January 2012

In our very first round of training with the RHAC leadership team in October of 2010 we had the privilege of getting to know two young men who have left a real mark on our lives.


Real Theng was a big, funny and enthusiastic young man who thoroughly embraced each lesson and had many probing questions about the concepts of the moral values lessons. He was so taken with the Joseph story that Bill ended up adjusting two later lessons to complete the story. With a genuine desire to learn more, he requested a copy of the source of these lessons to read on his own. He very rapidly began integrating these lessons and teaching style in to his work with youth in the schools.

Chan Theng had joined the organization later then Real Theng, and quickly got the nickname “Fake” Theng. He was very gentle, quiet and thoughtful, taking each discussion in and seriously looking at how these truths impacted his own life. He too, immediately began taking the lessons to the youth and within several weeks was teaching them at a camp with over 500 youth in attendance. Just a few weeks ago, ChanTheng made a decision that he needed to enter into a relationship with the author of these wonderful truths. He is now the key leader in our project and is thoroughly convinced that this is the only way to fully impact the lives of Cambodians.

Yesterday we heard the very sad news that Real Theng had lost his life in a drowning accident in the Mekong River. For our praying friends, we would ask for prayers for strength for this very close knit  leadership team as they come to grips with the loss of a promising young co-worker and friend. I know that many of these sweet people are honestly seeking to find the source of the dignity, compassion, peace and hope that we have been talking about and that is our prayer for them.

Unlike my husband, who does this for a living, I have never claimed to be a teacher. Perhaps this is the chief reason that I love the CHE (Community Health Education) lessons. Each lesson plan has been designed to meet the needs of oral learners and to present truths using a high degree of learner participation. Each lesson begins with a problem using a simple role play or diagram, which helps the learner to understand the problem and its importance to their situation. The participants are involved in discovering the causes and solutions to the identified problem and are then encouraged to share these with their neighbours.

In the lesson on the use of alcohol, ten seeds are used to take the participants through a voting process to determine the extent of usage amongst men, women and youth.  It is fascinating to watch movement of the seeds from “bottle” to “no bottle” and  the animated discussions until they finally agree on a percentage of households that use alcohol and then the percentage of the average household income is spent.  In our target area the youth insist that 80% of their income is used for alcohol, the women felt 70% and the men 30%, so we settled on 50% for the purpose of the exercise. We then have them agree on an average household income and use this to calculate the amount of money spent annually on booze.  In our target community of 12 communes each with about 210 families, they were totally shocked to discover that more than $1.5 million dollars leaves their very poor community each year.  With eight members of the Commune Council and Women’s Committee participating in the training some good discussions ensued.

In the afternoon one of the CC leaders in the training took us to his small village where he rang the gong until a crowded gathered in the village pagoda, then he and several others practiced the lesson.  The crowd was largely women and it is the men and youth who are the heavy drinkers.  It was just awesome to see these women, for the first time with a powerful tool to prove their case and a Chief who taught it to them.  We left him there making promises that the CC would address this issue in the near future. One CC Chief had in fact been through this lesson about six months ago and he was only too delighted to share his story with everyone.  I will share that in my next post.

Last Sunday we made the seven hour trip north to Siem Reap, thankful for a very comfortable vehicle, fabulous driver and great company. The evening was spent settling into our hotel and making the final preparations for our first joint TOT with RHAC and TWR staff. This is a pilot project in an area just north of Siem Reap which is made up of twelve communes with about 210 families per commune. TWR staff, Kimsong, Marianne and Sangva are not only essential for translation purposes but are very effective facilitators and, of course, can do it in language of the participants.

The purpose of this training was not only to train local trainers but also to enable us to better understand the curriculum that is being taught throughout Cambodia and to demonstrate the importance of integrating solid moral values into the information they are providing. Our class consisted of ten local RHAC staff, ten Youth Peer Educators and ten members of the Pouk Commune Council and Women’s Council. The CHE lessons are designed to draw out information through role plays, demonstrations and discussions rather than simply giving out information and the participants excitedly took part in each activity.

It is most unusual, especially for the TWR guys to be part of “Comprehensive Sexuality Education Concepts” training but a joy to be allowed to teach “Self Esteem: I am Unique”, “Self Control” ,“Critical Thinking/Decision Making” and “Beliefs Have Consequences” and to reinforce such concepts as the duty and responsibility that comes along with sexual rights and the short and long term impact of decisions made related to sexuality and health.

