Archive for May, 2008|Monthly archive page

Ambulance Duty in Manila

In Adventures in Asia on May 27, 2008 at 2:29 am




The Philippines is a tough place to have a medical emergency.

 by Antonio Graceffo


After graduating EMT-B (Emergency Medical Technician, Basic) course, I started duty, volunteering on an ambulance crew in Quezon City, Philippines. I have to put in 250 hours of service before I return to school for the next round of advanced training.


The emergency call volume in the whole country is pretty low, with the crew only going on about two and a half calls per day. Since Filipinos are exposed to so many more dangers than people in the west, one would expect to have more calls per capita, not less. Vehicles are not inspected. Buses, completely overloaded with people, often drive, without breaks and slam into motorcycles, carrying a family of five. And, of course no one wears a helmet. Electrical wires are installed with little or no forethought. Outside the houses there are massive tangles of fizzing, sparking wires, pirating electricity, just waiting to shock someone or burst into flames. Poor people don’t have any preventative medical care, only going to the hospital when it is too late to save them. A huge percentage of them smoke and drink alcohol. Vegetables are overcooked or non-existent, and pork fat is a favorite dish, served on a heaping mound of rice.


In poor areas, particularly squatter communities, there are massive open sewage and drainage pits, just waiting to support an epidemic or swallow up a child. But more on that later.


The rescue station was small, dirty and ill equipped. They had three ambulances, 1994 model L-3, which is basically like a family van converted to carry a patient. The only equipment in the ambulance was a trolley cot, a small oxygen tank, tied off with rubber bands, and a homemade equipment locker, which contained no equipment.


Some of the regular EMS guys who manned the station, were, by far, the biggest slackers I had ever seen in my life. They smoked. They were fat. And I just got the impression they didn’t want more than two and a half calls per day. It would just mean more work. And God knows they didn’t like work. The bathroom reeked to Heaven. It had clearly not been cleaned since the station was established fifteen years ago. The sink didn’t work and there was no seat on the toilet.


The team leader, and a couple of the others, however, were motivated and trying to do what they could, but if you leave a good man in a quagmire long enough, he will stop trying to swim. Bobo-Lolo, as I called him, was by far the slackiest of the slackers. He tried to relate to me, because we were both soldiers. He was so unfit, I finally said to him. “how can you save lives. You look like you are going to collapse any moment.”


“I am forty-one.” He said, as an excuse.

“I am forty, and you look like you could be my lolo, my grandfather.”

“I am older than you.” He insisted.

“So, in six months, on my birthday, I am going to wake up reeking of cigarettes, hungover, and eight months pregnant?”


Bobo went on to tell me about why he left the army.


“We had to shoot guns, and it made me tired.”

“Armies shoot guns.” I explained.

“No, but this was hard. We had to crawl.”

“Armies crawl.”

“Under barbed wire.” He added.

“With sergeants shooting over your head.” I interjected, before he had a chance. “Those are all normal exercises that soldiers do. You didn’t have it any harder than any other soldier anywhere.”

In the course of this conversation, it turned out that Bobo-lolo hadn’t even been in the army. He was talking about ROTC, when I was in college. So, now I wondered what he had been doing for the last twenty years.


Actually, I didn’t want to know.


In the main room we had a small TV, which played constantly. There was a couch and a sick bed which was missing its upholstery, so you had to sit or lay directly on the smelling, filthy foam rubber.


In defense of how lazy these guys were, their salary was only 6,000 Pesos a month.


A lot of my EMS duty consisted of sitting around the station house, reading. We did practice for about then minutes, doing spinal immobilizations, simulating extracting a victim from an automobile. All the equipment smelled like a thousand sweating bleeding victims had defecated on it,. When it came my turn t play the victim I refused, for fear f becoming infected by having the rescue gear touch my skin. When I played rescuer, I put on rubber gloves for the same reason. We have to buy our own gloves and the regular guys thought I was nuts. My classmates, Ben and Neil, of course knew this whole situation was wrong.


I looked at my watch, then said to Ben. “Two hundred and forty-six hours left.”


In addition to our grueling extraction drill, we had a session of ambulance familiarization. The first thing I noticed when they opened the doors of the ambulance was that the rescue basket had old dried blood on it. I guess two and a half calls a day kept the guys too busy to clean their equipment.


Just before noon, we received word that the Vice Mayor’s birthday was being celebrated at City Hall and we were all invited for lunch. Feeling proud in our new uniforms, my classmates, Ben and Neil, and I followed our EMS team through the crowd at City Hall. Everyone was curious about the EMT from America, so they all came over to talk to me. At one point, I am not sure how it happened, but I wound up leading our procession down a hallway. I stepped through a doorway, expecting to step down a flight of stairs, only to find out that the first step was missing. I fell like a stone, crashing down on my ankle, which of course, had twisted underneath me.


The sudden fall had caused all of the blood to run away from my head and collect in my feet, and I instantly fell into near unconsciousness. The six EMTs all hovered around me, remarking on how white and sweaty I had become. I sat on the floor, with my back propped up against the wall, willing myself to recover. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so nauseous or so feint. Sweat ran off my body like a river.  While I slowly recovered, an employee of the mayor, a woman in her late forties, brought me an ice pack for my swollen ankle.


I had been working as an EMT for about five hours at that point, and I was my first patient. I really felt like a mook.


Eventually, I made it back to my feet. Limping, unsteadily, I followed my friends into the banquet hall, where we ate an excellent lunch for free.


After lunch, we were back in the station house. I was reading Chuck Berris’s autobiography, wondering if he really had been an assassin for the CIA. We received an emergency call. A woman was nearly collapse at City Hall.


I grabbed my medical bag and jumped in the ambulance, not missing the irony of the fact that I was returning to the scene of my shame. If the injured woman recognized me as the patient from before, it probably wouldn’t instill confidence in her.


We met our patient in an office, where she was being tended by none other, than the woman who had brought me an icepack earlier. Luckily, she was too concerned about her friend to laugh at me. The injured woman was 47 years old. While Ben took her vitals, BP 90/70, we asked some questions. It turned out that she had donated blood a few hours earlier. Since then, she had been outside, in the heat, helping to coordinate the events for the vice mayor’s birthday. She hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Making sure that she had no history of diabetes or heart disease, I suggested she rest in front of the fan, eat some lunch and drink come fluids. After a few more questions and niceties in Filipino, the team leader agreed. We returned to base.


To kill boredom, while I read, Ben and Neil took turns splinting my ankle. Neil was better on wrapping. Ben was better at tying. But, it isn’t nice to compare, so I complemented them both equally. You don’t want to squelch the spirit of a new EMT.


We were to be getting off at 5:00. It looked like we weren’t going to get to actually see or do anything interesting, apart from working on each other. At 4:10, we were called to the drowning of a three year old child. Of course our ambulance was stuck in traffic. Even with the sirens blaring, no one made way for us.


In the back of the ambulance, Bobo-Lolo was asking Ben questions about me in Filipino. I have been here long enough that I really understand about 80% of what is being said, if I know the context. One question after another, I simply answered before Ben could translate.


“You speak Filipino?” asked Bobo.

“I understand a lot, but I am just learning.” I answered.

He started teaching me phrases in rapid fire. People do this to me from time to time. They try and make it look like they are helping you, but actually they are taking the piss out of you, telling you a ton of useless language that you can’t possibly remember. At some point they laugh at how stupid you are because you can’t speak THEIR native tongue. The fact that I speak ten other native tongues never seems to make any impression on them. They just feel superior. I didn’t want Bobo to feel superior. So, I shut him down.

“Stop!” I said, holding up my hand like a cop directing traffic. “I don’t need you to throw a bunch of useless phrases at me. Just teach me one or two phrases directly related to our work. That would be helpful.”


“Mahal Kita.” He said, giggling.

“Is that related to or work?”


“What does it mean?”

“I love you.” Answered Bobo and laughed at having baited me. Everyone else laughed too.

“Do you really?”


“Do you really love me?”

Bob began to stammer.

“You don’t love me do you?”

Now everyone was laughing at Bobo-Lolo

“Don’t tell me you love me if you don’t mean it.” I said.


Bobo-lolo left me alone for the rest of the ride.



We arrived on the scene at a squatter village where poor families live in houses made of scrap wood and cardboard. There was a drainage tunnel running off the highway, which had turned into a fast moving river in today’s unseasonable downpour.


In the developed, western countries, it is hard enough to get a straight story, but in the developing world it is impossible. You have to ask, and ask, and ask again. And each time, you will get a different answer or no answer at all. Basically what I was able to piece together was that a little boy was walking along the top of the tunnel. His sandal fell into the tunnel. When he bent over to retrieve it, he fell in and immediately got swept away. The tunnel lead down a steep embankment for about thirty meters, till it hit a valley, which today was completely full of swift water. That is where the story ended. I couldn’t get a straight answer if anyone had seen him swept away or pulled under.


Looking more closely at the current, I saw that the water coming down the embankment was actually flowing in the opposite direction as the river itself. With that, I surmised that the body must not be far away. He would have come down fast, then hit water going in the other direction, which would have stopped his forward progress.


At that point I was certain we were looking for a body, rather than conducting a rescue.


During the course of the conversation, I learned that all of this had happened over an hour before we were called. This tragedy illustrates a number of problems in the Philippines, aside from the fact that they don’t do maintenance or planning and don’t eliminate dangerous situations before or after they kill people.  Beyond this, the people simply don’t know to call for emergency response, or they are afraid to. Quezon City, has a population of two million, but only receives an average of 80 EMS calls per month. In the west, we would expect the same population to result in 400 calls per week. Other problems were glaring, such as, we were the first unit on the scene. The police and fire department were nowhere to be seen. When we arrived, we knew we were in the right place because of the huge crowd that had gathered, clearly looking for something in the river. How many police cars must have driven by the crowd on patrol but chosen not to stop?


When I suggested to my team leader that the little boy must be close to the embankment, he said the locals told him that when the river changed directions, it ran back under the highway and went on for miles, eventually coming out at the sea.


The water was moving at least 5 – 10 miles per hour. If he had been swept in the other direction, he would be long gone by now. Obviously I wanted to save the boy, but since that was not possible, I at least hoped to find the body, so his parents could have a Catholic funeral, and get closure.


We went to the other side of the highway and made our way through the squatter’s market. There were large drainage holes, five meters across, covered in metal grates. The obvious thing to do would be to open one of these grates, repel in, and see if maybe the body had been trapped inside. No one seemed to know, or care if there were screens or obstructions under the water. They ignored me when I asked if it was possible that the body was trapped there or had been washed further on.


We are actually EMTs. We are only supposed to deal with medical emergencies, not rescue, but they asked if I was trained to rappel down and look for the body. I said, no problem, as long as you have safety gear for me. Of course they didn’t. So, I refused to go down.


In the Philippines, big cities, like Manila, are divided into smaller cities, Quezon City being the largest of these small cities. Small cities are divided into smaller units, eventually coming to something called a barangay. The barangay is ruled by a barangay captain who is like a ward boss back in old time New York. Anything that goes wrong, any problem is supposed to be reported to the barangay captain, who, like a patron, will help his constituents.


We found out that no one had called the barangay captain. So, my team leader notified him. The team leader said, “We have to be available for medical emergencies. If we stay here looking for a body, someone may die of heart attack on the other side of the city. So, we need to wait till the barangay captain gets here and then leave.”


This was reasonable. But I was still worried about the family. “Does the barangay have equipment to go in and search for the body?”


“No, but they will call the police.”


I couldn’t believe the police still hadn’t been called at this point.


“And do the police have equipment to search for the body?”


“No, but they will call the Coast Guard.”


On the list of things I couldn’t believe was that you needed to call the Coast Guard for a rescue in a drainage ditch, miles from the ocean.


This is the Philippines. It is a sad situation. Poor people live under dangerous conditions everyday. Then, either through ignorance or fear, they don’t call for help when they need it. But in this country, the help is fairly useless, and bureaucratic when it arrives. Most likely someone in that long chain of phone calls was going to refuse to come till tomorrow, if at all.


If this had been a drowning, or if the boy had been alive when we arrived, I would have had no other choice but to go in after him. The EMTs I worked with during my water rescue course and a few of the guys from this team were taking rescue courses with the Coast Guard and Air Force, apparently, although it is not their job, they see that they need the training to save lives. Although some guys are lazy and resign themselves to working for 6,00 Pesos a month, doing the bare minimum, there are clearly other Filipinos who are dedicated. They are struggling to make things better, but life refuses to meet them half way. Everyone has noble ideas about staying behind and helping the country, but I looked at my classmates, Ben and Neil, who had performed heroically, and I just said, “Get out of here as soon as you can.” I felt guilty saying this to them. They are both bright, Ben is a nurse and Neil is a respiratory therapist. They have a chance to go outside the country, work as advanced EMTs and at least make things better for their own families.


“That is our plan.” Answered Ben, sadly.


I didn’t want to turn this child’s death into a soap box. Please say a prayer for his soul and a prayer of comfort for his parents. The death of child must be the hardest tragedy to endure.


Antonio Graceffo is a qualified EMT, Emergency medical technician. When he completes his training in the Philippines, he hopes to return to Burma and Shanland as part of a medical aid mission. He has been embedded with the Shan State Army inside of Burma, documenting human rights abuses, in his video series, “In Shanld.” You can watch all of the Shan videos released to date on youtube.

Antonio is self-funded. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, or his paramedic training, you can do so through paypal, through the Burma page of his website.


contact Antnio


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Bokator Vs. Muay Thai Boran

In Martial Arts on May 22, 2008 at 1:22 pm

By Antonio Graceffo


Readers have written in from all over the world asking what is the difference between these two, ancient southeast Asian arts.



What is Bokator:

Bokator is the ancient Cambodian martial art, which was nearly whipped out duringt the Khmer Rouge genocide. Through the sacrifices of Grand Master San Kim Saen, the art was reborn. After surviving the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, he returned to Cambodia in the late 1990s. Scouring the country, he found less than ten Bokator masters who had survived. He later opened his school in Phnom Penh, where he teaches Bokator to about three hundred students. Several have been promoted to black karma (belt). Derek Morris and I are the only foreigners to have earned a black karma. Mine is in fighting only, Derek’s belt and certificate make him an instructor. The Grand Master hopes that a foreigner will open a Bokator school outside of Cambodia, so that the art will spread and survive. Unfortunately, I don’t accept students. After training in Muay Thai Sangha, with Kru Pedor Villalobos, Derek went to China to learn San Da (Chinese Kickboxing).


What is Muay Thai Boran:


Boran means ancient. It is actually a Khmer word which was absorbed into the Thai language. Long ago, Thailand raided Cambodia, capturing masters of various arts, from religion, to dance, to martial arts. Khmer words and culture were adopted into Thai culture. Today, in Thai language, all words associated with religion, royalty, martial arts, science, and government come from Khmer. The Khmer claim that they invented kickboxing. The original Khmer kickboxing art is called Bradal Serey (Pradal Serey) and Khmers claim that it was stolen by Thailand and later dubbed Muay Thai.


