A Travellerspoint blog

January in Siem Reap

So far this year is has been really busy! I finally got a chance to meet one of the founders of the school, Danny Spitler, so there was lots of planning and meetings for the first week of the month.

One of the regular donors to Spitler School, Global ADE, recently built a beautiful middle school in a nearby village. The founder of this organization is a young guy still in college who has done amazing work here. His mom visited Cambodia several years ago and her guide was Chea Sarin. It’s incredible that Sarin has been the motivation and inspiration for so much progress in these rural villages. Neither Spitler School nor I would be here if not for him.

Anyway, I was invited to the middle school’s grand opening celebration- lots of speeches and local dignitaries, performances by the Spitler Apsara dancers and the band from a school in town. Sadly, the major donor for the school was inspired by a heartbreaking event. He and his partner were touring the temples while on vacation and were, like so many others, awed by their history and beauty, touched by the warmth and joy of the Khmer people and saddened by the poverty. As they continued their tour on to Angkor Wat, the most majestic of temples, they headed up steep steps to the top floor. This area, which represents heaven, is particularly beautiful as the walls are adorned with bas relief carvings of Apsara dancers, each one different and more beautiful than the next. It was here that tragedy struck and one of the men collapsed and died. Buddhists believe that this is the closest place on earth to Nirvana, so it is a particularly sacred place to die. Such a sad story, but wonderful to see this school built in his memory.

On a happier note, the US Ambassador to Cambodia visited Spitler School with some friends this month. The Ambassador has been a friend of the school for a couple of years and it was an honor to meet him.

I’m enjoying my apartment and getting to know my new neighborhood, but some things take getting used to. For example: the trash has to be put in the building’s main trash bin by 5 pm. One day I was late getting it out, so just put it in the trash basket outside my front door. In the middle of the night I heard sounds of rustling and I thought, oh geez, a rat is in the damn trash. Do I just let it be or scare it away? I got up and headed toward the door, still not sure what I was going to do when I realized the noise was coming from some plastic bags INSIDE my apartment. What the hell do I do now? Ignoring it was not an option so, my heart pounding, I kick the bag and out scurries a palmetto bug the size of my hand. I beat it to total death with a flip flop and went back to bed wondering what I would have done if it had been a rat. I really hope I don’t ever have to answer that question.

Also, the infrastructure for electricity isn’t even close to OSHA regulations. There’s no such thing as grounding and wires are willy nilly everywhere, so it’s gamble whenever I plug anything in. In addition to that, the hot water heater is on a wall inside the shower and the switch is in the direct path of the water which I always thought was a very scary place for it. Sure enough, I’m in the shower and I hear a pop at the switch, sparks fly out and smoke starts pouring out. I ran out and got a wooden broom to turn the smoking switch off. Then I’m thinking- how do I call the fire department? Is there even such a thing as a fire department? Fortunately, there was no fire, because no one seems to know whether or not there is a fire department, so I’m guessing there isn’t. Not surprised.

A couple of weeks ago, two young women on a moto got hit by a drunk driver in a Lexus. He turned out to be a rich attorney so he just paid off the cops and drove away (very typical). Both girls’ legs were pretty much shattered and of course they cannot afford a hospital. But, one of the nice things about Siem Reap is the really strong expat community, so the local Food Coop held a big fundraiser - music, food, drinks, henna tattoos, massages … and enough money was raised to pay for their operations and aftercare and the girls now have a very good chance of a complete recovery.

I went to my first Khmer birthday party last week- such fun! Great food and although I couldn’t communicate with 95% of the people there, I had a great time. We had lots of toasts with beer- the Khmer word for “Cheers” is “Chul Mui” – you have be careful with the pronunciation because a very similar sounding phrase “Chuy Mui” means “f--- me once”!

Tomorrow I’m off to Myanmar for vacation! Lucky, lucky me!

The new Middle School

The new Middle School


Oh hey, I know the Ambassador!

Oh hey, I know the Ambassador!


Music at the Coop fundraiser

Music at the Coop fundraiser


Monks and bodyguards

Monks and bodyguards


Governor of Siem Reap province

Governor of Siem Reap province


Accordion boy!

Accordion boy!


More band shots!

More band shots!


