Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wrap Up

My wrap on Cambodia includes a shout out to all the travellers who took time to answer my questions, even while they were in the midst of their trips. Their willingness to help a complete stranger sift through information was something I had not expected. 

My longest online "outreach" is this blog and personal finance bloggers in my experience, have mostly been a totally different type of personality.  So I found the openness shocking at first but have come to embrace it, now that I've had a chance to pay it forward with others.  It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that I resonate most with the travellers' spirit. 

For someone who has always prided herself with sorting stuff out on her own, I had met my match with the increasingly complex places I am choosing to go see.  No amount of books and sites can compared to recent first hand experiences that I had to go outside of my comfort zone to get.  And am I ever glad I made that leap of faith. 

My advice is to do your homework, then swallow your pride and put it out there.  You never know where it will lead you.  The wealth of knowledge within the travel community is pretty astounding.

I've also been surprised at how many people sincerely wanted to touch base after my trip so we could compare notes.  Am still in contact with a couple of them.  It's been great as I've been getting inspired by their future plans.

There is no way I can finish without writing about all the super nice people I met as well. 

The hotel manager in Phnom Penh (surprisingly young), who I had gone back and forth via email, not only arranged my airport transfer himself but figured out who I was the next morning and sat with me for breakfast.  Each day he was curious to what I had seen, learned and any conclusions I came to.  He always had time for me. 

My airport transfer driver, a father of 2, had been working since 7 am that day (picked me up at 11 pm).  He owned the vehicle (Toyota Camry) and has enjoyed being a driver for the last 1 1/2 years -- Much easier.  Prior, for 8 years, he worked in de-mining and asked me if I knew what that was...OMG, I said.  Even though I wasn't tired, that woke me up in a hurry and officially notified me that this is it, I had arrived in Cambodia for real.  Not surprising, he was happy not to be doing it anymore as he saw many of his colleagues get hurt and killed.

I met 2 young ladies who were like the 2 sisters I never had (always wanted a sister).  My "younger sister" works at my hotel in PP, who got teary eyed when she told me she wasn't going to be working the day I was leaving and was going to miss me.  When was I going to come back?  She is the type of person you automatically want to protect.  I'd be the older sister who would kick the crap out of any guy that hurt her.  Workers work 7 days, then 1 day off with shifts that last on average 8 hours but can extend to 10. 

My "older sister" works at my hotel in Siem Reap.  You should have seen her when I was leaving.  Couldn't leave without a picture and advised me in advance to get dressed up with make up!  Walked me out to the tuk tuk herself and talked sternly to the driver about getting me to the airport safely.  Got me water and tried to climb into the tuk tuk herself saying maybe she'll come with me.  When I told her she'll need a warm coat to go where I was going, she shivered and admitted she would not do well with winter. 

The guest manager at the hotel in SR.  He personally thanked me over and over for helping his people, when he found out I had spent time at the NGO.  I kept telling him I haven't done anything yet but it didn't matter.  He felt that the current younger generation has it easier than he did as help for schooling wasn't widely available when he was growing up so it was very hard work to get to where he is in life.  It was embarrassing for me because he spoke quite loud, there were people all around and I had just come back and was covered in dust.

My guide for S21 and Killing Fields who came and sat beside me (probably from seeing how deflated I looked).  Once we got talking about my visit, he told me he used to work in a factory at the garment district.  Didn't enjoy it at all.  Never got enough to eat for the amount of work he did, which was admittedly less than the women.  He was the one who told me not to talk about politics in public.  Loves being a guide and he is great at it.  Very passionate about his country.

My guide to Kompong Khleang.  Spoke perfect English, very sharp and motivated guy.  Is getting married in 2015.  In Cambodia, it is very common to be asked shortly after you meet, if you are married, how many children you have...So it was always interesting to see expressions when the answer is yes to being married but no to children and especially after telling them that my preference would be to adopt first when I'm ready to be a parent.  They cannot believe I would want to help someone else's child that way.  That's when I found out just how much they want a chance to leave their country for one where they would have better opportunities.  He wasn't the first to offer to let me adopt him.