On the fourth day we went out into one of the villages and the students facilitated three of the lessons in a pagoda with about thirty villagers, mostly women, using some of the role plays and methods they had learned. It was a real joy to see how the people so quickly grasped the concepts and the debate that followed. As the leader of the village was a student and lead some of the discussion, it was pretty cool to see the women now with some cold, hard facts demanding that the head man now teach these same lessons to the men and make the needed changes.

The almost two years of background networking and training really only begins to make sense as we see this information taught by Cambodians to local villagers in their own heart language. The lessons are incredibly powerful and in most cases this is the first time that people have the language and tools to understand, teach and discuss the day to day problems that overwhelm them.
We left very excited and tired; Bill with pneumonia, and a real sense that this project has the potential to change lives and communities. The radio broadcasts that TWR provides will continue to  reinforce these very Biblical concepts and provide contact information for individual follow-up.

I have been working in Cambodia for well over four years now, seeking to bring together an effective partnership among committed groups and individuals that help to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the people. There is no doubt that it is a wonderful thing to find a strategy that effectively addresses the needs of those whose lives you wish to impact and then to have others realize that the value of this approach and seek to join us. However, this week we are seeing firsthand the enormous challenges this creates.

It is notoriously difficult to set up appointments in advance in Cambodia. This was until just recently an overwhelmingly oral society anD emails and even text messages from foreign countries are often overlooked. So as usual I arrived on Sunday  for a two week stay, with a huge list of people we need to or want to connect with during this time and only one solid appointment.  Fortunately, $3.00 at the airport gets you a local phone card and with the use of Facebook and emails, tuk-tuks and lots of help from gracious Cambodians who will drop whatever they are doing the moment you show up at their office, it all begins to fall into place.

My co-workers Bill and Sharon are here with me and we enjoyed some time on Sunday getting caught up, debriefing on their recent trip to India and planning for the training scheduled for next week.  By Monday morning plans began to fall in to place to meet with the three key partners in the Health Project.  From there we managed to meet with three other agencies that we know are currently using the CHE strategy with a goal to reactivate a regular CHE Working Group for Cambodia. Next it will be two other organizations that we believe could be very strategic partners.

Then there are the incidental meetings or divine appointments that just happen along the way. Socheata, the wife of one of the staff from RHAC is a lecturer at a private university who saw our moral value lessons and thought that her students would benefit from them.  She has been wondering about integrating the material into her course work so invited us to come and take over her evening class. Sharon and Bill did a great job with a lesson on character development and honesty with very enthusiastic participation by the students and I am sure these young people will always remember the “big Canadian” who demonstrated servant leadership.

Sharon continues to finalize the schedule and manual for next week’s training in Siem Reap and I am frantically working on a final report that is due for funders of the initial phase of the health project. Early Sunday morning we will join up with three TWR staff for the five hour drive up to Siem Reap in the air conditioned comfort of a very fine RHAC vehicle. We will miss Su Min’s serenade with his ukelele, but he will meet us there. Steve also has just started his tenth term in Kuala Lumpur teaching ENG4U so is unable to assist this time around.

As the project continues to grow in participants and impact, it has become increasingly apparent that we need a full-time Cambodian coordinator, fluent in English and Khmer, to head up this project on a continuing basis. There are funds for such a person for at least a year, but finding someone who has all of the necessary credentials and capabilities is going to be an act of God’s grace, and nothing else. Please pray with us for this outcome. We have a made a wonderful start in our outreach to the hurting people of this country, and we very much want to see it taken to the next level.

Teaching requires a fine balance between emotionality and practicality. Teachers that are too emotional don’t last long. They take personal offense at all the jibes and insults; those “slings and arrows” that get hurled our way from disgruntled students. It undermines and undoes them; they end up discouraged, disillusioned and ultimately defeated. Teachers that are too practical die a different death. They become cold automatons, selfish and self-centered, serving no one joyously, and few effectively. In my time I have seen both come and go, and neither are a pretty sight.

For those of us that remain on that middle path – seeking to meet the practical requirements of the curriculum and staying sensitive to student needs – the road is long and filled with both burden and heartache. But the rewards, when they come, can be awfully sweet. At the end of a tough day at work, I received the following letter from a former student:

Dear Mr.Wise,

You haven’t heard from me in a few years, and I am not even sure if you remember me, with the amount of students you teach each year, but I was in your English4U class in 2008 with Ozzy, not sure if you remember him as well.

Anyway, moving along, maybe it is because of graduation goggles (from: How I Met Your Mother), that has left me pondering more so about the future and reflecting on the past, which has lead me to this, writing you an email to once again let you know what a pleasure and an honour it was to have you as a teacher.  

