First week in Bali, Indonesia

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I’ve been in Bali almost a week and a half now and there is so much to write about! I’m captivated by the rich and complex history of each of the 17,504 islands that make up Indonesnia.

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about the country before coming here to meet my friend so I’m learning as much as I can while I’m here. I’m resorting to seeing very historical sites and local places, taking pictures, and learning the details after.

DSC_0801While Indonesia is made up of hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups, they have one common language which is Bahasa Indonesia. I was surprised to learn how diverse and complex the country was, but that’s my own fault. My friend said between islands, it feels like you’re traveling between different countries. I really love listening to the language, and some words sound like Spanish or Italian.

It would be incredible to spend months on a variety of islands to really get a deep understanding of the different cultures throughout the country.

Thanks to my wonderful friend who is living in Bali, I’ve seen so much in a week. So far we’ve seen beautiful temples, rice terraces, went whitewater rafting (on our second day), ate a variety of local food, saw ladyboys and more on all sides of Bali. Driving around on a motto is one of the best ways to see the islands because we can stop anytime we want to and the gas is about $1.50 US to fill each time.

I’ll write more in depth about each aspect of the trip over the next few posts.
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Good travel karma?

DSC_0785I don’t believe it too much in superstition but I feel like karma does affect my life quite a bit. Karma is the idea that if you do good to other people, good things will happen to you. If you do bad things, then bad things can come your way. This is an oversimplified version of the concept, but that’s the basic idea.

I can think of many times in my life where if I did or said something that I knew was bad, karma would keep me in check and something bad would happen to me not too long after. Often it would be similar to what I did to someone else.

I feel like good karma has been happening all at once the past two weeks and the timing makes sense because I’ve intentionally tried to help out friends for the sake of it and expect nothing in return in the past month. I believe when we do things without expectation of someone paying us back and do it from our hearts, good things will happen in our lives.

My friends have been extra generous to me in Cambodia, Thailand and now in Bali. They have always been kind since I’ve been in Asia, but the same friends continue to surprise me. My friends’ small restaurant isn’t making a huge profit but because I brought people to their restaurant, they wouldn’t let me pay for my meal. When I arrived in Thailand for the night, my friend not only took time to meet me, but she hung out with me for the night even after having bad food poisoning the day before and still recovering. And now I’m staying at the nicest accommodation I’ve been in since I came to Asia in March and wondering what I’ve done to deserve it. One friend was sweet and said, “You are a genuinely nice person, what you see is a reflection of what you radiate.”

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My Thai friend Poly who was so nice to keep me company in Bangkok before I went to the airport, even after she was really sick the day before! So nice.

Right now, I’m being so generously hosted by my friend Kathy whom I met in Siem Reap at my friends’ small Khmer restaurant. We just started chatting casually a few months ago, which happens often around Cambodia when you meet travelers and I offered to take her around Siem Reap during the evenings for the few days she was in town since she didn’t know anyone. Before we said goodbye, she said I could visit her while she was in Bali studying for a semester. And me being me, if someone genuinely invites me somewhere, I’m going.

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With my friend Kathy who is kindly hosting me for two weeks in Bali, Indonesia. Getting ready for whitewater rafting, surfer parties, temple exploration, mottos and much more.

She was so nice to pick me up at the airport and ask her housemates if I could stay at their place. I was just planning to get a guesthouse originally. I thought she and the other housemates were staying at a simple shared house. But then I arrive and discover it is a beautiful villa with a pool and outdoor kitchen! Not only that, they have hired staff to wash dishes and clean the rooms every day. Good travel karma?

Of course I offered to pay for my share for the time I’m staying with them but Kathy wouldn’t let me. She barely let me pay for her lunch the first day I arrived. I told her today, “It doesn’t seem like a fair exchange for me to stay here for two weeks when I just took you around for two nights and she said, “Don’t worry about it.”

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The villa’s pool

The generosity people have shown me the past week keeps me motivated to also be generous with other people without expectation of anything in return. When I asked my  friend, “Why are Cambodians so generous?” She simply replied, “It’s in our culture. We like to give from our hearts.” This will motivate me to pay it forward.

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Yep, these are pet ducks. “Who let the ducks out?”

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Outdoor kitchen where I will attempt to make curry next week.

