Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Nation of SmartBoard Salesmen

I mentioned in the yesterday’s blog entry that I don’t quiz my remedial students because they’re already overworked.  I want to return briefly to the topic of differences between education in Taiwan and America.  In an earlier post I described many of the basic institutional and cultural differences.  One puzzle I’m still in the process of unraveling, and which I’ve written about before, is why American students aren’t completely and utterly trounced in the adult job market by Taiwanese, Singaporean, Korean, Japanese etc. students who work exponentially harder in school as children and young adults.  One contributing factor is that Americans are fluent in English, the lingua franca of international business (for now).  However, language probably doesn’t account for all or most of the remaining gap because very many Taiwanese, Singaporean, Korean and Japanese college graduates can speak English.  Don’t get me wrong—Americans are having a  tough time now that globalization is increasing competition for jobs.  We’re already suffering from our neglect of primary education, and it’s only going to get worse. 

But the gap isn’t as wide as you’d think it would if you looked at internationally proctored test results from the last few decades.  American students pale in comparison to Singapore, Taiwan et al. on math and science tests, and it’s been that way for a while now.  They simply work a lot harder than us in school.  Their parents care more about education and therefore invest more resources into educating their children.  My personal experiences teaching in Taiwan have not only confirmed the legend of Asian educational achievement and work ethic, they’ve enhanced it.  Many of my students went to cram school for six hours a day each day of their vacation!  Vacation!

I had a chance to pose this puzzle to the principal of the Kaohsiung American School (KAS), Dr. Thomas Farrell, when the ETAs and I visited two months ago.  KAS is a private, non-profit, tuition-based, pre-K-12th grade college preparatory school founded in 1989.  The school follows an American educational model (unlike Taiwanese public schools) and teaches all classes in English (except for foreign language classes, where students can keep up with their Chinese if they choose). 

Dr. Farrell claims that the missing piece of the puzzle is the uniqueness of the American educational model.  Both public and private schools in America encourage open, critical dialogue in the classroom.  You think the author is wrong?  Okay, why?  You think your classmate is right, but for the wrong reasons?  Explain.  American schools, especially the better ones, prioritize critical thinking over memorization of facts.  Math and science aren’t all rote memorization, but it’s mostly memorization. 

Taiwanese parents and schools sit kids down in front of textbooks and have them study facts, figures, algorithms and theorems for prodigious amounts of time.  American schools emphasize discussion and debate.  Outside of school, American kids spendmore time outside interacting with other kids, learning how to make small talk.  The mock conversation above is an example of the American classroom dynamic: you have to be able to articulate to a crowded classroom your extemporaneously developed argument.  You need to persuade.  You learn how to talk, to, well, bullshit (my words, not Dr. Farrell’s).

Dr. Farrell drew on a number of personal anecdotes to illustrate his point.  One of them is particularly illustrative: he planned to use part of the annual budget to buy a few SmartBoards for some of the teachers to use in their classrooms.  He was certain he would buy the SmartBoards, but booked a sales meeting with a Taiwanese SmartBoards sales executive so he could ask some questions and negotiate prices.  The executive showed up five minutes before the presentation, needed twenty minutes to set up the SmartBoard, nervously delivered an awkward ten minute presentation and struggled to answer Dr. Farrell’s basic questions due to nervousness.  Had Dr. Farrell not already researched and chosen to buy SmartBoards, he would not have bought anything from the salesman. 

The lack of presentation and communication skills is a serious handicap for many East Asian college and high school graduates.  It also happens to be, in Dr. Farrell’s mind, one of America’s few remaining relative advantages in K-undergrad education.  Americans know how to sell things.  We know how to persuade, even if we don’t have the better command of the facts because we didn’t study hard enough (or at all).  Many Taiwanese, especially those who are well off and spent some time in the West, recognize the advantages of pairing the American emphasis on critical thinking and communication with the Taiwanese emphasis on hard work and knowledge accumulation: the KAS charges about 20,000USD per pupil per year (they don’t make any profit, it’s just to cover expenses), yet it has a selective application process because so many upper-middle class Taiwanese parents want their kids to attend.