The masters I interviewed in Lao agreed with this theory. Some masters in Thailand agreed. Others essentially said that all of the countries of southeast Asia had a system of martial arts and they probably borrowed and stole form each other, developing along very similar lines. Today, Muay Lao, Muay Thai, Bradal Serey, and Burmese boxing (Lethwei or Lethawae) are quite similar. The cultures of these countries are also quite similar, with the people following Theravada Buddhism, which originated in India and then Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Ancient Khmer is the written language of the ancient scriptures of all of these countries.


Neighboring Vietnam is always the odd-man-out. The culture is Chinese. The written language was Chinese, until the French forced them to use the Latin alphabet. And the predominant ancient martial art, Tieu Lam, is a form of Chinese Kung Fu. There are rumors that Vietnam once had a kickboxing art similar to Cambodia. Today, this art seems to have disappeared, but even in Tieu Lam, we see some elements taken from kick boxing, such as shin kicks and elbow strikes.


The point here is that the fighting arts of all of the Indochina countries are quite similar, and clearly come from the same origin. In Thailand, however, martial art developed into a massive professional sport. Kickboxing is also the national sport of Cambodia, but there are less than 400 registered boxers. In Thailand there are close to 100,000.


Muay Thai Boran is a word which is often given to the original, military fighting art, which was later watered down into a sport art, used in a kickboxing ring.


What is the difference between Bokator and Muay Thai Boran?


Muay Thai Boran ad Bokator clearly share a lot of similarities, but one primary difference is that Bokator is a system. Muay Thai Boran is not. You study Muay Thai, and if your teacher knows Boran, he teaches you some movements in isolation. For example, he advocates kicking with the bottom or side of your foot, instead of just shin kicks. Or, he teaches you spinning back kicks or heal kicks, instead of just roundhouse.


Muay Thai Boran and Krabi Krabong get lumped together. Karbi Krabong is the weapons training:just staff and doubles swords. If you see Thai practitioners using double sticks, the sticks represent swords. There is, to my knowledge, no Thai double stick art like Arnis in the Philippines.


Bokator, on the other hand, is a complete system, like a traditional martial arts. There are belts, and you learn movements, forms, and techniques in order. The weapons include the double stick, double swords, long staff and scarf.


While Muay Thai Boran includes a bit more grappling than sport Muay Thai, it is still stand up grappling from the head. And you are wearing gloves.


Bokator includes Khmer traditional wrestling (jap bap boran khmer), kick boxing (bradal serey or pradal serey), and weapons. In true Bokator fights, you don’t wear gloves and you can fight on the ground, with bouts ending in submissions or chokes.


The ground fighting is not nearly as effective as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or western wrestling, but it is arguably the only ground fighting art in southeast Asia. I have trained in nearly every country in southeast Asia (except Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunai) and there doesn’t seem to be any ground fighting at all.


At this point, a reader asked me how ground fighting changes the landscape of fighting, both in Muay Thai Boran vs. Bokator and in MMA.


This is my take on the dominance of ground fighting. A good street fighter, a tough biker dude like Tank Abbot or Sony Barger, could probably hold his own against most strikers. If you see the youtube clips of the bare knuckles pro fighter named Kimbo (I think that is his name). He is a huge, strong, African American guy who makes his living knocking guys out in parking lots. He probably never had any training. And if he went in UFC and got matched with a striker, he could hold his own and might win on a KO because in professional street fighting the goal is to keep the fight short and get a KO.


I’ve done only one of these fights. Coming into it, the mistake I made was in trying to box and move, and win in a later round. I got hit once in the eye, it opened me up, and I realized there is no later. You have to win NOW. I did win. And the fight probably only lasted about twenty-five seconds, but it was too long.


So, the answer is a tough street fighter, big and strong, used to going for the knock out would be hard to beat in a ring. The best strategy would be to drag the fight on as long as possible to make him tired. But he would be landing bombs on you the whole time, and that wouldn’t be a very pleasant experience.


With grappling, the rules change. An untrained grappler stands zero chance against a trained grappler. It’s that simple. I pound a bag every day in the gym, but I know if I come against the right street fighter, he could knock me out. But a guy who trains grappling every day would instantly take down an untrained grappler or a street fighter and that would be the end of the fight.


The smartest strikers, like Mirco, have learned to escape. He was smart enough to just ignore the grappling and hope to win on a kick KO. And he was smart enough not to try and win on submissions. He learned to avoid the take down and to escape back to his feet. But he had to learn that. You have to train specifically to avoid the grappler. If you look at early UFCs the grappler nearly always won because they always got the take down and then once on the ground, there was no escape for the striker.


So, comparing Muay Thai Boran with Bokator, because Bokator has the ground fighting, it is the better fighting art. The issue in Thailand vs. Cambodia right this minute, however, would be that the Bokator school has only been reopened for about five years. So, the guys don’t have a lot of fighting experience. When I prepared for my black belt I went out to the village and learned Khmer wrestling with the farmers. I was the first one to do this. The team isn’t ready yet to fight all comers.


In Thailand there is a lot of interest in MMA now. When I am training there, they all tell me how they would just wait for the shoot and then take the grappler out with a knee to the face. This is ludicrous because their entire game plan rests on a single technique. Yes, if you shoot and run head first into a knee thrown by a pro Muay Thai fighter you will get knocked out. But what if the Muay Thai guy misses? Or what if the grappler deflects the knee with his hand? Or what if he just absorbs the knee? Or, what if he shoots and executes the throw from the waist or the hip?


We have played around with this scenario in the gym quite a bit in Bangkok. And anyone who has seen my youtube knows I am no grappler. My shoot looks like an old man bending over to pickup his change. Even with that, I am able to take them down. And of course, once I get on top, I am so much bigger, that is the end of the fight.


The throw I usually use to take down a Muay Thai fighter is actually a technique from Muay Thai Boran. You shoot in with your forearm in front of your face. Instead of hitting the hips or thighs, you hit the opponent’s shin with the forearm and then scoop his heal with the other hand.


To sum up: Bokator is a complete art which, if learned would be a better fighting art than Muay Thai Boran. But at the moment, there are no battle-hardened Bokator guys to fight. And in grappling vs. striking. I believe an untrained striker may stand a chance against a trained striker. But an untrained grappler stands no chance against a real grappler. Grappling would be one of the biggest determinant in who would win between a Bokator guy and a Muay Thai Boran guy. Since Bokator has ground-fighting and Muay Thai Boran doesn’t, Bokator would win.


Antonio Graceffo holds a black karma in Bokator. He lives in Thailand and has practiced Muay Thai for a number of years. He trained in Cambodia for several years in boxing, Bradal Serey, and Bokator. In Philippines he has studied Kuntaw and Yaw Yan. IN Lao he studied Muay Lao. He has also trained at the Shaolin Temple, in China, and in schools and gyms in Vietnam and Korea. He is a frequent contributor for both Black Belt and Kung Fu magazines. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, available on tells about his experiences at the Shaolin Temple.


He is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.




Burma’s Other Karen Tribe

In Adventures in Asia on May 22, 2008 at 1:20 pm

By Antonio Graceffo



The Long neck Karen (KarenPadaung) are not actually Karen at all, but they are also refugees, escaping the genocidal madness in Burma. They have become a symbol of tourism in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. On the Burmese side of the border, agents of the junta gather the Karen, Akha, Lihsu, Lahu and other tribal people into human zoos.


In Burma’s Tachylek, I watched in nauseated amazement as drunken Chinese businessmen, exhausted from long nights of gambling, strolled through these Disney-like villages, accompanied by their prostitute girl friends, snapping photos of the “Tribal People in natural habitat.”  Each village maintained one family from each tribe, wearing their traditional dress, and living in an authentic tribal house. The village was a real time-saver, as you didn’t have to travel to have your photo made with one representative of each tribe.


The “cultural villages” like the one in Tachylek, are easily the most horrible and flagrant exploitation of human rights I have ever witnessed. On the Thai side of the border, the Padaung are also exploited, but not to such a degree as inside of their home country, Burma.


 Because of the popularity of these villages as a tourist destination, a number of people have written me and asked abut the true life of the tribal people. In other words, they wanted to know how the Padaung live when they are not on display in a synthetic village. The truest answer I could give is that I have spent considerable time living among the Shan. But, I have never lived among the Padaung. There are rumors that there are no more Padaung living in traditional villages. Word on the border is that the Padaung were a vary small group to start with. In a recent article, bruma Expert, Edith Mirante said that there were about 50,000 Padaung. Nearly one-hundred percent of those who make it to Thailand wind up in tourist villages. Today, nearly all of those living in Burma have been rounded up and forced to live in “cultural villages.”


 I think no one knows for sure, because it is so hard for researchers to live inside of Burma, but I have heard that there are no more true, non-touristic Padaung villages.(This needs to be verified. If anyone has information to the contrary, please, by all means, write to me


What I do know about the Padaung, I will share, in the hopes of brining attention to this horrible exploitation, and as a way of demonstrating that the victims of the junta are countless. It never ends. Life, after life, after innocent life is destroyed by this repressive regime which cares only for its own survival.


There are two closely related groups, who often occupy the same tourist villages in Thailand. There are the long neck Karen, and the big ear Karen. The big ear Karen put large earrings in their ears to make the lobes bigger. They also force rings on their claves. They add one ring to their calves every year, as the Long Neck do with their neck rings.


As far as anyone knows, Padaung women in Burma still keep this tradition, but the total population of Padong is extremely small, but they keep their tradition. Some interviews, which a friend of mine conducted in Burma suggested that many of the girls in the Burmese “cultural villages” were actually actresses. The Akha girl may have actually been Lihsu or from some other tribe. She was told to put on a costume and live in a certain hut, and she did it.


In my own interviews, on the Thai side of the border, we were told that some girls were either not actually Padaung, or were from a group that didn’t normally wear the rings. But, they put on the rings just to get put in the human zoo, rather than be sent back to Burma. We were also told that to make the look more exotic for tourists, the girls were forcing one new ring on their neck every nine months, instead of once per year.


Although it may have seemed a safer alternative to returning to the war in Burma, the tourist village, is a sad pathetic place. The people have no normal life at all. According to their culture, they are supposed to be doing rice farming and raising their families, but instead they stand there selling trinkets and posing for photos. Most of the women we spoke to were quite nice, and willing to talk, but they spoke Thai to varying degrees only, so communication was often a problem. They were afraid to talk to us at length because the Puyai Bans (pesanovante Thai/Chinese who run the village and collect the money) obviously told them not to talk to foreigners or journalists. The pesanovante would often crowd in and try to eavesdrop or outright intimidate us.


The tourists were horribly ignorant people who believed that these long neck were part of Thailand or Thai culture, but of course they are refugees from the war in Burma and shouldn’t be in Thailand at all. They are only tolerated by the Thais because they can exploit the women and make money.


If you ask about wearing the rings, most of the girls will tell you that it is not painful, but they are lying. The rings must be painful, because they are forcing their clavicles down and extending the cervical vertebrae. There have been cases of adult women putting on rings just to get into these villages and not be deported to the war. Obviously forcing a bunch of rings onto a grown woman would be painful.


 I don’t live with Padong or with Karen. I live with Shan. So, I only visited Padaung villages, and sometimes work with Karen soldiers in the field. So, I never got to actually see the rings being put on the girls. Again it is important to note that there is no real anthropological connection between Karen and Padaung.


The rings are normally not removed during the entire lifetime of the girls. I have heard that they could actually die if the rings are removed, because the cervical spine will not be strong enough to support the head. In one of the villages, a girl, named Sempre, took her rings off to try and pass for “normal.” She is definitely in danger of suffering a spinal injury. She might get away with it, physically, since she is so young, less than twenty. Culturally, however, she will never recover. The  women who still wear rings have ostracized her for breaking with the culture. Now she doesn’t receive an income from the puyai bans because she is no longer an attraction. She hopes to get an ID card and go to work in the city, but she could quite easily be arrested and deported now.


As I stated earlier, I don’t have a good number on how many Padaung exist on both sides of the border, but, I would estimate about 50 women live in each tourist village, on the Thai side. On the Burmese side, there is normally only one very lonely family from each tribe. In the whole world, however, there are very few long neck. In Thailand there are none in refugee camps, they all get caught and are forced to work in the tourist villages. Once when I was in Ban Thaton, and I saw a long neck Karen women walk out of the jungle to buy food at a hill tribe market. When I raised my camera, everyone asked me not to photograph her because it would jeopardize her freedom. She was one of very,

very few long neck hiding in the jungle and living freely.


A common question people ask is why the women wear the rings. I have heard several reasons. One is that, in Padaung culture, the rings are considered attractive. Anther reason I heard was that if a man wanted a divorce he had the right to take the rings off his wife, which would instantly kill her. I don’t know the reason and I don’t know if anyone does. The women didn’t  know when I asked them. It was a typical Asia moment when I asked, the girls answered. “Someone told us once why we wear the rings, but I forgot.”


People ask me if the rings are healthy, or if the girls could die of infection. Well you can’t die from an allergic reaction to jewelry. Remember the rings are worn on top of the skin. There is no piercing. Tribal people, or anyone living in the jungle, are absolutely infested with skin parasites and infections. This is just normal. Like head lice, it is just something they live with and believe to be a normal part of every day life. At best, they wash with cold water once per day, hiking God knows how far into the jungle to take a “bath.” You are already filthy when you come back from the bath. But some don’t have access to any water, so they just stay dirty.


If girls have died because of the rings, it wasn’t recorded. Tribal people accept death as a normal part of life and wouldn’t record, or think about, or worry about something like that. The culture says wear the rings, so they wear the rings, end of story.


The war in Burma has been going on for sixty years. It is estimated that more than two million people have been made homeless and are now living in camps in Thailand, Bangladesh, India, and Malaysia. These long neck are the most visible refugees, but there are so many others. The Burman’s only comprise about 40% of the population of Burma. The rest is made up of various ethnicities, tribes who are being subjected to genocide. They need help. They need the UN and USA to intervene militarily. You can google my name, plus the words Shan State Army and see the work I have done with the Shan people. At the end of every Burma video I remind people to “Please, say a prayer for the people of Burma.”


Antonio Graceffo is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.




Buddhism and the Party Line in Cambodia

In Adventures in Asia on May 16, 2008 at 12:50 pm



An interview with a disillusioned monk

By Prah Sokha (with Antonio Graceffo)



Prah Sokha has been a Khmer monk, off and on, for more than ten years. He once left the monkhood because he felt the Cambodian monks had strayed from a pure form of Buddhism, in order to follow the mandates of the Cambodian government (CPP).