My guide to Angkor Wat.  His family was educated and quite well off, living in a upscale neighbourhood in PP when the Khmer Rouge took over.  I could tell he harbours strong emotions about losing that life.  I didn't feel he loved being a guide as much as the others I met but he was really good at it.  It could be that he suffers from some physical ailments -- Knee pain, something that many guides contend with having to clamber over boulders day after day wearing subpar shoes.  He is very proficient with languages and we spoke in French part of the time as he was keen to practice.  Would be able to have almost unlimited work if he could speak well (he's pretty much there, perfect accent).  His studies with Alliance Francaise had to end as he couldn't afford the hourly rates anymore as he is supporting a number of his nieces and nephews.

The Filipino American couple I shared transportation with who took me under their wings, making sure there were enough pictures of me so that D could be completely convinced I really was in Cambodia...He served in the US Navy and his last deployment was for operation Desert Storm.  One of the most generous and warm couples I've ever met on a trip.

The couple from Paris I spent time with Kompong Khleang.  She had just turned 40 and her friends and family came together to give her this trip as a gift.  The location was deliberate, knowing the issues of the country, even though she was quite burned out.   They had a month's time and had just gone to a center in SR known for their humanitarian work.   Because they had younger children, she was not able to give of her time so they donated money after asking a lot of pointed questions to make sure funds went to proper places.   We have a picture of each other to remember our conversation.

The fellow from Berlin I spent the day in Angkor Wat with.  He had just quit his job as a developer and was taking 6 weeks to tour around SE Asia.  Had just come from Bangkok.  He and a few friends had started their own company and were excited to prove themselves.  Told me that would be the only thing holding him back from being away much longer as he has a need to be productive.  I asked him about the status of the new Brandenburg airport which was supposed to have opened nearly 4 years ago.  That got him going because the extent of the errors to the structure and the lateness of the whole thing has pretty much guaranteed its out datedness.  Very unlike what we have come to expect from German engineering.  He helped me laugh again.

This trip has been beyond enriching on so many levels.  Wish I hadn't waited until I was really really ready inside and heeded the notion earlier to go to a developing country.  I cannot encourage you enough to go if you have even the slightest inkling and can.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Lost Photos

Finally emptied out the random collection of photos from my phone. 

Nice, France the day after a record breaking rain storm
shut down the airport.

First time connecting at Incheon Airport (Seoul).
Efficient, really liked it there, as well as flying Korean Air.
Was disorienting being back on the return trip
having just come from Cambodia and seeing the long line up
of people outside Louis Vuitton...

Scene from long bus ride in Cambodia.

Great reminder why face masks and sunglasses are necessary.
We were barely moving.  And if you are travelling by tuk tuk, you'll be covered
in dust by the end of the journey.  The end of day shower never felt so good. 

Snow bank!!!  Taken 2 weekends ago...
A lot has melted since.

Frozen great lake.

Personally wouldn't tempt fate by walking all the way out there...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why Cambodia? Why Now?

Corina wrote: 
As a long term reader of your blog I have to say I wondered what are your reasons to visit these countries. As an immigrant from one of those (but much less, comparatively) impoverished countries, I was interested on what you will find out when you get there vs what you imagined through your research. I think it's hard for a person who grew up in Canada, presumably in a middle class family, to understand how people live the way they live and still manage to carry on with their lives. It is not very difficult if this is the only way of life you know. For them, It is hard to imagine they way You live. Also I think you can't change a country/nationality/tradition from the outside. It has to come from the inside. No matter how foreigners try to help - it won't make any difference, unless it's processed and regurgitated from inside their collective conscience. my 2 cents...

I chose Cambodia because when I think of Southeast Asia, Cambodia comes up before Vietnam, Laos or Thailand.  From a travel perspective, I was ready to brave those long flights.  On a personal level, I felt prepared to experience some harsher realities.  I had already progressed to part time work and I could more easily give of my time again.  So it kind of came together that way.

Volunteering in Canada is pretty easy.  You can call up an organization like the Red Cross, get invited to an orientation, get assigned to an area and off you go.  It's pretty clean cut and you aren't going to encounter any gruesome stuff.  You would have to get some specialized training and work your way up to something larger like community wide disaster relief to see any real action. 

Once I started working, I didn't have time to give so switched over to monetary donations.  One of the highlights was sponsoring 3 kids through Foster Parents Plan and World Vision.  I regret never taking the time to visit them in Sri Lanka, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau.  I now know those visits had the potential to have changed everything for me.  

