The Money Trail – Cambodia

The official currency of Cambodia is the riel.  However, it might as well be the US dollar.  Every ATM that we used in Cambodia dispensed US dollars and everyone seemed to prefer transacting in US currency.  The only time we used riel was when we were owed change after a transaction.  We’d receive bills of riel instead of American coins.

1 US dollar ~= 4000 Cambodian riel

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The Fight Against Human Trafficking in Cambodia

As we traveled around Cambodia, we heard mention here and there about the problem of human trafficking inside the country–as well as across its borders–but in Phnom Penh we learned much more about the issue.  We visited two international NGOs working in the country, one that rescues victims of human trafficking and sexual violence and also mobilizes and facilitates the prosecution of traffickers and abusers, and another that provides aftercare services to girls who have been victims of trafficking and rape.

Sex tourism and prostitution remain significant challenges for Cambodia.  Starting in the early 1990s, when the country opened up to foreigners for the first time in twenty years (following the end of the Cold War and the ouster of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, who had ruled the country since they invaded in the 1970s to overthrow the Khmer Rouge), Cambodia gained a “reputation” as a place where pedophiles could abuse children without repercussions.  Over the last couple of decades, responding to pressure from the international community, the Cambodian government has cracked down on pedophilia, but children continue to be trafficked and sold by organized pedophile rings.  Women and teenage girls are also commonly trafficked into prostitution–after they have been tricked into leaving their homes for the promise of better economic opportunities in urban areas, where they might expect they’ll work in textile or garment factories, they are sold into sexual slavery.

With rampant corruption in the police force and extensive poverty, the NGOs fighting human trafficking and sexual abuse and violence in Cambodia face many challenges.  They also must confront cultural and religious traditions that often lead victims to believe they have deserved their lot in life.  Still, we were greatly inspired by the dedication that the NGO workers showed in taking on these challenges, and we hope to continue to support their efforts and raise awareness about their work once we’re back home.

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Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge

After a harrowing six-hour drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, John, Anne and I arrived into the heart of Cambodia’s capital city after nightfall and headed out to Cantina, a Mexican restaurant owned by a man from Santa Barbara (of all things!). John and I hadn’t had Mexican food since July, and I’m guessing for Anne it had been even longer, so the food and margaritas tasted great. We capped off the evening with a visit to Dairy Queen(!)–yes, they do have Dairy Queen in Cambodia!

The next morning things took on a much more somber tone when we drove out to visit the Killing Fields, an area outside of Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge took its prisoners to be tortured and executed, often being bludgeoned to death to save on bullets, and sometimes even being buried alive. Our audio guides allowed each of us to take in the experience on our own, as we listened to the disturbing history of the place and stories from some of the Khmer Rouge survivors. Between 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge terrorized and devastated Cambodia, killing up to two million people and relocating all urban dwellers to forced labor camps in the rice paddies.  Anyone wearing glasses, speaking a foreign language, or working in a profession like medicine or law was put to death.  Supposedly, the Khmer Rouge envisioned an agricultural “paradise” where the people would live uncomplicated lives, just surviving from the land. In reality, people were sick and starving to death from being forced to work in the fields all day long with practically nothing to eat.

At the Killing Fields, where the bodies of 17,000 men, women, and children that were
executed during the genocide were later found buried in mass graves (there are hundreds  more sites like it around the country), a large glass stupa has been built in memorial to those killed. The stupa houses more than 8,000 skulls from the Killing Fields. It was an eerie visit, and incomprehensible, especially to think that many members of the Khmer Rouge continue to serve in the government today.

