Thursday, January 4, 2018

Cambodia: Country of Contradictions

Hi all! So as many of you know, I am home now from my adventure :) But the adventure hasn't ended. I'm still growing and reflecting on this amazing experience I've had.... and one of the ways I'm doing that is through continuing my blog that I never finished.

So...let the adventure continue!

****P.S. We were all sharing photos on my trip, (and even my camera at one point), so not all of these pictures are mine. I would like to credit my lovely friends and my program leader Jaci for many of the "people pictures" in this post!

October 23rd - 31st, 2017.


How can I even begin to explain Cambodia? From the moment we started to descend in the airplane above Phnom Penh, I knew we were entering a place wholly different from anywhere we’d been up until this point.

Unlike Bangkok, there were no high-rise buildings, and the city was relatively small, stretched along the muddy brown Mekong River. There was no urban sprawl either, it was quite clear where the city ended and the wild, lonely swamp-land began.

We spent our first couple days in a hotel in the city center, which turned out to be a little more city-like than I had expected. Many of the buildings and hotels in the area sported neon lights that glowed with a vengeance all night long.

The streets bustled with plenty of modern restaurants – many of them serving western food rather than Cambodian. And there was a beautiful cobbled square with pigeons that one could have found somewhere in Europe.

But there were also darker sides to the city. There were the small children who accosted us at every restaurant and street corner, trying to sell us bracelets out of baskets they hung around their necks.  

There was the unsettling number of old, white, men everywhere you turned, pointing to the prevalent business of sex tourism in Phnom Penh.

And then there was the Cambodian genocide. We spent an entire day visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, learning, and hearing first-hand about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge towards the Cambodian people.

The two sides of the city, dark and light, were tangled up in a web so complex it was impossible to separate them.

      Madi, Anna and I on the riverboat.

So while we took a peaceful riverboat and viewed the city skyline by sunset, I couldn’t stop thinking about the millions of average citizens, who one day in 1975 were forced to flee from the city on foot and were worked to death in camps in the rural parts of the country. The Cambodian flag, which fluttered gently on the prow of the boat, made me think of the bits of clothing that I stepped over in the killing fields. Bits of clothing, and bits of bones—that are still surfacing after 40 years.

But when I walked through the Tuol Sleng prison, past cell after cell, and the metal beds with the indents of the people who were tortured in them, all I could think of was the fact that on the other side of these cold brick walls, life today goes on. 

The Tuol Sleng memorial prison

The blood on the walls spoke of unimaginable suffering…… but it also mirrored the red costumes that the dancers wore at Cambodian Living Arts, where today, young students are carrying on the traditions of Cambodian culture.

We visited Cambodian Living Arts on our last day in Phnom Penh. Tucked away in a narrow, terraced office building off of a busy street, it was like a quiet gem in the heart of a noisy and and conflicted city. The organization was founded by a man named Arn Chorn-Pond, who, having lived through the Khmer Rouge regime as a child, had witnessed first-hand the systematic killing of nearly 90% of Cambodia’s artists. Arn wanted to pass on the traditional music and dance of Cambodia to the nation’s youth, before they were lost forever.

After watching a performance done by some of the young artists at the organization, we got to learn a group dance.

On our 4th day after arriving in Cambodia, we drove six hours north to Siem Reap. Once we got outside the city, it was amazing how rural everything was. There were fields of water lilies…….palm trees….houses on stilts. The houses were similar to those in Thailand, but there was definitely a more foreign feel to things.

We made a pit-stop at a roadside market along the way, and selected a couple particularly large spiders from the assortment of fried creepy crawlies as snacks for the road. I used my status as “Vegetarian” as an excuse for not eating any of those hairy legs. . 

After we finally arrived in Siem Reap, and had dinner downtown, we decided to walk around.

Downtown Siem Reap was definitely the one place during our trip where I felt most like a tourist. My friends and I were literally treated like walking bags of money. If we so much as stopped to look in one of the shops selling batik pants, silk scarfs, and souvenirs, we were immediately accosted by at least one of the many shop employees.
This is how a typical encounter would go:

My friend and I walk into a shop.

Shop employee #1:    “Lady, what you like to buy?”

Me:    “Nothing. I’m just looking.” Walks further back into the shop, and pauses to look at a rack of skirts. 

Shop employee # 2:   You looking for a skirt? These are very nice ones. How about this skirt? You buy this skirt."

Me:   “No thank you.” Walks quickly away. Makes the mistake of fingering a magnet with the Cambodian flag on it. 

Shop employee #3:     “You want souvenirs? Jewelry? Here lady – you buy this!”

Me:     “No thank you!” Ducks in-between a rack of dresses in an attempt to escape. 

My friend:     “Emily, where are you??!”

Shop employee # 27:    “You pay me and I tell you where your friend is.”

Needless to say, we quickly lost our appetite for shopping, and retreated back to our hotel empty handed.