My easy answer for wanting to help?  I work in health care, it comes naturally to want to ease suffering.  I get paid well for it here and am looking for more difficult challenges, tougher cases that will test my creativity and at this point in my life, have the time to do it for free and pay my own way. 

Giving back is a very personal thing.  If we could all do so in our own way, towards what moves us most, the world will be an even better place.  It doesn't have to be dramatic to make a difference.  The most giving people I know, do so within their communities.  With steady steps over time, have accomplished things and created legacies that have astonished me.  I tip my hat to all those unsung heroes living among us.

In Cambodia, disaster can be found lurking everywhere.  It's just a matter of time due to traffic chaos alone.  People just drive around people who are bleeding and hurt because calling an ambulance costs money most people don't have for themselves, much less a stranger.  In the smaller villages, starvation, illness is apparent all around.  There is no safe place unless you lock yourself up in a 5 star hotel room.

I chose to see for myself first if life there resembled what I had read.  To observe if the systems in place were actually effective.  I had learned enough to have some strong questions and doubts.  Also assumed things to be far more complex than I could realize.  With the significant level of corruption, you have to be careful with which organizations you support.  I was advised not to express my views about politics and the current government in public.

Was also protective enough of my time and mental emotional well being to not want to commit to a placement before I knew it was the right thing to do, the right place to be and if my contribution could make a direct difference.  I questioned my ability to handle things emotionally and the subsequent effects of working there.

I am very fortunate in having B as a resource.  He'll be the first to tell you that the majority of foreign based organizations should just leave the country and go home because they are tripping over each other needlessly replicating actions based on their own best practices.  However, there are a handful of them who are doing some great things and those ones inevitably have a strong local tie. 

The few NGOs I encountered were started by local people and they went about things differently. They know what would work for their culture and sourced things out locally, often significantly simpler, less expensive, more environmentally sound e.g. effective homemade water filtration systems using paper fiber vs. imported plastic units. 

Like you said, it is difficult going up against engrained cultural beliefs.  It will only burn up a whole lot of time and money.  That might help explain why there are around 3000 NGOs in Cambodia.  Concepts toward change need to be presented in a way that would make sense to the people you are trying to help.  It doesn't matter what we think and how effective our action templates work here.  It's not about us.   Great organizations will be very specific about needs from potential volunteers and donors.

I found the mental emotional hyper stimulation exhausting at the time.  Consequently the first thing I noticed during the car ride home was just how sterile everything felt to me.  The silence, space and orderliness shocked.  I actually live here?  I've since found myself not rushing around like I used to.  What's there to really get worked up about here?  Even the cold didn't phase me at all.  I did however drive around like a mad woman the first few days like I was still in Phnom Penh...

For some insight, I called up a girlfriend/colleague of mine who has been to Haiti twice as a volunteer.  She told me the second time (2014) "messed with her head" and it took her a good month to get back into the swing of things, which disturbed her deeply.  I could hear it in her voice.  And this is someone who has a more baseline positive outlook than I. 

So much so, she wasn't sure when she'll be returning though she'd like me to accompany her when the time comes (Stronger as a team -- I agreed -- It's almost been a month since I've returned too.).  It wasn't the work there that did it.  It was the feeling of dissociation upon her return.  She wasn't exposed to the same types of inputs that I had.  Security was the biggest issue for her mission.  They had to have armed guards accompanying them everywhere and theft was rampant.  All her stuff got stolen.

My nerves haven't completely calmed down yet.  I'm currently collaborating on a couple of cases that are beyond frustrating so that's keeping them revved.  On some level, I'm not sure I want them to do so all the way because I don't necessarily want to be exactly the same as I was before.  I don't want to lose the expansion I've gained from all the tension and stress.  My capacity has grown although I'm still feeling the frays, both calmer and more emotional if that makes any sense.

Part II:

Without turning this post into a novel, my upbringing is a good example of how things don't seem so abnormal when you are in it.  My family wouldn't have been considered middle class by Canadian standards until I was entering university.

The first 6 years of my life was spent in a bachelor apartment with 3 of us sleeping on the lower bunk and my dad on the top.  A tape recorder was my toy.  I loved that thing.

