Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Unexpectedly Awesome

I woke up this morning without the slightest idea of how I was going to spend the day. There was no school (it's a holiday in Cambodia right now) and being that my time in Siem Reap is coming to an end I felt pressured to "do" something and make the most of my day. After trying and failing to come up with something more exciting to do, I settled on going for a bike ride. Although I was initially a bit disappointed with myself for not doing something more adventurous, the day ended up completely exceeding my expectations.

I ventured out to the "countryside", as people call it (only a few kilometers outside of the center of Siem Reap but a very rural area nonetheless) and came across a pagoda. I went inside to have a look and met a delightful old man named Chian. He spoke no English but he did speak French so luckily we were able to communicate. He explained to me that the monks were just about to go into the temple for lunch (whenever there is a holiday in Cambodia people prepare lots of food and offer it to the monks) and invited me to join, because after the monks finish the "non monks" are allowed to eat too.

Upon entering the temple Chian showed me the special way to pray before eating which entails kneeling in a certain way, holding your hands together and touching the floor three times. After we had all prayed the monks began to eat while Chian and I chatted, waiting for our turn (which came about 30 minutes later). At first I felt extremely guilty that I had nothing to offer the monks, but then I remembered the Goldfish (American fish-shaped crackers, for anyone who doesn't know) in my backpack that had arrived in my package from home just yesterday. I figured it was better than nothing and so my Goldfish were placed on the table alongside the rice, fish, soups and other Cambodian dishes, which I found quite funny.

After lunch the monks returned to their duties and Chian had to go back home. I wandered around the pagoda a little more and met another monk, Sony, who was very friendly and spoke excellent English. We got to talking and he informed me that he could tell fortunes. I asked if he would tell me mine and he obliged. All he needed was my birth date and off he went, writing down and circling various symbols I had never seen before; it was absolutely fascinating to watch. (For anyone who's curious I am apparently brave and will do well if I ever work in politics/government).

After leaving the pagoda I was tired from biking in the heat and decided to finish off the day sitting by a hotel pool, which I had all to myself, drinking a coconut and listening to my iPod. 

When traveling, there are times when you know exactly what you are going to see or do and you know it's going to be amazing. I found that to be the case when I saw the Eiffel Tower, experienced the Venice Carnival and explored the temples of Angkor Wat. Then there are times where you don't plan anything at all, when you don't even do anything that significant and yet those days often end up being just as memorable, if not more so, than the ones where you planned something major. That's what today was: unexpectedly awesome.

The countryside of Siem Reap

Making my offering (of Goldfish!) to a monk

In Cambodia it's monks, not ladies, first!

The cats were hungry too

Adorable 'pon pro' (young boy) in the temple

Monk eating

One of these foods is not like the others...

Chian and I in the temple

Sony predicting my fortune

Unlike anything I had ever seen before

A Birthday In Battambang

This past weekend three other teachers and I took advantage of our long weekend (we had Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday off school due to a holiday) and made a trip out to Battambang, a town just a few hours away. While its quiet streets were a nice change from Siem Reap it was a little too quiet; there really wasn't much to do there. Lucky for us, an 85 year old lady happened to be celebrating her birthday (probably the biggest party to hit Battambang in years) which we were lucky enough to get invited to!

We were walking around after dinner when we stumbled across a massive party being held on a blocked-off bit of road (where most Cambodian celebrations, like weddings and birthdays, are held). We peeked in curiously to catch a glimpse of the festivities. When the party-goers noticed us looking in they quickly invited us to join them, and join them we did. Within minutes we were surrounded by Cambodians who taught us the traditional dance they were all doing. We didn't plan on staying long but we were there until the very end (by which point the music had progressed from traditional Cambodian to Carly Rae Jepsen) drinking and dancing with some very lovely people.

I've said it before and I will say it again: the people of this country are without a doubt some of the most kind, generous and welcoming people I have ever met. Even though the city of Battambang didn't make that much of an impression on me, this Cambodian birthday party and its guests certainly did.

My dance partner

The venue

The 85 year old birthday girl!

Me with with some very fancy Cambodian women

Teenage party guests (and incredibly talented singers!)