He feels that the influence of politics, greed and the modern world have perverted the religion. He complains about the lack of discipline among the monks and stringent government controls on the temples’ teachings. Finally, he fears that as the people move further and further away from Buddhist values, the social order of the country could collapse. He sees the monks as being the only ones who could save the people, bringing them back to their core beliefs. But he asks the question, how can corrupt monks be expected to save the Cambodian people?


According to Prah Sokha:


Theravada Buddhism has played an important role in Khmer society for centuries. Khmer people decided to adhere to Buddhism since it was a religion that required the followers to observe strict principles and follow rigid precepts. They paid the highest respect to the people who became Buddhist monks.


Historically, Khmer people have taken the monastery as their refuge, as well as their training centre, where they could develop both their mind and their spirit. Buddhism is one of the strongest influences on Khmer culture and tradition.


In the past, monks fulfilled essential roles in traditional Khmer society, such as teachers and healers. In ancient times, they were the practitioners whose role was closest to that of modern psychiatrists. The monks provided kindly counseling and encouragement to the laity. They helped develop the country, resolving problems that occurred in Khmer society and interceding between the government and the people. A god example is Prah Samdach Song Chhuan Nat, who was the top hierarchical monk and an advisor to King Sihannuk during the 1950s and 1960s.


The Present: Cambodian Buddhism is in Decline


After the Khmer Rouge regime was finished, Buddhism was reborn, and started developing from day to day. But the development came only from outside forms of Buddhism. They new influences focused only on the constructions. They didn’t know what the core of Buddhism was. The roles played by the Khmer Buddhist monks in Khmer society were greatly decreased. The Grand Patriarch, the ranking Buddhist monk, who has traditionally been an advisor to the king, lost most if not all of his influence and power. The monks themselves lost their focus and became selfish. They don’t dare to share what they have in order to help Buddhism.


Why Khmer Buddhism is in decline:


Practitioners, Buddhist Monks, novices and laity, are not strict in Vinaya, monastic discipline. They are only attracted to modern materialism such as motorcycles, cars, phones, televisions, and electronic entertainment. They concentrate on earning money in anyway way possible, even engaging in illegal or immoral behavior. They are crazy with money at the moment. They don’t spend money in the right way.


“Some monks in PP are gambling; betting on football matches. CamboSix centers have opened nationwide, allowing laity and monks to gamble on football matches around the world.” says Phra Nhean, living in Thailand 8 years.


The monks suffer from a limited belief system, because they don’t study and find out the deep core of Buddhism. So, they are reluctant to commit to the discipline of the religion. Monks don’t have enough knowledge to explain Buddha’s teaching to the laity.


The Monk Educational System in Cambodia is not up to standard, and the qualifications are not accepted by any university. Even if you complete your monk education, you must study again from beginning. I, Prah Sokha, was also forced to do this.  I completed secondary school, then I became a monk and studied the same grade again. It takes us a long time to complete our studies because we have to do everything twice.


Recently, a monk decree was issued, stating that monks who have completed their studies in a foreign country will not be allowed to work in the government or monk hierarchy. I don’t understand why they are so crazy.  


“They don’t want us to grab their power,” says Phra Minh, a  Khmer monk who recently went to Thailand for education. “They are afraid because they are ignorant, unlearned, and belligerent.”


Some monks who need power, try to have a secrete relationship with government officers of the CPP. The monks bow their heads down to the government and flatter them. Some even dare to kneel down to receive money from Hun Sen. Some agree to work as servants. This is all wrong for Buddhist monks!


Outside Threats to Khmer Buddhism


Other religions, Islam, and Christianity, are penetrating into Cambodia everyday. They are trying to use money to buy the people to practice their religions by offering gifts or cash to the poor and then force them, behind the scenes covert. Buddhist monks have not shown any interest in this situation.


I think if All of Cambodian monks are still sleeping in ignorance don’t look at the neighboring countries, don’t upgrade their thought or idea, Buddhism will possibly vanish or disappear in the nearest future. And there will be a religious war in Cambodia, no longer, no sooner


Antonio Graceffo has been embedded with the Shan State Army inside of Burma. This article is part of the “In Shanland” project. To raise awareness about the plight of the Shan people Antonio will release one print article and one video per week for a year. He is giving these media away for free to ensure that they will reach the largest audience. You can watch all of the Shan videos released to date on youtube.

Antonio is self-funded. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal, through the Burma page of his website.


You can contact Antonio:


Currently, Antonio is attending paramedic training in Manila, while waiting for word that he can return to Burma as part of a medical aid mission.



Cambodian Government Says no to Khmer Rouge Movie

In Adventures in Asia on May 16, 2008 at 12:45 pm




By Antonio Graceffo


The Red Sense: A new film by Australian Khmer director, Tim Pek, deals with the subjects of forgiveness and revenge, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. A Khmer girl living in Australia finds out that her father’s killer, posing as a refugee, was also resettled in Australia. She must decide if she should kill him or forgive him. The film is extremely significant and timely, particularly in the face of the current Khmer Rouge trials.


After paying his fees and filling the necessary paper work, Tim has waited months for the Phnom Penh release of his film. So far, it looks as if the government simply doesn’t want the film to air.


In the days when the country was lead by Prince Sihanouk, Khmer cinema was on par with cinema in other countries. Today, Khmer cinema is in a state of steady decline. Tim Pek had hoped that “The Red Sense” would shake things up. His movie, filmed mostly in Khmer, would be a palatable way of introducing the Cambodian population, as well as the film making community, to a whole new style of movies. Perhaps “The Red Sense” could have been the catalyst to kick off a new era of Khmer cinema.


The export potential of the current crop of Khmer films is zero. The domestic population loves to watch movies, but foreign movies and DVDs are leading in popularity, with Khmer  movies falling behind.


Mak, a Khmer university student said that he loves watching Khmer movies, and he does so to support Khmer cinema. “I want Khmer movie to be a most prominent ones in SEA and then in the world too. I really prefer Khmer movies even their quality are not good as foreign movies.”


One problem he sights with Khmer movies is the cost of attending the cinema. “Actually I’m poor, so $1 or more than $1 for watching a movie is very expensive for me, but I can spend it to support Khmer movies.”


“I didn’t like to go to the cinema.” Said a Khmer monk, now living abroad. “It had no importance for me to watch the silly movies. Mostly they showed horror or ghost movies and only took from outside (foreign movies). On the other hands, the quality of the Khmer movie is still low. The big problem is ticket cost. It is so expensive.”      


“When I heard that most of the cinemas in Phnom Penh have been closed, I was in tears, I couldn’t sleep and eat. Suddenly I call a Khmer screen writer to ask her about this bad news, and she told me that “Khmer film is died again”


“I watch DVD because DVD is cheaper than cinema. I watch DVDs for other movies besides Khmer movies such as, Thai, China, Korea, American (Hollywood), Indian. I never watch foreign movies at the cinema, just only DVDs.”


The monk echoed the sentiment that he preferred to watch foreign DVDs. “Mostly I prefer American and Chinese.”


When asked if he believed a new movie about the Khmer Rouge was important, he answered. “I think it ‘s important. If may think it is just a small problem of one person, but if we think more than this we will know that the film talks about Khmer people who were the victims in Khmer Rouge. We can compare that, her (the main character of the film) father, a Khmer, was killed in Khmer Rouge, and her father’s killer was also Khmer, and the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were Khmer.”


Because of widespread publicity on the internet, many Khmers and people around the world have heard of the film and seen the trailer on youtube.


“I really want to watch the Red Sense. I have heard of it for a long time, and I have watched the trailer. It seems interesting. Some people told me that it’s not the same as other Khmer Rouge movies, filmed in the past.”


“I think it is good for Khmer young people to see a movie like this because they have to know their history. What happened in the past? Why did it happen? When they know about their history they will use those experiences to change or develop other event in the present and future.”


“It’s the true history, why be afraid to know?”


Most Khmer movies are either slapstick comedies, ghost stories, or romances where everyone cries. The question is, do all Khmer films follow these limited genre lines because this is all the audience wants? Or, do the Khmers watch these types of movies simply because the filmmakers fail to offer them something different?


“I think, most Khmer people like these kinds of because they can see the things from their everyday lives. Second these movies are easy to make. They cost very little and most of them are not intertwined with politics. Another reason, Khmer movies teeter on the brink extinction.”


“Khmer people just don’t know any other kinds of movies. That is one reason that people don’t like to watch other kinds of movies. To watch a movie is like to read a book. A good book is up to a good writer and a good reader (a knowledgeable reader). With movies, if people know what kind of movies they are watching, they will like it.”


Mak believes that the Khmer filmmakers are afraid to take a risk by producing something new. It seems safer to stay with the established formulas.


The monk was less forgiving. He attributed the low quality of Khmer movies to lack of knowledge and paralysis from political fear.


“The producers don’t have enough knowledge to make other stories.” Said the Monk.


One of the very annoying aspects of Khmer films is that they are all dubbed, with all movies being done by the same two men and one woman. The voices of women and children are done in an ear piercingly high falsetto, while male characters all speak in an impossibly low bass, which comes from deep within the caverns at the center of the  earth.


A foreigner working in the radio joked, “We are actually dubbing the DJs voices now.  Okay, being serious now, I’m pretty tired of the dubbing for movies and programs. I feel sorry for Khmer film makers.”


One reason the monk gave for the weak story lines was political fear. “If they know how to make deeper movies, they dare not do so, because they will be taken over by politics. All their stories only support the crazy government.”


“This way, they keep the movies stupid until this government, One Eye Man, Hun Sen, is over. We would like to see change in our country, but it is impossible to do.”




He summed up the death of Khmer cinema like this.


“Why have the Khmer cinemas been closed? Because they have no Khmer movies to show? Why don’t they have Khmer movies to show? Because no there are no people to watch them. Why are there no people to watch? Because Khmer movies are simple, sappy, and silly.”


Beyond questions about cinema, the problems Tim has bringing out his film make us wonder if the Cambodian government is afraid of a film dealing with the Khmer Rouge, or presenting a version of the history is which differs from the official government line.


“He who controls the present, controls the past.” George Orwell, from “1984”


A foreigner working in Khmer cinema said, “It’s a shame that Tim can’t get the film screened over here, but then this is the country where the Khmer Rouge period has been erased from school text books.”


Mak said: “There have been some Khmer Rouge movies made in Cambodia. They were all the same, just talking about what happened in the Khmer Rouge, all the suffering and pain of Khmer people…but they don’t talk about who were the offenders, who was behind the murders, who was leading the Khmer Rouge?”


“The Khmer Rouge is not too recent, but people are afraid to think about it or make movies the about Khmer Rouge. Democracy in Cambodia is not the same as in USA or Europe. Sometimes people can’t say anything about how they feel. Many people have died because of politics, so they are afraid. They don’t say anything.”


“This is also the experience I have dealing with Khmers in Cambodia, I think this is because Khmer people don’t like reading or researching yet. Khmer youngsters growing up in Australia can learn about their cultural history, sometimes better and more clearly than Khmers in Cambodia.


“Interestingly enough, the French Film Commission have been over here to advise on setting up a Cambodian Film Commission. It could happen before the end of this year. Sounds like a good idea in principle, but could easily be hijacked by the CPP if it is deemed to have commercial potential.” Reported a foreign film worker.


“Many movies have been made about the Khmer Rouge.” Said the Monk. “Three days ago, when I went to visit the Toul Slang Museum, S21, there were many Khmer Rouge movies there were about 6 or 7 packs. They talked about events before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge. Mostly they were taken from outside. But I think they cut out some important points, especially involving the top ranking officers who are still alive and working in the current government.”


“There is a new movie which has just been made in Cambodian by Swedish producer. It talks about a Khmer family which was separated from each other before the Khmer Rouge. But it doesn’t talk about the Khmer Rouge, only the life of a family until now.”


“For old people, maybe they are still afraid. But for young adults, 30 and under, we would like to see the real background of the Khmer Rouge story.” 


The monk went on to explain, “the new youngsters do not know the real history. At school they teach us only the events that happened, and that the Khmer Rouge killed people. We also learned the dates that we were freed from Pol Pot, and who helped us. They don’t have enough open documents to study. So, how can we know our history? Until now some younger Khmer people have no feeling about the Khmer Rouge. They have nearly forgotten it.”


The stated the most powerful reason he believes the red Sense can’t be shown. “You can show any movie in Cambodia, AS LONG AS you don’t have any impact on the government or Top Officials.”






We don’t still have a good studio to make a film. I think they only show the good place with sightseeing at the riverside to the world and portrating the poverty to the world to get the domation with rice farmi. And if they go to the different locations, they have no enough funds to do that. So one Film, one Location.   We do know that it is the same place.   


Is there any reason that the government or others wouldn’t want your movie shown in Cambodia?







Article Submission: Cambodian Cinema in Decline


Australian Khmer Film Struggles to be Shown

By Antonio Graceffo


While Cambodian Cinema teeters on the brink of extinction, the Cambodian officials put stumbling blocks in the path of Tim Pek’s Khmer Rouge film, “The Red Sense.”


Tim Pek’s film, “The Red Sense,” depicts the struggle of a Cambodian woman who grew up as a refugee in Australia after her father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. The basic plot deals with the concepts of revenge and forgiveness, as she discovers that her father’s killer posed as a refugee and is now alive and well in Australia. Should she avenge her father’s death, or should she allow the killing to stop?


Khmer Film fans and martial artists around the world will know Tim Pek from his work with the Khmer kickboxing film “Krabai Liak Goan,” and his work as director and producer of “Bokator, the Great Angkorian Martial Art.”


His latest film, “The Red Sense” is extremely unique in many ways. It is probably the first movie shot in Australia which was done almost completely in Khmer language. It is also one of the first Khmer movies ever shot outside of Cambodia. The topic of revenge vs. forgiveness is one that most Cambodians live with on a daily basis, in the after math of the Cambodian auto-genocide. In other genocides, certain identifiable groups suffered at the hands of specific perpetrators. In Cambodia, the entire population was collectivized and subjected to horrible torture, starvation, and execution. One hundred percent of Khmer who were alive bwtween1975-1979 were victims, perpetrators or both. The parts of Cambodia, such as Ratanakiri province, came under Khmer Rouge control before 1970. Other regions, such as Pilin, were not surrendered until 1997, which means that some of Cambodia’s current teenagers suffered, directly under the Khmer Rouge.


When the war was over, and twenty years later, when the surrender came, these Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadre didn’t necessarily move away. Many remained in the villages, where they live beside and among the very people they tortured and whose family’s they killed.


With the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal already underway, and the world looking at Cambodia, “The Red Sense” becomes an even more powerful and more poignant film.


Why then has it been so hard for Pek, a young Khmer refugee from Australia, to debute his film in Phnom Penh. One would think that in an age when even Khmers have stopped watching Khmer cinema, the powers that be would welcome an international film in Phnom Penh.