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Living room #1 of 2

Food feature: steamed Mekong fish at a river restaurant

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Steamed Mekong fish

This was my second dinner in Luang Prabang and my friend asked if I wanted to take the boat to cross the Mekong River to get to Dyen Sabai restaurant. Beautiful night, a free boat ride provided by the restaurant, yummy food and good company . . . of course I’m in! The night was so beautiful and I couldn’t believe that people could do this every day if they lived in Luang Prabang.

The restaurant atmosphere was calm and there was a good variety of food and drinks on the menu. My friend and I shared the steamed fish in a banana leaf. I’ve had a lot of fish in my life and I can honestly say this was one of the best tasting fish I have ever had. Most steamed fish I’ve had in the past has been bland. The fish had so much flavour that lingered in your mouth long after our meal was done, it was incredible.

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We met a fantastic waiter who took time to chat with us about his ambitions of being an English teacher and teaching his students about hospitality so they can work in the future. He was supporting some of his brothers and sisters’ schooling while he is working and is currently saving up to buy his sister a bike so she doesn’t have to walk the few kilometers to school. He was really inspiring and I thought, “This is why I travel. To meet people like him and learn about people’s lives.”

People in this city really know how to do flavours well. If people are in Luang Prabang, this is definitely a restaurant to check out.

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Boating across the Mekong to get to Dyen Sabai

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A week with three Khmer families during Pchum Ben

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At the local pagoda in the Kampong Cham province. The ceremony lasted three hours.

People around Cambodia celebrated Pchum Ben, a 15-day Buddhist festival to honour their ancestors. Pchum means, “meeting or gathering” and Ben means, “a ball of something”, usually for rice or meat. For two weeks until October 5, 2013, Cambodians visit the pagoda, usually before sunrise to make food and drink offerings for the monks and to feed hungry ghosts who could be their late ancestors, relatives or friends.

I spent five days of the festival with three Khmer families because I only had a few more weeks left in Cambodia and I wanted to spend as much quality time with them as I could. At first I thought, “What did I sign up for? I committed to going 6.5 hours to Kampong Cham for two days, then coming back north to Siem Reap for one night, and then taking a 2-hour taxi to Banteay Meanchey to stay for two days then returning back to Siem Reap.” I wasn’t sure if I had the physical and emotional energy to do this packed trip.

But it turned out this seemingly tiring itinerary ended being just the relaxation my body and mind needed. I’ve spent five days filling the slow hours by talking with my friends, laughing with the families, feeling the peaceful energy at the pagoda, appreciating the generosity of new friends and sleeping a lot. Anytime someone invited me to their home, I’ve accepted.

Two days in a village in the Kampong Cham province (central Cambodia)

My first trip was with my friends Phai and San, a wonderful young married couple who run a small restaurant in Siem Reap City. We were going to visit San’s family in Kampong Cham.

When I first arrived in Cambodia, I didn’t expect to be using as much French as I did and I had no idea France had such an influence on Cambodia. San learned French in Phnom Penh so I mainly communicated in French with her while I spoke English with Phai.

I was a bit worried at first because they told me that there was flooding the month before and the water was almost at their waist. They asked me if that was ok and we would just take a boat to get to their house. Hearing this, I imagined us staying at a flooded house and wondered where we would sleep. But this wasn’t the case at all.

On the boat sailing along the Mekong River with Phai (left) and San (middle)

To get to San’s village, we took a 4.5-hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Kampong Cham, a 5-minute motto ride to get to the ferry, a 1 hour ride on a big boat and finally a 20-minute boat taxi, which is a very small row boat that would take us to her home.

When we were waiting at the ferry, San was talking to a group of people. I asked Phai if she knew them and he said, “No they are just waiting at the ferry.” This is one of many examples of how opposite Cambodia’s social culture is from some Western countries. I love how people easily talk to each other so openly no matter what part of Cambodia you’re in. I’d be lucky to find someone who would have more than a superficial conversation with me at a ferry terminal in Vancouver, Canada.

The first boat sailed along the beautiful Mekong River. The weather was great for most of the ride with the wind blowing and cracks of sun that lit up the clouds. When were about to transfer to the small boat taxi, the rain started pouring.

