The Asia Tour

These entries are from the blog I kept while travelling in Asia in 2010 (susantravelsasia.blogspot.com). 

SUNDAY, AUGUST 29, 2010

at the end of things

Well, I dropped the ball on my last 2 weeks of blogging about India. Even now, only 3 months later, a lot of the details such as names and places and order of events are hazy, but I’ll do my best.We took a long overnight train from Mumbai – Delhi. I was happy to be leaving the crazy overcrowded city, and excited to see more of the countryside, but it turns out the Val and I felt relatively unprepared for the chaos of Delhi. We shoved our way off the train and followed the mob helplessly to the taxi stand. Competing our way for a fair tuktuk price, we took a short ride to a hotel that was more expensive than the average room in Delhi. It was 50$/night, which still doesnt seem to steep, but it was a small price to pay for the comfort it included. Delhi was just as crowded as Mumbai, but dirtier, and way more intimidating. Furthermore, we arrived during the height of the hot season, just before the monsoon was to come. THis meant 120 degree temperatures. We knew that come midday, we’d find the sanctuary of our airconditioned hotel room extremely comforting.

The first day, we took a private car ride to Agra, which was three hours away. It was also my birthday, and was the most surreal, incredible way to spend it. We arrived at the Taj Mahal at 6 am, just as the doors opened, to see the sunrise. I’ve seen pictures of it before, but nothing prepared me for the extreme whiteness, the size, and the feeling of awe that comes with seeing it in person. It was built as a tomb for the wife of one of the kings, several hundred years ago. The stone work was beautiful, and it is no wonder it is such a famous landmark in the world. We hired a tour guide to take us around the city. He showed us other things in Agra such as the stone masons who work on the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, and a delicious breakfast place. Just half a day in Agra seemed to be enough, and we headed home after that. On the night of my birthday, we went out to a bollywood movie. Unfortunately the movie was entirely in hindi, but we got the jist of it. We ditched out at intermission, however, because it was approaching 9 pm, and Val and I were a little skittish about Delhi after dark.

We caught a flight the next day to Bagdogra, where we hoped to catch a ride to Darjeeling, which is 2 hours away. When we arrived in Bagdogra, however, we discovered that Darjeeling was holding a strike for the following three days, and if we were to travel there, we would have trouble finding hotel rooms, food, and even water. We decided to head to Sikkim instead, a province that would be our launching point for ou Himalayan trek. It was still a race against the protesters, however, as the city we landed in was to have a strike the following day. WE were literally running around the city (catching rides on cyclos) to find permits to enter sikkim, photo copy machines for our visas, and a taxi ride that would take us into Sikkim. We caught the last taxi out, which happened to involve us squeezing into the backseat of a tiny jeep, holding our bags on our lap. We were off on the 6 hour journey on bumpy, unimproved mountain roads, towards the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok. We arrived late at night, and luckily found a room just before the quiet town literally locks all of its doors at 8 pm. We realized after this hectic day, that India is not like SE Asia… you cant just go with the flow. There are too many people, and too many different regulations and limitations to do everything last minute.

We woke up the next day to find ourselves in the beauty of the Himalayas, with incredible views in the midst of this quiet mountain town. I love the province of Sikkim. THe people are unasuming and incredible helpful, and the strict regulations make it seem very much unlike India. It is far less crowded, and things had much more order and cleaniness. We found an agency that would let us join the 8-day trek we had in mind, up to the mountain of Kanchanjunga. We were to join a group of 12 other tourists, leaving from an even SMALLER mountain town.

My entire trip had been filled with ridiculous car ride experiences. Four people on a motorcycle, weaving through the streets of Phnom Penh…. Long bus rides filled with Cambodian tourists with no airconditioning… A sleeper bus in Thailand where an elderly American man slept on my shoulder and I was trapped by the window… Seven hours on a broken down bus… private taxis that were rented with a driver for 20 bucks a day…. tuktuks… cyclos… the list goes on. But nothing compares with that 6 hour journey to Yuksum. Our driver was either drunk or crazy, or maybe both, and he took every hairpin mountain tourn at 100 km/hour. One time a bus was headed straight for us and I literally saw my life flash before my eyes as we narrowly avoided falling off the cliff. We stopped at least 9 times for bathroom breaks, to buy snacks off the side of the road, to yell at school girls walking home, to send messages to their friends, to stretch our legs, to switch drivers. It was a sitcom. But we made it to Yuksum, met with our group, and left the next day on our 8 day trek.

The trek did not begin well for me. I felt fine until lunch time, where I came down quite suddenly with a fever, and some major stomach issues. I had the chance to turn around, but I really did not want to miss out, and kept hiking the tourturous 12 miles to our first hut. There were several times where I thought I would collapse, and I think I was so out of it that I can barely remember most of the journey. I spent the entire 8 days of the trek in that disastrous state, and only upon returning back to America and visiting the doctor, did I discover that I had Giardia. It was the most pain I had ever been in, second only to my broken ankle.

The Himalayas are unlike any mountain range I had ever seen. Steeper, bigger, and more difficult terrain. They are constantly in a cloud, and you are lucky if you get the chance to see the highest peaks. We hiked to a viewpoint where we saw Kanchanjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. Even suffering from Giardia, I could definitely appreciate the miracle of the moment.

After our trek, we went to Darjeeling, where we luckily found a place to stay. Turns out that just a few days before we arrived there, a local politician had been murdered in front of everyone. In fact, one employee at a restuarant we visited, showed me the grousome photo of his neck that had been hacked into by a machete. THe town was protesting it while we were there. Although people kept telling us to be careful, I felt far less danger there than in Delhi, or Mumbai, and it was actually an interesting experience to see the police and protestors occasionally marching through the street.