Audience at the opening ceremony of middle school

Audience at the opening ceremony of middle school


Apsara dancers

Apsara dancers


Me helping student

Me helping student


Musical chairs

Musical chairs


Dragonfruit shake

Dragonfruit shake


At the fundraiser

At the fundraiser


Ghost house

Ghost house


Sleeping kitties

Sleeping kitties


Huot- the birthday boy

Huot- the birthday boy


Chul Mui!

Chul Mui!


Still life with beer

Still life with beer


Party guest!

Party guest!


What kind of chips shall I try today?

What kind of chips shall I try today?


Lucky

Lucky

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Back in Cambodia!

Yay! Another year (or so) of adventure ahead!

After flight delays, missed connections, lost baggage and unplanned stops in Seoul, Hong Kong and Bangkok, I'm finally here! Was a bit narcoleptic with jet lag for the first week, but I’m back on Asian time now. I spent my first few days finding an apartment , getting new glasses (mine got smushed on the plane), making 3 trips to the electronics store to find the right adapter (left mine in Seoul), trying to decipher the Korean/Khmer/Thai/Japanese in search of laundry detergent and best of all, catching up with old friends.

The town has changed a bit since I left- not sure I’m fond of all the things that come with "progress" ie, more traffic, Burger King, and the incredibly bad news that one of my favorite restaurants, the Red Piano, will soon be turning into a Hooters L L. Pub Street ( AKA “Pup Street” in Khmer) , the small quaint downtown full of bars, shops and restaurants is increasingly owned by locals rather than just expats. There seems to be a bit of a power struggle between the groups. Around 9 pm one of the bars blasts unbearably loud hip hop that can be heard for blocks and pretty much clears the place of anyone over 25 including the tourists with money to spend. The growing tourism industry has enriched many of the local people and they now have $ to invest in and patronize the businesses- lots of Khmer owned coffee shops and pizza places popping up and that’s a good thing.

My new place is in a different neighborhood than I lived in before- closer to Pub Street and a bit farther from school. My address: turn right at Volcano Meatball, down the dirt path to the grey courtyard, last unit on the bottom floor. I bought a bike, but I mostly walk if I’m staying local, it feels a bit safer right now until I get my courage back to brave the madness in the streets. If I’m headed out farther afield I have a regular motodop (motorcycle driver) from around the corner. He speaks no English and although I’m brushing up on my Khmer (one new word a day- today was tomato :“bang bao”, but I what I really need to learn is “slow down!”) it’s always an interesting challenge to communicate where I need to go. We were coming back from the schools one day and he turned down a dirt road – I said “short cut?” and he nodded and smiled- then we went down more and more dirt roads in the opposite direction from town. I laughed and thought of all my friends that are so worried about me- this is exactly the thing they worry about- but turns out he just wanted to show me his house! The next time, we (surprise!) ended up going on some errands he needed to take care of before he got me to my destination. I’m his “barang” (foreigner)- he’s happy to have a semi regular fare, and I don’t have the heart to change drivers, so I’ll just go along for the ride, where ever it may take me!

One of the things I like best about this town are the great events put on by social enterprise groups/NGOs. I saw a screening of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll” http://www.dtifcambodia.com/ at a cool outdoor venue – there was a Q & A with the director and some others that worked on the film- the amount of research that went into obtaining much of the footage was extraordinary- 10 years in the making. The movie is about the pop/rock music scene here before the Khmer Rouge and tells the story of a few popular artists, most of whom were killed during the Pol Pot regime. I saw the Khmer version the next night in field outside of town near the temples with the staff of some NGOs and other local folks. I shed tears at both screening, so I can only imagine what they were thinking/feeling as they were reminded of how different their country could have been if not for the war. A couple of the things that really stood out was how modern and clean Phnom Penh was, as well as the fashion- ladies with short hair and miniskirts in public- not the norm at all now.

