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Justice is served!

Last week, I attended one of the best training I have taken part in, and I have participated some really good ones in Asia and Australia. It was called Better Development: Justice-Based Approach, and organized by a fairly new social enterprise called United Edge. The two co-founders and directors Daniel Bevan and Matthew Kletzing designed and facilitated all of the 35 training they have conducted in the last two years. Besides being a light-bulb moment training, it is something that I really admire because of its seamless delivery by Matt and Daniel, fun and practical activities, and most of all, walking the talk by being justice-based and ethical in all its aspects, including the food served, because justice should not only be exclusive to humans but to the environment, climate, and animals as well. Yes, the three-day training served an entirely vegan menu, a rare event in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

I took the opportunity to ask Daniel about how they managed to pull off a vegan training in Cambodia.

SRC: What are the reasons why you provide vegan food in your events?

DB: We aspire to live by what we believe. As an organisation working on social and environmental issues, based on compassion and love, we don’t believe that using any animal products can be conducive to living by those beliefs. 

SRC: Have you clearly stated the United Edge food policy in your organizational policy, or was it an informal, unwritten policy?

DB: Great question! We have planned to write up a formal policy but haven’t quite found the time. So right now we simply write on our website that we are 100% vegan.

SRC: Since when have you been offering fully vegan menus in the JBA training events?

DB: Since our very first event at United Edge. Both Matt and I, the founders, have been vegan for 8 and 18 years respectively so we knew right from the start that it was important for us to work for an organisation that didn’t make us feel hypocritical.  

SRC: How was organizing a vegan event in other countries as compared to Cambodia?

DB: It’s different in every country. Sometimes harder, sometimes easier. It always depends on the type of venue too. Some hotels that are a little stuck in their ways and used to holding large, fairly formal events often struggle. In Laos two weeks ago, the team went to a MASSIVE effort to make some incredible 5-star food that was both local and international food and included vegan cakes, croissants, and meat substitutes. One training in Malaysia was full of local dishes with vegan meat substitutes and everyone was very convinced that vegan food can be tasty! That’s always what we hope people will experience but it’s not always the case. In the Philippines we really struggled as the hotel really had no idea what to create, even with quite a lot of guidance from us. The first day in Papua New Guinea was quite awful but the hotel worked really hard with us in the evening to create more local vegan dishes. We always have to find a venue willing to make vegan food and then spend time going through the menu with them in detail. 

SRC: What were the challenges you experienced in the seven training events conducted in Cambodia in terms of food?

DB: We’ve held the training in three different venues and this was the first time in Hotel Cambodiana. It was definitely the best food. The fist venue was a nice place but it was mostly western food which wasn’t so popular with our (mostly Khmer) participants. The second was good but they didn’t put too much creativity into it. Often people assume that vegans just eat salads and that we don’t need the food to be tasty… so that can be a real challenge. Communication can be a real struggle.  

The third day lunch menu. From morning snack to lunch and afternoon snacks, Hotel Cambodiana served wholesome, diverse, and delicious vegan food during the training.

SRC: Can you share with me a bit more about the chef who prepared our food in Cambodiana Hotel? Was he the same one who catered the other six training here? 

DB: As mentioned, this was the first time in the Cambodiana. The chef – Mr Song Teng – was fantastic and really took pride in creating the menu. He checked with us personally every day too. He has cooked for the Royal Family on numerous occasions including the day before our training started. 

SRC: What is the general feedback of your almost 1,000 participants in terms of the food you have been serving during these events? 

DB: Even though we always explain why we serve vegan food, there’s always one or two comments from people who say that we should serve meat for lunch. I think many people attend training for some time out of the office and for some good food!! However, one or two people ALWAYS comment on how good it is to have vegan food as a principle. Overall, although people may not be vegan themselves, they understand why we don’t serve animal products. Even when someone doesn’t, at least it’s the start of a conversation! 

SRC: I have set up a Facebook group Vision: Vegan Cambodia in the hope of promoting veganism in Cambodia just before I came here in 2017. What do you think is the prospect of veganism being mainstream in Cambodia? 