According to Tim, he finished work on the film in late 2007, and lodged the paperwork in Cambodia in early January 2008. In an Orwelian twist of nomenclature, The Ministry of Information is the government bureau in charge of censorship and film permission.


Tim explains why he wanted to show the film in Cambodia? “Firstly it’s a Cambodian film, and it’s made by Cambodian living abroad. Second, it’s the message in the movie.”


I always wanted to examine what reconciliation and forgiveness means for those Cambodians who left the genocidal nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime, but never escaped it. And how do the survivors of a civil war such as that suffered by Cambodia reconcile the fact that there were no foreign invaders? The only criminals were their own people. And most importantly how do individuals find justice, or forgiveness? What would you do if you ran into the murderer of your parents in the street?”


When asked if Cambodia has a law preventing foreign movies from being shown in cinema? Tim answered, “Yes, I believe there are, plenty of them.”


There are also strict laws in Cambodia forbidding radio broadcasts in foreign language. The English language station must operate under strict guidelines. But, the first time the Cham ethnic minority wanted to have a Cham language broadcast, they were denied permission. Cambodia even has strict laws about the size of billboards which are written in foreign languages. Everything must be written in Khmer also, and the Khmer letters must be larger than the foreign language script.


Tim outlined the many steps he had to go through in the hopes of obtaining permission to show his film. “I was asked for a business registration number, a transferring letter and I sent them all. I paid film fess. Then they needed to have a few meetings amongst other organizers, that’s including the Australian Embassy and so on…I didn’t expect it to go on like this.”


What reasons might the government have for preventing Tim from showing the movie? “They think it’s a political issue, which I and other people don’t think it is, it’s the individual related issue.”


Tim believes the Khmer film industry is dying. “From my own perspective, and I have seen heaps of Khmer movies, which now have drawn my attention to why our film industry is severely declining. It still can not reach the international standard. If we go back to the 60s and 70s our Cambodian Films were the most prominent ones in SEA. These days most local film makers have very little choice, and they’re stuck within one boundary and can not pursue or expand their creativity.”


“These are the main obstacles from penetrating to the international market or SEA market, and the audience doesn’t understand that. It’s not healthy if we stay like this.

Most films that are allowed to screen in public are PG rated. The most popular film genres are: Super Natural, Ghosts, Romantic, Drama, and Period Piece. These are their best and safest genres. They only distribute domestically and to Khmers living abroad.”


In Cambodia, only one company has a monopoly for dubbing movies. All movies, whether shot in Khmer language or shot abroad, are dubbed. You never hear the actual actors speaking their lines. Worst of all, ALL voices in a movie are done by the same two men and one woman?


Yes, that’s so true. When I heard people talk about Khmer film, the only word I hear first is DUBBING. That’s one of the biggest issue we’re facing right now. We shouldn’t have any dubbing companies at all, unless for foreign films. To me using someone’s voice is like your hard earned 50% of the movie quality is gone.”


The dubbing studio is extremely archaic and when they dub, they shut off the original soundtrack and just lay Khmer voice tracks over it. So, you lose all the sound effects, music, and foley. If you are watching a “Die Hard” movie and Bruce Willis says something clever during a gunfight, the gun sounds are suddenly gone, as is the explosion happening in the background, and the same Khmer man who does the voice of Leonardo DiCaprio or Toby McGuire, gives some terrible Khmer version of the original text, and it isn’t funny, and makes no sense. Worst of all, each time Bruce Willis speaks, the dialogue is preceded by several seconds of the audio being cutout. The audio doesn’t return till several seconds after he finishes speaking. If two characters are having a conversation, the background sounds come in and out like a kid dragging a stick along a picket fence.


This dubbing only happens on films shown in the cinema or on TV. For one to two dollars, the original of any movie can be purchased any number of markets in Cambodia. Khmers who can’t even speak English would generally prefer to watch the original “Star Wars,” with all the laser sounds, rather than the Khmer version, which is like a silent movie with dialogue.


“No matter how great your movie is, and not to mention a major impact on character’s emotions and body gestures” the quality is lost when they re-dub it. And this dubbing is not just for foreign language films, but also for films shot in Cambodia in Khmer language. They are all re-dubbed by the same two men and a single woman. “That’s the key point I would like to address for all Khmer film makers. If the actors can act, they also can speak. All you need is a little training. Let’s move forward and make a change.”


Once your Khmer movie is approved, and re-dubbed, there are a number of options of how to get it into the cinema. “There’s always a negotiation. First they like to see your film. Then you can either rent the theater out or share 50/50. The best way is to know someone there and find a distributor.”


Cambodia is one of the most centralized countries in the world, with the possible exception of Lao, where all of the development and services are in exclusively located in the capitol. The first high schools were opened outside of Phnom Penh in the late 1990s and the first university around 2003.

“I know that’s there is one cinema in Battambang, one in Siem  Reap, one in Svay Reang and a few in Phnom Penh. That was in 2006.”


“Piracy and DVDs are the biggest problem, not only in Cambodia but around the world just a matter of more or less.”


Minutes after a film is shown in the cinema, it is available at the markets. Local movies sell for $1. A single ticket at the cinema can cost $1 or more, so a whole family can watch the movie at home for the same price of a single ticket.


Tim hopes that if he obtains the rights to show his movie, that it might generate worldwide interest in the Khmer cinema.


“I know a few young talented Khmer film makers living abroad. Their works were sensational, and I can see the big potential for the Khmer film industry.”


As for the powers that rule the cinema industry in Cambodia, Tim had this to say.


“We need their supports if they need us to bring the Khmer film back on track, and I am sure we will.”



Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website



New Shanland, Burma Video: A Summary of the Ethnic Conflict

In War in Burma on May 13, 2008 at 7:09 am


The Cyclone is new, but the Suffering is Old


By Antonio Graceffo


Rape, murder, forced labor, slavery, human mine detectors, torture, detention, mass execution: the sad life of the Shan ethnic minority.


Guest Producer Any To, of the United States, using my videos, photos and radio interviews, has created a summary video, explaining the suffering of the Shan minority people.


Watch it on youtube:


Please say a prayer for the victims of the cyclone and for the people of Shanland.


Antonio Graceffo has been embedded with the Shan State Army inside of Burma. This article is part of the “In Shanland” project. To raise awareness about the plight of the Shan people Antonio will release one print article and one video per week for a year. He is giving these media away for free to ensure that they will reach the largest audience. You can watch all of the Shan videos released to date on youtube.

Antonio is self-funded. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal, through the Burma page of his website.


Currently, Antonio is attending paramedic training in Manila, while waiting for word that he can return to Burma as part of a medical aid mission.





Writing in Obscurity

In Writing on May 11, 2008 at 12:31 pm



Writing in Obscurity

Struggling as a Freelance Writer

By Antonio Graceffo


This article is dedicated to anyone who has ever written an article for $70 or less. It is particularly aimed at anyone who has been REJECTED by a magazine which pays $70 or less. And most important, it is for all of those who ASPIRE to write an article for a magazine that pays $70 or less.


Unless you are a complete mook, you have probably figured out by now that you won’t get your first article published in Vanity Fair, Play Boy, or National Geographic. More than likely, you probably fought tooth and nail to get your first article into a non-paying, regional magazine in rural Iowa, with a circulation of two thousand. When you first started writing, seeing your name in print, in the “Propane Salesman Monthly” seemed an unattainable dream.


The day the issue finally hit the newsstands you were afraid to leave the house for fear of being mobbed by your new fans. You knew that someone very important was going to read your treatise on charcoal vs. propane, recognize your genius, and give you an assignment to write for the New Yorker, for $4.50 a word. You hung around the house, waiting for that phone call, THE phone call, the one that would make your career. Eventually, the need to go out and buy a pizza or rent a video overtook your desire for anonymity. You donned a fake mustache, putty nose, and dark glasses and headed into town.


No one noticed you.


In my case, I actually went to a store, picked up a copy of the magazine, and accidentally flicked it open to the page with my name on it, hoping the checkout girl would notice. She didn’t.


“That’s me.” I said, turning the magazine around so she could see the story.

“That looks like a barbecue grill.”

“No, I mean I wrote it, the story, I wrote the story.”


Yeah, this is about the best response you will get showing your clippings to strangers. Nothing in their past experience prepares them for insecure writers hoping to redeem their self-image by soliciting praise from them. When in doubt, the average person says, “Well…” This is often followed by “Isn’t that nice.”

In my case, it was followed by, “Do you want to buy the magazine?”

It was four dollars. “Sorry, I can’t afford it.”

“Do you still want the other stuff?”

Just so that it wouldn’t be so obvious that I was praise grubbing, I had picked up a random collection of compulsion purchase items at the checkout counter. I looked at this pile of Kit Kat, Recess Cups, batteries, and a dental pick, wondering what I was thinking.

I had been sweating pretty heavily during this whole exchange. Finally the adhesive dissolved, and my false nose fell onto the counter.

“Just the candy bars.” I said. I followed this up with, “Can I pay with a check?”


This was the beginning of my life as a freelance writer. Over the next seven years, I published more and more, and in bigger and bigger magazines. Finally I published books and wrote for TV. I sometimes get recognized, and I receive reader mail daily. I get to do a good number of interviews and appear in web videos, TV shows and movies. But things never got any easier financially.


As for recognition, with exception of the celebrity authors, which we will talk about later, authors don’t often get recognized. In 1996, I read an interview with Isabel Allende, who was at that time, the number one female novelist in the world. One day, she went to a grocery store and they refused to accept a check without ID. She was earning millions, but no one in the store had heard of her, her books, or her movies.


I gave up on maintaining an apartment about two years ago. Currently, I am sleeping on a wooden bunk bed in a small, concrete block room in Manila. The room has no windows and no air conditioning, and the temperature hangs around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t have to beat off fans with a stick, but even in the Philippines, people recognize me from martial arts videos or magazine articles.


“You’re famous. What are you doing living here?”

“It’s research for my next book.” I say. Luckily, no matter how bad things get, I can always claim I am getting into character for a new book. But in reality, I live in a 3,000 Peso a month cell, because that is all I can afford. And actually, I can’t even afford that. The money for my rent was donated by deposed Burmese, Shan royalty who support the writing I do about the war in Burma.


That is a whole other story, which illustrates the bizarre dichotomy that is your everyday life when you have almost made it. When I turn on the TV or flip open a newspaper and see anything about Burma, Cambodia, or obscure martial arts, I will inevitably know either the journalists or the people they are interviewing. Someone showed me a memoir he had bought, written by a Shan princess. I said, “That is the woman who pays for my studies.” You get to know a lot of interesting people and stories along the way, but you suffer financially.


Everything I own fit in two backpacks, but I lost one of the backpacks in an accident on the Burma border. Now everything I own fits on the upper bunk of my concrete room. Most days, when I wake up, I have to think of a good reason not to jump off of something very high, after taking poison first.


For the last six months, before coming to the Philippines, I had been embedded with the Shan State Army, one of the rebel groups opposing the Burmese government. My project, called “In Shanland” called for me to publish one story and one video per week in about two hundred Burma and Human Rights related magazines and websites around the world. I was doing this for free because I believe in the cause. Also, the rates that no-name magazines pay are so low that it makes no sense to give them an exclusive. They want to make all sorts of copyright demands for $50. It would be better to give the magazine for free, and have it run all over the web as an advertisement, rather than have it run in  a web mag with 100,000 viewers, once.


This could be a good consideration for any freelancer. If the magazine is offering you a ridiculously low sum of money for your piece, and wants an exclusive, it might make more sense to give it away for free, to a number of magazines, to get yourself some advertising.


An extremely well-known Burma author, named Edith Mirante, contacted me to say, “When I was at the front desk of the library the other day, a lady checked out a copy of “The Monk From Brooklyn.”


Monk was my first book, and the one I am most closely associated with. My nickname has become Brooklynmonk, which is the name I use on all of my blog sites.


Someone checked out my book? Now 108 people have read it.


The standard commission to an author is usually 9 or 10% of the cover price of a paperback. If your book sells for $12.99, you get $1.20 for each copy sold. The average income in the USA is about $4,000 USD per month. So, you will need to sell nearly 3,000 books per month to make it. The poverty level is about $800 per month, so you need to sell more than 600 books a month to stay out of the projects.


The numbers are depressing.


When I first started out, I thought I would build up from the free and $50 a month magazines, up to the $500 a month magazines. I would get a few of those per month, plus some book sales, and it would add up to a living. I was doing an assignment, both playing in and covering the World Elephant Polo Tournament, in Thailand. My presence at the tournament represented a cooperative effort of about ten magazines, all pitching in a little bit of money for my lodging, bus ticket, and my pay for the resulting articles. There was a big journalist from New York, covering the even for two very large magazines. I envied him. It must be great to earn $2,000 – $4,000 per story. His first book had come out a year earlier and he had received an advance of $15,000.


Later, when he was drunk enough to talk, and no one was listening, he told me the truth of big time journalism. True, he earned a lot more per story than I did. BUT, he spent 90% of his time in New York, tracking down contracts and submitting proposals. He received less than one assignment per month and his annual income was less than $50,000 USD. When he went on assignment he was traveling, often at his own expense, so he wasn’t even clearing $50,000, which in New York, would be a paltry sum to try and live on.


True, he had received an advance on his first book, but it didn’t sell 15,000 copies. So, he hasn’t received any more money from that book, and probably never will.


To make a living, you need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. You can promote and do a number of things yourself to make that happen, but it will become a full-time job, and you will need to ask yourself if you are a salesman or an author. With a few exceptions, such as Elron Hubbard or Tony Robbins, few people can promote their own book to riches. The publishing companies, on the other hand, can. They have the budget and the contacts. If they decide to make your book a best seller, it will be. But if they just publish it and let it sit on the shelves, it is unlikely that you will be very successful.

The Burmese community in exile is pretty supportive of my Shanland project. A Burmese doctor in California offered to send me copies of Edith’s books. We have known each other for over a year, but I couldn’t afford to order her books. It is also difficult to receive mail when you don’t live anywhere. I have never read my latest book, “Adventures in Formosa,” and was hoping that my publisher would send me a copy. It has been out for almost a year now, but I haven’t managed to save up the $12.99 plus shipping it would cost to order it.


The one bright spot in my wrist-slitting publishing career is: I watched an interview with Stephen King on youtube. Apparently, he had “made it” freelance journalism, writing for name magazines on a regular basis, BUT he still had to teach school full-time and couldn’t always afford to have electricity in his house. He got a $2,500 advance on his first book, which he was grateful to get, but he still hadn’t made it. The next book sold shortly after that for $250,000 and the one after that for 400,000. All three sales came in over a period of months.