Having a ball

Traditional dancing

Friday, November 23, 2012

Being Thankful

Thanksgiving has never been that significant a day to me, which is strange because as a dual citizen I normally celebrate it twice a year (the Canadian one in October and the American one in November). Although I don't count down the days to Thanksgiving the same way I do with Christmas, it is without a doubt a great chance to see family, eat copious amounts of delicious food and reflect on things you are thankful for. This year I won't be seeing my family (except over Skype) or eating copious amounts of delicious food but I have a lot to be thankful for.

I am thankful for my wonderful family (including a mother who wanted to send me a mini Christmas tree, and who I know would actually do it if I had a mailing address) and friends.

I am thankful that I come from a country like Canada, where I can drink water from the tap, where there is no risk of diseases like malaria and dengue, where there are no landmines and where the quality of life is (generally) very good.

I am thankful for all of the great people I have met on my trip so far, especially the staff at my guesthouse and (as much as they can drive me crazy!) the kids at school.

Most of all I am thankful that I have the opportunity to travel, to see foreign places and experience new cultures (even if that means no mashed potatoes today... small price to pay I guess).

Happy Thanksgiving from Cambodia :)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Perfect Soldier

"The landmine is eternally prepared to take victims. In common parlance, it is the perfect soldier, the 'eternal sentry.' The war ends, the landmine goes on killing."
                  - Jody Williams
I don't want to put socks on. That was my first thought as I got dressed this morning. Although I didn't want to wear socks and shoes (something I haven't done since I left Canada) wearing sandals to visit an active landmine field didn't seem like the brightest idea, and that's exactly where I was headed. 

First I need to back up and explain how this trip even came about, because it's definitely not a tour you can just sign up for. As anyone reading this blog probably knows, I have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia for almost six weeks teaching English. The director of my school is a Khmer lady named Aly, and she happens to be childhood friends with a man named Aki Ra.

Aki Ra is a pioneer in the art of de-mining, or taking apart landmines, in Cambodia. Due to years of warfare, Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Landmines are incredibly dangerous because they can remain active years after being laid and as a result they continue to take the lives and limbs of Cambodian people. Aki Ra has dedicated his life to making his country a safer place and started his own NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining (CSHD), where he and a team of 30 work tirelessly to rid the country of landmines. He has been honored and recognized all around the world, including being named a CNN Top 10 Hero. 

The irony in this story is that Aki Ra laid many of these mines himself. He was child solider of the Khmer Rouge, the same regime that took the lives of his parents, and he helped to lay many, many mines across his own country. (To read more about Aki Ra's  life story click here).

We first came to know about Aki Ra this past weekend when the other volunteer teachers and I visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum, of which he is the founder. (It's a fantastic museum that I will be writing more about later). Aly managed to get Aki Ra's phone number while we were there (they hadn't seen each other in years) and after speaking with him he kindly offered to take some of us teachers to the landmine field where he is currently working.

Today we (Aly, another volunteer teacher and I) actually got the chance to go with Aki Ra to the landmine field, about an hour and a half East of Siem Reap.

At first the whole thing seemed almost comical. We arrived at the base camp and met Aki Ra's team of good-humored workers. We put on camouflaged bullet-proof vests and SWAT team-esque helmets. We signed waivers that basically said CSHD would not be liable in the event of injury or death. But it didn't feel like anything bad would actually happen.

It began to feel more real when we actually entered the field, where you could see roped-off areas that had not yet been cleared and thus had the potential to explode if disturbed. But I don't think I would have fully understood the danger, the impact that these "perfect soldiers" can have, had I not seen one detonate.

We had been walking around the field for a good thirty minutes when someone discovered a mine. Aki Ra went over to inspect the scene while we waited in the distance. Once he deemed it safe to do so, we walked (very slowly and in the exact footsteps of another de-miner) over to inspect the landmine: A harmless looking device no wider than a CD and just a few inches below the dirt. It was harmless only in appearance; I had to keep reminding myself of what that little machine was capable of doing. The next step was to destroy it.