My grandparents lived in the country and had no indoor plumbing nor a whole lot of heat and I remember being bathed standing in a bucket.  They had a pig and would slaughter chickens for meals (I helped).  Had a great time running around in the fields and picking wild flowers with my cousins.  First time I held a rifle.

Then we moved into 2 rooms on the 3rd storey (deadly hot in the summers and freezing cold in the winters!) of a Victorian semi in what is now known as a trendy area of Toronto but back then, it wasn't.  My room was actually the kitchenette but thought it was so cool I was the only one who had my own sink for teeth brushing.  We had to share the downstairs bathroom and kitchen with others.  My brother slept on a sofa bed in my parent's room. 

We were on social assistance while my dad went back to school and my mom worked at a factory.  The social worker who visited my brother and I at the babysitters was a wonderful woman.  She, as opposed to our babysitter, really cared for us.  We got donated winter coats and were given tennis balls to play with.  I still have the picture of me holding that tennis ball, just beaming.

Years later my mom bumped into her and she was so pleased to hear we were doing so well in school (I was at my piano lesson).  My mom thanked her again for being such a great advocate for us.  Unfortunately, I never did have the opportunity to tell her myself.  Never underestimate the impact kindness, not matter how fleeting, can have on someone. 

Later on, when my dad got a great job, we moved into a townhome.  Not too long after I met D and told him about those years of my life and my memories of how great it was being able to walk to the best community center in the city, the best library where I used to run the summer reading program for the kids, the best pool, the best public school, I had to drive him there and personally show him around my old hood. 

You can probably imagine what happened next.  My adult eyes took in what I now know as a "low income housing" development and he saw me tear up.  It looked far worse than I remembered.  Poor D didn't really know what to do with my very apparent devastation.

It was my projection of difficulty and suffering based on the gap in my mind that created the sadness. But my younger memory was I got my own room and it came with pumpkin and brown coloured wall paper, orange carpet and space for a desk.

A number of years later, my family moved to a detached 4 bedroom home with a 2 car garage.  I didn't live there long before I went off to build my career and life.

Obviously this is just a "Coles notes" version of one facet of my life and doesn't include the more emotional aspects of the eventual realization of the disparity between my experiences and those of my friends.  And why, for a long time, despite the naïvely positive memories, I found myself feeling less happy and carefree compared to others.  But that is another tome and not for here.

Wow, all this just to say I agree with you Corina. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


My hesitation with writing too much about this trip was fear I'd present such a skewed view, it would turn people off of wanting to set foot in the country.  If that has occurred, please know that was not my intention.  Creation of drama is not what I am about.

It is because I deliberately chose to look at difficulty that such a slant of emotions exists.  Do not skip seeing Cambodia because of my experiences.  Those difficult things are there should you wish to see them but as I've stated before, the majority of visitors do not.  I tend to approach things strongly and my goals for the trip weren't typical. 

For D's sake, I wish I had taken some "normal" photos of the riverfront area of Phnom Penh because it is actually quite pleasant there if you can ignore the sexpats...who were "harmless" in that their target market was not me.  He wasn't ready to take on Cambodia before I left and to my dismay, even less so after seeing all the pictures.  I'm still hopeful I can rally his support towards a project.  I know he'll do it if I ask him but I would prefer he be there because he is genuinely moved by it. 

By far the most beautiful thing about Cambodia are the people.  They are gentle, unassuming, patient.  Considering all they have gone through, you'd expect a lot different.  Even in the poorest of areas I was welcomed with smiles and even apologies that they did not know how to say more than "hello" whereas I was embarrassed and apologizing for my too basic Khmer vocabulary. 

I could see they appreciated that someone was taking the time to understand their plight and I was happy they weren't upset I was there observing and asking questions.  The last thing I wanted, was for them to feel like they were items on display without dignity. 

It is worth noting that from no one did I detect a sense of entitlement. People want opportunity to earn their income and be independent, not sit there receiving handouts.  I believe their culture of "saving face" has a lot to do with that mindset. 

I can only imagine how it would feel, living in such an environment, getting bitten, hot, wet, suffering from malnutrition, in pain, constantly starving, tired, sick from bad water.  And to think how impatient I would feel on the days where I'm feeling 25% off my peak...It was a needed lesson to learn about myself. 