From the Killing Fields, we headed back to the city to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We hired a guide to take us around the museum, not realizing at first that she was a survivor of the genocide. The museum is housed in a former high school that was later used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and torture center.  After being tortured for information on dissidents, the prisoners were generally taken to the Killing Fields to be executed. Our guide was a remarkable woman and shared her personal story with us as she showed us around. Her father had been a member of parliament and her mother a French teacher, and since they belonged to the educated class, both were executed by the Khmer Rouge. During the genocide, our guide was separated from her siblings and sent to a work camp. Miraculously, her brother and sister also survived the genocide, with her sister having been selected to nanny for a Khmer Rouge family, which saved her from being killed. Our guide got teary-eyed as she told us about her family, as did we. After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, took over the government, and threw out the Khmer Rouge, our guide made her way back to Phnom Penh to return to her family’s home, but the government said it belonged to the state now, and sent her away. She managed to find her sister and brother over the next few years, and now she works in the museum as a way of processing the horror. She was so kind, and although it was incredibly sad, we really appreciated her sharing her story so openly with us.

In many ways, it seems that Cambodia has worked hard to overcome its past. Phnom Penh is bustling, and it’s hard to imagine that just 35 years ago, at the height of the Khmer Rouge, its population dwindled to about 1,000, as city dwellers were forcibly relocated to rural work camps, and all educated people were killed. Still, 75% of the country continues to survive from farming, and students attend school just for morning or afternoon shifts, as there aren’t enough classrooms and teachers for kids to attend school all day long. Health care is poor, and many people lack access to clean water, and trafficking and prostitution, which I’ll write more about in the next post, remain huge problems. Despite all of that, all of the people we met there were so kind, and we look forward to following along with Cambodia’s growth over the coming years.

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Taking Siem Reap by Storm: Indiana John and the Temple of the Chinese Tourists

I know, the title is terrible, but it’s fitting…

From Kampot, John and I headed north to Siem Reap, which is the jumping off point for tours of Angkor, the ancient Khmer capital and the home of Angkor Wat.  We arrived in Siem Reap on a Friday evening and looked forward to a full day of touring temples on the next day.  My sister, Anne, would be arriving to meet us on Sunday, so we planned to spend Saturday visiting some of the lesser-known temples that are outside of the main Angkor tourist circuit.  We were especially excited to visit Bang Melea, a temple that was built far from the main Angkor temples but that’s believed to have been built in the 12th century by the same Khmer king that built Angkor Wat.  Unlike Angkor Wat and the other temples closer to Siem Reap, Bang Melea hasn’t been restored, so it’s a mass of rubble and crumbling, moss-covered stones.  We’d heard that it’s usually very quiet out there, with very few tourists, so John was looking forward to feeling a bit like Indiana Jones while exploring the remains of a lost civilization.  Unluckily for us, however, our visit to Siem Reap coincided with a major, weeklong, Chinese holiday, and Bang Melea—as we later learned—is a highlight for Chinese tourists.  After an initial few minutes of peace and quiet, we ended up sharing our exploration of Bang Melea with a teeming mass of hundreds of Chinese tourists.  Our guide was flabbergasted.  He said the most people he’d ever seen out there at one time was about twenty, and here we were surrounded by hundreds.  I had always thought that Americans were the loudest people in the world, but I think the Chinese may have proved that one wrong for me.  Our guide was nervous that the wooden walkways that cross over the crumbling stones of the temple would collapse under the weight of so many people, so we quickly passed through the walkways and made our way to the exit.  So much for our big archaeological adventure!  I guess it ended up being a cultural experience of another sort.  We did snap a few pictures of the temple while we had it to ourselves, along with a couple others that show the Chinese tourist crowds that arrived on multiple tour buses.




After Bang Melea we spent the rest of the day touring four other temples—Preah Ko (built in the 9th century), Bakong (also built in the 9th century), Bantey Srei (built in the 10th century), and Bantey Samre (built in the 12th century).  I think the highlights for us both were Bantey Srei, built with pink sandstone that was intricately carved, and Bantey Samre, which was one of the most intact temples that we visited, so you could really get a sense of its size and scale.


We rested the next day and looked forward to Anne’s evening arrival.  After a terrifying drive on a mini-bus from Phnom Penh, Anne arrived looking a little harried, so we headed out to relax over a nice dinner.  We had fun chatting about our various experiences in Cambodia so far and planned out a big day of sightseeing around Angkor for the following day, with our fingers crossed that the torrential downpour passing through, courtesy of Tropical Storm Gaemi, would have moved on by the morning.  Fortunately we woke up to find that it had.