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The small boat taxi

While we were waiting for the first boat transfer, other people on the boat asked San in Khmer, “Why is a foreigner coming all the way here? It’s so hard to get to.” The first thing that came to mind was, “Why not? I love boat rides too.” I love it when I’m the only foreign person in parts of Cambodia and I love venturing to places that would never be on a tourists’ radar.

The first group of people who got to the boat taxi had to walk in knee-high water. I feel horrible for thousands of people around Cambodia who have had their houses destroyed from the floods and many people in the community who got sick.

Flooded village

We took our little boat taxi through the forest trees to get directly to San’s house. It was a peaceful ride passing all the houses on stilts and just listening to the light raindrops hitting the water.

I offered San some money for my part of the transport costs but she wouldn’t take it. She said it’s ok and I am always touched when that happens with my Khmer friends, especially because many of their salaries are not high. And often whatever leftover money they have they give to their families. Nevertheless, they treat me as their guest and don’t worry about the cost. Though I always offer something in return whether it is food for the family or anything else they would like.

San’s village.

When we arrived at the house, we were greeted by San’s parents, her one-year-old sister, and the neighbour’s daughter. The area was part of a group of eight villages of about 1,000 people.

We arrived early afternoon and spent most of the time resting before dinner. My interactions with Khmer parents takes a similar pattern when I attempt to say something with my limited Khmer, they laugh and try to say more Khmer words to me, and finally I end the conversation with “Sorry I don’t understand. Speak little Khmer.”

San’s sister (left) and neighbour (right). Beautiful kids.

San asked me, “You want to go with me and my parents to pagoda? It’s up to you. I go with my mother and father to Buddha for good luck. But for you if you don’t want to, it’s ok.” Of course I said I would like to participate as much as I can if it was ok with them. What I really appreciate with my Khmer (Cambodian) friends is they know I’m not Buddhist but they keep assuring that it’s up to me whether or not I want to participate or just observe. Nothing is imposed, which would be ideal with every faith.

Before I took a shower, I asked if they had shampoo and they didn’t. So the mom immediately gave Lisa, the neighbour’s daughter, money to get some for me. Again this surprised me but I kept insisting to Lisa to take my money instead to buy the shampoo.

Pagoda cat
Pagoda cat

San’s father is quiet and didn’t talk that much but he was very kind to make sure I had a fan on me when I was just reading or sitting in the house. And San kept asking to make sure I was comfortable in her Khmer house and I told her several times that I’ve been to Khmer homes and villages around Cambodia. But of course I was grateful for her concern, in typical Khmer hospitality.

The next morning, the family got up at 5 a.m. to start preparing food to make offerings at the pagoda, which they often do before sunrise. The offering included bobo (rice soup), drinks, fruits and some desserts.

Children at the pagoda

Children at the pagoda enjoying the camera

Before going to the pagoda, San, Phai and I made an offering to the father. We all had to touch the plate of money and food that was offered to him before he did a blessing. It was nice to participate in this rather than just observed.

I asked my friend if it was ok to film and take pictures during the ceremony and he said it was fine. The kids at the pagoda loved looking at my camera and they laughed when I tried to speak Khmer. Kids in Cambodia laugh so easily and they are so friendly.

At the pagoda, I imitated what the others did. I definitely felt like an outside observer sometimes, especially when I was taking pictures and filming because it was a completely different ritual that I am not familiar with and not an essential part of my life. I thought it was funny to see a monk taking pictures with his iPhone during the ceremony. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one taking pictures. But no one paid much attention to me and I was driven by my compulsion to share my experience, without disrupting the ceremony of course.

Family photo

Being the obvious foreigner newbie to the pagoda, my friends didn’t tell me I had to wear a white shirt for the ceremony. I was wearing a bright red top because it was more decent than my other casual clothes. But no one else seemed to mind but at least I know for next time. “Barang lop lop,” crazy foreigner. When we were all eating lunch together, one of the elders kept gesturing that I join them for a meal, they were really sweet to make sure I was included.

Lita and Lisa are sisters and they come to San’s family’s house all the time to stay over and play. Lisa is 13 years old and she reminds me a lot of my adopted Khmer sister Kaka (pronounced “Gaga”). She is quiet, smiles a lot, very well mannered and helps in the kitchen. She knows how to cut the small fish and helps set up before dinner.