I guess the answer is, it is a struggle and writing for big mags is not the goal. The goal is the big book contract and the movie deal…. When I started out, I never planned to write for magazines. I wanted to write books. Also I always wanted to be like Jack London, the celebrity author. In addition to being an adventurer, seaman, and boxer, he was the first author to do product endorsements. He used to write out his proposed spending, mostly to support his boat and his lavish lifestyle, and match it with his writing. He knew how many stories he had to write, to earn X dollars, and he wrote accordingly. At times, he produced at a rate of stories per week.


I also produce at a rate of stories per week, but I am starving. And yet I am overweight. Where does that come from?


Something I learned from my own experience and from reading about Jack London is that the absolute least common reason your work is rejected is because it isn’t good. Most rejected pieces are never even read. They aren’t even opened. And there are a million reasons why something is rejected. Often it is rejected simply because it doesn’t fit the plan for the upcoming issue. The same piece, submitted to the same magazine, and read by the same editor might be accepted if it was submitted at a different time.


The novice writer believes the editor read his stuff and rejected it because it was bad. The novice writer then scraps what he wrote, changes his style, and tries again. Jack London, on the other hand, believed in himself and what he had written. He saved all of his rejected items in a trunk, for years. When he became famous, he knew he could sell anything he had ever written. He opened up that trunk and sold every piece of previously rejected material. He actually sent pieces in with red REJECTION stamps on them, and they were purchased. Some of the pieces had been rejected from free, non-paying, magazines, and were now purchased, for top dollar, by prestigious periodicals.


I always save everything I have written, and, now that I have published a number of books and have a bit of a name, I find I am selling pieces that were rejected five years ago. Sometimes I rework them into new pieces, sometimes I just attach the word file and send them in.


I answer every single reader mail that comes in. Many of these correspondence I save and re-work into saleable magazine articles (like this one).


In another interview, Stephen King was talking about how the total market for books has shrunken dramatically, and now there are a limited number of genres. To be carried in book stores, or even to get published, you have to fit within these very few categories.


I know that one of the issues holding me back is that I don’t fit clearly into a genre. There isn’t really an adventure genre. There is fantasy adventure, but this means stories about winged beasts and crossbows. And although I do occasionally have a crossbow in my stories, it isn’t a good fit.


All of my big breaks, TV, movies, and now two more book contracts with large publishers, and two more contracts with magazines, all came from martial arts writing. It is a small market and a not-very-well paying one, but it is an accepted genre, and now I am getting known in those circles. So, I am getting more assignments and offers.


Unfortunately, however, martial arts is only one area that I write about. It is also the one I least wish to be remembered for. I also write articles about linguistics, ethnic minorities, Asian culture and adventure.


The book I am doing now, “Pinoy Paramedic” should be a lot of fun and very interesting, but, like most of my writing, it won’t fit neatly into a genre. It is based on my experience of attending paramedic school in Manila. It follows me and my classmates through our training, where we are taught, “When you cut the clothes off an accident victim, be careful to cut along the seems, so they can reuse the garments.”


The teachers also urged us, that if our patient died, we should not to become a broker for the sale of organs. “You can give the family a phone number for the organ salesman, and that’s all. It would be unethical for you to accept a commission.”


The book, like all my books, has humor, adventure, and represents a deep and intimate involvement in a foreign culture which most foreigners would never have. I am not the paramedic instructor. I am the student. I sit in a room with 28 Filipinos, and go through the training and experience with them, as one of them.


When I read other people’s travel writing, it seems so superficial. I really get into these cultures before I write about them. “The Monk from Brooklyn,” is my diary from when I spent three months living and training at the Shaolin Temple, in China. To prepare for that experience, I first spent more than a year in Taiwan, learning to speak Chinese.


The book was rejected 3,000 times by agents and publishers, before it was finally accepted. There is almost no marketing for it, apart from my other writing in magazines, so, to date, it hasn’t had a huge impact on my poverty.


“Pinoy Paramedic” is one more Antonio-esqu work which doesn’t fit nicely into a category. I know that in terms of quality it is 1,000 times better than “Monk,” because it is less angry and after seven years of publishing, I have nothing to prove. It is written from the heart. Being a book about paramedics, it also uses the words “vomit” and “nipples” quite a lot, words I generally don’t get to use.


“Pinoy Paramedic,” will be an exceptional book, and I don’t want it to go to a no-name publisher, then languish on the shelves, generating $800 per year in revenues. Unfortunately, I don’t know what will become of the book, and as I am in the middle of living it, I have no time to worry or think about what to do with the end product. The same is true of my Shanland book, which I hope to complete when I get back to Thailand. No writer has ever spent the amount of time that I have with the Shan, learning to speak Thai and doing countless interviews to understand the victims of a genocide. I wear the Shan State Army uniform, and work as a hand-to-hand combat instructor for the soldiers while I document and write about their lives. Part of the reason I went to Manila to become a paramedic was so that I could help the Shan with direct medical aid when I return. As a writer or photographer, we TAKE an interview or TAKE a photo. As a paramedic, I can GIVE something back. And of course, the book will have one more very unique dimension to it.


Of course, there is no section at the book store entitled, “Southeast Asia Conflict Paramedic Books.” So, I have no idea what to do with the book when it is done.  


Recently, I read Tim Page’s autobiographical book, “Page after Page.” Being a Cambodia hand, he is one of my huge heroes. He has been considered a leading expert on Cambodia and Vietnam for the last forty years and one of the greatest Vietnam photographers of all times.  AND YET, he didn’t make any money till about five years ago, when his newest book became a best seller.


Both King and Page were substance abusers and alcoholics, and they struggled financially, really struggle. Page, like me, normally didn’t even have an apartment, just lived and slept where he happened to be.


Page was already world famous and regarded as a leading expert but was STILL poor.


Is this encouraging, that two of my greatest heroes suffered? Not sure. Perhaps it means I should also become a substance abuser. I am too broke to afford alcohol or drugs, but a lot of street children in Manila use rugby, a plastic bag full of glue that they inhale. They pass out on the sidewalk, in front of Seven Eleven, and I have to step over them when I go to get my breakfast in the morning. Some basic medical equipment has already been donated to me, so I have an inhaler mask, but I am not sure where you are supposed to insert the glue. We weren’t taught that in my paramedic training. Or maybe we were, but that was one of the questions I missed on the exam.


Whether or not I chose the rugby option, the suffering and substance abuse of two great writers made me think that there might be a glimmer of hope somewhere down the trail. Even though I haven’t made it yet, maybe….someday, I too will be passed out on the sidewalk in front of Seven Eleven, and Stephen King or Tim Page, visiting the Philippines, will have to step over me when he goes to buy his breakfast.


The intent of this article was supposed to be to encourage young and upcoming writers. So, let me just say too things. Don’t quit. And, buy some glue.


Antonio Graceffo is the author of four books, available on

To see Antonio Graceffo’s Burma and martial arts videos, click here.

Currently, Antonio is in Manila attending paramedic training. When his course finishes he will return to the conflict in Burma as a medical volunteer. He is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to his paramedic training or his “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.

Contact him at:









Adventure Writer Looks at Forty

In Adventures in Asia on May 11, 2008 at 12:29 pm



It sucks getting old but it is better than the alternative.

By Antonio Graceffo


Until someone asked me I had no idea that it had been seven years since I had quit my job on Wall Street and come to Asia to be a full time adventure writer.


“What have you been up to?” asked a Facebook message from an old friend who I had attended merchant marine school with in 1991. After shipping out on the high seas, I went on to university in Germany and Ryan went on to the Merchant Marine academy. We met again in 1997, when the question, “What have you been up to?” was easier to answer. I had been at school in Germany, Spain, and Costa Rica. I had graduated with degrees in linguistics and business. I had been divorced, and I was back in New York, looking for a job in finance.


Now, keeping up with our once in a decade schedule, Ryan found me on Facebook and asked “What have you been up to?” He followed this with, “Why are you wearing a uniform in your profile photo? Are you back in the army?” And, “Why does it say you are in the Philippines?”


The life of an adventure writer is not easy. For one thing, I am the main character in my writing. Just like a TV show that has to change its format from time to time so audiences don’t get burned out, I need to shake things up to keep it interesting. I never have enough money, in fact, each month, I live hand to mouth until my small writer’s income dries up. Then things get really tough.


Things get so shaken up, I feel like I am suffering with a British nanny.


Right now, I am living on the bottom bunk of a dormitory in Manila. The room is charming, with cinderblock walls and no windows. I share the bathroom with eight people, and like them, I am a full time student, at paramedic school.


The following is the incredibly strange and twisted storey of how Antonio Graceffo became, the Monk from Brooklyn, the infamous travel writer and reality TV guy, and why he is attending paramedic school in the Philippines. There is also a side note, or perhaps a sub-plot, which explains why the police are looking for him (me) in China and Burma.


If you don’t know who Antonio Graceffo is or what he has written, you can first check my website, there is a story on there called “Four Years of Living Dangerously,” which tells about my first four years in Asia. Also, I have four books on and a new one coming out later this year. Next, you could google my name, there are like 50,000 (no lie) pages about me. Finally, put my name on youtube and youw ill find a lot of videos I shot around Asia and inside of Burma, as well as a lot of stuff that I did for History Channel and for movies.


When First Engineer Ryan and I met in 1997, I had just come back to New York, looking for a job in Finance. It was a struggle. I eventually got into a financial planner training program at a well known company (who might sue me if I print their name. they have forbidden me to even speak it. But suffice to say, it rhymes with purle.) I completed a three year education in seven months. Working a hundred hours a week, I got all my certifications, while living on the floor in my office with no money. Once I got fully qualified, I made three job changes in about 18 months and each time increased my income by about $40,000 USD. Eventually, I became assistant head of private wealth management for the third largest private bank in the USA.


After 911, I decided to drop out of life. I had so many dreams and things I wanted to do, most of all, to live a Jack London/Hemingway life and write books. I left a lot of unpaid student loans, taxes and other federal debts behind at that time, which puts the US on the list of countries I probably should never visit.


I took a job teaching school in Taiwan so I could start learning Chinese and practice Kung Fu. I was the first foreigner to live and train with the team there. I had practiced martial arts and boxing my whole life, but after leaving the service I stopped fighting in competitions.  Taiwan set a precedent and martial art became a full time part of my life from then on. I left Taiwan and studied at the Shaolin Temple in mainland China. By then, I spoke Chinese well and was completely fit again, recovering from years of university and banking.


Because of the SARS epidemic I had to flee China, I was actually arrested and held in a hospital and had to fight the monks…grabbed an old sword off the wall, and threatened and cajoled my way out of the medieval doors. The full story became my first book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” available on


Because of the SARS quarantine I only made it as far as Hong Kong and couldn’t get any further. The money I had left from working in New York basically got eaten up at a rate of over $100 USD per day for six months of living as a deposed refugee in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was like “Rick’s American Café,” in “Casa Blanca.” It was full of people like me, waiting for our exit visa. I shared my plight with Brits, Thais, and Rhodesians, who insisted that the countries name “has not and will never change.”


Do you want to go get a coffee now? We aren’t even close to explaining why I am wearing an army uniform and studying in the Philippines.


Where’s Burma?


One adventure I always wanted to do was to cross a big desert ala Laurence of Arabia. Stuck in Hong Kong, I had nothing to do all day but, train in Filipino martial arts ( I am leaving out some steps here) and read up on the Taklamakan Desert. Eventually I took the train back into China, where I was wanted for assault, after physically flattening a guy who was ripping off my former employer in Hong Kong. (Once again, I have left out a whole chapter of my sorted relationship with China and my industrial espionage there.)


I did a solo crossing of the Taklamakan Desert on a tricycle rickshaw. I made it to Kashgar, near the Pakistan border, where the hotel manager asked me to put the bike on display in the lobby and to hang around and regal visitors with stories of my adventure, in Chinese. I left the bike there, chained to the spiral staircase, when I snuck out at five in the morning, returning to Hong Kong.


I arrived back in Hong Kong with about ten dollars in my pocket. I checked into a guesthouse owned by a mainland Chinese family who treated me like a Shaolin Priest, and collapsed on the bed. I went through several days of fever and pain. One day, the son of the family burst into my room, excitedly, to tell me that Taiwan had finally opened up. I flew back and took another teaching job.


The Taklamakan Desert became my next book, “The Desert of Death on Three Wheels.” Also on amazon.


Accelerating the story a bit. I was not able to hold a job in Taiwan because every time I turned on the Discovery Channel someone was doing something more interesting than me. I kept quitting my jobs to go do adventures around Taiwan, like cycling the entire island 1,500 KM alone and without a plan. Assorted Taiwan stories became a book, “Adventures in Formosa.”


I had heard about a monk, Prah kru Ba, in Thailand who did drug interdiction work on the Burma border. He took orphaned hill tribe boys to live in his jungle monastery, where he taught them Muay Thai (Thai boxing). Together, they patrolled the border, beating up drug dealers and telling the hill tribe people not to get sucked in by yaba (meth amphetamine) and opium, the two crops that were being used to fund the longest civil war on the planet. At this point, the war has been going on for more than 60 years.


I lived with Kru Bah, the monk, for three months. He taught me Thai language, Muay Thai, and Theravada Buddhism. I had learned Mahayana Buddhism in Taiwan and China. After I came out of his monastery, I did a series of adventures in Thailand, which became a book, “Boats, Bikes, and Boxing Gloves.”


I went to Cambodia searching for ancient Cambodian martial art, called Bokator. It took me eighteen months to find the master. Along the way, I learned the Khmer language and working as a freelance journalist, I published about 200 articles about Cambodia.


Since leaving Taiwan, my existence had been hand to mouth at best. I lived in $2 a night hotels. Slept in villages and temples. I didn’t always have money for food. I once sold my books so I could eat, then went back and asked the bookstore guy to loan them back to me so I could finish reading them. “I won’t get them dirty.” I promised.


Each time I moved, from a mountain village to a hotel, from an island nation to a mainland….I left most of my possessions behind, taking only what I cold carry, and traveling by the cheapest means, bus, bicycle…. Until a few weeks ago, everything I owned fit in two backpacks. I lost one of the backpacks in an accident in the war zone. Now, everything I own fits in one.


In Cambodia I used my diplomas to get myself a very well-paid teaching job at an Australian school in Phnom Penh. I took an apartment. Settled down. Began buying boxed sets of The Office, the Sopranos, Futurama, Sympsons, and Family Guy.


I trained hard in boxing and Khmer boxing (Bradal Serey) and I fought some pro-fights. I was physically at a peak I had never hit before, and I was in my late thirties.


But at night….the voices…the images from Discovery Channel (that channel should be banned)….A tour company offered to sponsor me on an adventure tour through Cambodia. I quit my job and it became my next book, “Discovering the Khmers” which is due out in 2008.


