Waiting to board the boat

Tharun told me not to stay inside the car while crossing the river. I soon realized the ferry itself was quite fragile! But I was already on it and it started its journey across this very wide river. My eyes fell on the orange life vests hanging on a line around the ferry. Judging from the number of people on the ferry, there weren’t enough life jackets. In front of our car was a white mini van. Soon a group of youngsters got off and seemed relieved to be outside. A member of this group, a young girl, talked to me and said, “All things bad happened to us.” The group was from Israel and they were travelling across Cambodia in a mini van. The air conditioning of the van has broken down and they waited for two hours in a garage, trying to repair it. Finally, the driver told them the bad news: there is going to be no air conditioning through rest of the journey. It was a hot day and she told me there were ten of them packed inside the van. They kept the windows open but that did not help them much. They looked quite distraught. They were enjoying the nice breeze while crossing the river. They somehow learned from Vandeth that there is going to be another 5-hours-or-so journey after the river crossing to Siem Reap.

Crossing the river to Siem Reap

Right next to me was a young Buddhist monk, holding a laptop power cable in his hand, and sitting on a moto with a laptop briefcase hanging on his shoulder. I looked carefully and to my amusement, he was wearing Gucci glasses; fake or not, they looked great on him. I had a brief chat with him. He was glad to hear that I was from Sri Lanka, the place from where Buddhism came to Cambodia. Then one of the youngsters from Israel overheard our conversation and told me before they arrived in Cambodia they spent a month in Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka and they loved it there. I was looking for Vandeth and he was sitting with the captain of the boat on an elevated platform. It was a makeshift boat and I was amazed that it was able to move all of us across the river.

Buddhist monk wearing Gucci glasses

We were across the river and people started getting off and offloading their cargo. Soon my eyes caught a young girl about eight years old carrying an enormous package on her head. Soon we hit the road and were on our way to Siem Reap, which is famous for Cambodia’s historical treasures, Angkor Wat. But soon I realized that not all of us were sure which route to take since neither Vandeth nor Tharun has travelled this route. Somehow we managed without getting lost. I witnessed the most shocking incident during this stretch of our journey. A mini van was trying to avoid children running across the road and it gone off the road and overturned. A number of passengers were in critical condition. We stopped to see what we could do. They have already informed the hospital and the ambulance was on its way. But I was really worried about a couple of men, whose situation looked serious. Then someone showed a young man lying by the bus and it was the driver, who had been thrown off the bus and died due to the impact. It was not a pretty sight to see. We then saw the ambulance arriving. For the rest of the journey, I could not stop those images from the accident from flashing through my mind.

Girl offloading cargo from boat

We arrived in Siem Reap at dusk. Tharun arranged for us to dine at a place where there was an unlimited supply of dishes just for $6. On the stage, young girls and boys danced and performed Ramayana. Tharun told me, these are the real Apsaras of Cambodia. After dinner I went looking for the night market. It was bustling with tourists and my unforgettable experience of the evening was to see a number of places where there were tanks of tiny fish where you could do fish massages! I saw tourists sitting by these tanks, putting their legs with water just below their knees and tiny fish were busy eating dead skin off the feet. Some asked me to join them but I could not pull myself to do that. The shops were keen to put up a notice stating: “These are not piranhas.” I walked quite bit, had a late night snack and returned to have a good night sleep.

Walking around the night market

Next morning we visited Angkor Wat. I was joking in an email to my colleagues when I said that I have visited Cambodia a dozen of times but never visited Angkor Wat. They took this comment quite seriously and arranged my journey to pass by Siem Reap. We spent a few hours visiting a few temples. I was truly amazed by the craftsmanship of ancient Cambodians. But I was disappointed to find too many tourists, especially from China and South Korea, visiting there at the same time in big groups and, at times, not respecting the serenity of the place.