Kitchen of San's home

Kitchen of San’s home

San was so caring, I walked to the bathroom with the flashlight in the dark and San would look out the window to make sure I was okay. She was constantly asking to make sure I was comfortable.

San’s cousin came to visit and he translated some conversations I had with San’s mom. One uncomfortable and funny thing he had to translate was, “If you are back in Cambodia, she said me and you can work together,” meaning he could be my boyfriend. Of course I’m so “old” by Khmer standards because I’m 28 and unmarried, three years past the ideal marrying age.

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On the Mekong River

I was so sad to find out after we got back to Siem Reap that parents of the young girls we met actually separated five years ago and just left the girls. So San’s family took one of them in to raise her and a family nearby took the other. I said, “Wow that is so generous of your family.” I felt horrible because they are such good girls who are so helpful around the house. My Khmer friend said, “This kind of story is very common around Cambodia. The parents don’t do family planning and they don’t want the kids so they just leave them.”

During our last meal with the family, one of the highlights was making the family laugh with the little Khmer I knew. I felt even more like a Westerner with my camera, blue waterproof bag and backpack. San’s mom asked about my waterproof bag and I said, “This is from Canada,” in Khmer. You know you’re a Westerner in Cambodia when . . .

After two days, we headed back to Siem Reap and the weather was as beautiful and peaceful going back as the days we came.

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Trip #2: Back to Siem Reap

I spent most of the night with my adopted Khmer family. It always melts my heart when they’re excited to see me after being away for a few days on a trip. It was really sweet when my friend Konnitha told me that her younger sister Kaka (pronounced “Gaga”) asked if I was going with them to the pagoda. I said I’ll be away in another province and she looked disappointed. I felt guilty because even though I spent a lot of time with them, they really appreciate if I can participate in family events with them. I promised if I am back during Khmer New Year in April, I will go to the pagoda with them first before anyone else.

Trip #3: Banteay Meanchey province

This was my second time going to my friend Sopheak’s hometown, which is 120 km from Siem Reap city and this time I stayed overnight. Her family is full of wonderful and also very strong women. The way they spoke was very assertive more than most girls and women I have met in Cambodia, who often speak softly and are more submissive.

I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and because I thought we were going to the pagoda, I brought a white shirt this time. But my friend had already gone early in the morning with her family.

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Sopheak (left) has taken me to see her family twice in Banteay Meanchey. I met Sereyroth (middle) on my second trip there.

Sopheak made me feel so good she said her sisters and mom say I am very nice and beautiful. And when I smile, my face lights up. One thing I will definitely miss about Cambodia is being called beautiful by people you know and don’t know. She also said her friend Sereyroth wanted to meet me because I am nice.

I was really touched because Sopheak’s sister just had a baby on September 24 and the family was also busy getting ready for Pchum Ben. But when they found out I was coming to visit again, her mom said she was going to make make fish amok for me, which is one of my favourite Cambodian dishes. I really appreciated that because that dish takes a long time to cook and her dish was one of the best amok I’ve had in Cambodia. She was simmering the food for hours.

Sopheak was very considerate and asked if what they were eating was ok because I wasn’t used to Khmer food. But as always, I will eat whatever the family eats when I’m a guest and rarely, if ever, make a special request for food.

Sopheak’s sister (left), niece (middle) and brother-in-law (right)

I met two of Sopheak’s wonderful friends Sereyroth and Sorphea. Sereyroth has one of the must unique jobs of anyone I’ve met in Cambodia. When you ask many girls what they are studying or want to me, many of them say accounting or finance. But her friend Sereyroth has done a variety of jobs, including research on fish, interviewing people for field research and doing training for people for NGOs and other types of organizations. She was a human encyclopedia, she knew a lot about many things and it was fascinating listening to her.

Sereyroth and Sopheak were so kind, I don’t expect anyone to pay for any of my costs whether they are Khmer or not but they kept insisting on paying for my breakfast and snacks. When I asked why Sereyroth paid for our breakfast, she said, “You are a special guest.” Of course I at least wanted to treat them for coffee, which I did and fought Sopheak for the bill.

It was a nice break being spending two days with them away from Siem Reap city. Everything we did was nicely paced and not rushed. We took mottos to several rivers, the market, got coffee and the beautiful Lover’s Garden.