Before the mine could be destroyed all the de-miners in the field had to be rounded up for a roll call. When everyone had been accounted for, Aki Ra and a few others went about the process of somehow linking the mine to a little yellow box, some kind of detonator, while the rest of us waited some hundred meters away. Once it had been properly hooked up Aki Ra and the others retreated back to where we'd been waiting, and he began pushing buttons in this little detonator. As he was doing so, one of the de-miners came around and told us to kneel on the ground as he adjusted my helmet and vest. At this point I was definitely starting to feel nervous and all trivial worries of socks had long since been forgotten. Aki Ra kept pushing buttons but told us he would count to three before the mine was going to explode. 

A couple of incredibly tense minutes later the three second countdown came. Three, two, one... BOOM. An explosion much bigger and louder than I could have imagined.

I was in complete shock after it exploded. All I kept thinking was, that could have been a person. We were after all just mere two or three kilometres away from a residential area. Then I thought, it HAS been a person. Many of them. Children, the elderly and everybody in between. My mood changed significantly after it went off, and I spent most of the ride back thinking about the impact that mine might have had were it not for Aki Ra and his staff.

Albeit disturbing, this experience really allowed me to see first-hand the dangers that lie just inches below the ground all over this country, posing a constant threat to whole communities and villages. It was yet another reminder that although Cambodia can seem like a traveler's paradise, it is also a developing country with very serious challenges to overcome.

It could have been a person that set off that mine, but it wasn't. I feel like I actually saw Cambodia become a little bit safer today, thanks to Aki Ra and his incredibly courageous team of de-miners. It was powerful, sad and yet hopeful to witness. It was an experience I will not forget anytime soon.

Myself, Aki Ra, Amanda and other staff of CSHD

A seemingly normal patch of land...

A female de-miner hard at work (note the red tape)

One of the de-miners and I

Aki Ra with the newly discovered mine

The aftermath

The waiver I had to sign!

Just a few kilometers away from the field...

To learn more about Cambodian Self Help Demining or to make a donation, visit their website at

Monday, November 19, 2012

Same Same But Different

While it's important to try new things while traveling, I think that one of the funnest things you can do in a foreign country is an activity you have at home. Although it's the "same" activity in theory, it will likely be quite a bit different. I found this to be the case when I played laser tag in France, went to the movies in Belgium and as of this weekend, when I went rollerblading in Cambodia.  

In a lot of ways it felt familiar to a roller rink at home: there were families and teenagers on dates and pop music playing loudly. But it also wasn't the same at all: the skates were literally falling apart (it's a good thing I figure skated for 10 years or I probably wouldn't have been able to stand up), helmets were far from mandatory (even for kids), a group of Khmer teenage girls wanted to take pictures with me and add me on Facebook (I don't think any teenagers in Canada would give me the time of day) and the "rink" was outdoors (on the roof of a shopping mall). As they say here in Southeast Asia, it was "same same but different." My feet were in crazy amounts of pain but I still had a ridiculously good time.

The smelliest and most uncomfortable roller blades in the world

Helping Aly (the director of my school) skate

Sandra, Natalie and Christina (Aly's daughters) lacing up

Kris (another volunteer teacher) took a fall!

Srei sat (beautiful girls)

Taking a break

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Connecting In Cambodia

While I was in Korea I posted about a really nice Korean girl I met. When she told me she would be traveling to Thailand in November, I had suggested she also visit Siem Reap. I made this suggestion not expecting her to actually come (not because she's flaky but Bangkok isn't exactly down the street) but lo and behold, she arrived at my guesthouse on Thursday night! Although I was pretty busy teaching, she dropped in on one of my morning classes at school and we went for drinks on Friday night.

We are from different countries and we don't speak the same language but as I wrote before, it really doesn't matter because we somehow have lots in common as well. 

She's already back in Thailand but I hope to meet Maggi again one day. The way traveling goes, I have a feeling I will.

Maggi & I

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Khmer Cooking Class

One thing I was hoping to do while in Southeast Asia was take a cooking class, but they're not cheap and I hadn't gotten around to actually doing one yet. Well tonight I somehow ended up taking an impromptu cooking class from the two lovely girls who work at my guesthouse, who were kind enough to show me how to make spring rolls.

My Khmer teachers!