DB: I really think the whole world will become vegan in the not-too-distant-future. How long can we enslave and torture other species without the need to do so? Plus, with the climate emergency, it’s even more important. Cambodia has a lot of food that is either is already vegan or can be easily made vegan. Plus, there are high protein substitutes like tofu readily available. I think in cities there is little excuse for using animal products. However, in impoverished communities in rural areas, animal products can be an important part of the diet as it is so monotonous. It may take some more time in those circumstances. There are quite a lot of vegan/veggie restaurants that cater to both Cambodians, Chinese-Cambodians and foreigners, VIBE Cafe and Artillery for example. 

I think serving vegan food in all events, especially those that advocate for social development and justice, should be the barest minimum. I also know that long before this is fully achieved, pioneering organizations such as United Edge will continue raising the bar, making even food in such events an expression of the principles of justice and sustainable development. Aside from being vegan, the food would be whole-food, organic, maybe oil and sugar free. Who knows, maybe even raw vegan!

The future is bright for most-affected communities, environment, climate, and animals when social development practitioners apply their principles of justice in every possible way. Makes me feel we are definitely on the right track. #SRC


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The saddest five-minute walk

I live in a small second floor studio apartment in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Every day, I take the saddest five minute walk from my flat to my workplace.

The moment I go down the street, I see trash everywhere. I have to navigate through muddy potholes and waste water from the outdoor kitchens. A couple of dozen beer cans litter a store floor, showing what men did in the night while some women started playing cards. Half naked kids play in the mud when they should be in day care or preschool. A little further away, open mixed waste burning.

I arrive to the office with a heavy heart. Its too much to take for a five minute walk.

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This Lent, watch Our Planet

I was born and raised in the Catholic tradition, but as I grow as a person I have ventured away from the Church and its outward ways. I have tried to seek other teachings, and continue to seek, not intending to leave what I grew up in, but to grow in what I learn from outside. I have also been a self-confessed environmentalist for most of my life and I don’t find anything in both that contradict each other. Rather, I find what is common, and try to understand that. Needless to say, I don”t find myself bound by age-old traditions, rituals or otherwise.

This Holy Week, my meditation would be through the Netflix documentary series “Our Planet”. I am only in the second episode but I have already teared up in some parts. It reveals so much to me of how we must act to take care our Mother Planet and her creatures who have nurtured humanity for thousands of years.

Animals are so very much like humans. Their need for survival, a home, their drive to keep their kind flourishing despite the odds, their evident intelligence, their struggles, their connections to their own family, their specie, their habitat, the unmistakable moments of care, which when we see in humans we call love, and probably there is a little difference except how we view and call it.

A lot of us know, at least in jist, what the Holy Books of the Christian tradition are trying to say. they are summed up in a number of commandments. But we often mistake those to apply only to humans, and rarely to other creatures, and the very planet that provides these creatures, including us, a home.

This Holy Week, I recommend three different ways to meditate about the suffering of Christ. First, I encourage you all to watch the series and meditate on it. try to understand what is needed of us to make a difference in this lifetime, and think for minute, that Mother Earth is the Christ that we have crucified. This, in fact, is not a new concept. In the Philippines at least, the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was performed by well-known musicians, depicting Christ as nature. I managed to only find a terrible video of it, but it critically well received, if I was not mistaken, in the year 2000. Here is a video of rock star Jet Pangan as Pontious Pilate, with progressive musician Noel Cabangon as Christ.

Second, I encourage you to try and not take a life. a leg of lamb to for dinner to commemorate the rebirth of Christ is hardly a celebration of life. Please do not eat sentient beings nor take anything from them to celebrate Easter, whether it be any kind of animal body, milk and its products, eggs, or honey. They are not food but taken as such they represent death and not life. It is a story of death, and no major religion, as far as my limited knowledge allows, upholds death over life. I encourage you to be vegan.

Third, I encourage you all to reflect on our mundane life, individually and collectively, and find ways by which the little and big things we do impact the fragile blue planet we are in. whether it be our personal consumption, our use of energy, our support of politicians who do or do not uphold the welfare of the planet. There are just so many ways by which we can contribute in easing suffering in the world, whether by extreme weather events caused by climate change, fishing off the oceans, and using tons and tons of disposable plastics every day. I encourage you to be mindfully green.

I am definitely not the best person to take advise from during such a sacred time as the Lenten Season. In fact, I’m farthest from it. I have no moral ascendance over anyone to be offering this advice. Many people would mock me here online, within their circles, or in their minds for having the gall to offer an advise beyond the traditional fasting, prayer, and visits to a number of churches. I encourage you to take heed because this is not about me. This is not even about you. This is in fact about something greater than any of us, a planetary challenge to all humanity in the greatest crisis of our time.