After only the first night, I started to feel a little disenchanted with Siem Reap. It was hard to explain, even to myself. But I was saddened by how tourist-y it was, and I found myself yearning for a more culturally enriching experience.

Angkor Wat, which we visited the next day, was definitely more tourist-y than I had pictured also. But the temple complex was absolutely amazing.

Angkor Wat is actually a whole complex of different temples, which includes not only Angkor Wat proper (the largest and most iconic one), but also others such as Ta Prohm, the "giant tree-root" temple.

 We came back to Angkor Wat twice more. Once to see the sunrise.......

.....And once on bikes. 

      Jaci, Anna, Will, and I

The biking that we did around the temples was definitely the highlight of the week for me. It was hot, dusty, and exhilarating to navigate the weaving and chaotic traffic on the way to the temple. But once we were there, it was peaceful peddling around the temples through the majestically tall, silent trees. 

As our week came to a close, I felt all mixed up inside about Cambodia.  Thinking about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide, I felt chilled, like there was a giant, invisible shadow over the country.  Cambodia may have overcome its violent past, but it can never forget. And thinking about how tourist-y Siem Reap was, with its western restaurants and massage parlors, I felt saddened. I felt like Cambodia was wearing a mask…. losing a part of its culture in the name of making profits off of western travelers. These two aspects were very much a part of Cambodia’s identity. But I felt like something was missing.

On our final night in Cambodia, I got a glimpse of that missing piece. Our wonderful guide, Bun, took us to his house (which he has turned into a homestay) for dinner. 

                                   Bun explaining about the history of Angkor Wat

It was on the outskirts of Siem Reap, but was a world away from the shops and restaurants in downtown. Many of the neighborhood children came over, and gave an informal singing and dance performance on the porch. We mingled with the tourists who were staying there, danced with the children, and joked around with Bun. It felt like a true community. 

As it got dark, I went up to the deck with Bun to interview him for my media project. And as we sat there, I realized that what I had been missing in Cambodia was the people, and the community. It was harder to find this here, because we were visiting for such a short time, and weren’t staying with host families. But this was the missing piece—the “real” Cambodia just under the surface. It was the Cambodia of family, and schoolchildren. Of people—just people—just friends. And as we sat there, Bun called out across the swamp in front of his house…. called out to say hello to some friends. They were but small, dark shapes wading in the water, with bobbing lanterns. They seemed to be fishermen. Despite the distance, they shouted hello in return.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Khun Sathan; Nan Province, Northern Thailand

Hi All!

I'm sorry it's been soooo long since my last post! Internet access in the town we were staying in, Ban Khun Sathan, was pretty much nonexistent. I started writing a post about 5 different times, but before I had a chance to actually publish it something or other would happen to the wifi.

It's impossible to sum up the past month of my life in a single post, but I want to give you at least a brief glimpse.

The village we were staying in, Ban Khun Sathan, is located several hours south (via very windy mountain roads) from the city of Nan, in northern Thailand. The region was absolutely beautiful. I never realised that this is what people meant by the "hill country" of Thailand.

Every morning we woke up to a heavy mist, which wound in thick curls through the dense greenery, and mixed with the smoke from open cooking fires.

By mid day the mist cleared to reveal the outlines of the rainforest covered mountains, and some evenings there were beautiful sunsets.

The weather in Kun Sathan was actually very cool and rainy most days - a far cry from Bangkok. I don't think there was a single day where I didn't need either my fleece, or my raincoat, or both :)

I stayed with another girl from our program, Grace, with a host family who lives in the village. Mostly all of the people in Khun Sathan are "Hmong" - an ethnic hill-tribe that has its roots in China. The Hmong culture is rich with it's own traditions and ceremonies, and they have a distinctive dress; brightly colored, striped skirts, and velvet embroidered jackets. Here's a picture of Grace and I, with our host parents Yee and Kong.

I'll have to admit, that first night we arrived in Khun Sathan was pretty intimidating.  After a welcome ceremony at the local school, we climbed with our packs into the back of our family's pickup truck to be taken their home. It was dark and the air was thick with the smoke from cooking fires. As we first drove along the main street through the village, it seemed like we would be fairly close to the school and the rest of the group. But then we turned down a narrow, bumpy street and started descending into the valley. We jolted along past house after house, getting further and further away from the school - the one thing slightly familiar in this strange place. The dark was oppressive, and there were no stars. I felt like we were heading to the ends of the earth. 

By daylight though, our house was actually pretty modern. 

The hardest thing about the first couple of days with our host family, was the fact that they spoke only Hmong, and not a word of Thai (let alone English). Our crash course in Thai being rendered useless, we had to rely entirely on hand gestures. This worked to a certain extent. But most of the time, we were wrapped in uncomfortable silence. The only interaction we had with them at first was watching strange Thai soap operas with them on their flat-screen TV.

But gradually, we began to adjust to each other. Grace and I learned a few essential phrases in Hmong; "Nyob Zoo," (hello)........"Noj Mov" (mealtime)......and "Ua Tsaug" (thank you). This, coupled with the few phrases our 16 year old host brother could say in English, made us feel a little less isolated.

Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays we spent farming with our host family. Our main farm was on a steep hillside, and consisted entirely of spring onions.

Grace and I soon became experts at peeling the leaves off of the onion stalks. The best onions were the ones that were a pearly bud on top; not yet opened but not too small. Whenever we worked at the onion farm, our hands and clothes would reek of onions for days.

 We also worked on a farm that our family rented about 40 km away from Khun Sathan. This was down in "Thai country," and it was very hot. We spent one entire day planting about 5,000 chinese cabbage seedlings, by Grace's count, only to find out a few days later that all of the seedlings had died because the roots were too weak.

This sounds super cliché, but I really did come to realize just how hard it is to farm for a living. Although the views were absolutely stunning, there is nothing at all romantic about spending eight hours a day doing the same exact backbreaking task over and over. But even so, our host family seemed to find a certain comfort in their routine.

When we weren’t farming, we were spending time at the one and only school in Khun Sathan, Prakitwetchasak. The entire month of October was our Agriculture unit, and we spent a lot of time diving deep into the topic of what sustainability really is, and what it means to consume food sustainably.

Living in Kun Sathan, a farming community, made the issues we were discussing extremely relevant. One thing that really struck me was just how different our host family’s consumption patterns were from how I consume food back home. 

For every single meal, we would have white rice (which our family farmed themselves), eggs (from the family’s chickens), meat (very obviously from one of the family’s chickens as well), and some sort of vegetable that was farmed in the community (often stewed sweet gourd or fried beet greens). So nothing they were consuming was imported from halfway across the world, and nothing had any sort of packaging.

After mealtime, anything leftover was simply covered and left out on the table to be eaten at the next meal. If something went more than a couple days without being finished, it got fed to the chickens. In this way, nothing was ever wasted.


Our immediate host family consisted of our host mom Yee, our host dad Kong, and their youngest son, 16-year old Mung. Mung was very shy around Grace and I, and usually avoided us at mealtimes. He did consent to taking a picture with us on our rice farm though!

We also spent time with a lot of the extended host family too. Jaa, our 30-year-old host sister, came over often with her husband and baby girl Sophia. She got a degree in mechanical engineering, and lived in Bangkok for a time. But she told us she didn’t like city life and so came back to Khun Sathan to be with her family and continue farming. Shy, and humble about the fact that she had a college degree, it was easy to see the fondness she had for her native Khun Sathan. But she also had an aura of longing about her. She told me one day on the farm that she dreams of traveling the world, but that she thinks she would never be able to afford it.

Gan, our 20-something year old host cousin, was also a big part of our lives during the month we were in Kun Sathan. Having also gotten a college degree, she has big dreams for her future and the future of Khun Sathan. She wants to bring more tourism to the community, and was always on the lookout for good ideas.

 One Saturday, I went with her and a few of her good friends to the neighboring town of Na Noi. We toured some street-side tourist restaurants, and also a national park where tourists (who come mostly from Bangkok and bigger cities) like to camp.

It doesn’t look like it in the pictures, but I started feeling really sick that day. When Gan dropped me off back at the house, I collapsed into bed and slept for most of the evening. That night and the next day, she kept checking in on me. The sweetest person ever, she would always say, 

Out of everyone who touched our lives in Khun Sathan, Gan was the hardest to say goodbye to. The night we had our farewell ceremony at the school, I kept catching her eye, and she would give me her characteristic smile: a sweet moment of radiance where her cheeks flushed a ruddy color right up under close to her eyes. “I’m going to miss you both,” she kept saying.


While we were in Kun Sathan, we took a couple of really interesting day trips as a whole group.

The first one was a hike that we did in Khun Sathan National Park.

Now, when I first heard the word “hike,” an image came into my mind of hikes in Colorado: a dry, rocky path climbing up into the mountains with some sort of scenic destination. This image couldn’t have been further from reality. Our “hike” was more of a slippery, muddy ‘bushwack” through the jungle, complete with giant bugs, scorpions, and a torrential downpour that left us and our packs soaked.

Oh… and then there were the leeches.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a leech walk, but they stand on end and do this freaky cartwheel thing to move along the path. It’s not exactly pleasant to see a bunch of tiny wiggling things sticking straight up out of the ground, and it’s even less pleasant when the start burrowing in your shoes.

Or climbing up your leg.

Or in my case, ending up in your armpit. (Don’t even ask how it got there – I have no clue).

Here’s a picture of us looking tough with our “leech sticks,” sticks with little bundles of salt on the end to ward off the pesky critters. 


We also visited a nearby reservoir one day, and had lunch on a house boat.

The picture below is of one of the fishing boats that the people who live on this reservoir use. It has a lantern dangling from one end of it, which is used to attract fish into the large net at night. 

I could write so much more, but if I do, I’ll never get this posted! So I'm going to have to say goodbye for now. 

I miss you all!!