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Lover’s Garden

Lover’s Garden is this beautiful and hilarious place with hammocks, food, a fountain and random Disney and cartoon character statues around the garden. Some of those statues look so out of place, but that’s what makes the place fun.

One difference between Cambodian and Western culture is in Cambodia, people often sit at the same table as people they don’t know as long as there is room. When there were tables that were free for just the four of us, I pointed us to sit there but one of the friends said, “It’s ok we can sit here,” which was at a table where a mother and her young daughter were sitting. We spoke a bit with them and made the daughter laugh. I wonder if these kinds of interactions would happen more if people sat together more in Western culture.

Yep, this is in Lover's Garden.

Yep, this is in Lover’s Garden.

When we left, Sopheak told me that the owner said she was looking at me for a long time because I’m so beautiful and she thought I was Khmer. I’ll admit, I really am going to miss Cambodia for the sincere compliments I got from random people, particularly women. This would rarely happen in Vancouver unless it was a dude trying to hit on you.

It was amazing to watch and talk with Sopheak’s adorable six-year-old niece. She spoke quite a few English words and sentences, more than most kids I have met in Cambodian villages. She is at the top of her class and her teacher said she is an outstanding student.

Sopheak’s intelligent and adorable six-year-old niece.

The day that I left, Sereyroth told me “Even though we meet for only short time, I’m happy to meet you. It’s important in my life to talk with you and learn from you.” That was very sweet and responded to her by saying, “I’m pretty sure this weekend I learned a lot more from you than you did from me. You know so much!”

This was another unforgettable week with three wonderful and generous families and I will never for get them. I was really glad Sopheak and Sereyroth were able to join me for a dinner I organized the next day and be my guests this time.

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Family picture

My adopted Khmer family and saying goodbye

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From left to right: Mom, sister, me, Konnitha, grandma, husband, father, friend and cute baby.

The past few months I’ve been so blessed to live next to my friend Konnitha’s wonderful Khmer (Cambodian) family. I lived in a simple bachelor suite next to their house, but I spent most of my time hanging in the family’s house or was out with friends.

I was a weird feeling when I visited them sometimes because my lifestyle is very different than theirs. I’ve had weeks where I have been out every night while they spend most of their time at home when they are not working, particularly because they have to take care of their baby and their grandmother in addition to being tired from work.

Nevertheless, they don’t expect me to live exactly like them and their door is always open whenever I want to come and say hi. Though my friend is on a mission to make me a good Khmer girl, meaning that I should ideally be back home by 9 p.m. (never happens) or stay home in the evenings. But we have friendly jokes about that all the time and me being “barang lop lop” (crazy foreigner).

I would not have had the same experience in Cambodia if I didn’t move next to them. They’ve been so kind to let me join them for meals, take naps at the house and sometimes sleep over to keep them company. I always offer to contribute any ingredients or offer some money for the meals they’ve made but they rarely accept it. Now with a new volunteer, they happily welcome both of us to join their family for meals and expect nothing in return. Every day, I grew more and more attached to the family, which made it so much harder to leave Cambodia.

Allow me to introduce you to my adopted Khmer family:

Konnitha, friend, co-worker and my Cambodian mother

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Konnitha, my Cambodian mother

I met Konnitha while I was volunteering at an NGO for seven months. I call her my Cambodian mother because even though she’s two years younger than me (26 years old) and has a four-month-old baby to take care of, she makes sure I have a fan when its hot, a pillow when I’m visiting, and full when I’m fed. She also gives me that motherly look when I start going out at 9 p.m. and asks, “Why? It’s so late.” It makes me laugh every time.

I enjoy our hours of conversation whenever I hang around the house. Even when she’s busy with her baby, if I come when the family is about to eat, she doesn’t just ask me to join them, she practically demands it when she says, “Please have breakfast with me” or, “Don’t go out, have dinner with me.”

When I first came to Cambodia, we didn’t talk that much because we didn’t really know each other. I can’t even really remember when we started getting close. But any close friends I have now has developed naturally and this is no exception.

She’s sweet to keep telling me that I should work in Cambodia so I can stay longer. While I was away for a few days she said, “We missed you.” I feel very guilty because she really wanted me to join her family for Pchum Ben during the first week of October. It is a 15-day religious festival when Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives of up to 7 generations. But I was with two other families out of the city that week.