The locals did not have any idea how the outside world viewed their country from a health risk perspective.  When I described all I went through from a travel health perspective, it stunned them!  Even young educated people did not know why I bothered to use mosquito repellant and any attempted discussions about Dengue or Malaria was met with confusion. 

If you want to see "natural selection" in full-on technicolour action, go to a developing country.  Feeling like I would not be able to make a ripple of a difference even if I gave every cent I had was devastating.  I was counselled repeatedly to not feel so angry which was a high high order.  They see things differently there and I can honestly say now, so am I, as things continue to evolve inside.  There is hope.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Lure of Long Term Travel and Expat Life -- Intro

I had an opportunity to spend some time with an Expat in Phnom Penh.  A number of interesting discussions have come out of it since.

I find the idea of expat living interesting from a motivation perspective.  But I'm one who often wonders why people do what they do and is it something I could do too?  Depending on if you are there because of job transfer or you just decided to show up makes a huge difference. 

For the longest time, my idea of expat life involved working for a large multi-national company with offices in glamorous cities all around the world.  You would make great money, have housing allowances and with all that extra disposable income, really live large and immerse fully.   Also envisioned jetting to various neighbouring equally exciting cities for the weekend, just for fun. 

Having once thought seriously about going into engineering, you better believe I would have tried real hard to find a job with such a company.  In fact, after I was able to speak again having seen the spectacular scenery of the fjords of Norway for the first time, quickly following was the thought -- Being an engineer would have been a great choice...I could definitely have moved here, built a career, become fluent and eventually marry a strong Norwegian man...

Having been a hard core, fairly high spending city girl for long enough, it was years later before I learned of how many people have chosen lessor expensive places to retire to, not just to vacation in.  And it took even more time after that before I clued into the whole well worn Southeast Asia, South America long term backpacking circuit.  For someone so late to the party, it was an eye opener.

There was never any doubt that the first county I would visit when I was able to afford it would be France, primarily Paris.  I love French Impressionism, French pastries, the independent but passionate way of life there and Gothic cathedrals.  Unfortunately I don't love the entire range of cheeses but I make up for it in my enthusiasm for charcuterie.   Of course all of that was anecdotal but later proven true.  My first views from the balcony of my Marais hotel will forever be burnished in my mind. 

Never did it occur to me to forgo that dream for something that would cost much less just so I could go and spend more time.  Welcome to the long term travel and the "circumventing the system" expat mindset I encountered recently.  I find it interesting from many angles especially when many finance bloggers are in principle, doing similar planning with respect to their "early outs". 

Being that this was my first time in such a country, in an area of the world known to many as a place to go where it would only cost single digit dollars a day to eat and live, it made me contemplate what it would take for me to say 'yes' to such an environment.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lucky Me

I still have a hard time believing my luck.  To find myself in touch fairly last minute with "B" who served on the UNTAC team who then helped facilitate the finding of a personal guide for me in Phnom Penh was incredible.   

"A" is wonderful Woman who headed many Cambodian branches of UN agencies and NGO projects over the past 2 decades and whose contacts and knowledge allowed me to access areas that I wouldn't have been able to find on my own.  No conventional tour guide is going to take me to some of the areas we went to, that's for sure.  Then there was the obvious language barrier. 

It was like travelling with a great journalist.  And our tuk tuk driver really warmed up to me when he found out we weren't going to the usual tourist places.  He even got into asking questions on our behalf.  Was a learning experience all around.  It got confirmed over and over again for me that Cambodians really want people (the world) to know about their realities.  

I received an email from B saying how they had spoke about my visit and I was the first regular person (tourist) she has taken around who actually wanted to go see people who made their living from the garbage dump and understand life at the garment district and as a trafficked sex worker.  She was pleased with my great personal interest in the contemporary social issues occurring in Cambodia. 

For me, it didn't seem weird or unusual at all to want to know.  I don't know how I wouldn't have wanted to once I knew it existed.  That is part of the country, whether you agree with it or not.  I couldn't ignore that.  As long as it was relatively safe to go, I was in.

This is also a major reason why I haven't travelled to a lot of the Caribbean Islands my fellow Canadians tend to flock to over the winter.  I wouldn't be able to ignore what goes on outside of those compound walls.