Before any of my American readers say “Ah, okay, we’ve got PowerPoint skills going for us, let’s rest on our laurels,” please  keep a few things in mind: First, we’re already losing service jobs for reasons other than just lower-cost of labor.  We’re losing some I.T. and science jobs to Taiwan, Japan, Singapore etc. because there are millions of jobs that don’t require presentation skills (and not every Asian college graduate is socially inept).  We need to invest more in education to assure a greater share of global employment for our citizens.  Not a single iPad, Apple’s upcoming e-reader, will be produced in the U.S.  Why?  It’s not because Taiwanese computer engineers in Taipei are markedly cheaper than American computer engineers.  It’s because Taiwanese engineers are the best at designing, and thus the first to design, the technology, and they’re the best at producing it.

Second, many of our competitors are reforming their education systems to catch up with America’s advantage in communication and presentation skills.  They have identified their weakness, and they’re doing something about it.  Due to Confucian influence and other forces over time, East Asian school culture lagged behind Western school culture in its acceptance of students in any way challenging teachers, even intellectually.  Many school reforms throughout Asia have focused on relaxing the student-teacher relationship in order to encourage critical thinking and dynamic exchange.  Students in Taiwan are still more deferential than to their teachers than American students are to theirs, but the difference isn’t drastic by any means (some of the ETAs say the difference is now non-existent in their experience [for the record, none of them has taught kids from the Bronx]).  The Kaohsiung Education Bureau recently asked the ETAs to teach a biweekly course on English public speaking to a group of public school teachers.  You see serious signs of transformation.  Once these countries find the right balance between the demand for people skills and the strictures of their respect-driven cultures, we’re in trouble.  They’ll be practicing PowerPoint as intently as they study physics.

If Americans want their grandkids to have career paths open to them besides selling SmartBoards, we need to reform our education system (the Obama administration has proffered a range of much needed reforms) and, ideally, internalize a bit of the East Asian emphasis on education by recognizing how many doors it opens.  Embracing reform and respecting the value of education go hand in hand.  You have to respect the value of something to want to fix it.  And you just have to check out the motivated, hungry, English-speaking, 2400 SAT-wielding seniors at the Kaohsiung American School to understand how urgently we need to go about fixing our education system.

Back to School

In the immortal words of Billy Madison, “back to school, back to school” (for all you adults out there,  Two days ago my Chinese New Year () vacation ended and it was time to head back down into the salt mines of Taiwanese elementary school education.  I put on my breeches, packed my lunch box with a chunk of bread, put on my worn leather boots, grabbed my flashlight helmet, coughed a wad of black spit into my hand, rode down the elevator, walked out of my gated apartment complex, watched the digital television on the bus, and finally arrived at the work site.

Unlike eight of my fellow ETAs, I’m not switching mines—I mean schools—this year.  I’m working at Ling Jhuo elementary school for the entire school year, with the same schedule, same classrooms, same students, same co-teachers and same Fulbright Taiwan limited edition chop sticks. 

Most of the ETAs who are switching schools are excited to take on the challenge of a new school.  They also will have the chance to observe Taiwanese education in two settings rather than one.  There are also some extra perqs for vanity.  They receive a whole new round of wide-eyed wonderment from an entire student population.  They get to host introductory classes filled with funny questions about their marital status, weight, astrological sign, likes, dislikes, and a few more questions about marital status.  Affection and adulation at fever pitch.

While admitting that’s nice and all, I must say I prefer my situation.  For starters, I found it really heartwarming to greet many of my students again and see how excited they became not only because I’m a white, foreign, novelty item (which still plays a role, I’m sure), but because over the course of the first semester they grew to like me.  It’s also nice that many of my students will do more than stare at me, point and giggle.  I do a lot more high fiving and saying “Hello” than I did when I first arrived at Ling Jhuo in September.  Some kids are even too cool to notice me!

Another benefit of keeping put all year is that I don’t have to go through the process again of negotiating classroom responsibilities with my co-teachers.  No passive-aggressive debates about teaching time or lesson planning.  We have our routine and we’re sticking to it.  The resumption of teaching has been a seamless transition.

The most major change to my teaching load is self-imposed.  I’ve decided to change my approach to the remedial classes I teach twice a week, once a week with the fifth graders, once a week with the sixth graders.  During fall semester I tried to return to the basics (alphabet, Hello!, I like, I want) in the hopes of building a foundation for them that they could use to succeed in their formal English classes.  Unfortunately, I discovered that thirty minutes a week is simply not enough time to teach remedial students anything that will stick in their heads, no matter what teaching method I adopted (all games, all lecture, a mix of games and lecture—the only method I did not try was including graded quizzes and tests.  This class is ungraded extra, and I think Taiwanese students already have too much on their plate.  I don’t want to make the remedial students even more stressed by quizzing them.  I think all it’d accomplish is brewing resentment, a complete dislike for English and/or lower self-esteem).