Though I am certain many of the older adults will not consider 3 years a very long time, the past 3 years has taught me plenty. Considering you are still a teacher, with grades and all, I am happy to report I graduated recently on schedule with a GPA of 3.0 and offers of masters and honours. I do feel that that is an accomplishment to be proud of because from being slightly cocky into thinking I can pass everything, to failing and working my ass off after, I am still learning. (My strengths, my capabilities, and my weaknesses included).

In the past 3 years of studies, I have come into contact with many lecturers. Some, as dedicated to teaching as any teacher could be, some indifferent, and some even cruel enough to tell me that I will fail (not to worry, I proved her wrong with my 5 Distinctions), but never one as kind and as caring you are to your students, and so willing to share your culture and life back from your home in Canada, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I still catch up with you and your wife through your blog occasionally, please send her my best and if you would please, that I think the work she does is very admirable. I suppose after all the rambling, I should get to the point and say that, ICPU was a great experience for me, I worked hard, played hard, so hard I did not even realize I was a merit scholar until graduation day, that was a nice surprise. Never having really excelled in high school, it thought me that I am capable as long as I am willing.

After studying Public Relations for 3 years, life again has taken a funny turn that I myself did not expect. I have turned down the offers to pursue masters and honours, to my father’s dismay, to pursue early childhood teaching. My only hope is that I can one day be an educator as caring and as kind as you once were to me.


Pui May

For this I labour; not for financial gain or recognition, but only that I might have the privilege of inspiring some young person to be the man or woman that a loving God intended them to be. If I was that to you, then I have been well repaid. If I was not, please forgive my failings. I promise you that I will not quit striving to be all that God intends me to be as well.

New Year’s resolutions are the province of the young. By my age we have leaned – often to our chagrin – that resolutions are much easier to make than keep. Basically you are not going to do what you are not inclined to do no matter how often you tell yourself to do it. Behaviour has to become habitual before change becomes permanent. We would save ourselves a lot of grief if we took a look at where we want the long term direction of our lives to go, rather than looking for quick fixes to sometimes intractable problems. In practical terms this means simply we need to reinforce our strengths and moderate our weaknesses.

My strength has always been my love of learning. God has made a marvellously complex and beautiful world. Mankind will never come to the end of discovering about it if we last a million years. I love discovering that world, either through literature, art, science, music, travel, or social interaction. An easy and productive resolution for me is to continue to learn throughout the coming year. I don’t need to worry about the specifics of that learning, since often that growth is organic rather than pre-planned. I might set out to learn Mandarin and find myself reading French instead. I might plan on developing music and find it is computer functions I spend most of my time with. I can’t really control all the specifics, since I have no idea what this year will bring. But I do intend to continue to learn at every available opportunity, and to continue to give deference to the One who enables that understanding. My resolution then is to spend less time in the coming year consuming, and more time creating, for that is the essence of learning.

My second resolution has to do with my weakness. I have a tendency to laziness. Nobody looking at me from the outside would suspect this, as I keep it well under control; but I assure you it is there. In order to moderate this weakness I need to more consistent in self-discipline. Again it really doesn’t matter how I discipline myself, only that I do so. I could say that I will get up at such a time and do this number of sit-ups to trim my flabby gut and strengthen my wimpy back, but that isn’t the measure of self-discipline. The measure is that I discipline myself in every aspect of my life from watching television to pausing for ten minutes every hour to stretch and unwind; to reading literature instead of pulp fiction; to leaving my room tidy instead of a disorganized mess. All of these things rebuke my sloth and train me to give a more careful account of my time to my Maker.

Now for the final resolution. As a Christian I understand that mankind in made in the image of God; that is to say he/she has mind, flesh and spirit. My first two resolutions speak to the mind and the flesh; the third must address the spiritual side of my nature. Again it is useful to look at the long term direction of your life; where you want to be at the end of it. Clearly, for a Christian, that goal is to be more like Christ. For me that means I need to be kinder and gentler; not just on others, but on myself as well. For this I need to call upon the Holy Spirit, for this is a deep work of the soul and will not be accomplished through human effort alone. Only God the Spirit can bring about spiritual change. For this I need to spend more time meditating on His word and praying in the spirit, which is what I plan to do in the coming year. And that is by far the most important resolution of all.