I believe we live in a most auspicious time to do something of impact for our world, whether good or bad. Lastly, do not take my word for it. Please look into yourself and find out.

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First, they wanted to make criminals out of nine-year olds

Grabbed from

Back in the Philippines, activists are fighting legislative moves to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 to 9 years old. Working abroad, I could only speak out on social media. Had I been there, it wouldn’t have been impossible to see me with activists marching against the bill. The last two days, especially reading about the twisted logic of congressmen and senators who are justifying such move really got me down. I’m feeling hopeless about my country and the ‘public servants’ who are supposed to serve public interest but in reality are serving their monster president in Malacanang.

This is in no disrespect to the Office of the President. I still haven’t lost faith in democracy as a political exercise. I still respect the office, but not the monster there. Duterte’s drug war has claimed the lives thousands and he is proud to say so. The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) claims the death toll, including extra-judicial killings, could be as high as 27,000, while the the government says only 4,000 plus. Currently, more than 23,000 homicides are under investigation, according to the Philippine National Police. Three years under Duterte gave birth to this massive bloodshed, including lives of children caught in crossfires, accused, or simply going innocently about their lives. The president continued to encourage the police, and everybody else to kill in the name of the drug war.

I don’t know if having been criticized by human rights workers made Duterte think of lowering the MARC from 15 to 9 years old. Who could understand how such a mind works? Yes, it was the a legislative process, but even former president and current House Speaker Gloria Arroyo was quoted saying that it is because it’s what Duterte wants, short of saying what he wants, he gets. And he does. because bootlickers in the Philippine Congress make things happen for him. Case in point, the 1,000 budget given to the CHR on the last day of budget deliberations for 2018. It was clearly a move to please the president who claimed the CHR was not doing its job. A clear move of political bullying, just to prove a point against those who dare to question his bloody drug war. The CHR budget was later on restored, showing how political whims play in this administration’s game. If you still don’t believe it’s the whim of Duterte, just listen to what his spokesperson Panelo says about the issue, as well as the pronouncements of Senators Sotto and Gordon. What is happening in the Philippines is enough to make me sick in my stomach and gave me an emotional down time.

I was crying while writing this fb post. Before I read the news article about the “brilliant lawyer” defending the bill, I was already crying upon seeing a photo of a puppy shot with an arrow that was still stuck through him. The world is cruel enough. How could we allow more cruelty to happen?

Tonight, I watched “First they killed my father”, and autobiographical film from the book of the same title written by a woman who suffered under the Khmer Rouge and trained as a child soldier learning combat skills, handling a rifle taller than her, and planting landmines. Had she been tried under Duterte’s framework, she could have been found a criminal, because definitely what she did was worse than stealing cars, or harming someone. She could have been found a criminal because at that time she was doing such heinous acts, she had already changed sides. She was already a comrade of Angkar, indoctrinated to do what she did. But in the Duterte framework, would they see her as a victim of circumstance or a discerning criminal? This might be too extreme an example to make, but my point simply is that, children, especially the much younger ones, do not simply act criminally on their own volition and go around killing or raping out of their own accord.

Is this too hard to understand?

The Philippine Congress is a joke. First they wanted to lower MARC from fifteen to nine years old. But the global outcry must have shocked them, or maybe they played us once again. They have changed their proposal from nine to 12 years old. This has silenced some people. No matter, I would still say everything that I said. I might not be perfect, I might not be the best mom for my children, but I have to speak out, or else how would I face my own children? I speak out for the voiceless animals and for Mother Earth, yet I would stay silent when children are being attacked by the state mandated to support them? These times are not made for silence but for speaking out. Being quiet is being complacent to the ills of the world. I don’t care about my years of meditation being thrown out the door. All of us must find the courage to say no, especially when it’s most tempting to just look the other way, shrug shoulders, and just let out a sigh.