One day, when her mom said that I bought some garlic, Konnitha said, “You don’t have to buy, we have.” I said, “I don’t want to eat all your food.” She then said, “It’s ok, you can take, you are family.”

Hannah, Konnitha’s daughter

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Hannah, my adopted Khmer niece

As I write this, Hannah is now four and a half months old. Every week she gets noticeably bigger. It’s been a nice ritual to see her in the morning before I go to work and come back to the family to hold her.

She’s growing up so quickly. I remember so clearly when she couldn’t even hold her head up and now she’s almost crawling. It’s very calming spending time watching her and holding her.

Vanna, mom

I call her my Khmer Ma, my other Cambodian mother. She cooks for me along with the family and offers me water when I come over. Konnitha once told me her mom worries that I leave the house hungry after some meals and that her mom will miss me when I’m gone.

While I was away for four days at Ratanakiri (another Cambodian province), she asked where I was because they’re so used to me popping in the house before and after work. Her mom said not to forget about them, and I most certainly won’t.

In Cambodia, whenever you develop a friendship or good relationship with people, they will help you out as much as they can.

Dara, the father

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Family dinner

The first day I moved in, I parked my bike outside their place and without me asking, her dad noticed something was broken and just fixed it for me. I thought, “Awwww thanks dad.”

He’s really nice and one of my favourite memories with him is when I came home after dinner one night and he was sitting with a few guys with beer and food. He invited me to join them and gave me a beer and shared some of the fish they caught for the day.

Buntha, the husband and the go-to cockroach killer

Buntha is a very nice and honest man. He works for the tourism office so he leads groups of people among many things. He is so honest that he said when he takes groups of people, he doesn’t accept tips if they give him money for helping them with a problem like losing their passport. He said, “If I take the group out on a tour and they want to give me, that is ok. But I don’t want to accept money if they have already had a bad thing happen to them.”

While I was away at Ratanakiri, another Cambodian province, he was kind enough to text me these messages:

“Hie hie hie, how was your trip there? How are you doing? Ha you might 4got us”

“Pls enjoy ur visiting. Have a very lovely trip and regarding to Mrs. Kimline and hers family.”

“Best wish for all of you there. Safe trip for you there and everywhere.”

Oh yes, and he’s also awesome because every time I found a cockroach in my room or needed help with anything, he would be there to help me in an instant.  He always tells me, “Call anytime you need help” and constantly checking in with me to make sure I got to places ok. If I had a company, I’d hire him in an instant.

He told me a few times, “Don’t forget about us. Please be in touch when you go to other countries. Stay longer so you can see Hannah grow up.”

Yat, the grandmother

The grandma is now 83 years old and I am always curious the many struggles she has lived through. But I don’t ask of course.

She is well taken care of by the family and when they eat meals, she is always served first, which is the Cambodian custom of serving the eldest person first. The family takes turns giving her massages when she has aches and she is always with a family member in the house to keep her company.

She told Buntha to tell me, “Don’t wait too long into you come back. I will miss you. Will you miss me?”

She is very sweet, every time I sit with the family while they are having a meal, she tells me to eat or she makes sure I have a blanket if I stay over at the house.

Kaka (pronounced “Gaga,” like Lady Gaga), my adopted Khmer sister
With my adopted Khmer sister
Kaka is a 13-year-old soft spoken and friendly girl who always helps her family prepare meals, take care of Hannah and gives her grandma massages when she is aching. She is probably the most well-behaved 13-year-old I have ever met. I’m amazed that she cycles to her Mandarin school about two kilometres away almost every day.

I often think of her in contrast to many of the teenage girls in North America, many of whom spend their time shopping, talking on the phone, complaining about small inconveniences and having much less responsibility.

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Gaga’s birthday

Some of my favourite moments with her was when I cooked a few meals for the family, I never ask her to keep me company or help. But whenever I went to the kitchen, she had fun helping me prepare food and helped me wash dishes. It was a wonderful way to spend time with her.

I really enjoyed taking her out to the pool with me and taking her for pizza for lunch. I felt like I had a little sister and I appreciated that because I grew up an only child. I love seeing her smile and laugh at the simplest things and just having fun.