We spent our three days in Darjeeling reading books, drinking tea, and walking around in the cooler mountain air. It was nice to kind of do nothing while we were there, and just enjoy our last few days in India before we started the trip home.

It took me more than 48 hours of travel to make it back to Denver. We left Darjeeling at 7 am on Friday. We took a 2 hour bus ride to the airport in bagdogra. We had a 2 hour plane ride back to Delhi, followed by a 7 hour layover in the Delhi airport. Val and I split ways for the first time in 4 months, and I flew 10 hours to Frankfurt. I had a 7 hour layover in the Frankfurt airport, where i was shocked by modern bathrooms, internet, newspapers and more. I felt like I had emerged from the twilight zone and was reentering the world again. From Frankfurt I had a 7 hour flight back to Denver, which turned into 10 hours when we made an emergency landing in Montreal. I made it back to Denver finally at 8 pm on Saturday night, and slept more soundly in my family’s westernized bedroom than I had in the last 5 months.

Looking back on it all now, it seemed like a world apart. To relive the every day through my journals and pictures, I am amazed at everything I saw, experienced, and felt. That part of the world is so different from my own. I never stopped being nervous, scared, excited, or confused… And the adjustment back to my life in Estes was a lot harder than I couldve imagined.

Of course I experienced culture shock, but it was more than that. I felt suddenly alone without Val around me all the time… sharing my food, my room, and my life with me. I also felt very startled at the sudden change in lifestyle. Having a car again, seeing my friends and family again, having real life responsibilities again. THe first week I returned, I had to deal with issues like Giardia, a stolen credit card, the purchase of new tires, a $2,000 debt to my parents, finding an apartment,and finding a job. I was overwhelmed by life here as much as life abroad.

There is so much I learned from my experience over there, that I can just now understand. It is more than a compare and contrast between the East and the West, and the contrast between lifestyles, outlooks, personalities, etc. I am no expert, and I feel like I just dipped my toes into the massive lake that is the world, but I have a little understanding of the themes. I now have an idea what poverty is like. I know what overpopulation looks like, and I know what problems can arise (like lack of water and diseases like Giardia). I have seen the negative consequences of mass genocide, and the beautiful personalities of a whole country such as Cambodia. I have seen the positive and negative effects of tourism, the intense contrast between the rich and the poor, and what the difference between a corrupted government and an absent government. THere is so much to learn from other cultures, and while the experience might be incredibly hard, it is priceless. I’m happy now in Estes Park, in my comfortable apartment, my profitable jobs, and my wonderful friends… and I truly get how lucky I am to have this. But the world is still out there, and there is so much more to see and do and learn.

SUNDAY, MAY 9, 2010

On the move

He’res a quick update for anyone who’s interested. We’ve finally left Cambodia and are now on this ridiculously long and lifechanging journey through India.
Our last few days in Cambodia were a little sad, busy, and a lot fun. We had a ton of last minute things to accomplish like visas, job stuff, last minute souvenirs and tailored clothes, as well as some goodbye parties. WE tried to soak up everything we love about Cambodia. Some of my students showed up the night before we left and we had a really fun dinner filled with dancing. Cambodians are definitely the best thing about that country… they are so warm, friendly, open and genuine… I will miss that atmosphere a lot. We said goodbye to all of our Western friends we made. In particular, it was hard to say good bye to Shiloh, our roommate for the previous three months. It was a hectic end, and Val characterized it correctly when she said, “We have to hurry up and have fun”We took a flight to Malaysia where we had a quick taste of Kuala Lampur. We took a bus into the city, had a nice dinner with a random traveler from Poland we met, had a quick sleep, and were back at the airport. Val and I were already talking about all the things in the “real world” we had missed while we were in South East Asia. Such as… Trashcans, water fountains, sidewalks, western chain foods (OK we ate breakfast at Dunkin Doughnuts), air conditioning, and more. Kuala Lampur is a very modern city.

We had a nice 5 hour flight from KL to Mumbai. We got a killer deal for this flight (like less than 100$) because it was the inagural flight of this route for the airline. THe owner of the airline was on the flight, and he went and shook every ones hand. A lot of people posed in a picture with him, which Val and I found odd. When it was our turn to shake his hand, he actually took a picture of me because I was sitting backwards on the airplane instead of forward. Look for me on the next Air Asia advertisement.

Mumbai… holy cow. I have spent the last months living in poverty stricken cambodia, and surviving, so I thought I could take anything. Mumbai is the biggest city in the world with somewhere between 15 and 20 millino people living on this tiny island. That is the theme of the city… overcrowdedness. People bustling everywhere. Its a wonderful sight though and anytime we drive anywhere I cant pull my eyes away from the people. They are so colorful, with even the poorest wearing sequenced saris and hindi dots on the forehead. Theres also quite a sizeable muslim population. THe typically wear all white and you see a lot of women covered from head to foot, with only their eyes showing. I’ve been taking many pictures, but it seems that Indians are just as curious about us, as we are about them. People stare at us wherever we go (especially men) and a lot take ouir picture. Some even come up and ask to pose for a picture with us. We’re lucky because we are staying with a friend of our from college, so we have the ability to see many parts of the city that typical tourists don’t get to visit. WE’ve had the culinary tour of our life.. Each night a new 5 star restaurant serving a different variety of indian food. Taha, our friend we are staying with, does all the ordering so most of the time I have no idea what it is I’m eating… I know theres Chutney, a lot of Naan and other “bread” things, lots of things with lentils… and some other stuff. I will post some pictures as soon as I can and maybe some of you guys can help me identify.