I’m on my second year in Cambodia and I have never felt such close connection with this country and it’s people through the suffering of children. In watching “First they killed my father”, I couldn’t control my tears in the part when a soldier of the Khmer Rouge was being beaten up by the people. Loung saw the man as her father, and shouted out “Pa!” while the man was being attacked. How many of us adults would have that insight and realize that all lives are important, even of those who have done wrong? It took me long to understand this, but I do now. All lives matter: young, old, male, female, human, animal, black or white, children, especially children, for when they do wrong they are but victims of their circumstance.

We have to look deep into ourselves and deep into our nation, to find out who is worth fighting for: a capricious killer president, or an unknowing child who has committed a crime?


Of pho and pagodas

The motorcycle man took this photo of me outside a pagoda. I wanted him to be able
to capture the serenity of the Buddha but I got this instead. 😊

Despite being a humble social development worker, I am lucky to be able to travel a bit for trainings, conferences, and some ‘me’ time. This weekend I took a van in Sihanoukville and went to the Vietnam boarder city, Ha Tien. This is my third visit to Vietnam. The first one was ten-day visit in 2002, with my sister’s family. Her husband Tony is Vietnamese and they took me on my first travel abroad to Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang, a coastal town in the middle of Vietnam. My second visit was last year, when my colleagues at the Ratanakiri NGO Network took me in an unplanned trip to the boarder city of Pleiku. We just spent the weekend there but it was fun because my friend Serey was with me.

With my RNN colleague and friend Serey Chan at Pleiku, Vietnam on April 2018.
More photos in Pleiku here

In December, since the year-end crunch took over the office, my visa took a backseat and I had to do a visa run. But then, like what I did for Bangkok a few weeks ago, I decided to stay one night and explore the city. It was a good decision on my part, as it was an opportunity to get away from the stressful boom town of Sihanoukville. I was determined to have fun, but first, I have to spend less than 100USD, including travel and hotel, and second, it has to be a relaxed trip, with no compulsion to go places and do things.

Budget. The trip was not in my planned budget, so I had to keep my expenses to the minimum. Here is the breakdown: land travel from home to hotel in Ha Tien and back, 38USD; changed 20 USD to Dong for food and souvenirs (got some 70,000 VND left because I did not buy anything exept a faux jade roller; 11 USD for a hotel with a view of the river; and 10 USD for photo at the border (office covered 35 USD visa). Total, 74USD. Me time, priceless. If you are staying in Cambodia and you are from an ASEAN country like me, you would have so many inexpensive opportunities to visit border countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Visa is free and land travel is very affordable. Flying is not so bad either. If you buy your tickets early enough, you could find budget fares to some of the key destinations to these countries.

Walking around. There are some nice touristy spots in Ha Tien, but I was not really into it. I simply wanted to take it slow and relax. I mainly walked around, and did my favorite past time when abroad, watching people. I love the laid back mood and the small town feel of this border city. Pleiku is much more developed and has its share of shopping malls and large establishments but it has its own charm. Ha Tien’s pride is the riverbanks, clean and spotted with sit down and ambulant cafes. The breeze got me in a melancholy mood and had me staring at the river half the time.

You can tell a place is safe when children play on their own in the park. I also felt safe walking around any time of day. I remember the movie Bird Box, where the presence of birds made people feel safe, because the birds react when they feel the creature is anywhere near. Anytime of day, birds chirp in Ha Tien. You wouldn’t be able to tell if the bird songs are live or recording as there are plenty of bird hotels or farms there. These are actually normal buildings, part of which people convert to bird houses (holes), where people harvest the expensive birds nest for nido soup. From a vegan point of view, this is not acceptable. Yes, bird’s nest is expensive and gives people extra income, but it’s still humans using what is NOT theirs, and what is not theirs is actually bird vomit. Yes, birds nest is made up of the bird’s solidified saliva. I sure hope the birds themselves are not being harvested. They seem to be happily going to the nests.

Some scenes I took while walking, The blue building has round holes where birds nest.

I personally feel safe as nobody gives me a second look when I travel in Asia. People in Ha Tien probably thought I’m Vietnamese, until I open my mouth. My face is so Asian generic that I have been mistaken for Khmer in Cambodia, Thai in Bangkok, Singaporean in Singapore, Northeast Indian in Bangalore, Indian in Pleiku, Indonesian in Melbourne, and Malaysian in Indonesia. As soon as I speak people would make a couple more guesses, until they say “Filipin” with a eureka smile.

Ha Tien by night. Buy Thailand shirt in Vietnam? Possible.
An off-white shirt in orange? Also possible.

