The highs and lows of Cambodian living: month 5

It’s been nearly five months since I up and left the U.S. and landed in Cambodia. Can you believe it? I certainly can’t. I did decide to extend my stay in the country past the initial four months. That’s a good sign, right? I think so, though I’m not going to deny that some days I crave the ease and comfort of the U.S. 
Let’s take a look at the good and bad, shall we?

The good:

-I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to report on a few stories, relax at the pool and try out massages at random places. The trip was nice. I’d been to Thailand before but not Chiang Mai, which seemed far less hectic to me than Phnom Penh and had a lot of nice vegetation and hills, which I often miss. I met up with a friend who had been living in Cambodia but moved to Chiang Mai, so that made the trip a lot more fun. As for the massages, only two had been planned (read about my massage at a women’s prison facility for NBC News here), but then when I was walking back to my guest house one day, I came across a sign for a massage at a wat (temple) for about $5. How could I pass that up? 

   

A massage for $5? Yes, please!

 

Chiang Mai is full of spectacular wats like this one. 

 -I also spent a little over a week exploring Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city, and Siem Reap. I’d already been to Siem Reap before to explore the Angkor temples with students from the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency, but this time I was able to go and explore a little more of the actual city and relax by the pool. (Yes, aside from massages my favorite activity is to relax by the pool.) I was reporting on Phare Ponleu Selpak, an organization that runs a circus school, and got to see a show. I highly recommend the show for anyone visiting either Battambang or Siem Reap. 
 

The view walking back to my hotel after an interview in Battambang. 
Battambang street scene

  
Tini Tinou Circus performance in Siem Reap, Cambodia 

-I’m really enjoying the street food. I was a bit hestitant at first to try some of it, but now I absolutely love buying meals off the street. I’ve discovereed that I love num pang pate, a sandwich that can be found on nearly every street corner and similar to Vietnam’s banh mi but with some mystery meat inside. And of course, the 50 cent iced coffees can’t be beat every morning. 

The bad:

-I said goodbye to two good friends recently. Katie, one of my housemates, left to go backpacking for a month before heading on to South Africa. Kelsey, a fellow American, left to head back to teaching in China. Goodbyes are always hard no matter where you are, but here they are also a reminder that expat life is constantly changing and fluid.  

  
At least we got to say goodbye with a cool backdrop? 

-The heat. I said it before but I’ll say it again: DUDE, THE HEAT. It can be downright excruciating at times. I thought I knew heat in Oklahoma, but it’s on another level here. I’ve heard that this year is especially bad. It’s often 100 degrees during the day and we try not to use air con in the house to save money, which means I’m basically sweating ALL.THE.TIME. 

-I find myself getting annoyed at times by certain things here. The constant barrage of question about transportation (lady, tuk-tuk? is said to me at least 30 times a day  – no exaggeration) and haggling all the time can be downright exhausting. But maybe that’s the heat taking over? 

Upcoming plans:

-I have plans to go to Mondulkiri, a province in the northeast of Cambodia, and Myanmar next month!
-Keeping cool!

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Can I call myself a foreign correspondent? I think so!

About 10 years ago, back when I was a freshman in college, I decided it would be my goal to become a foreign correspondent. What could be better than getting paid to go to new places and meet interesting people and tell their stories? 

But in today’s world, it’s becoming increasingly hard to make it there no matter how hard you work, at least through the traditional avenues. News organizations around the world are cutting back on full-time staff, especially in far-off lands, as social media and the Internet continue to upend journalism. Sure, people can still get sent abroad after spending a few (or more) years learning the ropes back in the U.S., England, Australia or wherever they’re from. But those positions are few and far between now. I knew this coming to Cambodia. I moved here without the safety net of an organization, and yet, I feel like I’m doing some of the best work I think I have ever done. (Some of my favorite pieces that I’ve done in Camboodia have recently come out and can be read herehere and here.)

It’s been incredibly challenging (both the journalism work and the daily living), and some days I stop and wonder why I seem to always take the road less traveled. But then I remember the opportunities I have created for myself and the experiences and people I’ve met so far. I’m getting ready to head to Thailand for a week to report on a handful of stories for various outlets. Then I’ll head to northwest Cambodia for another story. And then in a month or two, I should be going to another country that has been on my bucket list for years. (I’m still confirming details on this trip/story so want to hold off saying where and what it is.) In between all this, I’m trying to squeeze in time for coffee, drinks, dinners and get-togethers with all the fascinating people I’ve met here. 