Everything is wonderful. Our next step will take us to Delhi and Agra to see the Taj Mahal. After that, we are headed to the Himalayas. We’re no longer going to Nepal because of the Maoist protests occuring there. Instead we’re going to Darjeeling for hopefully a similar experience.

INCREDIBLE INDIA!

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 28, 2010

Vietnam

In April, Cambodians have a one week holiday called Khmer New Year. It’s not as exciting as you might think… there are no parties in the streets, fireworks, or water fights like in Thailand. Most Khmers head home to their provinces and the city pretty much shuts down. We took the opportunity to travel to Vietnam for a week.Val’s mom was visiting (HOORAH!), so we had a girls trip consisting of Val, her mom, our roommate Shiloh, and our friend Christine. The five of us took a boat down the Mekong River on a three day cruise into Vietnam. I have a new ranking of preferable travel methods:
#1 – Boat. How amazing!! Freedom to walk around, fresh air, an unspoilt look at fields and houses along the river. It was so incredibly relaxing, and everything seemed effortless.

Our boat took us to a couple of River towns — Chau Doc and Can Tho. We were on a tour and it was laughably touristy, but we got to see interesting things like fish farms, weavers, a floating market, rice factories, and the inside of a REAL VIETNAMESE HOUSE (just kidding… kinda strange they took us there). I didn’t mind the tour so much because I got to see a lot of the culture and didn’t have to think for an entire three days about transportation, housing, or activities. Priceless, really.

We finally arrived in Saigon, where we spent a whirlwind 24 hours. My favorite experience was a visit to a water puppet show, which is a typical vietnamese experience and very entertaining. Shiloh and I spent our day touring around the city with our friend Eileen, who also did the languagecorps program. We saw her apartment, and she showed us a little of her life there — what she eats at the market, where she finds good homemade beer, and she even took us for a spin on her moto. We spent the afternoon visiting the Vietnam War Museum (the Vietnamese call it “The American War”), which was mostly depressing. They really held nothing back, and I was pretty revolted at the pictures of napalm bombings, decapitated bodies, and dead babies. I guess they got their point across. It was also propaganda at it’s best… which I expected from Communist Vietnam, but the anti-American sentiment was overwhelming. It was odd because aside from the war museum, barely anyone mentions the war and there is absolutely no hard feelings towards Americans. Pretty strange that 25 years later, your children can be tourists in a country that was your enemy. Can you imagine if in 25 years my children go as a tourist to Iraq?? I hope they do.

We escaped the heat of Saigon to the beautiful mountains of Dalat. This was a major French outpost during Vietnam’s colonial period, and most of the architecture and lifestyle still represents that time. There’s even a miniature Eiffel tower. The best thing about this city, however, was the WEATHER! Beautiful, marvelous, cold weather, where I actually had to buy a sweater. Dalat is also surrounded by mountains, so the first day we took a short trip to a nearby “mountain,” known to anyone in Colorado as a hill. It took us about 4 hours to scramble to the steep summit, and was about 8 miles total. The view was beautiful and my favorite part was the smell of the pine trees that covered the hillside. I was in heaven–cold weather, mountains, and pine trees. To top it off, Dalat is known for it’s wine. It was no French wine, but definitely the best I’ve had in South East Asia.

On our second day in Dalat we rented motorbikes with an American tourist who was motorbiking through the country. He served as our guide as we whizzed around the mountains on rented motobikes.
My 2nd favorite form of transportation — MOTORBIKES! They are so fun, especially on the winding roads of a mountainside. The views were incredible, and the motorbikes gave us the freedom to explore a lake we spotted, and a beautiful temple set into the hillside. We went as far as a viewpoint that stretched to the Pacific Ocean. Great day, although Shiloh and I got rather nasty and unattractive looking sunburns on our thighs and hands.

I was reluctant to leave the amazing Dalat weather, but we took a bus down to Moi Ne, a coastal vacation town in southern Vietnam. Untouched beaches, cheap resort pool, and good company made it an easy day of relaxing on the beach, writing post cards, and reading. Finally it was time to head back to Phnom Penh, and Christine and I jumped on a bus early Saturday morning, expecting to reach our homes that night. When we arrived in Saigon to catch a connecting bus, we discovered every bus was sold out for the rest of the day, and we had to wait until tomorrow where we scored the last two seats on a bus leaving for Phnom Penh. We were surprised because every moment of our trip in Vietnam had been so effortless thus far– we had found the exact transportation with the perfect schedule, we found cheap places to stay with no trouble… everything had been ideal. Christine and I bunkered down for the night in a hotel room and made the best of our extra night in Saigon.

This brings me to by #3 and all time least favorite EVER form of transportation…. bus rides. The bus ride began OK… we crossed the border with no problems, and we even had good air conditioning and a bathroom on board. We thought we were lucky. Our problems arose when we came to the ferry that crosses the Mekong to reach the city of Phnom Penh. Because it was the end of the biggest Cambodian holiday, everyone was coming back to the city and there was a line of cars waiting to board the ferry that was SEVERAL kilometers long. We didn’t think it was that big of a deal, until we noticed that in the first 2 hours, we barely moved 100 feet. SEVEN HOURS LATER…. we finally made it onto the ferry. Seven hours, in busy traffic, a now-smelly bathroom, in the heat of the hottest month in Cambodia… torturous.

In the end, it was a wonderful trip and I would recommend a vacation in Vietnam for anyone. It’s a beautiful country, and perhaps my favorite in South East Asia so far.

We’re on the last week of our time in Cambodia now, with only 6 days left before we begin our 5 week long journey back to America.
My itinerary: Phnom Penh–Kuala Lampur–Mumbai–Delhi–Kathmandu–Mt. Everest–Delhi–London–Washington DC/Lancaster–ESTES PARK!