Pagodas. The best way to explore Ha Tien is by renting a bicycle or a motorbike and going your own way at your own time. Despite the good roads, I opted out of driving a motorbike and got an elderly man to drive me around for a whooping 100,000! Relax, that is only about 5 USD, the same fare for a three-kilometer tuktuk ride in Sihanoukville. We went to five pagodas. That might sound a lot for a small town but the map shows at least nine. I’m sure there are a lot more outside of the downtown area. Pagodas have always had a pull on me. When I was a kid, I thought a pagoda was simply a Chinese-style building, thanks to a brand of cold-wave lotion educating me about culture. Of course later on, I realized that most of them are temples. When I travel, I always want to visit places of worship. They reveal so much about the local culture. I remember last year in Hyderabad, I visited three religious monuments in one day: the Charminar for Islam, the Birla Mandir for Hinduism, and the tallest Buddha monolith in the world on the Hussain Sagar Lake for Buddhism. It made so much sense to do so in a culturally and religiously diverse city. Only in doing so that I started to understand a bit of Hyderabad, its people, and culture.

Ha Tien’s pagodas were not earth-shakingly beautiful. But as religious places, ironically for Buddhism which is not a religion, they were special on their own. Each one had a character unique to it. And they were never out of people lighting incense sticks (I saw this was not allowed in a Buddhist gathering in the middle of Bangkok, for health and environmental reasons) and bowing back and forth in prayer. Visiting the pagodas was definitely the highlight of my Ha Tien visit.

The Chua Pu Dung Temple. Most of it is under construction
but one could already see how beautiful it would be once done.

Food. Since becoming vegan, I wanted all my trips to be food adventures. I was lucky in Bangkok when I was able to visit two branches of Veganerie and had awesome food without a worry. They had an extensive menu and really worth the visit. Given another chance, I will go back to Bangkok just for Veganerie.

My food adventure in Bangkok, December 2018. More photos of my Bangkok visit here:

I love Vietnamese food and since Tony is Vietnamese, I had a lot of lovely authentic Vietnamese food prepared by my sister. Back in the Philippines, my rare visits to Manila often include a dinner at Pho Hua or Pho Bac. But I agree with Tony when he says they are not authentic Vietnamese. I could still remember the taste of the vegetable pho, ban seo, spring rolls, and pandan rice cakes I had in Ho Chi Minh back in 2002.

After I put down my bag in the hotel room, I went out to eat. I wanted to find vegan pho, but nobody would serve it to me. So I went to Oasis Bar, a tiny joint being frequented by expats. The owner and guests were friendly and the food was surprisingly good. I had a baguette with hummus and roasted vegetables and green ice tea. I have learned not to stir drinks lest all the sugar blend in. I’m glad I didn’t because after I emptied the glass, a layer of sugar was still at the bottom. In Cambodia I would have said ‘skar tiktik’, which means little sugar. Most Viets I’ve met love their drinks sweet. On visits to the Philippines, Tony prepares his coffee with 1/3 condensed milk. I’m still terrified of it when I see people drinking the ultra sweet concoction.

For dinner I was able to find a restaurant by the riverbanks with a staff that spoke English. I asked for vegetable noodles but made an awful mistake. I forgot to say soup. So imagine my disappointment when I received fried noodles with vegetables. It tasted good but I could still feel my vegan pho evading me. Trying again in the morning, I found 66, an eatery facing the river that served me vegan pho. Since the broth was water-based, the guy put some oil on top of it before I could stop him. He was probably worried it won’t taste good. I jazzed it up with the works, chili sauce, soy sauce, freshly squeezed lime juice, and plenty of raw leaves. It was amazing and worth the search. My visit would not have been complete without it. Walking back to the hotel, I sat by a vendor along the street selling sweet porridges. I had one with glutinous rice and red beans, topped with coconut milk. It is also one of my favorite food in Cambodia. For my lunch, I had couscous and roasted vegetable stew at Oasis Bar.

It was not much of a food adventure for me in Ha Tien, but at least I was not a hangry vegan.

After lunch, I walked a few meters to where my van was waiting at Mekong Travels and left Ha Tien with a smile on my face. For me, in Vietnam, the third time is a charm. But then four is my lucky number, so given another opportunity, I will definitely go back.