Thinking about this reminds me why I put up with all the challenges: low pay, instability and lack of organizational support (paid time off, benefits, translators, etc.) being the most nervewracking for me career-wise. Loneliness and cultural differences being the hardest in my personal life. 

I got a taste of living and working abroad while working at a daily newspaper on Saipan several years ago. That was a very exciting experience for a new college graduate that also afforded me a lot of opportunities, including traveling to Samoa and China for stories. That period of my life looked far different for some reason, though. I can’t really pinpoint why, but I remember struggling a lot more back then to find my footing. Maybe it’s a sign of how much I’ve grown over the past six years, but I feel like I trust myself and my abilities a lot more now and am enjoying the ride much more this time around. 

My foreign correspondency looks a lot different than how I envisioned it 10 years ago, but I’m doing it. I’m a foreign correspondent. I’m doing it on my terms and making it work! I feel so very lucky right now.  

The Khmer Rouge anniversary

Friday marked the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge seizing control of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and largest city. Over the next nearly four years, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians would be brutally tortured and executed – one-fourth of the population. 

I was expecting some large-scale remembrance ceremonies on Friday. Maybe I just missed them, but as I walked around the city, I saw little activity marking the anniversary. Instead, people were just returning from the provinces following the three-day Khmer New Year celebration that ended on Thursday. 

In the evening I met a university student who chatted with me in a park. The anniversary and what it represented never came up. He instead told me about how he moved to Phnom Penh from a province in order to attend university and work at a hotel and how he so badly wanted to be able to afford a bigger motobike. 

One thing that struck me was that he knew – as most young Cambodians I speak to seem to – that there are many policies holding him and others back from achieving their full potential and a life they deserve. He talked about how he simply wanted to obtain a job that would allow him to be able to buy both gas for his moto and food to eat, not have to choose between one or the other on any given day. 

It’s an interesting time to be in Cambodia, and I’m excited to see how this new generation will shape the country’s future. 

The most luxurious (and unique) resort I’ve ever stayed in

Knai Bang Chatt. Try saying that three times fast. You should because it is worth getting to know. Knai Bang Chatt means a rainbow encircling the sun in Khmer. I wasn’t lucky enough to see any rainbows while staying at this resort in Kep, Cambodia, but I was consistently in awe of its beauty and minimalist look. 

Kep-Sur-Mer was at one time the go-to destination for the rich French and Cambodians. Known as the Riviera of Cambodia or The St. Tropez of Southeast Asia, the well-heeled traveled to the area for sun and surf, building ostenacious villas with brightly colored bathroom tiles, multiple floors and private entrances. War and the genocidal Khmer Rouge left the area deserted. The villas were abandoned, stripped of everything inside. Converted from a handful of those villas, Knai Bang Chatt takes vistors back to what it might have felt like in the 1960s during the glory days. 

Look at this and tell me it doesn’t look like a scene straight out of an old movie:

The details in the room were both noticeble (an open-air bathtub and a separate shower and toilet, which is not always a guarantee in Cambodia) and less obvious (water bottles were discreetly hidden throughout the room). The style is based on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi, which focuses on simplicity and modesty. 


  

   

One of my favorite surprises about the room was finding two traditional kramas on the bed. The kramas, which were apparently made by local villagers, are used in a variety of ways in Cambodia: as a towel, scarf or for decoration. You can see them on the bottom right corner of the bed in this picture.

 

Like most stays at beautiful resorts, I felt my time there was too short and found myself daydreaming about what it would be like to stay just one more day. But that’s why it’s called vacation, right? 

Highs and lows of Cambodian living: Month 2

I’ve been bad about blogging. I knew I’d probably fall behind at some point, but I was hopeful the words would just flow from my fingertips every evening. Wrong. They just want to go to sleep along with the rest of my body. Still, I’m determined to document as much as possible without making it feel like a chore. 

I’ve been pretty busy with work (more on that below) and trying to keep up with my social life here – all while keeping sane and trying to relax and enjoy my time here as much as possible.  

First, let’s start with the bad in February, shall we?