We’re excited for our adventures to come and also excited to see everyone at home seemingly soon. I’m craving mountains, and am looking forward to that most of all. Miss you all!!!

TUESDAY, APRIL 20, 2010

dtuc chran (THE FLOOD)

“Dtuc Chran” literally translates to English as “Water A lot”. In Khmer, there aren’t as many vocabulary words to describe things. For example ice is “Dtuc Kohr” or “water hard”. Dtuc Chran was the latest phrase we learned in Khmer, when we got stuck in the most hilarious, intense, world-ending rainstorm of my life.
The rain started after an incredibly muggy morning in Phnom Penh, and came constant and heavy. Val was cursing it as she bundled up in her hiking boots and rain jacket to trudge to work. I laughed a lot at the ridiculousness of her appearance, and watched as she walked down the road, holding her head down against the pounding rain. She returned less than a minute later completely drenched. She didn’t make it 100 feet before a car drove by and completely soaked her from head to foot.
I was loving the rain, and so I convinced Val to play hookie, and go for a walk in the rain. It wasn’t just a spring rainfall, but a powerful thunderstorm. Lightning struck nearby and made us jump. Once lightning struck so close and the thunder was so loud, that I actually screamed. The rain was coming so fast, and the streets of Phnom Penh are not very well equiped to handle it. Within minutes, the street was completely flooded. As we walked around the block, we watched the water rise steadily, overflowing over the sidewalks an into people’s houses. It only rained for an hour and it was absolute mayhem. I can only imagine what it is like when it rains for 10 hours during the rainy season.
The best part was seeing how rain brings everything to a stop in Phnom Penh. Everyone was staring out from their balconies and doorways watching it, but there was no one in the streets. As Val and I tramped around in our rain jackets and hiking boots, everyone shouted to us. They all thought we were insane, and cheered loudly or laughed to see us walking along.
Very few motos, tuktuks, or cars braved the streets, but those that did had a lot of trouble. At one intersection, the water was up to our knees, and we watched as multiple motos got stuck in it. Some boys who were riding three-deep on a moto had to jump off and push themselves out of the flowing river that was once a street. I laughed with two ladies who were trying to bike through the river, and of course they failed miserably, but it was all so ridiculous and hilarious that everyone kept laughing.
The rain wasn’t letting up any time soon, so Val and I sat on the corner restaurant and ordered a delicious Ice coffee (Instant coffee mixed with Ice and condensed milk… tastes more like melted coffee ice cream). We watched as kids played soccer, Business men held their breifcases above their heads, tuktuks stalled in the rain, and a woman pulled an entire umbrella out of a sewer where the water was so deep you couldn’t even see the umbrella in the first place. The country is certainly not equipped with proper draining facilities, and we were even more dismayed as we saw that all the trash that people throw on the ground or put outside their house gets swept up in the flood as well. We also witnessed a man peeing in the streets, which is not a new sight for me, but made all the more worse when we know it is added to that dirty, polluted water that everyone has to walk through when it rains. After discussing this, Val and I went home to shower.
It was a fun time to watch everything halt in Phnom Penh, and also enjoy the slightly cooler weather brought by the rainstorm.

TUESDAY, APRIL 6, 2010

Happy Easter

Val, Shiloh and I decided that we had to celebrate Easter in some way… so we packed a picnic and headed to Mekong Island, which is a popular beach destination a little north of Phnom Penh on the Mekong River.

Val walking out on the boardwalk towards the edge of the Mekong River, which you can see in the distance.
Since we were all a little low on funds, our Easter picnic was quite basic. We had 3 hard boiled eggs, a loaf of bread, 3 bananas, and some Cambodian wine coolers. We found a tuktuk driver, who we knew fairly well, to drive us the 45 minutes on Cambodian dirt roads. We had to take a ferry across the river to get to the island. Everyone else was Khmer, and we were immediately bombarded by people trying to sell us silks, mangos, and everything else. They lingered next ot us the entire day, and it was slightly unnerving.
A man we met at a roadside stop on the tuktuk drive to the island.
Val has a stare down with one of the many children that lingered next to our bungalow for the entire day.
Mr. Lee, our tuktuk driver, buys some easter eggs. At least we liked to pretend the easter bunny brought them. In reality they are filled with baby chicken fetuses.
The beach was rustic, to say the least, but was still comfortable. We sat under bamboo huts and ate our picnic. The water was pleasantly warm, and we found seashells from the Mekong River to bring home with us. Val and I made friends with a few boys and played some volleyball for a while… although it was comically bad and the ball was so deflated it was like playing with a lump of rubber.

Shiloh and I, underneath the bamboo bungalow.
It was an interesting way to spend our Easter, but definitely the right way to celebrate it in Cambodia!

THURSDAY, APRIL 1, 2010

The day to day

I wanted to share with you all some of the things I do here on a day to day basis… including some of my friends, my job, and our latest Phnom Penh activities.

As I write this, I’m sitting at our usual swimming pool hangout, but I’ve actually been diving full force into the Khmer traditions, and learning a lot more about what it means to live in Phnom Penh. One of my favorite new activities are my Saturdays that I spend out at the Harpswell Foundation. This is an organization that supports the brightest women from the provinces who want to get an education, but cannot afford to live in the city. The foundation gives them housing, motobikes, and scholarships to study everything from accounting and business, to medicine and law. The girls are shy, but extremely nice. They serve us lunch and we have a chance to talk to them about their goals, the role of women in Cambodia, and what they do for fun (which is have dance parties… all the time).