We started the day off by passing through the ancient city walls that enclosed the royal Khmer city of Angkor Thom.  Stone carvings line the bridge that spans the moat around the city—with one side lined with gods and the other with demons.


Once inside the walls, we first visited Bayon, built in the 12th century and marked by giant smiling stone faces carved into its spires.


From there we passed quickly through Baphuon (built in the 11th century), the Terrace of the Leper King (built in the 12th century), and the Elephant Terrace and headed on to Preah Khan (also built in the 12th century), which was one of my favorites.  Most of the Angkor temples were Hindu, but Preah Khan was a Buddhist temple, with long, low-ceilinged hallways that approach the center from all four compass directions.  The ceiling gets lower and lower as you pass through so that you are forced to bow your head towards the Buddha (now missing) that was originally placed where the four hallways intersect.  Although partially rebuilt, the temple is also overgrown with huge trees, and it was quiet and serene, so we lingered for a little while.


After a break for lunch, we visited Pre Rup, a royal crematorium built in the 10th century.  We climbed to the top of its towers for some amazing views.  Cambodia has some of the most beautiful clouds I’ve ever seen, and our guide said that when he was a kid, he and his friends loved to look for animal shapes in the clouds.  Just like we used to do!


Then it was on to Ta Prohm, built in the 12th century and made famous more recently by Tomb Raider.  It’s a beautiful, crumbling structure in the jungle, and it’s gradually being retaken by nature.  It was easy to see why it would be an appealing movie location.


And then—finally!—we finished our grand tour with a visit to Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century and still the largest religious structure in the world.  The scale of the building is stunning, starting with its enormous moat that’s over a mile long on each side.  After crossing the bridge over the moat and then passing through the outer buildings, it was exciting to finally see Angkor Wat in person after seeing it in so many pictures.

Its five spires are currently being renovated, so unfortunately we couldn’t climb to the top, but we walked the vast hallways, and our guide explained the wall carvings lining them that re-tell the Hindu epics.


We stayed on in the courtyard of the inner temple for sunset and then wandered back outside just in time to catch a last picture of the five spires reflected in one of the temple’s ponds.




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Wanna know one thing I’ll no longer take for granted when I get back to Texas?  Roads.

The roads in Cambodia made for some seriously adventurous driving.  This video shows the main “highway” between Kampot and Sihanoukville, where we caught the plane to Siem Reap.  There wasn’t much traffic when I took this video, but imagine driving a road like this where all the traffic in both directions (cars, motorbikes, large trucks carrying precariously balanced loads – lumber for example), continuously zig zag back and forth in order to find the easiest route through the ruts and potholes.  It’s pretty chaotic, and some drivers go WAY too fast.  It’s worse at night when you can only see the headlights of the oncoming traffic (no street lights here!).  It’s difficult at a distance to tell what you’re looking at.  Is that an oncoming car or two motorbikes spaced in such a way that it just looks like an oncoming car?  Is that a car being passed by two motorbikes or a lumber truck?  Further, Cambodian rice farmers, who still employ slash and burn farming techniques, burn their rice fields at night, which creates a thick fog that distorts your vision and severely reduces visibility.  Yikes!

It took us two hours to drive the 60 or so miles from Kampot to Sihanoukville, with bumps like this all along the way.  It took us 6+ hours to drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh on a similarly potted road with MUCH more traffic – a drive I will not soon forget.

Thank goodness, we reached all of our destinations in one piece.  But, to be sure, driving in Cambodia is a dangerous thing to do right now.  My white knuckles are still getting their color back.

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Holiday in Cambodia

Except in Siem Reap, the jumping off point for tours of Angkor, tourism has yet to completely take over Cambodia.  So, when we arrived in the small town of Kampot, about 3 hours south of Phnom Pehn near the coast, we very much felt like we were witnessing real, everyday life in Cambodia.  And at this point in our journey, especially after having been surrounded by westerners in Bali & Singapore, the vibe in Kampot was very refreshing.  In fact, touring this little town is, thus far, one of the highlights of our adventure.