At the end of those adventures I was out of money again. I had to give up the apartment, the Sympsons, everything. I flew to Hong Kong to find a job, but ran out of money while I was waiting, so I flew home and went on a speaking tour to promote my books. I spoke seventy times in the States. I competed in the World Championships of Public Speaking, and made it to the semi-finals. I got really fat and never found a niche for myself back in North America. Out of desperation, I took a teaching job in Korea. In exchange for me signing a one year contract, they flew me to Asia, and gave me an apartment and a good salary.


I was miserable in Korea. To keep myself busy I studied Korean language and began working on a masters thesis, tracing the origin of the Korean language from Lake Baikal in Russia, which is a common origin for Manchurian language as well as many tribal languages spoken by nomads in central Asia and the Asiatic parts of Russia.


I published one article on the subject, comparing Korean and Chinese, and received a lot of recognition for it. But because I am more practical than theoretical I also received a lot of criticism for what I wrote. That and a lot of my articles are very insulting and if people don’t like it I threaten to Kung Fu their ass.


I can beat up most of the serious linguists I know.  


I was offered a scholarship to do my PHD at Dong-A university in Busan, Korea. But I didn’t fancy spending five more years in Korea. I also didn’t want to be in a classroom teaching Korean kids. And I didn’t want to do all my research from a book. I wanted to be back in the field. On a personal side note, I hate to be racist, but once you have had sex with a Korean you never quite get the kimchi smell out of your sheets. Seriously, I think there is something about smell and genetics. If westerners don’t use deodorant, we reek, and most Asians don’t. But, for whatever reason, if Koreans smoke or drink alcohol, they stink way worse than other people. And of course they eat kimchi three times a day.


I quit after seven months and returned to Thailand. I had a lot of unfinished adventures there.


My first order of business was to hook up with my old friend, Dave, who is the other half of our small production company called Two Guys from Brooklyn Productions. We had met years ago, in an Akha tribal village. He was doing a film. I was writing. We always said we’d work together again. Our first story was a documentary on the Long Neck Karin, one of the most exploited hill tribes in the world. Refugees from Burma, they are locked in tourist villages, like human zoos, where people pay money to gawk at them. You can google “Antonio Garceffo Long Neck Karen” and find the story.


Next we did a documentary on a Spanish monk, named Kru Pedro, who taught ancient spiritual Muay Thai.


I lived in Bangkok and studied Thai in an experimental program called ALG Automatic Language Growth. It was something I had read about when I was at graduate school in Germany. I got heavily involved with the program and began working on a book on Thai linguistics. To date, I have published a number of articles on ALG as applied to Thai language. At one point I went to stay in a temple in Khmer Surin, a part of Thailand which used to belong to Cambodia. I was there studying with one of my best friends, a Khmer monk, named Prah Sameth, also I was there to train with Tony Jaa’s martial arts teacher, “In the Footsteps of Tony Jaa.” While there I also did an article on the difficulties of constantly switching between Khmer and Thai, two languages, which, without sharing a common origin, share 30% of their vocabulary. It’s a long funny story, “Tongue Tied in Surin.” All my linguistics articles are actually pretty funny.


In Thailand I signed a one year teaching contract but lasted only three weeks. That was my record.


I quit the job and went to Philippines to study martial arts and write on an island called Palawan. Somewhere in here I worked on a Discovery Channel show called “Fight Quest.” Then I went to Cambodia to do a show for History Channel. After the show, I returned to Thailand briefly writing and studying more Muay Thai. I went back to Philippines to write on an island called Coron. In Philippines I write a lot about the indigenous people. There are countless tribes here, nearly a hundred, and an incredible number of languages and dialects. There are also a lot of martial arts, so Philippines is a good place for me. On my way back to Thailand I lived with a martial arts master, named Master Frank, in Manila. We are still friends and I still study Kuntaw with him.


I left Philippines and worked on a show called “Human Weapon” in Cambodia. I was employed for about three months writing and doing field research, although I only appear on screen for about two seconds. Very cool, one of my jobs was to find and fight every master in Cambodia and write my opinion of them. It took weeks of following up on rumors and traveling into remote rice paddies and villages to find these guys. Most of them were pretty fragile from malnutrition and never having recovered from the Khmer Rouge years, so I only played around sparring. The wrestlers were good, though. And try as I might, they made me look pretty silly, wrestling in the mud in their villages.


I went to Vietnam for a couple of weeks to explore Kampuchea Krom, a Khmer province which was given to Vietnam fifty years ago. I also documented Vietnamese martial art and sparred while I was there.


Somewhere in all of this I turned 40. I went back to Cambodia to work on a History Channel show called “Digging for the Truth,” and got about fifteen minutes of screen time. My big break. Also, my last date with Hollywood. Since then, we have kissed and flirted, but not yet married. I have come close to getting my own show, but it hasn’t happened. I do, however, have an internet TV show, called “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which airs on youtube. So, that is better than nothing.


I went back to Thailand to follow up on the most important and life changing adventure of my life.


We are getting to the most important part of the story here. So, I would appreciate it if you would take a long break, stretch your legs, drink some coffee, and be fresh when you read the next part.


Because of the Monk, Prah Kru Bah, who took me in when I lived in the jungle on the Burmese border, and because of the numerous tribal stories I had written, I had always been very interested in the war in Burma. A westerner I knew in Chiang Mai several years before had been heavily involved with the Shan State Army. There are a lot of Shan people living in northern Thailand. In fact a lot of my friends at the monastery and around Chiang Mai were Shan. They are extremely good looking people. I call them the proto-Thais because they were the original Tai people who migrated down from China to settle in Burma. The Thai, The Shan, and The Lao are all part of the Tai ethnic group and share a language which is 70% similar. The culture and the religion are also very much alike.


Through a series of events which I can’t publish yet, I wound up making it to the Shan State Army rebel stronghold inside of Shan State, Burma. The Shan share no similarities at all with the Burmese. They were never a part of Burma until the British drew a line on a map, around the end of World War Two. In 1962, there was a military coup in Burma, and General Ne Win took power. He began waging war, akin to genocide, against Burma’s many ethnic people. Since then, several million have fled across the border to become refugees. No one knows how many were killed exactly, because journalists and international organizations are banned from Burma, but we have been able to document countless cases of whole villages being burned and the villagers executed. The army uses gang rape as a weapon, and I interviewed a 14 year old girl, who at age eleven, was gang raped while her parents burned to death inside of her house. She could hear them screaming.


Since 1962, the Shan formed their own army and have been fighting to form an independent country, called Shanland. The right to secede from the Union of Burma was guaranteed them by the British, but so far neither Briton, nor the world has done anything to enforce this agreement.


I hit it off with Colonel Yawd Serk, the commander of the Shan State Army. He invited me to wear a uniform and to come and go as I please in Shanland. When  I am inside, I carry my cameras and document human rights abuses. I film interviews with the refugees. The Shan State Army base has become a safe zone for refugees, driven from their villages by the government forces. They have a school and a temple there and a dormitory for about 650 orphans. Many of the orphans actually have one or more living parents but the parents gave the children to the army so that the could be raised in safety and educated in the Shan State Army school, which is the best quality school in Shan State, offering a curriculum in four languages: Shan, Burmese, Thai, and English. In Shan State, it is illegal to teach Shan reading and writing, so for most kids, they don’t learn to read and write their native language.


If you are a parent, could you imagine things being so bad that you would give your child to strangers in the hopes that they would survive? Once a Shan person goes to live on the rebel army base, they can never re-enter Burma because the Burmese would capture them and torture them to find out information about the rebels. The parents don’t have phones or mail service. After a long trek, often several months of hiding, slowly making their way through the jungle, to hand their child over to the Shan State Army, the parents say “good-by” to their children, and they will most likely never see them or hear from them again.


When I am in the base, I do interviews all day, and often break down in tears. I interviewed two small boys whose parents were murdered. When I asked them, they couldn’t even remember the name of their village. They had blocked out the first several years of their lives. After they left, I told my translator hwo upset I was that two little boys should be made orphans for absolutely no reason. He said, “It’s normal.” My answer was, “It shouldn’t be.”


After more than forty years at war, there are very few Shan who remember a time of peace. “It’s normal.”


When I am inside I teach hand-to-hand combat to the soldiers. Outside, I publish my videos and articles and try to raise awareness of the Shan situation. I also coordinate donations through a great NGO who have the guts to go inside and render medical aid to the children. Most big NGOs and the UN won’t help the Shan because they have rules in their bylaws which say they can’t break the law and that they can only render aid if the government invites them. In the case of Burma, the government is doing the killing, so that invitation has been lost in the mail. Other large NGOs, who solicit millions of dollars from Americans every Christmas, have a policy of not aiding armed groups. “If the Shan lay down their weapons, we will come help them.” They said. Obviously if the Shan laid down their weapons, the Burmese would kill them all, and there would be no children to help.


The orphan dormitories are surrounded by trenches in case the base comes under attack again.


There are two small NGOs who are willing to risk their lives running aid missions into Burma. I have been in the filed with them both and I have great respect for them. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) run training programs. The leaders of the tribal armies each send a few of their men to get trained as Rangers. The FBR teach them field medicine, patrolling, navigation, and photography. The men learn to do human rights abuse documentation. FBR even gives them cameras. If you have seen the movie Rambo IV most of the actual footage of atrocities was shot by FBR teams who risk their lives to get in and film. They also give direct medical aid when they can and provide physical security when they can. Many of the refugees only made it to the Shan base because an FBR team found them in the jungle and rescued them.


I have become very close with some of the young teachers in Shanland. It breaks my heart to see their students playing football on a field surrounded by landmines and knowing that if those mines were removed, they would all be killed. The day after Chidlren’s Day, the Burmese forces surrounded the base, waiting to ambush families who were taking their children home after the festivities.


I started a project called “In Shanland.” Basically I publish one video on youtube for free and one article for free which I send to about 4,000 people and organizations. I send out one article and one video per week, and will do so for a year. Hopefully by the end of the year, the project will have gained momentum and someone important will have heard about the Shan and come help them.


You can see some of the youtube videos


Now I am in Philippines, attending paramedic school. I am taking as much training as I can in emergency medicine but also going to be taking courses with the police and army to get trained in close security and renew my training with heavy weapons. I plan to go back into Shanland in October or so. After I finish my training in Philippines, I may take a paying job somewhere in the world to help me continue my volunteer work in Shanland. The amazing part of this story is that I don’t work for any aid organization. I am self-funded and a number of nice people around the world have written in, making donations, helping me get through school. Among them are several deposed Shan princesses. The world is so strange. And people are inherently good.


If I wasn’t so poor, I never would have reached out, asking for help. And I never would have proved just how wonderful and caring people can be.


After I return to Shanland, I think I will carve out a niche for myself as a combat medic, doing aid missions in trouble zones all over the world. I love the Shan. But their plight made me realize that there are groups of displaced, stateless people all over the world and because of uncomfortable politics no one is helping them. Darfur is probably the example most people will know, but there are many, many others. And it doesn’t matter what color their skin or what language or religion, people are people, and more importantly, kids are kids, and they deserve the right to live and grow in safety.


Wow! I can’t believe how long this story was. I think I am going to try and sell it to a magazine.


Please write me back.



Contact Antonio:



Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.



Drinking the China Sea

In Adventures in Asia on May 11, 2008 at 12:25 pm


Drinking the China Sea

Learning water rescue in the Philippines

By Antonio Graceffo


The first day of swim rescue, the instructors had us practicing getting in and out of the swimming pool. Next, we learned to put our face underwater. To keep us organized and avoid accidents the 60 or so participants were divided into two groups, swimmers and non-swimmers.


Why someone who was classified as a non-swimmer would join a rescue course was beyond me. 


“You are doing the exercise wrong.” Shouted an instructor. I was shocked when I realized he was talking to me and not one of the people who was near drowning.


“What do you mean! You said put my face underwater ten times. So, I am putting my face underwater ten times. What more do you want from me?” I shouted. I was more than a little frustrated with the elementary nature of the course.


“No,” he corrected. “That was the beginners exercise. Now, we are doing the advanced exercise, put your face underwater and blow bubbles.”


I must have missed this slight nuance of instruction when I tuned the teachers out. I was ready to quit this silly child’s swim course, but I didn’t want them to think it was because I was incapable of making bubbles. 


“Don’t be scared.” He added. “It’s just water.”


This wasn’t really the Kevin Costner, “The Guardian,” training I was looking for. On day three we had an elimination test, swimming two miles in the pool, timed. Day four we had to tread water for forty five minutes, while supporting a dead body. Day six, we were required to swim nearly two miles in the open ocean. Talk about crawl before you walk, I had never seen a course, in any subject, which started so infantile and ended so advanced.


Thirty minutes into the water treading, I vomited chlorine through both my mouth and nose.


“Are you OK?” asked one of my classmates.

“More than OK, I am finally starting to enjoy myself.” I answered. Taking in so much water, my brain was running on only about 50% oxygen, and I started to hallucinate. The hallucinations were those half-real-half-dream kind of trip you get when you have a high fever or mix Benadryl with wine, so most of the hallucinations still reeked of chlorine. You can over analyze these things, but for a brief moment, I was Kevin Costner. The tabloids would have us believe that being rich, good-looking, and famous, is allegedly not everything. But I can tell you, from my short foray into nirvana, NOTHING sucked about being Kevin Costner.


Amazingly, this six days of fun, eight hours per day of grueling training, only cost 800 Pesos. This is the beauty of the Philippines. There are so many great courses here, things you have always wanted to learn, but never felt like spending the money for. Courses here are cheap, and they are mostly taught in English. The students frequently ask their questions in Filipino, but learning the language is just part of the experience. A lot of courses in the Philippines are not accredited elsewhere, so you would just be studying for yourself, for your own knowledge and for the incredible experience of getting to know the Filipino people on a personal level. The EMT (emergency medical technician) course I just finished at LSTI is accredited by Australia, so there are exceptions. The fee for the EMT course was 20,000 Pesos, which for a Filipino is a lot, but is not even a tenth of what the same course would have cost me back home.


The Basic Water Safety and Rescue course was sponsored by the Philippine Red Cross. The advantage of the Red Cross courses is that they are cheap even by Filipino standards, and they are internationally recognized. To qualify for this course you had to already have completed your Basic Life Saving (BLS) which is the CPR course, and a first aid course. All the courses were offered at Red Cross. I qualified because these courses were included in my EMT course. If you are an ex-pat or just want to make friends with locals, taking these kinds of classes is an excellent way of doing it. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but Red Cross classes are available in nearly every country, so no matter where you live or work overseas, this would be a good option to look into.


Sir Jun, the director of the program told me that life guarding in the Philippines is horribly behind the times. This is unfortunate in a country made up of more than 7,000 islands. A large percentage of Filipinos can’t swim, and if they get in trouble in the water, there generally isn’t a competent life guard around to save them. The Basic Water Rescue is the highest level course offered in the Republic, and most beaches either don’t have life guards or if they do, the life guards haven’t had any training at all.