Here is the front porch of the Harpswell Dormitory. Val is continuing the education outside the classroom, so it seems.
Lunch with the girls. They eat all of their meals on the floor, and usually consist of rice, with a vegetable soup of some kind. Also on the menu was fried fish. The girls take turns cooking, cleaning, going to the market, and other chores. It seems well-run and organized, and the girls support eachother in this community that they will live in for the 4 years they have at their universities.
Here is the classroom we teach in at Harpswell. With only 2 lessons so far, we’re just now getting an understanding for their english level, and what is the most beneficial type of lesson. Last week I taught a class on health care. We read a few paragraphs about sickness and health, and learned some new vocabulary like contagious, epidemic, disease… and sayings like “It will be worth it” and “meanwhile”. For homework, i assigned Barack Obama’s speech on health care, and told them to come up with their own opinion about the role of government in health care. It was fun to develop the lesson plan, and use current events to teach english.
Even though it feel like my job at Pannasastra University just started, we have a 3 week break for the Khmer New Year. I’m happy to have more free time, but I already miss my students. It was wonderful getting to know them. Most of them were about 20 years old, and were very smart. There were doctors, dentist assistance, NGO workers, and more… Some needed english to continue their studies in other universities, and others needed better english for the jobs they already have. It was wonderful to see them every day, get to know them, and help them improve. They took their final exams on Tuesday, and I’m now in the process of grading 90 exams. On wednesday, one of my classes took me out to dinner to celebrate. We went out to a traditional Khmer restaurant called “BBQ Party.” We cooked our food on the table in front of us. They showed me how to use my chopsticks, and we cooked shrimp, beef, and vegetables in pig fat over a grill. For dessert, we had this weird slimey jello thing that wasn’t very sweet. My students were wonderful. They couldn’t stop taking pictures with me, giving eachother cheers, and talking and laughing. For them, it has been 2 years together in english class, and they are now receiving their diplomas. I was really honored to be a part of their celebration, and even more touched when they gave me a few presents of a scarf and a beautiful wooden carving of an Apsara dancer.
One of my favorite students, Ti.
My morning level 3 class, who is learning writing. They are really fun and actually better english speakers than my level 4 class. Peace signs all around!
We had a party on one of our last days…. Sithika brought a guitar, and they sang some songs in English. We ate PB&J crackers, and crackers with cheese. I found most of the cheese crackers in the trash can on my way out…. Cambodians apparently aren’t huge fans.
Dinner with my level 4 class for our ending party. Chan, the girl on my left, is adorable and told me a lot about the role of women in society.
Dika and Mony, showing me what’s for dinner and how to manouver with the chopsticks.
Fresh shrimp, vegetable patties, and veggies. Typical.
Gift giving. Complete with a card where they all professed their love for me.

Two of my favorite students, Dika and Chan.
Pre-party photos in front of our University. Lucy is their other teacher who teaches them writing. I felt a little underdressed next to her. Also, notice the hand signals in these pictures. If you’re traveling to Asia soon, you better learn some of them.

Pannasastra University of Cambodia… Chatanimuk Campus. There are 4 campuses around Phnom Penh. Luckily I taught at the one that is right around the corner from my house. I could easily walk in 5 minutes, but often my students often to take me on their moto.
Two of my students brought Val and I to Psar Toul Tom Poung market in Phnom Penh, where they could help us navigate. They bargained for us, because as a westerner it’s hard to get a fair price in the market. They also told us about the traditional use for things, their history, and their culture. They are both 19 years old, and are incredibly sweet. As a thank you, Val and I took them out to lunch for some western food, and it was fun showing them about cheese. They also seemed surprised that we ate different food for breakfast. In Cambodia, Breakfast lunch and dinner is the same… Rice with meat and vegetables or Noodles with meat and vegetables.
Lida and Ti, trying out western food.
Val’s mom comes next wednesday, and then a week from Saturday we will be heading to Vietnam. I’m excited to do some more traveling. I hope to have some good stories for you when we get back!
I have some more pictures that I will be uploading to facebook, once I get things more organized. It’s really nice to share these with all of you, and thanks for reading!

MONDAY, MARCH 8, 2010

Our friends, and guides for the weekend.

“Are you happy??”

Valerie and I just returned from a weekend retreat, which took us to the Mondelkiri province in East Cambodia near the border with Vietnam. We went on this retreat with Valerie’s school, where 200 staff members on 4 buses journied to this little province known for its waterfalls, mounatins, and hill tribes. Valerie and I jumped at the opportunity to get out of the busy city of Phnom Penh and see more of what the countryside of Cambodia looked like for the long weekend we had due to women’s day. Little did we know that a retreat with a bunch of Khmers would immerse us so deeply in the culture, and provide us with so many interesting stories and amusing experiences. All weekend, we were constantly asked “Are you happy??” The answer was always yes, but what I really wanted to say was, “Yes, but I’m also hot, nauseous, uncomfortable, exhausted, confused…”Valerie and I sat at the back of a large greyhound bus, and immediately noticed that we were the only westerners. We had no idea what was in store for us for the next 3 days, but we knew it was going to be an adventure as soon as one of the teachers grabbed a microphone and didn’t stop talking for the next 9 hours. He spoke only in khmer, and alternated between telling stories, jokes, and singing songs. Sometimes other people would stand up and sing a song A Cappella. At one point someone brought out a megaphone, which produced a call and answer session. They asked us to join in and sing a song, but val and I refused. Val toyed with the idea of singing Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak my Heart” but we decided against it. We left at 5 am in the morning, but didn’t arrive until 4 pm that afternoon, due to two hour-long meal breaks, and many other “pee pee and poo poo breaks” (as one lady called it) which consisted of everyone walking out into an open field to relieve themself. On one of these breaks I got out to use the bathroom, but I was extremely nervous because it is in this part of the region where there are thousands of landmines left over from the Americans during the Vientam war. I couldn’t decide which was worse… peeing in sight of 200 Cambodians or taking a chance with the landmines.