I’ve decided this semester to dedicate remedial classes to reinforcing the material the students are learning that week in their twice-a-week English class.  It’ll be easy for me to keep pace with their formal English class because I teach the formal English class to the sixth graders, and one of my co-teachers (without me) teaches the fifth graders.  My hope is that I can help improve the students’ performance in the classroom and on tests by, in a sense, leading an intense, guided review session each week.  Maybe if they start to succeed in the formal classes, they’ll be interested enough in catching up that I can help them on the side.  It’s a bit of a long shot, but I can’t think of a better solution given time constraints.

I’m glad to be back and I look forward to the next semester.  I’ve also doubled down on my Chinese.  I hope to pick up a lot over the next months so I can continue to improve my Chinese at home and in the UK, where I’ll have fewer opportunities to work with a paid and trained tutor.  We’ll see how it goes.  It’d be a shame to leave here without developing the skills to eventually speak with basic fluency the world’s most spoken language.


Kaitlyn, bless her soul, e-mailed me the photo of the legendary “VELOCITY” t-shirt taken months ago in San Duo Shopping Mall.  I’m the one holding it.  I knew too little then about prices in Taiwan; I definitely should have bought it.  Now it’s gone from my life forever, and my life will never be the same.

Angkor What?: Packing It in at Patong

International vacationing can easily stop feeling like vacation.  A mad dash to see and experience as much culture, food, history and architecture as possible is far from restorative.  I learned this the hard way in Europe two years ago.  Many of my travel companions learned the same lesson.  Therefore, we made sure to book a few days of R&R during our trip.

Our first relaxation destination was Phuket, Thailand.  We flew directly to Phuket from Singapore.  On the way to the airport, Kristin helpfully instructed the cab driver to head to the international terminal.  The cab driver, well aware that his country is an island city-state only slightly larger than Monaco, burst into laughter. 

We checked in with AirAsia, the other discount airline we’d rely on for our flights.  Walking around the various terminals, I noticed Singapore’s Changhi Airport is even more impressive than it had seemed our first night in town.  Changhi is consistently rated one of the top five airports in the world.  With a ton of shopping, restaurants, a free movie theater, a gym, showers and free internet access, I now understand why.  I had coffee and a delicious breakfast sandwich (there are too few delicious breakfast sandwiches in Asia) that did wonders for my state of mind.

Leaving Singapore for Thailand was a significant step down as far as country development goes.  Singapore is a highly developed country.  Thailand is a promising developing country that is nonetheless squarely in the “developing” category.  It’s still getting its deck of cards in order. 

Phuket, the largest Thai island set slightly off Thailand’s southern coast, is a tourist sanctuary.  Its geographic separation from mainland Thailand is an effective metaphor for how different it is from the rest of Thailand.  Lonely Planet’s guide to Thailand, in Lonely’s signature elitist backpacker language, describes Phuket as a place “in the eye of the tourist storm.”  Tourists seem to outnumber locals.  By my estimation, the Caucasian/non-caucasian breakdown is similar to Manhattan’s (although most of the Caucasians are Australian or French, not American).  There were a handful of seemingly traditional Thai restaurants hidden among throngs of obviously inauthentic “Thai” restaurants and overtly Western restaurants.

My friends and I booked a stint in Phuket knowing full well we weren’t about to experience authentic Thai culture.  All we cared about was finding the nicest beach in Thailand, and legend had it that Phuket was the place to go.  Phuket’s theme park vibe also made it easier for us to relax with a good conscience.  There were no beautiful temples to see, palace grounds to walk, or interesting neighborhoods to investigate.  Guilt-free lounging. 

The tourism industry in Phuket drives the region’s economy, providing jobs to tens of thousands of Thai.  Our cab ride to our hotel sped us through local neighborhoods, all of which were moderately developed but paled in comparison to the wealth of the main tourist centers.  The distinction between town and tourist was not as jarring as what one finds in Jamaica or the Bahamas, but it was immediately obvious nonetheless. 

We stayed at a very nice hotel run by a South African expat in a very touristy part of Phuket called Patong.  He directed us to the best nearby restaurants and a relatively unnoticed beach front twenty minutes from our hotel.  We ate our first of many pad thai and tuk-tuk’ed to the beach. 