It took me far longer than it takes them, mine didn't look quite as nice as theirs and they didn't really let me drop them into the frying pan full of scalding hot oil (probably a wise decision on their part) but I still did it! I am quite proud, probably far prouder than I should be but coming from someone whose cooking skills extend as far as making stir-fry and homemade macaroni and cheese, this feels like a pretty major accomplishment.

The (delicious) finished product.

I didn't wake up today thinking I would know how to make spring rolls by the end of it but therein lies the appeal of travel: You never know what kind of new things you might get to experience.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bad Days: A Worldwide Phenomenon

Today was not a very good day for me. I would actually go so far as to call it a bad day. Something very unpleasant happened at the guesthouse before I'd even eaten breakfast, there was an incident at school that had me in tears by mid-afternoon and when I went to get my laundry this evening I found two pairs of shorts missing. Earth shattering events? Hardly. Enough to get me a bit down? Yep.

Bad days happen from time to time. Everybody knows that. But traveling can have you feeling so good, like you're on top of the world, that sometimes you think you'll never feel bad again. But then you do and it's almost worse because you didn't see it coming.

From Canada to Cambodia, bad days happen. They are universal. The only good thing about a bad day? Like the flu, it normally only lasts about 24 hours. And tomorrow is bound to be a much better day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Staying Put vs. Moving On

I've been in Siem Reap volunteering for over a month now and have been enjoying my time here immensely. The people are friendly, cheap eats are plentiful and the atmosphere is ultra chill. At times I feel like I may never want to leave.

This past weekend, most of the other teachers left for a weekend trip down to the beach. I opted to stay behind and somehow ended up spending most of my time with a lovely group of English backpackers who, unlike myself, were in full travel mode. They had just arrived from Bangkok, stayed four nights in Siem Reap and have already moved on to Phnom Penh. They're actually traveling. Which made me realize that I'm really not. And kind of made me wish that I was.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very content with where I am. But spending even just a few days with these people got me thinking about just how different what they're doing is from what I'm doing. I'm teaching English, which means I have be somewhere at a certain time every day and I'm accountable to an organization.

While this experience has been incredibly rewarding and I'm glad to take on the responsibility, I don't think it can really be considered traveling. According to, "travel" means "to go from one place to another, as by car, train, plane, or ship; take a trip; journey: to travel for pleasure." I'm not going from one place to another. On the contrary, I've been staying put and as a result I've gotten pretty comfortable: I know my way around the city, I know where I like to eat and drink, I see people I recognize around town. There is of course a lot to be said for getting to know a place in this way but I also don't want to get too comfortable. At some point I'm going to have to move on.

Although hanging out with this group of Brits got me a bit antsy to move on to somewhere new, I know I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready to leave the school I'm at and there are still lots of things I want to see in and around Siem Reap. I'm sure I'll know when the time is right. But I'll admit, I'm already a little bit excited for what's to come.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Splendor of Angkor (Part III)

One of the first things I did after arriving in Siem Reap was visit the temples of Angkor Wat. Although I spent three extremely hot but wonderful days exploring various temples I didn't get up early enough to see a sunrise, which I regretted a bit because it sounded incredible. When a group of Brits I met this weekend told me they were going to see a sunrise I decided to tag along. It meant getting up at 4:30AM to be out the door by 5 but it was definitely worth it...

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sweet Dreams

As most of you know I am currently in Siem Reap, a town known mostly for the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat. It is chock full of tourists from all corners of the world and as a result there is a seemingly infinite amount of places to stay ranging from five star hotels to backpacker hostels, but the most common form of accommodation here in Siem Reap is the guesthouse.

My guesthouse in Siem Reap

Unlike hotels which are owned primarily by foreigners, guesthouses are normally owned and operated by a Cambodian family. They are basically like budget hotels with simpler rooms, amenities and much lower prices. Most of them also have a restaurant and/or bar. They have a more relaxed atmosphere and usually a mixed group of customers ranging from young backpackers who stay a few days to older expats who stay for years.

The restaurant/common area of the guesthouse

I am staying at the Sweet Dreams Guesthouse which is owned by a lovely man named Nini. His wife, brother and sister all work here as well. There is usually a large group of his friends hanging out at the guesthouse at any given time, playing cards or Cambodian chess, and you can always find a couple of his five children running around or playing (the youngest, David, is actually a frequent visitor in my room if the door is open!) The guesthouses' security team is made up of two dogs (kidding.. sort of) and there is a cat who is constantly lounging on one of the restaurant tables.