We spent our first day in Kampot walking through the town in the rain, having arrived in Cambodia just as the rainy season was coming to an end.  The Cambodians didn’t seem to mind the rain at all.  They just went about their business on bicycles and motor scooters without rain gear or umbrellas, knowing that in a little while the sky would clear up and they would dry out.  No problem.

Walking through Kampot was quiet with relatively little traffic and we spent our time just observing what was happening all around us.  There were no touts.  There were no badgering tuk-tuk drivers.  Just people doing their thing and occasionally looking up to stare at the two random white folks that were walking down their street.


We walked through the local market, ducking under blue rain tarps and stepping over open, concrete gutters between stalls.  We bought some delicious mangosteens (we could do an entire post about the virtues of this fruit that we are unable to get in the U.S.) from a woman in the market.  When I tried to pick them out, the woman brusquely discarded my choices and picked some out for us to make sure we got the good ones.  It was a funny and genuine moment.

Eventually we found our way to the main roundabout, which has the world’s largest durian fruit statue.  I have no facts, but I’m willing to go on record and say that this is true.

We stayed in a little hotel right on the Kampot river called Rikitikitavi.  The staff was fantastic, the restaurant had amazing food for next to nothing, and during happy hour they just went ahead and brought you two drinks for the price of one.

The hotel restaurant and bar had a wonderful view of the Kampot river and the Elephant Mountains.  And when the rain cleared off that night, we got to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve seen on our trip so far.  That’s Shelley taking a photo over the water in that second shot…  A great way to end a perfect day.


On our second day in Kampot, inspired by an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show, “No Reservations,” we took a tuk-tuk tour to Kep, an even smaller town on the Cambodian coast that is famous for catching and cooking crab.  The rain stayed away for us and we had a spectacularly beautiful day.

On the way to Kep, we stopped at a pepper plantation and tasted some fresh Kampot pepper.  It grows on a tall vine, and the peppercorns are picked entirely by hand.  These plants are only 12 years old, as it’s only been 12 years since the country has stabilized enough politically to enable enterprises such as this.


When we arrived in Kep, we had a delicious crab lunch, looking out over the water, and watched as the local people bought and sold the catch of the day at the crab market.  That blue sky remained with us the entire day.



There really isn’t much more to see or do in Kep now.  But, before the Khmer Rouge, Kep was very much a resort town.  Overlooking the coast were many burnt out villas, ghostly reminders of the genocide and Cambodia’s brutal past.

Cambodia is quickly emerging from its past, and I have a feeling that in just a few years, Kampot and Kep will be very different places.  But, for Shelley and me, they will always be a very special part of our SE Asian Adventure.

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The Money Trail – Singapore

Singapore is so neat and clean, even their money is white!  Seriously, they must take the soiled money out of circulation.  I didn’t see any.

Singapore is the first country we’ve visited where the US dollar is worth less than the local currency, the Singapore dollar.

1 USD ~= 1.22 Singapore dollar

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Angry Tourists

After catching up on some errands over the weekend – Shelley needed to have some pages added to her passport, all of our clothes needed washing, and we were running low on toothpaste, shampoo and such – we took some time on Monday to see the sights in Singapore.

Since we had enjoyed hiking up Mount Misen so much back when we were in Japan, we decided to try and duplicate that adventure by taking the Singapore Cable Car to the top of Mt. Faber to see if we could get a good view of Singapore and the surrounding area.

The Singapore Cable Car connects Santosa with the island of Singapore.  Santosa (you can see a little bit of it on the left in the above picture) is a small, resort island that has an amusement park/resort feel to it.  There are hotels and casinos on Santosa, as well as a nice, little beach.  We spent some time on that beach with Anna, Tom and some of their friends back on Saturday.  As luck would have it, I was able to get in on a pick up ultimate game there, which was pretty great.  I kept seeing all these people with discs walking to the other end of the beach, and then I saw cones, and then angels started singing…  But, I digress.  Today we would be taking the cable car away from Santosa towards Mt. Faber.

