My first visit to rural Cambodia

Around 80 percent of Cambodia’s population lives in rural parts of the country. Like in the U.S., Cambodia’s rural countryside often has more poverty than in the cities.

I joined some staff members from the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency for an anti-trafficking workshop in Kampong Speu Province, about an hour outside of Phnom Penh. Around 760,000 people live in Kampong Speu, which has eight districts comprised of nearly 90 communes and more than 1,300 villages. The workshop was held in Sendey Commune, which I was told is made up of about 21 families. I was pleased to see that both men and women, young and old turned out for the workshop, including the village chief, a sign that protecting children against abuse is a priority. The workshop focused on educating the villagers on laws in place to prevent trafficking, how to spot vulnerable children and how to report instances of abuse. Everyone seemed really engaged and enthusiastic. It was, of course, held in Khmer, and I can only understand a few words of the language. Some parts of the workshop were translated for me and some parts I could gather what was happening based on actions.

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A few people have asked me what I thought about traveling to the area, assuming I’m going to comment on the striking poverty. It was the first time since I’ve been here that the bathroom was basically a hole in the ground, for example. (But I experienced that in China and Mexico and was reason No. 1 that I packed toilet paper and hand sanitizer in my bag!) There’s no doubt that Cambodia has a lot of poverty. It’s seen in Phnom Penh with the barefoot children begging for money. It’s seen in the slums just down the street from the house I live in. But that’s not what I noticed about traveling to Sendey Commune in Kampong Speu. No, what I really enjoyed was seeing the spirit of the people. A group of 15-year-old girls who knew only a few words of English asked me to come over and we attempted to engage in a conversation. (They asked me if I was married. Even in Cambodia – more so in Cambodia, I think – marriage is the go-to subject when you don’t know what else to talk about.)

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An administrator from the local school also tried to speak with me. Again, he knew only a few words of English. But the fact that I was in his country and he was asking me about where I come from and what I do in MY language says so much about his ability and thirst for knowledge. It was very humbling and doubled my resolve to try to learn more of the language.

But I think my favorite part of the day and what really shows the personality of the people was when the group as a whole was deciding what would happen if someone showed up to the workshop late. Everyone loves to dance and sing here. My students practice their English skills by singing aloud to Taylor Swift and John Legend. I’m asked regularly by Khmers if I will dance and sing for them. So what did the group ultimately decide as punishment for those who show up after the workshop has resumed? The offender was required to perform a song and dance for everyone, of course!

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Scenes from Russian Market

I tend to stay away from markets nowadays – my minimalist personality gets overwhelmed by all the stuff – but I was in need of some cotton pants and sunglasses, so I made the 20-minute trek to Russian Market.
Named for the Russians who frequented the market back in the 1980s (so says my guidebook), it’s full of nearly everything imaginable: tools, housewares, cleaning supplies, clothes, bags, purses, jewelry, books, movies, sunglasses, food and drink. Some of the name-brand clothing that is made in factories here in Cambodia can also be purchased for a tiny fraction of what you’d pay for it off store shelves in the U.S. or Europe.
Unlike some markets, this one is not open air, and vendors are crammed in row after row, often making it difficult to maneuver past people. If you’re claustrophobic, watch out. Still, it was very interesting and enjoyable to see up close. I may actually go back for a few items for friends and family near the end of my time here. I ended up buying a pair of pants, sunglasses and an iced coffee for $5 total. Not a bad deal at all.

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The highs and lows of Cambodian living: week 2

The highs:

1. I helped take some of the girls who stay at the NGO’s safe shelter swimming. It was a bit of an ordeal finding a pool since the one we had planned on going to was closed, but we just crammed nine people into a tuk tuk and headed north for a while and found a replacement. The girls seemed to have had a blast and I finally feel like I’m getting to know some of them.

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2. My housemate Saphy performed his experimental music at Meta House, a gallery and bar that offers a variety of cultural events. Part concert and part art, the performance was my first time experiencing this type of music. It was a good chance for some of the housemates to all hang out together, too.

3. I wrote and turned in my first story from Cambodia, which is scheduled to run later this week! Needless to say, I’m super excited. I’ve already pitched a few more ideas, one of which has been accepted.

4. I’ve become more adventurous in my eating. I tend to get into habits very quickly with my food. Foodie I am not. It’s no different here, but I’m really trying to push myself to try more. I was hesitant to eat a lot of street food, but I’ve been going to more places where I see crowds of people, including Westerners. So far so good.