We were soon off to Banteay Meanchey where IBJ was piloting a Public Defender Office type project. Our office was in the court compound and the office room was provided to us by the Ministry of Justice. I met with the Legal Fellow, her assistant and the administrator. It was a small office and there was no place for the lawyers to interview the clients. Vandeth later told me that when the lawyers have to interview the clients, the staff has to leave the office and stand outside.  At the time of our visit, Kunthol was taking part in the monthly conference call between other legal fellows in various provinces and the staff at the Phnom Penh office. Soon, Tharun joined this call too. I was glad, despite technological glitches, they were using this time to share experiences and to inspire one another.

IBJ staff investigator (left), Sanjee (center), IBJ staff administrator (right) at the Phnom Penh Office

We had a little time before our meeting with the court officials. Vandeth and I left for the prison, which is a good 4km away. We finally reached the prison and it was a newly built compound. However, Vandeth told me that during the rainy season the whole area would flood and prisoners and detainees would be temporarily relocated to other prisons. My mission was to meet up with a detainee who is a lawyer. He is one of first 25 post Khmer Rouge defense lawyers Karen Tse, Francis James and Joyce Bang have trained. We visited him and he was very happy to see a “special envoy” from Karen Tse visiting him in the prison. Soon, another member of the 25-first-defense-lawyer group, Cheam Dara, joined Vandeth, him and me. It was a mini reunion and I felt for a moment that the detainee lawyer has forgotten that he is a detainee and was cherishing the time with his compatriots. The detainee lawyer told us that there are many juveniles in the detention centre who are allegedly involved with drug-related offenses. Apparently, a lot of young people in this province are lured into drug trafficking across the border into Thailand. We bid farewell and left the prison.

Sanjee (left), Deputy President of the Court (center), Vandeth (right)


I also met with the President of the Court, the Chief Judge and the Chief Prosecutor. They all thanked IBJ for its services. When I asked the Chief Judge of the quality of the services provided by the IBJ lawyer, he told Vandeth and I, “You do not have a lawyer, you only have a half a lawyer.” We were quite puzzled by this remark and asked him to explain. He then told us that the one lawyer IBJ has spent 50% of her time in prison interviewing clients and the other half in the courtroom. The Judge was clearly not satisfied with this arrangement. He recommended IBJ to have two lawyers at the DRC. This sentiment was echoed also by the Chief prosecutor. He told us that when two criminal trials are simultaneously taking place in two courtrooms, one courtroom has to wait until the other completes the trial since they only have one lawyer, IBJ’s legal fellow, Nop Kunthol.

Sanjee (left), Chief Prosecutor (center), Vandeth (right)

Vandeth, Tharun and I bid farewell to our colleagues at the BM DRC and walked towards our car, which was parked just outside the gate of the Court compound. Tharun and I got into the car and found Vandeth missing. Right then I saw he was walking away from us towards a house. We saw the most unusual thing. He was looking for a stick and then started plucking huge yellow flowers off a big tree. It seemed like there was nobody in the house and Vandeth continued to pluck these huge flowers. Tharun and I were looking at each others’ face trying to comprehend what was going on: is he stealing flowers from someone’s tree? Quite atypical of Mr. Vandeth! Right then we saw a woman and a man on a moto coming and stopping in the front yard of the house. I thought: My God, Mr. Vandeth is in trouble now, the owners of house has arrived and has “caught him red-handed’ plucking flowers from their tree. Most surprisingly, Mr. Vandeth was quite focused on plucking flowers by bending thin branches down and did not see the owners arriving and walking towards him. At that point, I was thinking of the worst. Then the most unexpected thing happened: the young man who walked towards Mr. Vandeth helped him to bend the branches down making it easier for him to pluck flowers. “What is going on here?” I thought to myself.  After that, the owners went inside the house and Mr. Vandeth walked towards the car with about 10 to 15 flowers, each with more than 15cm diameter.  We anxiously asked him what happened and how he “stole flowers and did not get into trouble.” He had a cheeky smile on his face and explained, “The head of that household used to work with me in the military many decades ago. The woman was his wife and the young man was his son.” So, they knew each other! But how can we expect that the house belonged to Mr. Vandeth’s friend? Mr. Vandeth’s social network was wider and stronger than most of us on Facebook.

Vandeth plucked flowers from his friend’s home