I have had a lot of comments on my Hanoi post of a few days ago; some disagreeing strongly with my analysis, some more understanding of our perspective. One of those comments recently submitted deserves highlighting as a post of its own. So with many thanks for his courtesy and insight, here is the unedited comment:

Dear Steve, dear Pam,

Your opinion of Vietnam is shared by many, including Asians who move to Vietnam for some time. The usual comment is “Vietnamese people are so uneducated”. I think it’s true. Vietnamese education is based on being obedient and following the rules, rather than being creative and thinking by themselves; hence some aggressive behaviour, heavy use of lies and some tendency to swindle everyone -and not only foreigners. It often creates a love/hate relationship between expats and Vietnam, since they meet every day an equal amount of nice educated people and lousy bastards.

I think that foreigners who visit Vietnam are eager to spend money, eager to help the locals. Some (like me) don’t even mind the double pricing. After all, I don’t mind paying my meal 50.000 VND instead of 30.000: it’s still 5 times cheaper than in Europe, 10 times tastier and then I help someone earning a bit more than they’re allowed to. But their annoying lies and pushy attitude make many foreigners keeping their money in their pocket, tired of being taken for fools. Why sellers still don’t understand that being pushy make customers run away, it’s a mystery. Or just the consequence of the bad education system? Have you been to a shop where there’s a queue? No one respects it, they cut the line as if there would be a nuclear war the day after.

I remember a foreigner who arrived in HN and finally reached the bus stop near the airport (quite far away and hard to find). He climbs in the bus and the driver grumpily asks him to step out because he has a big luggage. The bus was not crowded; the driver could have asked to pay an extra fee for the luggage. But no, he just chased the poor guy without any explanation.

Hanoi is also the place where customers have the greatest trouble with hotels. Some staff are extremely rude and stupid. On the other hand, I happened to stay in a nice cheap hotel where the staff was nice and helpful. And I’ve met horribly grumpy restaurant owners there. On the other hand, Hanoi is the only place in Vietnam where a staff girl kindly refused my tip. And her restaurant was small and poor. So you see, love/hate is what I felt there.

I agree with your strong disappointment. I’ve also been to some parts of Asia and never ever felt such an annoying attitude. And to end my loooong comment, there’s a place in Vietnam where people are really nice, smiling and eager to talk with foreigners without trying to sell anything, although they live more poorly than in Hanoi: Buon Ma Thuot, in the Highlands. There’s a Coffee Fair in March and it’s really worth visiting.

Glad to know of your blog.




We are back in Hanoi, just briefly in order to catch a plane back to KL. This morning we caught a bus to ride across the island to the ferry on the north end of Cat Ba. The road was under construction, so it was touch and go for a while if we would even get through. But our driver had nerves of steel and powered through the gravel without slipping into the ravine that was mere inches away. When we got to the dock we discovered that our boat was much larger than the one we were on yesterday, and both smoother and quieter with a nice sitting area out of the wind, which was blustery and cold across the bay.

But we didn’t sit inside. The ferry cut across a stretch of Ha Long Bay we hadn’t seen before, and it was too lovely to leave just because of a contrary wind. So we sat huddled up on our deck chairs, bundled in all the warm clothes we could muster, and watched the glorious scenery go majestically by. Eventually we arrived in Ha Long City where we transferred to a vehicle for the next leg of the trip. There was the usual delay while they sorted out the hundreds of tourists onto their various busses and ferries. We were fortunate to get placed on a van that cut the travel time to Hanoi, and arrived just before the rush hour. A quick taxi ride with a very hostile driver brought us to the pleasant staff at the hotel we stayed at on our arrival in Vietnam, where we were treated like old friends. We had a nice meal at a little café overlooking the street, the kind of place that is not easy to find in this overwhelmingly utilitarian city. Then it was back to our hotel for an early evening before our 5 am wake up call.

During a chat with our tour group yesterday we discussed our impressions of the Vietnamese people. The reactions ranged from “hostile” and “aggressive” to “sullen” and “indifferent.” Nobody seemed overly impressed. But when I posted something similar a few days, a number of respondents disagreed. They are indeed a hard people, tough enough to have driven the Chinese out of their country and keep them out for a thousand years. Tough enough to have defeated both the French and the Americans within two decades in the last fifty years; no mean feat in any country’s history. That toughness and aggression is shown in their response to foreigners. During a motorcycle trip around Cat Ba on Sunday we stopped for a moment to get our bearings. A young girl passing by, no more than 6 or 7, contemptuously slapped my helmet visor in a random act of aggression that caught me completely by surprise. This is not the kind of response that we have encountered anywhere else in Asia. Someone is indoctrinating the young of this country in their xenophobia.