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The lows:

1. I got sick. Thankfully it’s not intestinal parasites – which I’ve been told will occur at one point or another here. Instead, I have a cough and a running nose. My students think it’s because of the iced coffee I’m always drinking. (btw, how am I already getting crap for my drinking habits?!) I tend to think the cold is the result of the constant exhaust fumes, the extreme weather change and the general environmental changes that my body is dealing with more than drinking ice with my coffee. Whatever it is, it’s annoying and I hope I get rid of it soon.

1. The loneliness has been setting in at times. I think the initial awe that comes from visiting a new place is dissipating and now I’m getting into a groove of working, exercising, eating and sleeping. I’m continuing to meet new people all the time, but finding the time and energy to fit in everything each day is difficult at times, too. It’s no different than life in the U.S. in that regard.

2. Trying to learn the language. I realize I need to try to learn more key phrases and words and understand what is being said. Right now I only know a few phrases. Languages, however, do not come easily to me. And I get intimidated when I hear other people speak it so well after only being here a few months. But I really do think just trying is the key. I usually get a positive response when I speak the few phrases I do know.

Lessons learned:

1. Watch where I walk. I missed this during my first week here but now notice it all the time: men and boys stopping on the side of the road and just using the bathroom. Tuk tuk drivers just pull over on the side of the road and start peeing. The other day I was walking down the street and a little boy just started peeing right in front of me. I’ve learned that it’s very important for me to watch where I step, especially if wearing sandals!

2. On a related note, if I get hit by a car, tuk tuk or moto (motorbike) here, I guarantee it will be while walking on a sidewalk or in a cross walk. Sidewalks are mostly used as parking spaces anyway, and I’m not really sure most drivers even know what a cross walk is. I already experienced this in other southeast Asian countries, but it’s been eye-opening to see cars flat out drive through red lights as people are crossing the street in a cross walk.

‘We are all alone here’

That’s what one of my roommates said to me when we were discussing how intense relationships can be here. There’s an expat community here that seems to be fairly small. A lot of people know each other. It’s easy to meet people, but it’s also because the people who come here on their own are forced to meet people or spend their days alone.

At the end of the day, if you came here alone, you’re most likely alone. Even if someone is considered your best friend after hanging out a handful of times. That’s not necessarily bad. It’s just how it is. In the U.S. and elsewhere, friendships are built over months and years. Here, they’re made over hours and days.

I think it’s interesting that when you move to a new place or are traveling on your own, you really learn to connect with people on a very basic level:

You’re from America? Let’s be friends!
You like following the news? We should hang out!
And for women, nothing connects us more than talking about relationships.

Conducting my first interviews in Cambodia

While I came to Cambodia to help a women’s rights organization, I also want to do some freelance reporting and writing. I started thinking of some story ideas before I left and have made it a point to pitch stories as often as possible.

I got the green light on two, which was exciting. But that meant I actually had to go out and conduct the interviews! I’ve written travel features from a few different countries and reported from the Northern Marianas, but both instances are different than what I’m trying to do here. While I want to write some travel features, I also want to write some substantive pieces examining human rights and what everyday life is like. What’s challenging about that is that I have no one to really show me the ropes or guide me. I’m pretty much figuring it out on my own. Also, the language barrier can be an issue.

That’s why last Friday was such a big milestone for me. It was the first official interview I conducted for a story here in Cambodia. And it was with local Cambodians, not expats, so it made it that much more memorable.

I hope the story will be completed and published fairly soon. I’ll post a link to it here once it is. I also conducted another interview on Saturday for a separate story. In both instances, I set up the interviews via email and phone and then found the locations on my own with minimal trouble.

Now comes the actual writing of stories!

Since Friday and Saturday were so much about journalism, it’s fitting that I spent Saturday night at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal Elephant Bar, a one-time hotspot for foreign correspondents. The five-start hotel is easily the nicest in the city. It has a storied history – Jackie Kennedy visited the hotel and bar in 1967 while visiting Angkor Wat – and is very opulent. Journalists covering Cambodia used to stay at the hotel, including those who covered the Khmer Rouge. I doubt most news outlets have the budgets to put their reporters up there now, but who knows. The bar features – of course – lots of elephants. The drinks were pricey even by American standards – luckily happy hour is every day from 5 to 9 p.m. – and the clientele seemed to be all tourists during my visit. I’m not sure how often I’ll go back, but I’m glad I tried it out once.