Click here for some stunning but highly confronting photos of life at the old garbage dump site.  The new site (that I wasn't allowed in) is much larger.

I miss A.  What a resilient, smart and beautiful person!  Honestly don't know where she finds her energy.  She puts in 14+ hours a day, 7 days a week.  Supports her sister who contracted AIDS from a philandering deadbeat husband, her own children and many other families through her business.  In the time we spent together, we covered so much ground, my head spun.  And here I thought I was a detail person.  She puts me to shame. 

She would hold my arm so I wouldn't try and bolt across the road.  Also got to meet members of her family who were so welcoming.  Her brother is an abdominal surgeon and because he is not corrupt, has only ever made maximum 300 USD a month (!) and will be retiring this year at the age of 63.  

A has big plans for me the next I am able to return.  I know she noticed my becoming increasingly withdrawn from feeling so helpless from everything I saw so next time she's going to show me the relax side of Cambodia by heading down to the coast for a day to eat some seafood as well as visiting the countryside where traditional artisans still ply their craft. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


For some unknown reason, the heat was not an issue for me.  No one was more surprised than I.  There were a couple times I had to find a tree to stand under but that was it.  Don't know if it was a different kind of heat, a better level of fitness, mind over matter, acute sorrow or perhaps being covered up really made that much of a difference. 

Regardless I was relieved.  Over heating was something I seriously worried about beforehand for my history with high temperatures has not been too great, having previously suffered heat exhaustion.  I had visions of fainting spells, nausea and IV (something you definitely do not want to have to get in Cambodia).  I did have on hand a tube of Nuun and ended up taking 3 tablets.

D was in disbelief when I told him that because he has much experience with keeping me hydrated and cool.  Normally I can barely stand 35C at home and will get all cranky and difficult.  I'm going to test out the staying covered up this summer and see how that works.  If my sudden ability to handle heat continues, it will be a real game changer for me.

I got sick once.  After eating something I told myself I wouldn't eat -- A fresh (banana flower) salad -- Typical Khmer dish.  I was at a good restaurant with high turnover so decided to take a chance.  Until then I was doing so well too -- Avoiding any already peeled fruit, anything sitting in the sun a long time etc.  Otherwise I had no problems with eating various street and market foods. 

Who would have thought I would fall in love with riding around in a Tuk Tuk but I did!  They are awesome!  Natural air conditioning.  You are right in the middle of all the action/chaos.  It was fantastic!  Highly recommended.  Didn't miss or need AC at all.  Hearing all the sounds of life literally buzzing around you made me feel ultra alert.  That might be because I always knew that anything could happen in a place where there are no mandatory drivers education, licencing...

The only thing was suspension.  There really isn't any.  And combined with crazy poor roads (literally minutes out of the city) will mean bruised tailbone.  That was right away on day one.  And bruised elbows because when you hit bumps (often), you will literally get thrown up off your seat and once you come back down you'll (I) hit your elbow on the arm rest as well as slam into the person beside you.  There are no seat belts.  The drivers call it "free massage".

And the way traffic is, you will literally be an inch away from the motorcycle/moped/car driver beside you.  So keep hold of your belongings because snatch and grab is all too easy.  There were a few guys I saw eyeing my stuff I didn't trust.

Got swarmed by what looked like fish flies on Mekong Island and got bitten by something 3 times.  Other than that, my strategy of insecticide clothing spray and specially formulated repellent worked wonders.  I'm going to start using that combo up north.  Neither product is available for sale in Canada so we went on a quick road trip to the States to load up. 

I firmly believe I got bitten where I did (small of my back) because I didn't bother to spray the back side of my tank top (covered by shirt) and when I got swarmed, something got between my layers.  Nothing landed on me though compared to my guide who was quite well covered.  On departure day, I wore a top that wasn't sprayed and no repellent and the mosquitoes in the airport hovered over me like a mobile.  So I obviously hadn't lost my touch.

Dengue is something to be concerned about as there is no cure and those mosquitoes carrying it are out in the daytime verse malaria which is transmitted by mosquitoes at dawn, dusk and evenings.  You are going to find mosquitoes in washrooms, inside cars (like the taxi that picked me up from the airport).  My driver was probably thinking "Who is this strange person frantically putting all this somewhat smelly lotion on her neck and face this late at night?" when all I was thinking was "No way I'm getting malaria the first night!".