It was great to be back at Spitler and Kurata schools and seeing the staff again. All the kids I knew from before are in middle school now, but I’m sure I’ll run into a few around the village. Enrollment for both schools is around 900 now and the budget is getting harder to meet-please donate if you can!!! www.spitlerschool.org.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Little morning monk

Little morning monk


Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll

Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll


Spitler School kids

Spitler School kids


New clean water tower

New clean water tower


Kurata school chickens

Kurata school chickens


Cambodia countryside

Cambodia countryside


Typical country house

Typical country house


Turn right at Volcano Meatball

Turn right at Volcano Meatball


My apartment building

My apartment building


My kitchen

My kitchen


My apartment

My apartment


My living room

My living room


Miss Wongs

Miss Wongs


Have not tried the fish bread (and probably won't)

Have not tried the fish bread (and probably won't)


Look closely at the shop sign

Look closely at the shop sign


Watermelon shake

Watermelon shake


Pup Street!

Pup Street!


Maya

Maya


Fruit shake cart

Fruit shake cart


Xmas Dinner with Ron and Jim

Xmas Dinner with Ron and Jim


Meat section of Old Market

Meat section of Old Market


Lime and mint slushy

Lime and mint slushy

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Incredible India- Placeholder

I went to India- it was awesome! Stay tuned for more whenever I get a chance to write it up and edit the 7000 photos we took.

Me and a random camel driver!

Me and a random camel driver!

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

Siem Reap June- The Last Post

My last day at Spitler School was hard. The minute I rode up on my bike, I was besieged by students with beautiful drawings for me. Of course I immediately burst into tears, which kind of took them aback, but by the end of the day, I had reined in my emotions a bit. I also got a nice certificate of appreciation from Sarin, thanking me for my help. I have to say, of all the certificates I've ever received, this one means the most. This experience has enriched my life and challenged me in so many ways. I have the greatest admiration for Sarin and Danny and Pam Spitler for their vision and the incredibly hard work that has gone into making Spitler and Kurata Schools such a success. It was great to work with such a nice group of dedicated teachers and administrators, I learned so much from them. And of course the students. Boo hoo! I will miss them the most. There is no way I could ever describe how amazing they are. Fun, funny, smart, warm, confident, strong, energetic, sweet, indestructible, curious, respectful, beautiful, creative…a phenomenal group of kids. I am so thankful that I got a chance to spend time with them.

My reminiscences wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the wonderful people I’ve met in Siem Reap. The expat community is full of interesting, kind, brilliant people doing all kinds of meaningful work with great NGOs. And then there’s Jim, who has become such a good friend- musician, teacher, school principal, sign language expert, volunteer, world traveler, partner in crime… my time here wouldn’t have been half as much fun had I not met him.

I took some time in my last couple of weeks to check out some more local sights, including the Angkor Silk Farm. It was super interesting to watch the silk making process all the way from cocoon to detailed patterned fabric. The place does everything by hand in keeping with local tradition and the end products were just beautiful (and expensive!).

I also visited Ta Prahm (from Tomb Raider fame) and Angkor Wat, which was the inspiration for my visiting Cambodia in the first place. I saw a photo at a travel expo in about 2005 and immediately decided I absolutely must see it, wherever it was. It’s a beautiful place and I had a great day visiting although it was wicked hot. As I was about to leave, the clouds rolled in. I made it about 10 meters down the long causeway before it started to pour. No biggie, I thought, I’ll get a little wet and it will cool me down. What I didn’t count on were the layers of salty sweat and sunscreen that would roll down into my eyes, stinging and literally blinding me, so I ended up walking down the causeway like a zombie with my arms outstretched against obstacles.

I am sorry to report that my "license" to practice veterinary medicine has been revoked, Yoman the dog is sick again and this time it seems much worse, the poor poor thing. I left some money so the staff can call the Western vet in town, hopefully they can fix him up. I think he must have an open an infected wound from all the scratching because he smells like death itself. The fact that I am investing cash into the care of a dog, when human beings here are also suffering for lack of health care is not lost on me. Sigh.

An incident at my guesthouse my last week here was kind of exciting. I woke up about 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep so I was reading on my tablet, so the room was dark. I looked up and saw the curtains by my bed moving, then they opened and I saw a hand reach out into the room and a face at the window. I screamed some profanities and the guy ran way silent as a ninja. The window has bars, so that was comforting, but the safety bar had been removed from the inside and the window was wide open. I can only assume housekeeping had removed the bar while they were cleaning and neglected to lock it when they were done. But I think I would have noticed that the window was open, so that was kind of weird that the guy knew which room had an unlocked window. There’s not a lot of violent crime against tourists here, but there is a fair amount of theft. Everyone’s house has bars on their window openings but they all leave the windows open because of the heat. It’s common for thieves to stick a long stick with a hook or pincers at the end to grab a purse or some other smallish object of value, and maneuver it thru the bars. Anyway, no harm was done.