1. I got sick from food. Twice. Both times I found myself trying to lay as still as possible as sweat beads dripped down my face. The latest and strongest bout had me getting up periodically to vomit. It was not fun, but at least each bout only lasted about 24 hours. Also, one of my flatmates – I speak British English now – is a doctor and very sweet, so when I told her about the vomiting, she brought me rolls, jelly and Sprite. She also regularly listens and offers advice when it comes to boys. She’s great. 

2. The heat. Dude, the heat. And the intense sun. It can be stifling. It’s getting intense as we get closer to the hottest month, April. I find myself sweating all the time and putting a fan in my face any chance I get. I also lay down and rest as often as possible because the heat just zaps all energy from me.    

The good:

1. I saw the Angkor temples with students from the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency! Talk about the ultimate roadtrip (with a #selfie stick.) 



2. I wrote a story for The Associated Press about nude tourists at the Angkor temples. Read that here. I also wrote a story for NBC News from Cambodia. My Angkor story and a recent travel piece from my trip last fall to Puerto Rico were picked up by the New York Times. I’m kind of loving journalism right now. 

3. I went for a fun and relaxed hike with my above flatmate and a bunch of other expats on Koh Dach, a small island upstream from Phnom Penh. It was a short hike, only about 3 miles, but it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday. 





4. Making random dinner dates with people. In the U.S., it’s considered weird to randomly email someone out of  the blue and ask to hang out. But it’s not when you’re new to a foreign country! I made my fair share of emails to people during the first month, but I’m now mainly fielding emails from people who have heard about me or found me through this blog or friends of friends. It’s great!

Lessons learned:

1. Water. Water. Water. MUST drink plenty of water. 

2. I need to keep working on being OK with saying no if I have to. I can’t do it all, and I need to be more confident in my decision to say no.  

‘This is what Thailand looked like 30 years ago’

That’s according to Vanny Ea, owner of Pura Vita, an idyllic resort made up of about 20 bungalows on a secluded beach with pristine white sand and crystal-clear water on the island of Koh Rong, off the southern coast of Cambodia.
The beaches of the Northern Marianas’ will always be my favorite, but Koh Rong’s Sonaya beach is now a close second. Koh Rong is an undeveloped island, meaning there are no roads, no traffic, and much of the island is covered in a lush jungle lanscape.
Pura Vida is pricier than many of the hostels located in the island’s main village – especially considering you only have power for four hours per day because of its remoteness – but as one of the resort’s guests commented to me as we were leaving after two days, “People will pay anything for that location.”
And they do. Ea told me she’s preparing to add some additional bungalows to keep up with demand, but she says she does not want development of the island to get out of control.
My two days on island were spent hiking through the jungle, alternating between sunbathing and swimming in the Gulf of Thailand, and ordering food from the resort’s restaurant.

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Highs and lows of Cambodian living: weeks 3 and 4

The highs:
-My first story from Cambodia came out! Read it here. It’s amazing how much this simple story means to me. It probably has something to do with the blood (due to blisters), sweat (so much sweat!) and tears (blisters + sweat = frustrated Kristi) that goes into accomplishing even the smallest task right now.

-I traveled to the coastal town of Sihanoukville and then headed to the island of Koh Rong, where I spent two relaxing days laying on the beach, reading and exploring the juggle. (Read more about my trip in a future post.)

-I went dancing with some great girls and saw Phnom Penh nightlife up close.

The lows:
-My phone stopped working while I was in Sihanoukville and only showed a flashing Apple icon. Both my iPhone and my laptop were on their last legs when I brought them over here, and I knew they may die on me. In fact, the Apple people told me my iPhone was going to die at some point and I needed to buy a new one. But I refused because that’s what I do. So it died on me and I lost several of my pictures from Koh Rong, though I was able to salvage some.
I was not able to salvage the iPhone, unfortunately, and I had to buy a new used iPhone.

-Trying to do too much. If you know me, you know I’m not one to sit still for long and I tend to take on a lot. I believe this is one of my best and worst qualities. It’s also something I really need to work on: either taking on less or learning to handle the stress that comes with taking on too much. Going to Koh Rong was great because I basically left my worries on the mainland for a few days, but they quickly resurfaced and I was back to deadlines and juggling lots of commitments once I returned to Phnom Penh.

Lessons learned:
-Paying the extra three bucks for a minivan over a bus is sooo worth it when traveling.

-I must buy Internet and phone time separately for my phone.

-How to say “turn right” and “turn left” in Khmer.

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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.