Money is always a problem in the Philippines. I suspect that the reason why we had people labeled as non-swimmers in our course was because they just couldn’t or didn’t want to spend the money to first take a swimming course and then take a life guarding course. So, the two courses were compressed into one. But, the standards were maintained by making the exams and qualifiers so difficult. Well-over half my group failed. Amazingly, at least one of the ones who made it was originally listed as a non-swimmer. On Monday morning he didn’t know how to swim. On Saturday he completed a two mile ocean swim. You have to respect that kind of hard work and courage.


Having a background in swimming or diving is a huge advantage in this type of training, but it is no guarantee that you could pass. I swam competitively and did triathlons till I was about twenty-one, but in competitive swimming you only learn the four racing strokes, which are different from the four rescue strokes. Rescue strokes include: modified crawl (head out of the water), modified breast (head out of water), side stroke, and elementary back (your arms don’t come out of the water as you do in racing.) I have never liked back stroke because it just seems t force water up my nose like some type of interrogation torture. And sidestroke is one of the slowest most awkward strokes. Or at least, that’s what I thought before I tried swimming sidestroke carrying a victim.


You don’t know the meaning of the word slow till you are swimming an awkward stroke, that you hate, and towing a human being at the same time. I kept wishing the whole world would just learn to swim better, so there would be no chance they would need me to rescue them.


The course started out frustratingly easy. We had to practice getting in and out of the pool alone, then helping someone else up onto the side. Actually, I am getting ahead of myself. The first lesson we had was on a black board, where the instructor drew a map of the pool area.


“The bathroom is located here.” He said, pointing. Actually in Filipino-speak they call the bathroom the comfort room or CR. “If you want to go to the CR there are two entrances, here and here. But this one is locked, so you will need to go to this one.”


I could not believe how silly this was. I had never had someone explain the layout of a pool to me. I usually just figured it out when I got there. But, just like lessons in getting in and out of the pool and making bubbles, these instructions were important for people who had never been in a swimming pool before. Being American you just take it for granted that schools have pools and people know how to swim. But here in the Philippines only people with a lot of money have access to a pool. So, we were starting from the very basics.


Amazingly, three days into the course we already had our first test. They kept calling it a mile swim, but actually, it was 3,200 meters, which is two miles. I came in fourth. It would be the last event in the course where I would push for time. I only pushed because they told us if we didn’t come in under a certain time we would be cut from the program. Actually only six people passed, but somehow the others weren’t cut. All of the other events were about completion or completing with your partner, so I didn’t push to be first.


The following day we had to tread water. Which the instructors pronounced “thread.” Originally I thought it was a sewing test, like if we were going to learn to repair our swim suits or something. This was the big test, where they actually did cut people out of the program. We were in a deep-well pool and had to complete various tasks while treading.  If we touched the bottom or the walls, even once, we were disqualified. One thing that made it more difficult was that there were so many bodies piled in on top of each other. You were constantly getting kicked and bumped into by other students. I was particularly wary of having someone panic and grab onto me or even just trying to support their body weight on me. It was hard enough keeping myself afloat. I didn’t need any passengers weighing me down.


We had hardly begun when Sir June, standing at the side of the pool, shouted “Tums up.”


I thought, he was saying, “times up.” This is too easy, I thought. I can’t believe they made such a big deal about this. We were only treading for like five minutes. How could this be the big elimination exercise? But then I noticed that no one made any effort to get out of the pool. And they were all holding up their thumbs.


Dugh! Not, times up! THUMBS up. It was one more Tagolish moment that added to the difficulty of being a native speaker in a group of semi-native speakers.


Thumbs up is really hard for me. First of all, it is a biological and historical fact that I don’t float. That is to say, I can’t float on my back, but I find it very comfortable to do turtle float, face down, just a few inches below the surface of the water. Also, I have a good, strong kick for Muay Thai and for swimming, but not for treading. I need to rely on my arms to stay afloat. Any time Sir June called “Tums up,” I sank into the water, barely able to gasp air, while I held my arms aloft and counted the painfully slow seconds.


As I sank helplessly below the water level, I pushed out my lips like a snorkel, to gain precious centimeters.


Each time he called for us to float, I would just about get into a comfortable floating posture, until I bumped into another swimmer, or someone kicked me. It broke the delicate, spell-like balance, and I would have to start swimming. Slowly, I would return to floating on my back, at which point, someone hit me and it all started over again.


“This is like a shipwreck.” Explained Sir June. “You may not be alone in an empty sea. You have to swim with all the other survivors.”


Next, Sir June yelled. “Plane crash.” He told us a plane had crashed nearby, and we needed to save the pilot. One of the fat instructors became the pilot and we had to pass him over our heads, from person to person, around the circle, while we treaded water. Each time I saw the pilot coming back around, I would scream “PILOT” to alert the person after me to be ready to take him from me. Then I would take a deep breath, put my hands over my head, sink beneath the water and inch the pilot over me to the next person.


After the pilot had made several trips around the circle, Sir June shouted again. “Here comes the stewardess. Now we had two victims, one male and one female. Although the girl weighed less, she was actually more difficult to handle.


This being a Catholic country I had to be careful not to touch her in an inappropriate manner. This is also funny since much of my job as an EMT consists of cutting off a stranger’s clothes and blowing in their mouth.


“Here is the black box.” Said June, adding a ten pound weight to the list of items we had to hand off. Earlier in the day, we had been diving to recover the black box, swimming the length of the pool underwater, carrying it. Now we had to hand it off to the next rescuer.


One by one, people quit. There was some cheating as well, some students found a place where the bottom was within bobbing distance and they could take a rest. Others skipped their turn passing victims and boxes. With so many people in the water I think it was hard for the instructors to keep complete control.


On all of the “lean back and float” commands I could feel water being forced up my nose and ears. The next morning I woke with a wicked cold. On one of the longer, thumbs up exercises I swallowed a ton of water and began hacking so much I was retching. It reminded me of the story of the seven Chinese brothers who each had a special skill. One of them could swallow the sea. I was off to a good start at swallowing all the water in the pool, but I still had a long way to go. I actually vomited a little, and my throat burned for the rest of the day. You wouldn’t want to do that during CPR.


The hardest moment came when Sir June yelled, “Thumbs up! Now, sing the national anthem.” While the other students were singing “Mabuhay,” I considered it would be fair for me to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but since the American national anthem is hard enough to sing on dry land, let alone while drowning, I decided it would be more politically correct to just listen.


After the song had finished we passed the pilot, stewardess, and box several times. At some point, they stopped coming around. Sir June was staring at his stop watch. “TIME!” He yelled. “Congratulations. You have all passed.”

With no preplanning at all, the entire class began shouting “Guardians!!!”


After lunch, we lined up by twos. Two instructors played drowning victims in the deep end. We had to dive off the wall, swim out, and rescue them. The instructors weren’t making it easy, however. They were flailing about and extremely combative. Simulating an extremely panicked victim, if you got anywhere near them they would grab your head and pull you under.


In rescue swimming there are three basic approaches, front approach, rear approach, and underwater approach. Since all rescue carry positions require the victim to be laying on his back, supported by the rescuer, approaching from the front or underwater requires you to rotate the victim around, so you can get him in a good carry position. Approaching from the front has the added disadvantage that the victim, in his panic, can grab you and drown you by accident. So, the easiest approach is the rear approach. This way, you are safer. You just have to grab the guy, support his chin with one hand, shoot the other hand over his shoulder and grab him in a cross chest carry. Then you swim side stroke and transport him to safety.


When it came my turn, I swam out to Sir Jun. he was flailing like a banshee (assuming that banshees flail). I gave him a huge birth as I swam around behind him. I supported his chin, then shot my arm over his shoulder and began to swim. He immediately turned violent in my grip, rolled over and pulled me underwater. The lessons I was to learn, was: one; hold the victim very tightly so he feels secure and so he doesn’t attack you, and two; never let water go in the victim’s face or mouth or he will panic because you are restraining him, and he will feel like he is drowning.


Jun wrapped both arms around me and instantly, my military, combat swimming training kicked in. In combat swimming you are taught that the normal reaction, when someone tries to push you underwater is to resist. This is a bad reaction. First of all, it is futile, you can’t resist the combined weight of yourself and your opponent, which are both driving you under. Second, you will get even more fatigued by resisting. So, the proper technique when someone tries to pull you under, use your legs to do a fast, powerful scissors kick, while at the same time raising up your arms, shooting yourself even faster below the water.


In rescue swimming they also use this technique. The next step is to slip out, under the victim’s arms and swim away. Or, to attempt to slip out, then push the victim in the center of the chest, with a stiff arm, and then swim away and try again. In combat swimming you can use this escape technique or you can grab the opponent and keep descending, pulling him down with you. Either way, the first part of the technique was the same, and I did it instantly. When I tried to escape, Jun had a hold of me really tightly, so I used my foot, rather than a stiff arm, to push off of him. Luckily, I didn’t go completely into combat mode. Remembering it was a rescue mission, I was careful not to injure him.


I escaped, returned to the surface, got a good breath of air and did another rear approach. I secured Jun’s chin, then did my cross arm carry. Again, he went wild, and we wound up doing battle below the water.


After several more abortive attempts, and when I thought I was too exhausted to continue, I finally got Jun to the nearest wall. It wasn’t till the next day that instructors explained to me to keep a tighter hold next time. I never forgot the lesson, and in later exercises when the instructors tried to roll out of a save, I nearly crushed their ribs with my cross chest grip.


We had to line up and each do one more save, which was pretty similar to the first one. I my second save I wound up using one of the Judo type moves they had taught us. When a victim grabs your arm, rather than trying to pull away, you can use his grip to spin him around and grab him from behind. I couldn’t believe how quickly and instinctively the technique came. The rescuing came pretty easily for me I think because it was so similar to wrestling in mixed martial arts (MMA). In MMA, We are always trying to spin the opponent around, get behind him, lift up the chin, and choke him. As long as I substituted a save for a choke I would be fine.


When we finished the second save, Sir Jun called out a list of names, including mine and said, “You have passed your rescue test.”


Rescue test? I was still pretty hypoxic from treading water. I didn’t realize this had been our test. I thought it was just an exercise. In the end, it was probably better off this way, because I wasn’t nervous. When I was fifteen I had tried to pass this course, but had failed it. I was swimming competitively at that time and I was so competitive and arrogant, that I was in capable of putting anyone else before myself. A rescuer is not there to make himself look good. He is there so that some stranger will get another day with his family.


The war in Burma taught me that lesson. Sadly it has taken me forty years and a brush with genocide to understand the importance of saving lives. But thank God, now I know the lesson. And in addition to learning life saving in a pool, I was ready to begin my work as an EMT, working on an ambulance, which would be starting in a few days.


The next day was the easiest of the whole program. We checked into the pool in the morning and had to swim 4,000 meters, 1,000 of each stroke. The event wasn’t timed, it was just additional practice and confidence building to prepare us for the ocean swim the next day.


After the swim, we had lunch and a shower. Then we drove to the beach at Batangas for our final exam.


Driving anywhere in Manila is pretty hit or miss. With traffic it could literally take an hour and a half to travel five kilometers. As a result locals don’t even measure distances in time or kilometers. They measure in rides. “It takes three rides to get there,” means you have to change buses twice. Going to Bantangas we were driving, but of course, no one in Philippines does preventative maintenance so, less than an hour into the trip we got a flat tire. The spare was flat too, so the driver had to go to a gas station and get it fixed. This all set us back by about two hours.


The lesson I learned about survival in the Philippines is, you have to just not care. I had no where to go. I was with my friends. I didn’t know anything about Batangas and had no special plans for when I got there. I had to just not care that it was taking an extra two hours to get there. I took my backpack out of the truck, using it as a pillow, I lay down on the blacktop and took a nap.


It was late when we finally arrived at the beach. No arrangements had been made for our lodgings, so, after interminable speeches and explanations about the swim the next morning, we all just scoped out a comfortable place on a pick-nick table and slept in our clothes.


No one really slept the night before the swim. The pick-nick tables weren’t as comfortable as they looked, and people were a bit loud. I think nervousness kept them joking around till about two in the morning.


At 4:00 AM we were called to form up on the beach. Swimmers were divided into four teams. In each team buddy teams were assigned; one weak and one strong. I was elected leader of my group. At one point both my EMT class and my swimming class asked me to be class leader. Both times I refused for two reasons, one I really believed it was better to have someone who spoke Filipino and two, they didn’t need one more white man telling them what to do. Letting them elect their own leader gave some Filipino a chance to learn about people management.


Elmer was chosen as our class leader and he flourished. I never saw someone change so positively overnight. I was so glad that I deferred to him. I know I can lead. Give someone else a chance. When they asked me to lead my swim group, however, I accepted. This swim would hold a certain element of danger, particularly since it was still dark and the boats wouldn’t be able to see swimmers in trouble.


I told my people. “Rule number one, stay with your buddy no matter what. Rule number two, the group stays together. If you have a problem or need a rest, tell your buddy and tell me. I will call a halt.”


The swim started out well. The eight of us, four buddy teams stayed together. They kept telling me to get in the front because I was leader. But I explained that I needed to stay in the back so I could watch everyone and see who needed help. For the most part, the week of intensive preparation had readied these guys for the swim, but there were still a few who got upset when water went in their mouth or when their goggles came off. Some of them didn’t feel comfortable treading water and adjusting or cleaning their goggles at the same time. My partner was a fat, smoking, drinking, martial arts instructor, named James, who I had no relationship with other than the fact that he was my partner. I didn’t know him, and I have trouble liking martial arts instructors who don’t live the life. But I looked at this as part of the challenge. It is easy to care for someone you like. But caring for James was a test, like donating a kidney to someone you find annoying.


I kept my team together pretty well till a panic swept them. In our interminable briefings about the swim we were told that there was a current which emerged from the right side of the harbor and would push us back out to sea. We were told that when we reached this current we needed to cut left, swim parallel to shore till we got passed it, then cut for the beach again. Suddenly, my team decided they had hit this current and started barking orders, “cut right, change to side stroke or crawl, the current, the current…” I mean they were really going nuts screaming and scrambling.


I felt a very minor current of probably less than one knot and I figured all we needed to do was continue to swim dead ahead. Also it was dark and our target was a white light on the beach which I didn’t want to lose sight of till the sun came up. James was so much slower than the other guys, that by this time, my guys had given up on staying with us and were pretty far ahead of us. By the time we arrived, the guys had abandoned us, disappearing into the darkness to the right.


I stayed with James. He asked me several times in a panicked voice, “You won’t leave me will you.”

“Of course not.” I said. A mile swim is absolutely nothing and in the ocean, with the added buoyancy, just floated face down, occasionally kicking or sculling my arms to keep up with James.


“Antonio, you are my sensei.” He said repeatedly. “I need to hear your voice.


No worries, I rolled over on my side, swam side stroke and sang military cadences to keep James going.