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The high and lows of Cambodia living: week 1

The highs:

1. Meeting kind people from all over the world who go out of their way to help me out and learn about me. I’ve met and hung out with people from Cambodia, England, Australia, Slovenia, Russia and Belgium.

2. The students I’m working with. I’m working with the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency, which offer vocational training for young men and young women. (Please like them on Facebook or follow them on twitter at @CWDA1.) I’m teaching them English (something that is new to me!), and the students are wonderful. They are so excited and kind and extremely helpful.

3. Cheap food and drinks. Iced coffee can be bought for 50 cents. Not helping my addiction.

4. Trying new things like eating crickets.

5. Walking everywhere and stumbling upon interesting stores on my own

6. Free beer. Show Box, a bar a few streets away from my house, offers free beer from 6:30 to 7 p.m. EVERY DAY.

The lows:

1. Bugs and lizards. Sooo many bugs and lizards. I left snacks wrapped in a box in the kitchen and ants soon overtook it. I also reached into a container of crackers only to be greeted by a lizard with eyes the size of small pearls. I’m not one to jump or scream often due to a pesky creature (see the above about eating bugs), but boy, did that freak and gross me out for a second. I’m now sticking everything in the refrigerator, even my chocolate cookies.

2. Constantly being asked if I want to ride a motorbike or tuk-tuk. I’m asked about every five feet if I’d like a ride. It’s already a bit annoying.

3. Getting a working phone. I think I’ve been very good at staying relaxed and calm with figuring things out, but getting a working phone almost had me in tears — which I largely attribute to the heat and walking all over the city trying to get it sorted out. AT&T said my phone was unlocked before I came over, but apparently it was not. I finally got that fixed and then learned the guy at the SIM card store at the airport gave me the wrong SIM card. After four days, five miles of walking, and at least two instances of the hangry face (yes, hangry. Look it up), I finally had a working phone in my hands.

Lessons I’ve learned so far:

1. Go with the flow. Seriously. Can’t be said enough.

2. Embrace the sweaty, messy, dirty and unknown.

3. I shouldn’t try to do too much at once. Things will always take longer than I think.

4. Always carry toilet paper or tissue. Always.

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This is why I love to travel

Meet Sam.

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We met through an expat blog, though she’s Khmer (Cambodian.) She loves meeting people from other countries because she’s a bit of an adventurer. She’s a teacher who has received fellowships abroad to Europe, Africa and the U.S. She knows three languages. As if that’s not cool enough, I also learned that her dad was a monk for 20 years before she was born. Oh, and she’s super sweet and very friendly.

We met up at a park and hit it off, later going for coffee at a marketplace. Coffee turned into her teaching me how to make Bang aem Baba lapov (pumpkin dessert) and going for barbecue at a local street restaurant where I tried cricket for the first time.

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She’s getting ready to go do awesome stuff and learn amazing things in Africa and Washington D.C. very soon so she can come back to Cambodia to be a better teacher.

It’s sad we connected so well and she’s leaving, but it reminded me why traveling can be so much fun: you can meet people from the other side of the world and still bond over the simplest of things.

Trusting that most people are good

Two full days after I first started my travel, I arrived in Phnom Penh. I did fairly well during the entire travel process — I think — but near the end I was running purely on adrenaline and coffee. I was nervous about how it was going to be to be so tired and have to navigate getting a Visa and getting to the house where I’m staying.
Luckily I befriended the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh. Or, she befriended me. She started chatting with me and asking me questions and then proceeded to pull her strings with the people she knew at the airport to get me through the Visa process faster. She then drove me to my house. But first she introduced me to her husband and two adorable daughters.
I, of course, was nervous the entire time, thinking that maybe she was going to steal from me or take me to some abandoned building and I’d end up in a situation straight from “Taken.” At the same time, I knew I could leave the situation whenever I needed to, but that it was really kind of her to help me out. I ended up safe and secure at the house and we exchanged information so that we could keep in touch. It’s a reminder that a lot of people are nice and looking to help others. (She said she wanted to help someone because she had not had that same experience while traveling in Hong Kong.)
My first full day in the city was spent walking around, buying some items and trying to get my phone set up. My flatmate and his friend invited me out for drinks at night and we headed to Show Box, which seems to be a popular ex-pat bar favored for the free beer offered every night from 6:30 to 7 p.m.
It’s been overwhelming, enlightening and fun so far.

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