When I came back from Kampong Cham, she asked Konnitha if I was going to the pagoda. When she said I’ll be in away, she looked disappointed, which was really sweet.

I’m glad I got to be here to celebrate her birthday, it was a lot of fun.

Last days in Siem Reap

Buntha and their grandma almost made me cry. While we were sitting in the room alone, he was quiet and then said, “The house will be so quiet when you leave Cambodia, we will miss you. You are like family now.”

When I was in Phnom Penh, Buntha messaged me to see if I got in ok because I forgot to message them when I arrived. And then Konnitha called me after to see how I was doing. It really does feel like a family watching out for me. It’s really hard to be away for them for a few days but it’s a transition I’ll have to get used to when I leave Cambodia. I will have sever Khmer family withdrawal.

The hard goodbye

My Khmer family at the pagoda for Pchum Ben
Konnitha, her daughter and her siblings at the pagoda.

 For my last day in Siem Reap, I spent time with my Khmer family and I didn’t feel overly emotional, surprisingly. I didn’t cry when I said bye to them and I was going to see Konnitha in the office for a bit. When it came time to say bye to her, we hugged for awhile and I purposely didn’t say much to her because I knew I would start crying, which I hate doing in front of people. But I was fine when I went for early lunch with my friend.

After lunch, it was a little past 12 p.m. and I knew Konnitha would likely have gone back home to see Hannah. So I texted her and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t say much to you, I knew if I kept talking I would cry.” A few seconds after I sent that text, I saw she was still in the office. So I walked her to her motto and I could see the sadness in her face. I gave her one more long hug before she left and we didn’t want to let go of each other and when I looked into her eyes, I saw they were teary and then my floodgates opened. I said, “Don’t look at me, you’ll make me cry,” then we laughed. When I saw her riding off, I needed to take a minute by myself to wipe away my tears before going back to the office.

While I was washing my face, my former colleague came up to me and said, “Was she the hardest to say goodbye to?” And I said, “Yes. I knew I would crack today, I just didn’t know when. I was fine this morning but I’ve been so attached to the family so they’re the hardest to say goodbye to. But I’m ok.”

The NGO I worked with has a tradition of waving people goodbye until you can’t see them anymore. They waved goodbye to me and then I was off to the airport to get to Laos.

As hard as it is to leave the family, I know I have to keep exploring and meeting people. But everyone I’ve met that I’ve become close to, I will carry in my heart wherever I go.

More fundraisers should have ladyboys like this one

I’ve been living in Siem Reap, Cambodia for seven months now and there are still nights that are unpredictable. You can never know what to expect in this small town.

One of my friends brought my attention to a Cambodian-founded organization called Self Help Community Centre (S.H.C.C.). With about 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia (yes, incredible isn’t it?), the organization already stands out by being started and run by a Cambodian man named Choan Sambat. People can easily get NGO-nauseum living here, and when you meet organizations that are doing the same thing, they often blur together. But Sambat’s story of struggle, relentless persistence and passion for community is really inspiring.

Sambat’s story

This is the very short version of his story, I really encourage you to read his full story here.

He was born in 1985, just four years after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime ended. Hunger and financial poverty caused many problems while he was growing up. He worked long hours in the rice field to earn $0.75 US per day, among other labour jobs while he was a young boy.

Even though he knew education was key for a better future for him, school was very challenging because he lacked supplies and proper transport, so he dropped out for a period of time. He ended up hanging out with people who were a negative influence and he knew if he didn’t change his life, he would end up in jail or dead.

At 16 years old, he moved to Siem Reap and offered to work for free at a pagoda. While he was there, he taught himself English by listening to the stories of tourists who were around. He also heard of an organization called Sala Bai who takes disadvantaged youth and train them in hospitality skills. He got one of the 50 sought-after spots out of over 5,000 applicants.

He found a job right away after training and after five years of hard work, he saved up $700 to start a village school, which classes include English, Organic Farming, Education on Hygiene, Nutrition and Environmental Issues. The school began with 250 students and thanks to international funding, they now accommodate 1,500 students. Every Sunday, the school goes and helps the local community, whether it is building houses for families or roads.

Even more incredible, the school’s budget allocates him a salary but he never takes it. He lives with his family and rides his motorbike that doesn’t work most of the time because he believes that all the money should go to the kids.