Tuk-what? Tuk-tuk is the Thai term for the motorized rickshaw that is ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia.  Driven either by a man in a car cab or, more frighteningly, a motorized scooter, the tuk-tuk has an open air, covered cabin in the back that seats anywhere from two to six people.  Phuket didn’t have many traditional taxi cars, so we tuk-tuk’ed wherever we needed to go.

After a relatively unharrowing ride, we reached the beach.  Our favorite South African gave us good advice—while many Phuket beaches (including Hat Patong, or, in English, Patong Beach) are infested with massive hordes of French, chain smoking tourists, we set our eyes on a beach with only eight or nine tourists and, to make matters even better, a full squad of trained Thai masseuses!  A few folks had their bodies massaged in traditional Thai style while the masseuses’ monkey swung around in the trees.  The rest of us tanned on the beach (not me!) or wallowed in the warm, cerulean water (yup, with plenty of sunscreen).

Grace and I decided to break from the group and walk back to our hotel from the beach instead of joining everyone else in a tuk-tuk.  We wanted to get some exercise and have a chance to check out more of the local living conditions.  The first thing that struck me is that Phuket is remarkably mountainous for a coastal island.  I had read about this before the trip, but forgotten at some point during my mini-lecture about the poacher’s bullet.  The walk was more exercise than I bargained for, but the peaks and valleys offered many beautiful views and some interesting discoveries.

One such discovery was that the two miles or so around Patong are very, very diverse socioeconomically.  You had local Thai living in houses with aluminum roofs right next to private, Frank Lloyd Wright-looking guest houses perched on cliffs overlooking the ocean.  We saw a couple driving a BMW convertible pass by a group of barefoot Thai boys carrying jugs of gasoline.  On your right, the cover image of Home & Garden.  On your left, the cover image of National Geographic.   The view of Patong that opened up between two hilltops as we finished our walk was itself worth the strain.  In other words, I think we made the right decision. 

For our second day in Phuket, the group decided to seek out what we heard was one of the world’s most beautiful beaches: the beach at Phi Phi Island.  The beach initially gained notoriety in the film “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  How could such a beautiful beach have gone relatively unnoticed for so long?  The answer is that it’s quite far away from civilization.  Most visitors take a six-hour round trip ferry ride to the island and back.

No ferry ride for Fulbrighters!  My group chose to travel in style, and with a whole bunch of snorkeling equipment.  We splurged a bit and paid an expat-run diving adventure company to join a crew of five and ten other strangers on a day of swimming and snorkeling around Phi Phi Island.  Instead of six hours round trip on a ferry, we spent two hours of our day going to and fro on a speed boat.  The ride out was exhilarating as the boat flopped around on choppy waters, forcing all the daring youngins’ who elected to sit out front (including most of my group) to hold on for dear life and try to laugh it off.   

The ride was well worth it when we finally arrived and had two full snorkeling sessions, a chance to enjoy the Phi Phi Island’s amazing beach (easily one of the two or three most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen) and a delicious catered lunch.  I saw some very strange fish and will return to the US at the end of my Fulbright tenure with, if nothing else, much greater proficiency at snorkeling.

Not all of Phuket’s surprises, however, were underwater.  As we were checking into our hotel, we noticed two girls with Fulbright ETA tote bags.  It turns out a contingent of six or seven Fulbright ETAs teaching in Korea were staying at the same hotel as us.  We hung out with them a few times during our stay, expanding the Fulbright community’s network a little bit further. 

The Koreans (as we started to call them) have had a very different experience than the Taiwanese (as they called us).  They all have year-long homestays with Korean families and usually don’t live very close to any of the sixty or so other ETAs throughout Korea.  One upside of this arrangement is that they manage to save a lot more money than us.  One downside is a lack of freedom and a place to go to get away from a foreign culture (as one ETA told me, if he wants to recharge in a Western environment, he has to go to Starbucks).  It was fun to meet a new group of smart, interesting people and compare notes.  I didn’t fully understand how different Fulbright experiences are from country to country.

Two days of relaxation under our belts, we were ready to head to Bangkok, Thailand’s capital.  Some may look down on Phuket as a transplant of the West.  Get out of the cocoon, man.  But for wearied travelers looking for a few guiltless days of relaxation, Phuket serves its purpose well.  After all, Lonely Planet, the eye of the storm is always the calmest.

Angkor What?: Letting Loose in Lion City

As my JetStar flight touched down on Singapore’s Changi Airport tarmac, the first thing I saw was a red, neon sign for a Crown Marriot hotel.  My friends and I alighted from the plane and rode automatic walkways all the way to a well staffed immigration barrier that processed all of us politely and briskly. 