The cat (note the condiment bottles in the background)

Since the day I arrived Nini's motto has been "my house, your house" and he really means it. He's always around if we need help, have a question or are having a beer (ha!) When I was sick with a fever/infection for about a week he was so nice and always made sure to ask how I was doing, which made a huge difference.

David, who pays me frequent visits

I'm sure there are many amazing guesthouses here but now that I've gotten to know Nini and his family I wouldn't dream (no pun intended) of staying anywhere else.

The Sweet Dreams crew enjoying some beers

The volunteer teachers with Nini (AKA our Cambodian father)

The bench where someone is always napping

David playing in a box

Trip The Light

A couple of years ago I came across this video, which documents a fellow named Matt as travels and dances with different people in various countries around the world. I fell in love with it and have watched at well over a dozen times.

Just today I found another video by the same guy which is even more amazing, if that's possible. It has the same idea as the first one but it's with new people, new countries and a new dance. I have probably already watched it a dozen times today alone. I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch them both.

Finished? Okay, keep reading.

At first glace (or "view", in YouTube speak) I think everyone would agree that these videos are at the very least entertaining, enjoyable, funny and probably even a tad inspiring, but to me they are more than that. They represent a solution to much bigger problems.

Although the nations of the world are constantly becoming more and more globalized and connected, they're not necessarily becoming more tolerant of one another. At times it feels like the world is actually becoming less tolerant. Just think of all the wars, conflicts, attacks and countless other awful things going on with no end in sight. And why? In my opinion it really boils down to fear, which derives from ignorance. People around the world are often afraid of what they do not know or understand. We read or watch the news about other parts of the world and form opinions on these places and their people based on the information we gather, as we should. But we must also remember that hearing a negative story about someone or somewhere should not make us afraid of an entire population, race, religion or country. Traveling not only reminds you of that every single day but also promotes understanding and compassion through the experiences you have and the people you meet.

To me these videos show that from Saudi Arabia to Papua New Guinea, Australia to Rwanda, Colombia to North Korea... people are strikingly similar. They laugh. They smile. They like to dance. Of course there are "bad" people or people who come from a country with a "bad" government"; There always have been and probably always will be. The point is that wherever you go people are people and we don't always need to be so afraid. It's an easy sentence to write but sometimes you need to see to believe. If you do, watch these videos again. Or better yet, travel somewhere and see for yourself.

"Remember we’re lost together
Remember we’re the same
We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts
We hold the flame
We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light"

Saturday, November 3, 2012


It's official, my immune system has been compromised. It was bound to happen sometime!

Over the past week I've exhibited almost every vague symptom in the book (fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose) but they would come and go, so every time I thought I was better I would go out and exert myself probably a little too much, and become sick again. 

On Friday night my fever had once again become quite high so I went to bed early. I woke up 12 hours later thinking I was really all better this time, so I spent the afternoon showing two new volunteer teachers around town by bicycle. We were on our way back to (more specifically, about 30 seconds away from) the guesthouse when we stopped to buy coconuts, and all of a sudden I became incredibly dizzy and started seeing spots. I actually had to sit down on the side of the road and wait for the feeling to pass. It eventually did, and I returned to the guesthouse to lie down. About 20 minutes later I started throwing up and that's when I decided it was time to go to the hospital.

My visit to the Royal Angkor International Hospital was quite pleasant, considering I hate hospitals. The staff spoke very good English and the whole thing took no more than an hour and a half. I got a blood test and nose swab to rule out anything serious (ie. dengue fever) and it turns out I have nothing more than a cold and pharyngitis (throat infection). Some antibiotics and $340 USD later (which my insurance provider should be reimbursing me for!) and I was on my way. Should be good as new in a few days.

Being sick in a foreign country is definitely not fun. You don't get to stay in your own bed, wear your own worn-out sweatpants, be around people you know very well (although for the record everyone here was absolutely lovely) or eat your comfort sick food (which for me is packets of Lipton's noodle soup). You have to make do with what you have. But at the end of the day, you're a little bit tougher and traveling is still 100% worth it.