However we have also been met with consideration and courtesy on our trip to Ha Long Bay. We chatted with a young Vietnamese student on the van who was studying tourism. Everyone of her friends is studying tourism. Her English was excellent, and so was her attitude. This bodes well for a future of greater openness to outsiders. We also have to note that although the streets are narrow and the infrastructure is crumbling and decayed, the people here work hard at keeping their country clean; not something that you see in Malaysia, Cambodia or Sri Lanka. Construction is happening everywhere; streets are being improved, shoplots are being rebuilt.

These are an industrious and resilient people. Hardship has toughened them throughout their history, and their history has also taught them to be suspicious and resentful of foreigners. They have enough drive and resourcefulness to be an economic powerhouse in this part of the world; to rebuild their cities and develop their industries. They have a physically beautiful country, and it could well become a tourist mecca. They also have enough aggression and xenophobia to rule out any significant progress as a nation. The blocking of the social networking site, Facbook, is evidence of their paranoia. In short, they could go either way in the future, and Vietnam will be an interesting country to watch.

Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam is a World Heritage site and was recently selected as one of the seven new natural wonders of the world. There are nearly two thousand limestone islands in the 600 square miles of the bay. They are what are called karsts, tectonic uplifts of what was formerly sedimentary rock. From the look of the layers, some of that uplift was nearly vertical. Erosion by wind and water has then shaped these rocks into strange outcroppings; some looking like Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio, some looking like the ‘flowerpots’ of the Bruce Peninsula.

Today we took a cruise out into Ha Lan Bay, off the southern coast of Cat Ba island where we are staying, and around to the east and north of the island into Ha Long Bay itself. We shared the cruise with a dozen others, all young backpackers, from San Francisco, Vancouver, England, India and Germany. It was a wondrous journey, and pictures simply do not do the site justice. These scenic wonders spring from the water in dazzling variety; some looking like humpbacked dragons – ha long means descending dragon – some teetering precariously on thin stalks eroded to the point of collapse by the water. Our little boat wove its way through this water wonderland, every turn in the bay yielding a new vista. We were entranced.

After a couple of hours of this we dropped anchor in a secluded part of the bay and loaded into kayaks for a closer look. Erosion has carved caves and arches in the islands, making them ideal for exploration in kayaks. Pam and I were happy to be a craft we ourselves could manage, and spent a happy hour in our own little tour before returning to the boat for lunch. We were expecting noodle soup or some greasy fried rice. Instead we have steamed rice and vegetables, Vietnamese spring rolls and mackerel steaks. Another hour of cruising brought us to Bo Hon Island, site of the Sung Sot cave. We had heard nothing of this in any guide book and quite frankly we were not expecting to see much more than a few scruffy stalagmites and a tourist vendor. We were totally blown away by the most vast and massive cave we had ever seen. The cave was beautifully laid out with clear and clean flagstones quarried from the surrounding limestone, and with a minimum of artificial light to bring out the cave’s natural beauty. The view from the outer reach of the cave overlooking the harbor is the one that you see of Ha Long Bay on the Wikipedia site.

We had a brief spell of anxiety on the way home as the engine quite literally blew a gasket. It must be a fairly regular occurrence because the crew had a spare gasket on hand and managed the repair in forty-five minutes. Fortunately we were in a fairly open and protected part of the bay, and drifted peacefully along while the repairs took place. Half an hour later we were out into the open waters of the bay with their two metre swells. We stopped briefly on Monkey Island to feed the local residents who were happy to ‘steal’ our lunch leftovers and pose for pictures. Aside from them and a lone sea eagle, there was not much other wildlife to be seen.

It was a fantastic day of sights and experiences, and it was nice to have some fellow travelers to share the experience with and to talk about our various travels through South-East Asia. We finished our day with a decent meal at the Green Mango, recommended by our Aussie friend Jim, and not to be missed if you ever find yourself on Cat Ba Island. The weather may not have been the best at this time of year, but with no tourist crowds to contend with, we got to see some pretty amazing sights today. For my money the karsts looked even more mysterious and impressive arising from the mists as they came into view. We were glad we came.

If you are wondering why you haven’t seen us on Facebook lately, look again at the heading on this post. North Vietnam is not North Korea, but it does share a similar cult devotion to its dead leaders and a similar paranoia about opening up to the world. We did manage to squeak by and post just once on Facebook, but that must have been a fluke, because the page has been unavailable to us the rest of the time.

So if you found us here on our weblog we would like to wish you a very Happy New Year. May the coming year be filled with adventure and blessing. Happy 2012!