The stress of crossing borders behind us, pangs of hunger shot through our stomachs.  We were all very hungry.  Unfortunately, it was late.  11 PM.  Who knew what food would be available?  Sighing, we walked ahead, slowly resigning ourselves to, at best, some vending machine potato chips.  If even.

Our defeatism proved premature.  Instead of an airport bereft of hot food, we found a surprising array of options.  Surprising both in terms of the sheer number of open eateries, as well as in terms of the available fare.  Burger King and a French patisserie chain.  A rooftop restaurant called “Whitney’s.” 

We finished eating and headed off to the exits.  Two of the seven people in our group (including your humble narrator) had our bags inspected by customs agents who, if our pass through was any indication, are required to check more bags than your average customs guard.  It proved to be one of our first examples in Singaporean government’s determination to maximize the efficiency of all its public services.

The second example of Singaporean public efficiency was the taxi line.  Singapore isn’t about to let visitors wander off and solicit their own taxi.  Instead, there’s a queue with an airport employee at the front, speaking English, checking groups for numbers and assigning them to taxis.  This practice might rub some the wrong way, but I appreciated it.  Getting a cab in many parts of Asia is a stressful experience, filled with unsavory characters and jiggered meters.  No such problems in Singapore.

Our cab driver took our address in English and sped off along the left hand lane.  We drove for about thirty minutes along smoothly paved highways channeled by miles of evenly manicured hedges. 

At this point I was tempted to check my airplane ticket.  Did we board the right plane?  Were we in Southeast Asia?

You need only read The Economist every so often to have heard that Singapore is unlike much of East and Southeast Asia.  Singapore is, for starters, a developed country according to the United Nations Human Development Index (alongside only Japan and the territory of Hong Kong in all of Asia—and, if you ignore the sovereignty issues and count Taiwan, Taiwan would also be on the list of developed… places).  Singaporeans enjoy an average income that rivals citizens of nations like Italy, the United Kingdom, and Spain.  Additionally, in a region known for unsanitary conditions, Singapore is notoriously clean (“notoriously” because Singapore’s government enforces cleanliness laws severely.)

Like so much else in the world, however, you really need to see Singapore to even come close to understanding it.  One of the most fascinating and, in my opinion, underappreciated aspects of the country is its diversity.  Malay, Chinese, Indian, British, Arab.  There are numerous ethnic enclaves throughout Singapore that cater to each group.  Other areas are a mishmash of different ethnicities and nationalities.  The Chinese population is by far the largest (if you total all of the various Chinese-speaking communities together—a rough measure, sure—they comprise a little less than three-quarters of Singapore’s population), but in a country as densely populated as Singapore, a few days walking around reveals that the population statistics don’t capture the country’s on-the-street diversity. 

Singapore’s diversity explains in part why the government continues to use English as the language of instruction in public schools.  English unifies the disparate language communities, helping forge something of a national identity from the smorgasbord of ethnicities.  A population fluent in English also makes Singapore an attractive destination for foreign investors, attention that Singapore prizes greatly.  Singapore’s economy is driven by a very active manufacturing sector, but the country’s meal ticket for the future is its financial services industry.  Singapore hopes to someday rival Tokyo and Hong Kong as the financial hub of Asia. 

With so much to see, my friends and I had some tough decisions to make.  Diversity ruled.  We decided to begin our touring of Singapore by checking out the most famous ethnic neighborhoods.  We started with Arab Street, continued to the Malay History Center, strolled through the open air markets in Chinatown (which, oddly, felt reassuring in a home’ish sort of way), and Fonda and I mustered enough energy to walk around Little India in the late afternoon.

An entertaining aspect of our trip was noticing how, at each cultural stop, there was some sort of museum or information panel that testified to the importance of one ethnic groups’ history in Singapore while ignoring almost all of the others.  Race and ethnic relations in Singapore are not particularly strained, so it was somewhat surprising to see each community focus so closely only on itself and its history.  Of course, part of this might be for the benefit of tourists.  Yet it was amusing to walk through the Malay History Museum’s contemporary section and see no mention of the Chinese, or read information at the Chinese History Museum that ignores Singapore’s history with the British.