The other day I was so excited to see string cheese at my local market –a whole package for $1.25. (Cheese is very expensive here, it’s mostly imported from Australia, so I rarely eat it). It took me about 10 minutes to find crackers. I had to read the label of every box because what Americans call cookies are called biscuits or crackers here and also some of the packaging is in Korean or Japanese. I finally found some sesame crackers, bought my cheese and a beer and went home for my feast. When I opened the cheese, I was quite surprised to see it was brown and looked like tubed meat. Sure enough, when I google translated the Vietnamese label it was not cheese at all, but beef sausage, gross !!!! Ended up eating vegetable fried rice for the millionth time. Whatever.

Wow!!!! What a fantastic year this has been. I flew across the world with a sketch of a plan, a boatload of curiosity, a sense of adventure and just teeniest tiniest speck of doubt. It was so unlike me, giving up my home, my job, my friends- all the security I had worked so hard for and embark on what has turned out to be one of the best years of my life. This incredible journey has been everything I hoped it would be and more. I’ve met the nicest and most interesting people, made some great friends, seen, eaten and done amazing things and have had SUCH a fun time! I almost hate to write this since I’m not actually safe and sound in my house yet, but NOTHING bad has happened to me along the way. I’ve made every plane, train, boat, bus connection (ok, sometimes with literally 0 seconds to spare), didn’t get robbed, didn’t lose (too many) things, didn’t get (seriously) ill, didn’t run across any mean people- my luck has been so good! Sometimes I think back on things I did or situations I was in and think “wow, did I really do that all by myself? I totally rock!” But really, I never felt unsafe or scared and complete strangers have always been happy to help me out whenever I needed it. Thank you to all of them!

I was going to list some of my favorite places, but realized I would be listing almost every single place I have been (except maybe La Zenia, which was a weird, hot, enclave of UK expats in what must be the most unSpanish town in all of Spain). Even though I’ve travelled so many miles, there is still so much of the world I have yet to see…India, Laos, Myanmar, North and Central Viet Nam….I think I may have to figure out how to make Adventure Part Deux happen in a few years, but for now I’m kind of starting to look forward to being back home seeing all my friends, my cats, my house, catching up on Game of Thrones, shopping at Publix and Target, cooking, travelling on paved roads and sidewalks, clean Florida beaches and all the other perks of US civilization.

Thank you all for following my adventure. I’ve had an absolute blast!

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that elicits a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross the street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