We arrived to our hotel, and moved into our room which we shared with 2 other teachers. They spoke good english, but we still had to speak slowly and carefully with them. They were very nice, always sharing food and asking us questions about where we came from. It was a learning experience to sleep so closely with them, and we discovered many differences in culture. We received several confused looks when we didnt eat a full breakfast of rice and pork every morning, or when we didn’t shower 4 times a day, as they did. Our roommates seemed to be very concerned about us waking up in the morning. We were required to meet on the bus at 7 am, after having eaten breakfast, so Val and I set our alarm for 6:15. Our roommates woke up at 5:30, and asked us every 10 minutes whether we were going to wake up, yet. Our frustration continued when we were ready to go by 7 am, but due to the many pictures being photographed and excursions to breakfast, we didn’t end up leaving until 8 am. Val and I had no idea what the itinerary or schedule was for the weekend, so we relied on several of the teachers to shuffle us around. Everyone was always concerned about our well-being: “Have you eaten breakfast?” “Did you sleep well?” “Did you have a bath?” “Don’t miss the bus!” and “Are you happy??”

Eating meals was a stressful experience, but we relied on a few other teachers who kind of took us under their wing. They spoke great english, and I learned many interesting things about cambodian culture and history through long conversations with them. For meals, these four teachers always sat with us, ordered for us, and told us exactly how much to pay. Even after they helped us, we survived only by eating rice, bread, bananas and pringles. The alternatives were not pretty. By the end of the weekend, we had eaten (or more correctly, nibbled at): boar meat, boar skin (thick and chewy….), deer meat, questionable beef, chicken with its head and claws still attached, cow liver (we also had the option here of eating cow lung, stomach, and intestines, but we refused), a giant spider (tarantula-sized), fried bugs, sticky rice in a bamboo shoot, sugar cane, and few other treats that our friends offered to us. It was a culinary adventure, and I’m sure you won’t blame us for the fact that as soon as we got back home, we ordered pizza immediately.

The province was beautiful. We visited a few waterfalls that were spectacular even now, in the dry season. We drove to the top of a “mountain”, which was really more of a hill but offered a beautiful view of the countryside. I learned that Cambodia used to be over 75% forest, but now due to de-forestation it is reduced to under 40%. They’ve lost their native species of rhino, and they’re close to losing most of their tigers. This area was impacted hard from the Vietnam War, and the Cambodian civil war where it was a major strong-hold for the Khmer Rouge. We also got some upclose looks at the native people here, who still travel between villages by elephants. They look extremely poor, and their houses are both picturesque and shockingly simple. To get to all of these remote and desolate destinations, we took the huge passenger bus. It was a little comical, driving along a dusty and bumpy road through the wilderness, over tiny bridges and through villages made of straw houses, in our huge 18-wheel buses. There was a thick red dust on everything (literally, you could wipe it off of the clothes and the seats in front of you), and Val and I even put on the surgical masks that Cambodians often wear, to avoid swollowing massive amounts of the red dirt. I still have a coat on my feet that will take a few more scrubings to get rid of. I’m sure we looked dirty, sweaty and very unkempt, but it seemed that everyone wanted a picture with us. We were constantly being pulled around to be in a photograph, and were asked by total strangers whether they could take a picture with us. There were times where we would just unload the buses to take photos next to a non-descript tree or building. After this weekend, I think Val and I could appear in as many as 30 different family albums, where they will be shown to friends and family, accompanied with the saying “These were those weird foriegners who came to the province with us.”

Sunday night there was a party, and Val and I joined in the fun of drinking and dancing. The dancing was all in khmer, and we learned how to do the traditional dance of moving your wrists, as you shuffle in a circle with the group around the dance floor. Just so you know, it’s not about your wrists, it’s about your feet. Val and I were exhausted after a full day of intense tourism, and we both fell asleep at the table waiting for the party to be over.

The experience was definitely unique and interesting, and although at times I wanted to shout, “What is going on!??!?” I really enjoyed having a closer look at Cambodian culture.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 2010

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and The Interesting

The Good: I HAVE A JOB!! I HAVE A JOB!!!! Last week I took a moto all over town and dropped off resumes at many different schools. I still haven’t heard back from a lot of them, but PUC (Panasatra University of Cambodia) called me back today and offered me 22.5 hours per week (which is pretty much full time in Cambodia). I’m psyched because it is probably the best school I could’ve gotten a job at… It’s a language school, and pretty professional. Most of the LanguageCorps instructors also teach a few classes at this school. The students are mostly adults, and are pretty motivated to learn since they pay their own money to come to class. I’ll find out tomorrow more specific information – like what level, what times of the day, stuff like that. But for now, I’m just content knowing that I’ll be getting a paycheck every week!Other good: I bought a bicylce, so I can cruise around town. Also, our apartment is pretty sweet… a great location for us to visit with all of our friends, and Val and Shiloh are fantastic roommates.

The Bad: My bike is already broken… That’s Cambodia for you. The first day I got it, I rode it out to see Shiloh and her school (about a 30 minute trip), and on the way back the seat broke off. Well, more like bent. It appears the seat is made out of springs… very weak springs. Luckily the kindness of Khmer people showed itself, and a few old guys working in a car parts shop came out and fixed it for me free of charge. Well, not exactly fixed it, but made it possible to ride home. It’s still not fixed, and actually is quite uncomfortable to ride, so hopefully tomorrow I’ll get that taken care of.

More bad… our house has been invaded by ants. No matter what we do, they return. We even put all of our food in the fride, take our trash our every night, and they find a way. We like to joke that our hygene standards have been significantly lowered since moving to Cambodia.