One piece of Singapore we couldn’t ignore was the Night Safari theme park.  A branch of Singapore Zoo, Night Safari is a highly choreographed zoo experience dedicated to entertaining visitors with, and educating them about, nocturnal animals (and a few, especially awesome, non-nocturnal animals).  We watched a thirty minute amphitheater show featuring an array of nocturnal performers recycling bottles, jumping ridiculously high in the air, and, disappointingly, refusing to walk a jungle vine dangling over the audience.  We ogled a tribe of “aboriginal” Malaysians spitting fire and dancing around rhythmically. 

The highlight of Night Safari, however, was the guided tram ride.  Divided into two parts (allowing visitors to get off after the first half and check out a few animals only viewable on foot), the tram ride snaked along a path that runs next to various animal exhibits.  We saw lions, tigers, elephants, forty thousand different type of deer, something that looked like the Godzilla of ant eaters, and more strange and interesting creatures of the day and night.

The highlight of the highlight, however, was our guide for the second half of the trip.  I don’t remember his name, but I will never forget his message.  An avid conservationist, our guide missed no opportunity to remind us of the virtues of recycling or the cupidity of poachers.  He followed every description of every animal with either a corny endorsement of recycling (“And we mustn’t forget the three R’s….!”) or the exact same reminder of poaching, “Unfortunately, the [animal] is no match for the poacher’s bullet…”  Next time I go to Singapore I’m bringing five friends and a few cases, drink when you hear the phrase “reduce,” “reuse,” “recycle” or “poacher’s bullet.”  I hope Singapore doesn’t have severe penalties for public drunkenness.

During my short stay, I only scratched the surface of the enigma that is Singapore.  There’s so much more to learn.  I intend to do what I can reading from afar, but I know books and magazines only take one so far.  The only solution will be to return some day.  I hope I can.  Singapore is going places, and it’s moving fast.  Unfortunately, it’s no match for the poacher’s bullet.

Prologue to Angkor What?: Humbling Experiences in S.E. Asia

Now that I’ve recovered from the Cambodian jungle virus that floored me for the week-and-a-half since I returned from my twelve day romp through Southeast Asia, I’m ready to record my experiences.  The most manageable way for me to do this is to lead with a general summary, and follow it up over the next few days with some highlight anecdotes and analysis.  More enjoyable for me to write and for you to read.

From January 26th to February 6th, Kaitlyn, Kristin, Grace, Charles, Carol, Fonda and I traveled through Singapore, Thailand (Phuket and Bangkok) and Cambodia (Siam Reap and Phnom Penh).  We spent two days in Singapore, three days in Phuket, two days in Bangkok, two days in Siam Reap and a day in Phnom Penh.  The unaccounted time was travel time. 

We saw the startling diversity of Singapore, the breathtakingly beautiful beaches of Thailand’s Phi Phi Island, the breathtakingly beautiful prostitutes of Bangkok, amazing 12th century temple complexes in Siam Reap (most notably Angkor Wat), and, in Phnom Peng, the most affecting memorial I’ve ever seen. It was a great trip, save for the jungle diarrhea I caught somewhere in Phnom Penh. 

You've probably seen this photograph before. It's one of the stereotypical "beautiful beach" shots that litter magazines. Well, it happens to be of Phi Phi Island's main beach. And it doesn't do justice to how beautiful this beach is.

My favorite stop was Siam Reap.  Angkor Wat and all the other 11th and 12th century religious temples.  We stayed at a fabulous hostel, simply named “The Siam Reap Hostel.”  The owner is Australian, but the wide majority of the staff is native Cambodian.  Everyone was friendly and reasonably fluent in English.  They provided numerous services on site and were very accommodating in arranging transportation and itineraries for us out in the great wide world. 

Our hostel’s helpful staff made it easier for us to enjoy the stunning displays of religious devotion that one finds in Siam Reap.  It’s unimaginable that such massive, intricately designed stone temples were constructed so long ago.  I’ve yet to see the Egyptian pyramids at Giza, but I find it hard to believe that anything can trump the impressiveness of the accomplishments at Siam Reap.  Whilst my ancestors were hitting each other over the head with clubs during the European Middle Ages, folks in present day Cambodia (the Khmer people) were building monumental, monumentally beautiful devotional temples. 

I’ve seen some impressive man-made buildings, most of which are religiously inspired, e.g. St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as impressive as Angkor Wat, which just so happens to have been built over four hundred years before either of the two other places mentioned.  It was a humbling experience for me and my Eurocentrism.  Yes, Western society has had a good run of it the last few hundred years.  We’ve run the show in many parts of the world.  But Siam Reap is ample evidence that this has not always been the case.  Much of the rest of Southeast Asia is proof this won’t continue to be the case, either.