The fundraiser
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The event was held at The Station Wine Bar, the gay-friendly bar in the centre of town. First of all, I love that this community event was held at a gay bar. Second, the feature show of the fundraiser were ladyboys. Third, Sambat said that people think he is gay if they don’t know he has a girlfriend and he really doesn’t care. Awesome.

When I arrived, one of the teachers told me about the beautiful artwork of some of their students. I was very impressed with the detail and quality of their work, I could never produce what they did with all the training in the world. Then I walked in the bar with a diversity of people in the crowd, ladyboys and the lovely staff of SSHC.

People were brought to tears when the SSHC staff sang “Imagine” by John Lennon. This is one of the most adorable things I have seen in the seven months I’ve been here.

Fortunately, there are many success stories like Sambat’s around Cambodia and they deserve to be shared.
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Why buy a kid a toy castle when a spoon will do just fine?

So many people in my life are having babies now and I’ve learned more about kids without even trying. Before I knew it, I was sharing advice on what books to read or what tips to avoid to new parents with such confidence, people would have thought I was a mom myself. Mamma Meesa? NOT!

How much stuff do kids really need?

One of my former colleagues has a son who is two years old and he told me, “We got him all of these toys and all he’s entertained by is his spoon.”

Fast-forward a few months, and I’m in Koh Pdao, a small island in Northeast Cambodia seeing how kids “entertain” themselves. I find it funny when people are so shocked at how happy “poor kids” are when they have so few material things. The kids grow up playing with their neighbours and use their vivid imaginations using what they have around them without ever experiencing toys as we know them. Last time I was in Cambodia, one of the founders of an NGO told us when, “People in the village didn’t know they were poor until they were told so.”

I went to the community centre on the island and fifteen kids were working together to build what I first thought was a train, but was actually a motorcycle that could hold five of them. There haven’t been to many times where I’ve seen so many kids working together so well so everyone can enjoy the activity at such a young age.

When I was staying with a homestay family for a few days, I went by the river with them, including their six-year-old daughter. Since we couldn’t communicate with words, I thought we could throw rocks in the water together. I’ll never forget, the daughter would always pick a rock for me first before getting one for herself. She would never throw the rock until I was ready and we would throw it together at the same time. She has the consideration of many of the people I’ve met in Cambodia at such a young age. I hope I see her again before I leave the country.

What are we teaching them?

I’m not against getting kids nice toys. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing if I ever did have kids. But are we training kids to expect things from people and distracting them from what are really important lessons?

One Christmas, my high school teacher’s five-year-old son got 20 toys, he said, “Choose three toys and we’re giving the rest to charity.” He regularly takes his son to the Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in British Columbia, Canada to show his son how other people live and not shelter him.

I couldn’t believe I caught myself sounding like a parent when I see the toys that kids get now. I thought, “When I was a kid, this never existed. Kids are so spoiled these days.” I too was spoiled myself when I hear stories of how many things people gave me. But I have absolutely no memory of these things as a kid.Considering how much stuff people bought for me as I was growing up, I am actually quite minimalist and non-materialistic.

I’m honestly not sure why, you’d think I would have been trained to be used to having the toys I want and live in very comfortable places. But I actually like seeing what I can do with less stuff, eating street food and sleeping in huts in the mountains. Had I had nothing but a pile of sand an a bucket to play with growing up, I’m sure I would have turned out the same.

Existing as a community, not an individual

This is one of my favourite examples of how people co-exist as a community, which is the norm in so many parts of the world. I think we would be considered weird and possibly going against our nature as social beings when we don’t share what we have, help each other when we can and working together to build community.

“An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them.

He managed to get candy from the nearest town and put it all in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree. Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. When the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself.

So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the anthropologist said “now”, all of the children took each other by the hand ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time divided up the candy, sat down and began to happily munch away.

The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves. The children responded:

“Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?

The fact that we are so touched by this story shows how unusual it is for where we grow up. I think if I tell this story to some of my friends who grew up in these communities in different parts of the word, they would laugh at my and say, “This is normal where I am from. Why is this so special?”

I think other cultures should study Western culture more and I’d love to hear what they think of our behaviours and their perspectives on us. For my next posts, I will do my best to talk about what we do differently in the West in relation to Cambodian culture rather than the other way around.,