-Bill Bryson

A small sample of the cards the kids made me

A small sample of the cards the kids made me


Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat


Ta Prahm

Ta Prahm


Fish day among the shoe stalls at Old Market

Fish day among the shoe stalls at Old Market


Two first graders from Kurata

Two first graders from Kurata


A monk and a Coke

A monk and a Coke


The "bell" at school

The "bell" at school


Me and all the teachers

Me and all the teachers


Two Spitler girls

Two Spitler girls


More Ta Prahm

More Ta Prahm


At Ta Prahm

At Ta Prahm


Rejected pig

Rejected pig


Getting the silk off the cocoon

Getting the silk off the cocoon


Me and Jim at Palate

Me and Jim at Palate


Japanese tourists are always so fashionable

Japanese tourists are always so fashionable


Boys fishing in the Angkor Wat Moat

Boys fishing in the Angkor Wat Moat


Stairs to the top level of Angkor Wat

Stairs to the top level of Angkor Wat


Apsaras at the top level of Angkor Wat

Apsaras at the top level of Angkor Wat


Part of the Angkor Wat bas reliefs

Part of the Angkor Wat bas reliefs


At Angkor Wat

At Angkor Wat


The first wall around Angkor Wat

The first wall around Angkor Wat


Baby on a moto

Baby on a moto


Victoria Angkor pool

Victoria Angkor pool

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Siem Reap May

I knew it would be hard to leave here, but it really hit me when I got an email from the Coalition scheduling a Skype to discuss my return date. It was always going to be a lose lose for me, if they didn't want me back, my feelings would have been hurt and I would be poor. On the other hand, it will be very hard to end my adventure and say goodbye to this country and the people I have met. I cried all the way to school as I cycled past things that had become so familiar to me but would be exotic in the US- four monks in saffron robes and matching umbrellas giving a blessing outside a shop, 5 flip flop stores in row with hundreds of colorful sandals on display, a kid with a stick guiding his cow down the road, a family of four on a moto,- the mom hanging onto the baby while carrying a plastic bag of soup. And don’t get me started on the greetings of "sewsiday", “good morning” and “hello teacher!” that I get from the smiling faces as I enter the village. I’m sniffling as I write this and I haven’t even left yet. I’m going to have to take an Ativan when it’s time to really say goodbye, otherwise I’ll die of dehydration from my all tears.

This is an amazing country. Yes, there’s corruption, nepotism, pollution, nightmare traffic, heat, poverty, sickness, dirt, power and water outages, beggars, mosquitos, language barriers…but there are also really adorable children, dedicated teachers, friendly shop keepers, interesting expats, great NGO’s doing wonderful work, stunning temples, fresh delicious fruit, and hundreds of interesting things to see every day. When I step out of my guesthouse onto the dirt road, every sense is working overtime to absorb it all. Honestly, sometimes it can be exhausting-tasks that would take 20 minutes in the US can take a half a day or more here, but that’s part of the fun!

I went to visit a temple in town called Wat Thmai. It has a memorial to the victims killed nearby during the Khmer Rouge genocide. It was, as you can imagine, quite sad, but it was the beggar at the entrance to the Wat that I couldn’t handle- a grandmother holding a severely hydrocephalic baby and begging for money. I had seen them once before as I passed by the Wat and my first thought was that it wasn’t a baby at all, it had to be some grotesque doll she used as a begging prop. Then I remembered I was in Cambodia, so yes, of course it’s real baby and I felt horrible that a sick child was being exploited in this way. I contacted an NGO that provides health services and found that the child is actually being well cared for and visits a doctor regularly although there is no cure. In the scheme of things, the baby is quite lucky- the grandmother clearly loves the him, the wat gets plenty of tourists so the donations probably add up to $5 a day (almost a living wage very decent) they have a wood platform to sit on that is under a tree and in shade much of the day and there are plenty of monks nearby. Bad on me for judging the situation with my Western eye.

I took a short trip to Battambang over the King’s Birthday Holiday. I was just getting over another bout of tricky tummy and the bus ride almost did me in. The road was pretty bad so it was a bit like riding a rollercoaster, but the worst part was the lady across the aisle puking up her guts every 20 minutes. Arrghhh! I did meet up with another traveler and we explored the old Bamboo Railroad, the bat caves (I do so love bats!) and the Banon temple where I had a nice photo op with some cute monks. Overall, Battambang wasn’t my favorite, but maybe I just felt that way because I wasn’t feeling great.

School has been crazy busy this month. Lots of meetings and planning for the opening of the computer lab, revamping the scholarship program, hiring a mural artist, and teaching classes. Rainy season is getting off to a slow start. We’ve had a couple of big rains to cool things down for a bit, but then it’s right back to 100 + degrees. Have I mentioned lately how much I love my pool??

Just some kids hanging around at school.

Just some kids hanging around at school.


Monks at Battambang temple

Monks at Battambang temple


At Wat Thmei

At Wat Thmei


Stupas at Wat Thmei

Stupas at Wat Thmei


Banana delivery

Banana delivery


Siem Reap River

Siem Reap River


Remember Yoman?

Remember Yoman?


Can't imagine why the power goes out all the time.

Can't imagine why the power goes out all the time.


Independence memorial in SR

Independence memorial in SR


Battambang market

Battambang market


On the famous bamboo railroad Battambang

On the famous bamboo railroad Battambang


Grade 3 kids from Kurata

Grade 3 kids from Kurata


Two friends walking home from school

Two friends walking home from school


Q is for quartz clock?

Q is for quartz clock?


It's mango season!

It's mango season!


Outside Battambang

Outside Battambang


Battambang bats flying out of their cave

Battambang bats flying out of their cave

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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