When we arrived at the cable car, we were somewhat surprised to discover that it had been taken over by Angry Birds.  Yes, the iPhone kind.  Granted, we’d seen Angry Birds everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia – t-shirts, stuffed animals, you name it.  Heck, Cheng and Negina were even able to pick us up an Angry Birds towel in the Cameron Highlands for our towel-less apartment.  But, Angry Birds themed cable cars?  Seemed like a bit of a stretch.  Regardless, we wanted to ride the cable cars, so we found the ticket counter and got in line.

When we got to the front of the line to purchase our tickets, we quickly realized that Angry Birds come at a premium!  We decided to forego the deluxe package – Angry Birds themed cable car w/ plush toy companion, photo with Angry Birds, etc. – and stick with the basic round trip ticket.  It was still going to cost us an arm and a leg!  But, this was going to be cool like Japan, right?  On with the show!

Some perks came with every Angry Birds Cable Car ticket.  Like…

These sweet Angry Birds face masks!!!  Also included in your cable car trip, complementary Angry Birds theme music played for the duration of your ride.

With Angry Birds music still in our heads (can you hear it???), we made it to the top of Mt. Faber, where, in the small cable car boarding area, we found Angry Bird carnie games for the kids, which included a super-sized sling shot with plush Angry Bird projectiles that could be used to take down milk bottles, and, of course, little green pigs.  Shelley even got to meet all the Angry Birds in person.  Ha!  We don’t need no deluxe package!

All this Angry Birds stuff was good fun until we exited the cable car boarding area and were deposited into The Jewell Box, a swanky-looking restaurant and gift shop that overlooked the water toward Santosa.  “Wait, this can’t be it,” we thought.  Where was our highly anticipated, awesome view of Singapore?  We walked around the restaurant desperately looking for Singapore, but there was no readily apparent path to an exit, much less to a better view of the city.  We had, quite literally, been taken for a ride.

With our dreams vanquished, we boarded the cable cars for the return trip and another ear-full of Angry Birds theme music, which proceeded to turn us into a couple of Angry Tourists.

But we shook it off, and headed back into downtown Singapore to see some of the sights.  We made a stop at the Asian Civilizations Museum, ate some yummy food, and ultimately ended up at Marina Bay Sands, a huge hotel, casino and shopping complex right on the Singapore waterfront.  Out front, we finally got that view of Singapore we had been looking for.



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Good Friends and Good Food in Singapore

We flew out of Bali and into Singapore on a Thursday afternoon, and in just a quick couple of hours it seemed like we had jumped planets.  On the taxi ride into downtown Singapore from the airport, I stared in wonder out the window, gaping at what appeared to be an immaculate city of the future.  The landscaped flowering bushes that lined the roads, with not a speck of garbage in sight, wowed and amazed me.  Singapore may be sterile, but in the moment, that didn’t feel at all like a bad thing!

Six years ago in London, on my very first day at Shearman & Sterling, I met my friend Anna, who’s still with the firm and now working out of the Singapore office.  It had been four years since I’d last seen Anna, so I was super excited to see her, meet her fiancé, Tom, and introduce them both to John.  We met up with Anna and Tom later that evening once they’d gotten off of work, and they took us out for our first of many delicious meals in Singapore, at the Lau Pa Sat street food center.  There’s a large covered seating area (shown in the photos below), but the evening was nice, so we sat ourselves at a table outside.  They started off by ordering us a plate of chicken wings, beef and chicken satay, and Tiger beer, and then as we waited for a number of other dishes to arrive, it began to sprinkle, and then to rain a little harder, and then it became an absolute tropical downpour.  We kept moving our little plastic table and chairs closer and closer to the big buildings surrounding the street food center, until finally we were under an overhang of a building, but the wind was still blowing the rain all over us and our table.  However, that didn’t stop us from devouring Singapore noodles, mie goreng (fried Malay-style noodles), oyster omelet, and sautéed stingray.   Finally, it was time to make a run for it—unluckily, Tom had ridden his scooter, so he set off for a drenching ride home.  Meanwhile, Anna, John, and I made a dash for a taxi, getting totally soaked in the process.  How could we complain, though?  This was the first serious rainstorm we’d gotten caught in since beginning our trip months earlier.  Once we’d made it back to Anna and Tom’s place and dried ourselves off, we settled in for a night of “quality” American TV of NCIS and CSI, laughing as we joked about the terrible dialogue.