“See one thirty rolling down the strip, airborne ranger on a one way trip, mission top secret destination unknown, the SPDC in Shanland had better go home. …”


James kept apologizing for being so slow, and I kept telling him it was fine. Once again, I thought about Andy. I was in a military course once, where the top guy, the one who won every competition was not even nominated for an award. Instead, the sergeants nominated the worst guy, the one who nearly failed every event. Why? Because he never quit. He learned something. The strong guy, the one who aced every evaluation, didn’t learn a thing. He had always been good before and he was good now. I just knew Andy wasn’t learning. As for me, I am forty, I am beyond learning. My goal in the course was to learn the techniques for rescue, and I had, so I was happy. I didn’t need a second place in a one mile swim to make me feel good about myself. I was fine. James…hopefully James was learning something. He certainly was struggling.


I wasn’t wearing a watch, so it is impossible to say how long we had been swimming. But as the sun began to rise, I saw that we were even with a hotel on the right side of the harbor. When the sun was full up, we were still parallel to the hotel. I began to worry a bit. When I swam free of James, I passed easily through the current. But as soon as I stopped to wait for him, it carried me right back to where he was. The first few times this happened I thought he had caught up. But then I realized he was swimming at exactly the same speed as the current. Like running on a treadmill, he was never going to move any further forward.


“James, we need to cut left because of the current.” I said.

“No, it is ok, we are moving forward. Look.” He said, pointing vaguely at the same hotel we had been swimming in front of for the last few hours.


Watching James exhaust himself and get nowhere gave me time to think about my own command abilities. I think I did do a good job of keeping everyone together. These guys had never been in the army and knew nothing of discipline. If this were the military, when I arrived on shore I would punish them horribly and make sure they understood the importance of staying together. We would do the exercise again and again until the whole team functioned like a single man.


Several rescue boats came and asked if James needed a pick up. I had been optimistic and encouraging, but now my own strength was starting to give out. Secretly I hoped James would give up and I could just swim in alone. I could see the shore and knew it would only take about ten minutes.


But James kept saying, “As long as my sensei is here, I can make it.”


Great! I had to be the sensei. I couldn’t just be an asshole and leave him.


We kept on. James was going so slow I wasn’t 100% certain we had got around the current yet. So, I swam a few fast strokes ahead, and once again, I was moving well, but I had to stop and wait for him. This time, I stood still and he eventually reached me.


Sir Jun pulled up in a boat. “Are we passed the current?” I asked.

“Yes.” He said. He also said something else, which I would later find out was, “you can leave your partner and go eat breakfast.” But I was screaming too loudly with joy and missed all that.


A few minutes later, Elmer appeared, he had swum out on a rescue can.


I was so glad to see my friend. We talked a mile a minute. I suddenly realized how lonely I had been, watching James swim slowly. Elmer and I laughed and joked. He told me about Andy.


“Andy was the leader of his group, but as soon as they got in the water he abandoned them. He was the first one to complete the swim.” Explained Elmer.


This was what I had expected from Andy, but you would never believe that someone would do something so awful.


“How did his group do?”


“He lost six people.” Said Elmer.


Eventually, Andy swam up on a surf board. “Hey dud!” he shouted all happy. He held out his hand for me to give him a hi-five. “I won, I was first.”


“And what happened to your team?” I asked. “Were they also first?”


He saw in my eyes that he had done wrong. Trying to make up for it he said.


“You can go have breakfast. We will take care of your partner.”


“Like you took care of your team?” I asked.


“Ouch!” said Elmer, feeling the sting.


“I’ll take care of him. Right, James?”

“That’s right,” he gulped between breaths, “Antonio is my sensei.”

“You see that?” I asked Andy. “I am James’s sensei. Are you someone’s sensei?”


Elmer and I continued to chat and gossip, ignoring Andy.


When we finally arrived on the shore I was completely shot. Because of all the motivational speaking and singing I had done for James, the inside of my mouth felt like a pretzel factory. Not only was I completely dehydrated, but the taste was something I wouldn’t wish on an enemy. It was like drinking urine, and not even from a diabetic.


It turned out the swim was actually two miles. Alone, I could have done it in about one and a half hours. Instead, it had taken nearly four. I had never swam that long in my life, without touching the ground or the walls of a swimming pool.


The instructors all knew what had happened, and without making awkward speeches, they let me know that I had done the right thing. I stumbled to the kitchen to get some food and drink, while I gorged myself a student and several instructors came to me and said, “For six years it has been James’s dream to complete this swim. And, now, because of you, he has finally done it.”


I felt really good. At the same time, I felt even more guilty for my fleeting wish of James quitting while we were stuck in the current. The swim had meant nothing to me, finishing an hour earlier I wouldn’t have won an award, but for James, this swim was the completion of a six year dream.


All told, only twenty-five people, including James, had completed the swim, and successfully passed the course. The rest of the swimmers had had a few hours to eat and relax. I got ten minutes, and then the next classes started, down on the beach.


“I will go get drunk now.” Announced James. “Are you coming?”

“No, I have class.” I said. If it had been a movie, James would have been my friend and we would have blown of class and got drunk and it would have been funny. But I didn’t see anything funny about it. The reason this guy and 55 other people didn’t complete this swim was because of alcohol and cigarettes. Had James learned anything? Had I helped him? Now he would get his rescue certificate but be incapable of rescuing anyone.


Maybe I had violated the Prime Directive, like on Star Trek.


The whole world doesn’t have to live like me. But, why do they have to drink so much and why the cigarettes and the drugs. Even if I came in fourth or sixth in the timed exercises, the guys I beat were in their twenties. What will they be like when they are in their forties? James was nearly ten years younger than me.


I made my way to the beach on unsteady feet. The first lessons were scuba familiarization. Once again, in the west, most people have used mask, snorkel, and fins at some point in their life. Here, it had to be taught.


“Are you swimming?” the instructor asked.

“I will have to sit out the first bit because I have no equipment.”

“It’s OK, just follow with your goggles.”


It was an effort to stand, let alone get back in the water, but this day of training turned out to be some of the best training of the whole course.


We trained in using the rescue can, this is that red flotation device that Pamela Anderson carries when she runs down the beach to save me, in my dreams. We all tried running with it, but our breasts didn’t flop like hers. The rescue can was so versatile. You could sue it to support yourself or your victim. You could throw it to someone or hand it to someone to avoid making physical contact with the victim. After you secured a victim, in your usual cross chest carry position, you could use the can to support him and tow him back to shore.


“Why don’t we do more training with the can?” Asked Jun.


He looked a little sheepish. “We only have three of them.” He answered. “We had one that someone had donated from Australia. Then a student saw it and thought he could make them in his factory. He made two more for us.” Jun shook his head. “This is the Philippines. We have no money to buy anything.”


Daryl, the professional surfer from Australia was opening a surf academy in Manila. He will also be teaching surf rescue. When I talked to him about starting a part two, an advanced level to the lifeguard training, he said. “The problem is advanced life guarding means learning to use the toys. But in the Philippines, they don’t have the toys. So, the training is useless.”


By toys, Daryl was referring to such equipment as jet skis. If someone is drowning a hundred meters or more off shore there is a chance that the rescuer couldn’t get there in time or would be too tired to rescue and swim back.


One of the drills we did was saving a scuba diver. We had to free dive under the water and pick up an unconscious person, surface and swim to shore with him. The cold I had been nursing for several days was in full swim. My head was completely stopped up and my ears wouldn’t clear. I pushed it a bit hard and wound up with some blood coming out of my nose the next day.


Other than difficulty clearing my ears, rescuing someone off the bottom wasn’t that hard. I reached down, grabbed his T-shirt, lifted him up, slipped my arms under his and surfaced, already in a good position to go for a carry. In real life, I think the difficulty would be finding the unconscious person under the waves. And, as an EMT, I know that from the time he sinks beneath the surface, we only have four minutes to rescue him. That four minutes is a best case scenario, assuming he doesn’t involuntarily start breathing and take in water.


In EMT school Aidan had told us that in the old days, lifeguards had a barrel on the beach.  They lay the drowning victim, belly-down on the barrel and rolled him to make water come out of his lungs. This method was just as effective as it sounds. If the victim survived it was simply because there was no water in his lungs.


In reality, the way you get water out of the patient’s lungs is by using positive pressure ventilation. But I might have been the only person on the beach who knew this. At the end of the day, it didn’t really help anyone that I knew this, because in the Philippines the equipment was unavailable.


The crazy part of our training was the medical. We learned how to rescue someone with a spinal injury and immobilize them in the water. You can even give them rescue breathing while you tread and wait for help to arrive with a spine-board. It is good training, but I believe if you dive in the ocean and get a spinal injury there is no way the lifeguards can save you without damaging your spinal cord. I think they can save your life but you will be paralyzed.


The tolerance inside the spinal column is only a few millimeters. If you are supporting an injured swimmer on your chest, holding his arms up beside his head to immobilize his spine, and breathing in his mouth, all while treading water, the probability is that you will move more than a couple of centimeters.


Just when it was getting interesting, the instructors blew a whistle, signaling that course was finished. Wow! Was all I could say. I hadn’t been pushed so hard, physically in years. It was great. I just wanted to do it again. Most of the classmates became close and exchanged phone numbers. I hope I will see them again.


Pinoy paramedic, EMT and rescue swimmer, it’s all about saving the lives. And remember, the lives you save might be Filipino.


Antonio Graceffo is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.


Suffering Continues in Burma

In War in Burma on May 11, 2008 at 12:23 pm

The Suffering Continues in Burma

By Antonio Graceffo


New figures from the UN have the death toll, possibly, a 216,000.


The junta still hasn’t allowed any aid workers into the country. They allowed two plane loads of food and medicines in but then immediately commandeered everything. Now the US refuses to send anymore aid, unless aid workers are allowed to accompany the materials and see to their distribution.


A relief team leader had this to say about sending material into Burma without aid workers to look after it. “The dictators of Burma continue to directly attack their own people and in the case of the cyclone provided no warning, nor did they provide any immediate response to help people in need. An ongoing challenge will be to ensure that relief materials and funds go to those in need and are not diverted by the dictators. We will be sending help through the network of individuals and churches that we have now in Burma and we will be relying on them to account for and report on the relief assistance.”


Another aid worker said it even more succinctly. “You can be sure that only pennies on the dollar will be given to the people.”


Leading general, Than Schwe (who should die slowly), hasn’t been seen since last Saturday. He even refused to meet with or even talk with the UN by telephone. In the face of all of the insanity involved in refusing aid, the junta marches forward, determined to hold a referendum, the result of which will basically keep the current government in power in perpetuity.


Far from the watchful eye of the world’s media and aid workers seeking to help cyclone victims in and around Yangon, the SPDC (Burmese army) launched attacks against the Karen ethnic minority people. They burned homes, destroyed villages and attacked refugee camps (IDPs).


I tried to imagine something more horrible than launching a military strike against people in the wake of such a terrible disaster, but I couldn’t.


When asked what steps the junta had taken to help their own people, an aid worker had this to say. “There is no plan of action internally. There is limited infrastructure. The military is working only limitedly. The constitution will be voted on next week and must be monitored by force. There was not even a forklift at the international airport to take off initial supplies from Thailand.”

Another aid worker explained that so much of the suffering was avoidable. “The military are making this so Much worse. This is a textbook example of how not to respond to a disaster. They had 48 hour warning from India, yet they didn’t warn the people, especially not in the Irrawaddy Delta, the worst hit area. Now they are delaying the vitally needed aid agency workers by placing conditions on their work and not giving them unfettered access to the worst affected areas.”


France has demanded that the UN enact a byline which gives the UN the right to enter a country and render aid, without permission, if there is a major catastrophe and the local government refuses aid. Basically, the UN has the right to enter Burma and save lives in spite of the wishes of the generals.


I know from my own experience with 911 that in a crisis, more good people surface than bad. People forget their former problems with each other and they help, they simply help because it is the right thing to do. Probably 90% of the communities who donated food, money, clothes, and medicine to New York were poorer than New York. But they didn’t care. When a catastrophe effects others, you need only ask yourself, “What if that were my family, my wife, my children? What would I want others to do for me?” The answers are clear. You have to help.


In the last forty-eight hours I have received a steady stream of emails from people asking if I could get them into Burma and asking where and how to volunteer or send money. God bless them all.


Strong words of support have come from some unlooked for corners. China, who vetoed the UN proposal for forced aid in Darfur and Burma, is now asking the generals to open up and accept western aid.


George Bush, who I wouldn’t normally think of as a humanitarian said, in a quote in the Economic Times,  “Our message is to the military rulers: Let the US come to help you, help the people. Our hearts go out to the people of Burma. We want to help them deal with this terrible disaster. At the same time, of course, we want them to live in a free society,”


To my knowledge, this has been the first major statement, by a US politician which hints at forcing the junta to allow democracy in Burma.


An article in the Irish Times said, “President Bush urged Burma to allow US damage assessment teams into the country while at a ceremony Tuesday, where he signed legislation to give a Congressional Gold Medal to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest in Burma.”


Look at your watch, wait five minutes. Someone just died in Burma. Most of the deaths which will happen over the next two weeks will be completely preventable if aid could get in. One aid organization said they are trying to partner with organization already inside the country. Even aid organizations with permanent offices in Yangon are being denied additional visas for more staff. And of course, there is the issue of planes cargos being confiscated when it arrives in Burma. 

”India & ASEAN are getting some in, maybe China, so far. The SPDC will skim what it can.” Explained one aid worker yesterday. But now it looks like even the trickle of aid coming from Asia is drying up.

If people in USA want to send money, where should they send it?


“So far I’ve recommended Mercy Corps here in Portland, they are v. effective in these situations, and US Campaign for Burma has a donate button on their site. World Vision is in country already but have religious baggage, also Save the Children is operating there already.” This was a quote from a noted Burma author. Luckily the Junta don’t read books, so she can maintain her anonymity.


Commenting on the impact of the cyclone, she said, “Mangrove destruction made this much worse, also siltation of Irrawaddy due to deforestation.”


The generals are known for selling off Burma’s timber, absolutely wrecking the environment. “The Generals are safe and sound in Naypyidaw.”


Last year, the incredibly superstitious junta moved the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw.

“The date for the referendum was probably set by astrologers, so they are locked into that.” She went on to speculate, “But this could affect army unity — many have family in the Delta.”


It is highly likely that a very small percentage of Burmese soldiers actually support the junta. Most are conscripts and are themselves victims of brutality and abuse at the hands of their superiors. And of course, relief aid is not reaching the families of privates, only top ranking officers.


“We are now facing a health disaster with severe risk of malaria, cholera and other water born diseases. Over a million people spent their seventh night without good water or shelter last night.”


The long term effects of this disaster will be a staggering death toll.


Plese, say a prayer for the people of Burma.



Antonio Graceffo is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.