The Ugly: I got sick this weekend. Utterly and horribly ill… the worst type of sickness you could imagine. On saturday I could barely open my eyes, and today (monday) I still feel quite fatigued. That 3rd world food isn’t so wonderful sometimes. Luckily, I brought plenty of antibiotics with me, and 5 day dosage should make me new.

The Interesting: Friday night, Val, Shiloh and I spent the night on the town, and met some friends at a bar around the corner from our house. The occasion? A drag show. The most elaborate costumes i’ve ever seen on a man (or a woman). Glitzy dresses, fancy makeup, big wigs. They danced on the bar and sang songs like whitney houston and mariah carey. There were solos, duets, role plays… needless to say, it was quite an experience.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2010

the coastal island of Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi is an island of the Andaman Coast (the western side) of southern Thailand.

Traveling to Koh Phi Phi was quite an adventure in itself. Minibus-train-bus-anotherbus-taxi-ferry-longboat, and voila, 27 hours later I’m on an island in paradise. No one said it would be easy…
The island has beaches spread throughout, but most are only accessible by boat. There are no roads, and the town is a maze of paths littered with clothing shops, souvenir stands, restaurants, 7/11 stores, bars and more. It is not your traditional thailand scene, that is for sure. We stayed at a resort on one of the more secluded beaches, called Long Beach. It was a much nicer beach, mostly filled with families, couples, and older people, and it was nice to escape the craziness that is the main part of the island. It was a 45 minute hike (purposefully I avoid the word walk, here) to the main part of town. Literally it was a truudge along the beach, a treacherous climb up a slope equipped with ropes, more paths through the jungle, more beach walking, and then navigating through the chaos that is town. It was a fun trip though so we made it every day to socialize a bit (mostly with australians and europeans… there were surprisingly few americans on this island).

The island itself was unreal. Sheer cliffs of jungle, interrupted by white sand and green and blue waters. The water was warm, and the sand so clean and bright. When I went swimming, fish swam everywhere about me… schools of colorful fish of all different sizes. We took a snorkeling trip to the smaller islands around us and there was plenty to look at under the sea… plants and fish everywhere. To see the other islands we went on a tour in a long boat (a long fishing boat with a long rutter that is manouvered in and out of the water). One island is famous from the movie “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio. It was shockingly beautiful, but it’s unfortunate that it has been discovered by tourists… There were so many of them (literally thousands) that you couldn’t even see the sand. We went to some smaller beaches and islands… one rightly named Monkey Island because it was filled with monkeys hanging from the trees and snatching food offered to them by tourists. That beach was my favorite… not as touristy and a nice atmosphere. Unfortunately for me, this day I decided I would forgo sunscreen on my back, and as punishment suffered the next day. I’m sporting a nice tan now, though, so don’t feel too bad for me.
We spent 4 nights and 5 days on the island, and it was a paradise, but I was definitely ready to leave. There’s only so much sunbathing and reading one can do before it gets a little old. (As a side note, with the amount of traveling and vacationing I’ve been doing, I’ve finished 10 books since I’ve arrived…). The trip back from Koh Phi Phi to Phnom Penh was even worse. It goes like this: long boat-ferry-taxi-overnight bus-taxi-airplane-tuktuk. The worst was that the overnight bus was packed full of people (designed for tiny asian people). I spent a sleepless night shoving off an old American traveler who kept resting his head on my shoulder, and kicking the seat in front of me because the guy reclined his seat right onto my lap. By the time we reached Bangkok at 5:30 AM, I was less than thrilled. My flight wasn’t scheduled until 1:30 pm, but luckily I arrived to the airport early enough to catch the 7:30 AM flight.
While I was off touring around Thailand, Val was busy here in Phnom Penh making friends, interviewing and finding us a place to live. She found us a BEAUTIFUL apartment in a good part of the city… We have a nice balcony, 3 large bedrooms (we live with our friend Shiloh as well), a large living room, wireless internet, air conditioning, cable TV, a nice kitchen… it’s perfect. and the price? 350/month. split 3 ways. Currently we have 2 friends of ours staying here for a few weeks, so things are even cheaper than that. Tomorrow I will explore the neighborhood a little more, and hopefully set up some interviews for some jobs. It seems not too difficult… most schools are looking for young white American girls to interview, so it sounds like I fit the bill.
I’m glad I had a chance to see Thailand… it’s a beautiful country with a lot to offer, good food, and an interesting culture. However, I feel like it’s already been discovered by the tourists of the world. Cambodia seems much more untouched by western culture. It was strange to feel like I was coming home again as I drove back from the airport… but the city is inviting, in its own dirty underdeveloped way. The people are friendly, things are way cheaper even than Thailand, and it’s retained some of its culture that hasn’t been commercialized for the effect of tourists. It’s good to be back.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2010

Kanchanaburi

Well, I’ve been traveling for one month now, but I finally feel like I’m on vacation. Kanchanaburi is a town (and province) two hours west of Bangkok. I decided to spend a few days here visiting my friend Molly, and seeing some of the ecotourist side of Thailand.Kanchanaburi’s claim to fame is the bridge over river Kwai… there are a lot of museums here that talk about the area during world war 2. I visited the JEATH Museum, which showed pictures and gave info about the several thousand POWs (mostly Australian) who died here, and the thousands of Thais as well. Most died from diseases and inadequate medical supplies. It has an interesting story for those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the movie. The POWs were being driven by the japonese to work 18 hours per day, but living in terror of being bombed by the Americans.