I already described all that happened on my first full day, but it was a split second moment of not paying attention that made the ending of it quite painful.  I slammed my foot against a concrete lip while walking and managed to (now know I) fractured it.  You should have heard the words that went through my head and out of my mouth.  What a way to start a trip.

I know enough to know there wasn't anything anyone can do for me other than brace, splint and immobilize -- Something I have A Lot of experience with (4th fracture, least serious).  Should it be your first (even suspected) fracture, go and get professional help as it can take up to 10 days for it to show up on x-ray.  Error on the side of caution.  Believe me -- Having something not heal properly can haunt you for a long time.  Not worth taking the risk, especially when it comes to your mobility.

Squashed in there on a ferry to Mekong Island.

These are not recreation vehicles but
permanent housing for entire families.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Break Down

It was just a matter of time.  It came at the end of my stay in Phnom Penh, after nights of barely sleeping more than 4 hours, when I finally broke down and started to cry.  Being an emotional sponge and hyper sensitive all my life, this was inevitable. 

I happened to have been listening to some sad music (reflecting my mood but probably didn't help) while reading the books of the survivors of S21, during an 8 hour bus ride which was not the best timing.  Fortunately I had paid for both seats so there was no one immediately beside to witness and have to deal with my sobbing.  I was probably the only one on the bus who wasn't excited to be finally heading to the home of the Angkor complex, something on many peoples' bucket lists. 

This trip marked the most times I've had my picture taken during a solo trip as an adult.  Not really by choice, but from insistence by those around me.  People meant well and felt bad I had no one to take pictures of me and thought I was just being polite when I said I don't enjoy getting my picture taken.  But I can handle that one and after some light hearted tug of war, I relented. 

Having one's picture taken beside a Survivor of grotesque torture, however, is something else altogether.  I really really didn't want to do it but the authors insisted to those of us who purchased their books.  When D and I looked over my photos, and those came up, I saw myself looking exactly like I felt at the time -- Like someone who was extremely upset and fighting hard to hold back a flood of tears. 

Both Chum Mey and Bou Meng were willing to answer any questions we had but no one in our group could get anything out.  We were just so devistated and stunned.  I still get choked up thinking about it. 

That prison torture school (S21) is beyond evil.  I had a lump in my throat within 5 minutes of being there.  Should you have a chance to go, make sure you get a guide.  They will fill in for you what is necessary to truly understand the horrors and suffering that occurred there. 

When I got to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek), I found it to be a place of reflection.  Outside of the next 2 photos, it didn't elicit the intensity of emotion in me like S21 did.  For me it was an opportunity to pay my respects to so many people who were brutally treated, executed and whose remaining family members are not able to get closure. 

Children were killed in front of their Mothers in one of 2 ways:
Swung by their legs so their skulls would smash against the trunk or
thrown in the air so they could land on a bayonet.
The people who were executed at the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) weren't
worth "wasting" a bullet on.

This is not a photo of Pol Pot. 
It is a drawing by Bou Meng from a photograph.
Whether he died or not was dependent on whether his captives
felt the likeness was great enough. 
He went on to have to draw many other figures like Mao, Lenin.

Mass grave sites.
Each year's rainy season unearths more bones and clothing.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


I didn't actually get to see Angkor Wat proper until the latter part of my stay in Cambodia.  The name is used to denote the entire complex, but it isn't accurate.  The total area and extend of the entire temple complex is impressive.  Serious temple visitors take a full week to see them all.

By the time I got there, it felt surreal, having to dodge around tourist groups.  I remember thinking "What am I doing here?".  I had bought a 3 day temple pass but only had time for 1 1/2 days for viewing. 

To be honest, I wasn't as wowed by it as I thought I would be.  I preferred some of the further out temples more (Bakong, Beng Melea, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre -- 40 - 60 km away from Angkor Wat) and it is of those the photos are of below.  A lot fewer people, time to just linger without being shoved.  Worth the effort to get there.  Perhaps had I started here, before I got into the heavy stuff, my impressions may have been different. 

Either way it was important that I did something more touristy "normal" to balance out the rest.  It was too easy to feel down and start forgetting how to be joyful after hearing and seeing difficulties every day.  In the end, it was what I needed as I ended up sharing a guide with a great guy from Berlin and found myself laughing again. 

