ramp between the sidewalk and the street below. He holds the cement in place while the motorbike drives over it, then climbs on the back and they continue on.

Later that day we’re sitting at a small café, overlooking the Tonle Sap River, the lifeblood of Cambodia’s urban centers. A poor, middle-aged man appears on the sidewalk in front of the cafe wearing a faded and ripped collared shirt, tucked neatly into his worn black slacks. Our waitress hands him a day-old, slightly wrinkled copy of the Phnom Penh Post off of the shelf on the wall, which he will try to sell to someone on the sidewalk for anything that they are willing to give– fifty cents, a quarter. A girl no older than 7 wearing a hot-pink dress walks barefoot up and down the sidewalk in front of the cafe, asking foreigners to buy a pirated (photo-copied) Lonely Planet travel guidebook on Cambodia. Day after day we see the same children working on these streets, and it’s difficult to grasp how very different our childhoods must have been.

We’ve only been in Cambodia four days, and just being here has already been hard—very hard. I try to make sense of why Cambodia has hit me this painfully, considering that I’ve traveled in developing countries previously; I’ve seen similar types of begging, comparable levels of poverty, this amazing sense of resiliency-in-the-face-of-adversity before.

The difficulty for me, I have come to realize, has much to due with Cambodia’s recent past, specifically the upheaval of the country’s entire infrastructure in the late 1970’s. Forty years ago, Cambodia was on par with its now-richer neighbor, Thailand, in terms of commerce and development. Then in 1975, fellow Cambodian Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army carried out a senseless and brutal restructuring of the country’s society which ended in the murder of over 3 million Cambodians—over 1/4 of the entire population of the country. To pay tribute to the people of Cambodia, we visited the site in Phnom Penh called Suol Teng (also called S21), where many people were tortured and held prisoner in an old high school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. Bricks and wood were used to divide the classrooms into tiny, dark cells, and the school’s wiring was repurposed for use in electric-shock torture. Over time, these political prisoners were transported to a site farther out of town called Choeung Ek (one of the many “Killing Fields” across the country), where over 20,000 Khmer people were mercilessly bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves.

Much of the S21 prison and the Killing Fields have been left exactly how they were in the1970’s, with the mass graves still containing the bones of those buried there, and blood stains permanently blemishing the walls of the old high school. Most disturbing of all of this to me was the way that the innocent Cambodian people were very systematically accounted for by the Khmer Rouge, starting from their expulsion from Phnom Penh, to their photo documentation upon arrival at S21, to a final photo of them after they were killed. All of these horrible photos – before and after – are on display at S21. On one wall, the individual photos of the men and women soldiers of the Khmer Rouge stare directly across at the opposite wall a few feet away– a display case showing the photos of their victims, fellow Cambodians. I look from one wall to the other, thinking about how it is not possible to distinguish between the face of a victim and the face of a murderer. What cruel fate could determine how this woman was on this wall and that man on the other?

By the time of the ousting of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 by the Vietnamese, only 7 people out of 20,000 prisoners at S21 had survived. The Khmer Rouge had become a killing machine. In particular, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, anyone viewed as an intellectual, including doctors, teachers and even persons wearing glasses, was immediately killed. Therefore, what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge effectively did was not only end millions of innocent lives; they completely disrupted all forward progress in the country, destroyed all means of healthcare and education. Cambodia was a blank slate, a pre-medieval state forced to build anew, to construct itself again from nothing – worse than nothing. Today, there are only three doctors for everyone 10,000 Khmer people. Three. In a country plagued by devastating third-world diseases such as malaria, dysentery, and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis:  three.

How easy it is for the tears to come at the most unexpected times here: in the Genocide Museum, certainly, but also again this morning while sitting in the café with my fancy laptop and $1 coffee, watching Cambodia pass by on the sidewalk: a man shuffles by us on his knees, both of his feet missing at the ankles—the result of stepping on one of the many mines that were planted by the Khmer Rouge that still dot the country today. Another man walks directly up to our faces, begging, and stares at me with just one lidless, bugling eye, the skin of his face literally melted off of his bones by an explosion.