We spent Friday taking care of errands and then later that night we headed out with Anna and her friends Patrick and Laleh for plate after plate of Chinese food followed by a round of drinks at Social Haus.  Anna and I had fun catching up and laughing about the very different conversations we were having four years ago in London as compared to now, from being single ladies then to talking now about our weddings and what it might be like to start a family.  Life can change pretty quickly!


On Saturday Anna and Tom took us out for a traditional Singapore breakfast of coffee with sweetened, condensed milk (even John will drink coffee like that!) and toast with green coconut jam and soft boiled eggs.  You crack open the eggs into a bowl, stir up the runny whites and yolks with some soy sauce, and then dip the coconut jam toast into the egg mixture.  It sounds kind of weird, but the sweet and salty combination is actually really good.  (John and I ended up going back for a repeat of that breakfast a few days later before we left for Cambodia.)  Afterwards, we put a picnic lunch together and then took a taxi out to Sentosa Island.  Like much of the rest of Singapore, Sentosa Island is a fabricated paradise, with amusement parks, casinos, hotels, and restaurants, but we stuck to the beautiful beach there and relaxed for the afternoon with Tom and Anna and a bunch of their friends.

We took John for a hair cut on Sunday afternoon and arrived back at Tom and Anna’s place just in time to surprise them in the middle of practicing their wedding dance moves.  Then we all headed out for one of John’s most loved meals of the trip—Korean barbecue.  Yum!  It was an all-you-can-eat, grill-your-own meat kind of place, and Tom did not mess around with packing the food in.  I don’t know where he put it all, but he went through a lot of grilled meat lettuce wraps.  John’s equal enthusiasm for the meal made me realize how much I miss eating Korean food—it was great in London and New York, but there’s not much of it to be had in Austin.  We arrived home after dinner just in time for the four of us to sprawl on the couch for two hours of The Voice.  Ahhh, a good night.

I’ll leave it to John to cover our Monday daytime, but Monday night we spent our last evening with Tom and Anna over a meal of Thai steamboat.  Basically, they plunk a big, steaming pot of broth in the middle of the table, along with a platter of raw meat, seafood, noodles, and vegetables, and then you cook the raw food in the broth, or in the grill just above it, and then you dip the cooked food in this super tasty sweet and spicy Thai sauce.  Once again, we saw Tom turn into an eating machine, but with his rigorous daily bike-run-lift workouts he earns his food, unlike us.  We learned a new Aussie slang word that night when Anna suggested that we follow up dinner with some “dero” soft serve.  That’s shorthand for “derelict,” and it turned out to be McDonald’s soft serve.  I’ll admit it—the Oreo McFlurry was good.


Of all of the places we’ve been so far on our trip, Singapore reminded us the most of home.  We spent a while just wandering through a supermarket, going up and down the wide aisles and snatching up granola bars and Skippy peanut butter.  After reading all of this, you may be thinking that we gained fifteen pounds during our five days in Singapore, and you’d probably be right.  We’d heard that Singapore was known for its food, and Anna and I have always built our quality time around meals, so we made the most of our reunion by indulging in all of the culinary delights of Singapore.  During and in between all of the eating, it was wonderful to catch up with Anna, get to know Tom, and hear glimpses of the beautiful wedding they’re planning for November.  I really hope it’s not another four years before we get the chance to see each other again!  Helena, if you’re reading this, maybe we can all coordinate a visit out to Santa Monica sometime.  In the meantime, we’re sending a big thank you to Tom and Anna for their hospitality, for welcoming us into their home for five days, and for sharing many memorable meals with us.  We’re wishing you all the best for a long and happy life together, and we’ll look forward to our next meeting somewhere else in the world!


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The Money Trail – Indonesia

Landing at the Bali airport and withdrawing a cool million (Indonesian rupiah) from the ATM there was an interesting experience.  Definitely made us feel like high rollers!

1 USD ~= 9000 Rupiah

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