While we were all eating lunch, I received a complement from our Guide after he had listened in on my conversation with the German fellow about what I experienced in Phnom Penh, the background, conditions and what was next for the garment workers.  He stopped eating and looked at me for a few seconds, which caught my attention, and said simply "You know a lot.".   That made me smile. 

It doesn't mean anything has changed for the better, but I feel knowledge is a necessary start as similar issues can be found in other countries and if I am to walk down this road, I might as well get accustomed to how the non sugar coated realities really feels like. 

Those aren't rain droplets, they were water bugs.

Very happy I decided to get those rabies shots.
Was charged by a dog and in the outer villages,
stray dogs, some quite sick, were everywhere.
Remember the pre-shots aren't a cure,
they serve to buy you time before you get the post exposure 2.

On our way out of a temple complex, we came upon these kids.
They were getting ready to jump in and have some fun.
The water was filthy. 
I don't know that you could have paid me enough to go in. 
So many health issues can be solved just with clean water --
That 80% of the country doesn't have.
Lunch time view of water lily pond.

More lunch time views.

This restaurant hosted us and I was
so happy they had cold coconut water.
Not all coconuts available for drinking are refrigerated.

I know I need a new camera but if you look closely,
you'll see a few kids working in that swampy water,
harvesting roots of lilies, being bolstered by old inner tubes.
Not surprising why I hardly ate more than a 1 1/2 meals a day during my stay.
Those little people were working so hard. 
I found the children in Cambodia to be super tough.  They have to be.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


Typical small village market.

All those dots are flies.  They were buzzing everywhere.

I couldn't get enough of the local markets.
Was happy to wander away in them looking
for some of the yummy treats to eat.

This is how ice is sold.

Heading to where relocated families live by what was the old garbage dump.
The new one has a guard there and he wouldn't let me enter as I was a foreigner.

First Aid station at a prominent museum...
I had more useful stuff in my purse than I saw in the cabinet which
only contained hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol and face masks...

Gorgeous scenery at the beginnings of the Tonle Sap Lake.
The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia (UNESCO)
Read about the gigantic volume changes it goes through each year.

What dry season looks like. 
The water will rise all the way up in wet season.
Water for cooking and drinking is brought up via the blue plastic line.
The same water is used for bathing and bathroom...
And people make a living from fishing.

Originally I had plans to spend the day helping a villager but
when an opportunity came up to come here
(Kompong Khleang -- largest stilted/floating village of 1200 families on Tonle Sap Lake),
I leapt at the chance to spend some time on the water.
Coming here remains a major highlight for me, surpassing Angkor.

What the photo doesn't show is the crazy loud music
blaring from public loud speakers -- Religious music,
contemporary music, wedding music...

This would be classified as a "Type 1 household"
who struggle to meet daily needs, often are ill,
no savings, employment.

Catering team for a village wedding.

Mending fishing nets.

Would love to see this during the rainy season.

My ride for the next 1 1/2 hours.  It was magical.

See the woman holding what looks like a racket?
They use it to hit the fishing nets effectively dislodging the smaller fishes.
This technique is aptly called fish badminton.

Finally reached wide open water.
Could barely make out the horizon -- Strange eerie sensation.

The lake is only a few metres deep in dry season.
And no, there were no life jackets I could see on the boat.
At this point of the trip, stuff like this no longer phased me.

Engine was turned off and we just sat for a while with no wave noise.
It was the most peaceful moment I had all trip.
The silence was wonderful.  We were speechless and stunned by the beauty.
Photo doesn't even come close.  Must see if you are in the area.

Slum area in Siem Reap supported by NGO.

Yes, it is barbed wire that people hang their clothing on.
On child recently got his scalp nicely torn after trying to run under it.

These kids grabbed onto my leg and wouldn't let go.
My host was frantically trying to get them off me as they were filthy.
I didn't mind and was amazed at their strength.

Kids in Cambodia have a habit of coming up behind you silently
and wacking you in the butt, hard, to get your attention. 
I was wacked a lot here and at the garment district food stalls.

It didn't matter how poor an area was, they all had their local hangouts and markets.
The communities really stick together.  Kids run freely with parents knowing
that others around will keep an eye on them.