Kanchanaburi also has quite a selection of ecotourist excursions. I signed up for one, and left on a day trip with a small group made up of swiss, german, french, and british travelers… It was a good group and I made some new friends. We spent the morning at a waterfall called Erawan waterfall. I’ve been to a few waterfalls in my traveling, and this is by far the best. At times I thought it was fake. I hiked to the top, which took about an hour, then on the way down I stopped to swim in a few of the pools. The waterfalls had some natural rock slides, so we had some fun climbing up and sliding down. There are fish in the pools, both big and small, that swarm to you when you swim, and eat your dead skin off. It feels like theyre nibbling at your skin, and while it only just tickles, the occasional big fish takes a bite that stings.

After lunch, we went to an elephant camp, where I rode on the back of an elephant named, boombay. I got to sit on her head, while the tourguide walked ahead. At first it was a little frightening, but she walked so slow and had such a sturdy step that I wasn’t worried about falling off any longer. I think elephants are fascinating, and it was fun to see them up close.
We had a few other stops on the tour, including a bamboo raft, and a train ride on the “death railway” (the one built by POWs during WW2).

Back in town, I met up with Molly, and the Thai “mother” she lives with, Peoria. They took me out to dinner, and showed me some new thai dishes that are delicious (som dtam plaad grobe, moo yan, ptom yon goon….. translated this is spicy papaya salad with crispy fish, fried pork slices with sticky rice, and a mushroom and shrimp soup). It’s nice to have people around who know what to order… and for cheap too! After dinner we met up with some other teachers that work with Molly. A guy from scotland, a guy from Turkey, and a girl from Germany. They were all interesting and had positive teaching experiences to share with me.

I’ve spent some time exploring the city here too… My first day I rented a bicycle and cruised around town. It was nice to be out of the crowded cities of Pattaya and Bangkok, and see the rural countryside of Thailand. Today, Molly and I rented motobikes and cruised up through the mountains and on some backroads. It was a lot of fun to see the people working in the rice fields, driving goats across the road, rural temples that are being overgrown with plants, roosters strutting around. Everything was picturesque. And then there’s the motobike… Extremely fun and a bit frightening all at the same time. We rented the bikes for 3$ each… they weren’t difficult to drive, but it was still interesting to navigate the roads. Driving on the left, passing others and being passed, trying to read signs written in thai. It was tons of fun. Molly and I stopped at a small restaurant on the side of the road for dinner… There was no one else around, we sat on the side of the road under grass canopies, and watched the sun go down behind the river. Unreal.

Tomorrow I’m taking a minibus to Bangkok, an overnight train to Surat Thani, a bus to Krabi, and a ferry to Koh Phi Phi (an island in southern thailand). It will be almost 24 hours of traveling… yikes. Wish me luck!

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2010

Bangkok

Val and I spent the weekend in Bangkok. We took a bus from Pattaya to Bangkok on Friday afternoon, which only took us about 2 hours, so it was pretty painless. However, navigating through Bangkok was not so painless. Bangkok has 11 million people, and seems infinitely large. There are many different neighborhoods, and no easy public transportation system. Luckily, taxis aren’t too expensive (the most we paid was 8$… typically it is 3$), but they’re stressful in their own way. Since they don’t speak english, it’s hard to tell them where you want to go. On top of that, it seems like they’re always trying to get a little more money from you… taking wrong turns, bargaining a price that differs from the meter, trying to get you to stop at a market so they can get a ‘coupon’ from their friends…. overall incredibly stressful. We didn’t get into any trouble, but we did stay pretty suspicious of everyone. I’m happy to be back in a city where I can walk places and the motos and baht buses are pretty reliable.
Bangkok is also crowded. So ridiculously crowded. Stand still traffic at all times of the day. Sidewalks so full of people that you have to walk on the road. Not at all pleasant.It’s not all bad news, though… you get the feeling that Bangkok has a lot of interesting places, surprises around each corner, interesting people to look at, and other unique findings. We spent a lot of time just looking around at everything. It was overly stimulating.

Friday night we met up with my friend Molly who is living in Kanchanaburi teaching english. We went to Kao San Road, which is a famous tourist road filled with many bars, and people… plus little shops and carts selling cool looking souvenirs and clothes. Val and I bought a few things and practiced our bargaining skills, which I’m not so great at. We met up with a few other American English teachers living in bangkok, and it was fun to hear their stories and get some more info about life in bangkok.
Saturday morning we did the tourist thing… We visited the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha. Very beautiful architecture and detail. After, we took a water taxi up to a different neighborhood in Bangkok, where we visited the biggest market in Thailand. It was sensory overload as well, and who knew there was so much “stuff” for sale. Anything you could imagine… clothes, trinkets, toys, paintings, dishware, food… all laid out in stalls, some surprisingly close together. It was fun to explore, and we definitely got lost in the maze of things and were lucky to find our way out.
Saturday night we went out again. I’m not even sure what neighborhood we were in… but it had bright lights, many bars, and stuff for sale. Which describes many many streets in bangkok. Molly was great at showing us new things we could eat… chicken on a stick, sticky rice, papaya salad (my favorite), fried spicy fish (we think it was fish….), roasted nuts, and more… I want to try more street food because its cheap and delicious, but there aren’t menus, i don’t speak thai, and sometimes I’m not quite sure what it is that is for sale.

For the future… Val and I have decided to return to Cambodia to teach English. While thailand is interesting, the timing and job market in Phnom Penh is much much better. Also, some of our friends from the languagecorps program stayed there and it is a good community of people. Val left today to finish her student teaching there. I will finish my student teaching in Pattaya, travel for ten days in Thailand, and then go back to Cambodia too. For anyone that was dying to visit me in Thailand, you should reconsider Cambodia! It’s cheap, and its more rustic… its like Thailand 20 years ago.

That’s all for now… I’d love to hear from everyone else, so send me an email when you have time!!

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