My heart bleeds for these people who have seen, and frankly been through, too much. You can’t help but look at every Khmer person – old and young – and know that, in some way, they have been affected by the tragedy of their country’s past. They each have a story. Stories that don’t make the news. Stories that are a mere smattering of surely hundreds of similar stories of adversity and trial. How different might Cambodia be today if it weren’t for the events of April 17, 1975. Would this same little girl in the hot-pink dress be wearing shoes and attending school today? Would these men still have their legs, theirfaces, so that they might find suitable jobs?

Thinking back on all that we have seen, and all that I have borne witness to here, it might be easy to write off Phnom Penh as an entirely depressing place; certainly no one can wander these streets and not feel something for the people who are suffering. Surprisingly though, in many ways Phnom Penh feels like a very happy and active city. Much of the city has been revitalized and is prospering—gorgeous cafes line the riverside area of the city and locals gather every morning to slurp down big steaming bowls of spicy noodle soup at Restaurant 126 near our hotel. From the man who strolls the sidewalks trying to sell the Post, to the boy who delivers coffee to our table, many people are overcoming the trials of life that they have been dealt and are eeking out a living in any way they can. In fact, all of the young people that we have met thus far speak excellent English—a sign of education and of the opportunity to one day work in the tourism and hospitality industries. Indeed, the hospitality here has been exquisite—young people working in the restaurants and cafes address us “Hello sir! Hello miss!” and later, “Did you enjoy your meal?” In fact, one of the most successful programs run by many of the local NGOs here has been to train orphans and street children so that they can one day work in the hospitality industry as waiters, hairdressers, and barbers.

For lunch one day, we eat at a small café that employs many of these young people in training. Our waiter, a young man of 20 years old, appears wearing a spotless white T-shirt reading “TRAINEE” on the front, a huge smile on his face. Clearly he has been told that it is customary to be very welcoming and engage the customer in some small talk before taking their order: he addresses the two of us “Hello Ladies and Gentlemen!” and then lingers a bit too long at our table to chat (until our food arrives at the table, in fact).

Later that evening on a dirty, busy side street, we walk past a white wooden sign with blue Khmer lettering and below it the word “Haircut” painted on the sign. Three barber chairs are lined up on the sidewalk, and a young man around 20 years old smiles as we pass saying, “Hello! Haircut, sir?” Scott has been wanting a trim, and so he sits down in the young man’s chair. For $2, the barber spends the better part of an hour cutting Scott’s hair by hand – no electric razor here –  meticulously double-checking that the cut is flawless, circling around, more trimming, more double-checking that everything is even, is absolutely perfect— and of course, in the end, it is. For him, cutting hair is not a part-time job that he does after school; cutting hair will mean his livelihood, and he is becoming an artisan.

As I sit and watch this man literally shape a better life for himself, a tiny boy toddles past me, barefoot and naked from the waist down, alone on the edge of the filthy street. A motoscooter carrying a family of four drives by, and the kid on the back with the faded purple shirt is laughing and he flashes me a smile as he flies out of view forever. Perhaps it’s simply the warmth of the setting sun that hits my arms through the large yellow umbrella where I’m sitting, or the dust that swirls and beats at my uncovered legs, but it’s as if my veins suddenly fill up with this warmth that courses throughout my body and sends chills running down my arms at the same time.  It’s this feeling of wonderment and frustration, mixed with unfamiliarity and yet homeyness — this feeling of just being alive. Tears well up in my eyes, and Scott catches my gaze from where he still sits and smiles curiously at this sudden show of emotion. Are they tears of helplessness? Tears of hope?  Even I can’t tell. They are simply tears for Cambodia. Tears that have been pushed out, from within.


A chalkboard still hangs on the wall at the very chilling S21 prison:
Teoul Slong Prison
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Classrooms divided into cells:

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Mass graves dot the countryside at one of the many Killing Fields. The skulls of the victims have been removed, but many bones still remain:


The skulls now fill a memorial near the entrance of the site:

Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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Around: Phnom Penh:

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