a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Monday, December 17, 2012

Bangkok, Thailand

My first trip to Asia was to Thailand in 2004. It was a life changing and wonderful experience. I spent nearly a month visiting three different cities and at the end of the study tour I didn't want to leave. I wanted to live in Thailand. So this November when Stephen and I had a chance to fly to Bangkok to meet our friend Beth, I was really looking forward to returning to the country where I first fell in love with Asia.
It's been 9 years since I was last in Thailand and according to Lonely Planet, Bangkok has "gone under the knife" a lot in that time. The cosmetic surgery metaphor is a curious one to me, but as we were mainly there on holiday I didn't dig too deeply into it. But it's probably safe to say that although there are high-end air-conditioned shopping malls, gourmet markets, and 40 Starbucks locations, plenty of people are still very poor and struggle just to live day-to-day let alone access good education and quality healthcare.
We arrived in the early evening at the new Bangkok airport. As we made our way through passport control and customs, I noticed two pretty awesome things. One was that luggage carts were parked neatly all in a row just behind the blue and red line at the baggage claim carousel. How smart is that?! And how considerate! Not only are the carts free (no rental fee required) but they are so conveniently situated for you.
The next cool thing was the moving ramp. Instead of an escalator, which requires a bit of skill to navigate with luggage, there was a flat moving surface to transport us from one floor to the next. Brilliant!

We discovered that taxi rides in Bangkok are about the same price as tuk-tuks rides Phnom Penh, but the taxis we rode in were almost brand new and nicely air conditioned. Taxi drivers in Bangkok drive much faster than taxi drivers in Phnom Penh do though. :)
Our hotel was not far from the airport and had a very tropical ambiance. The pool was crystal clear and the water was almost cold. I don't know how they managed to keep the pool such a cool temperature when the air temperature is 32 degrees C (90 degrees F) nearly all the time, but I was very happy they did. It felt great!
Before Beth arrived, Stephen and I had a couple of days to explore the city. We took the new airport link to downtown and caught the skytrain to the new Siam Paragon shopping center. In the basement of the Siam Paragon there are tons of awesome restaurants and a Gourmet Market. On the top floor there is a cineplex and an imax and in between lots of high end shops. All massively air conditioned and wonderfully cool.
The Gourmet Market reminded me of the markets we saw in Japan, and in fact carried a lot of Japanese imports. Stephen and I had fun just walking around and looking. Simple pleasures.
 On a different day we took the skytrain again and then walked to a giant public park. The sidewalks outside the park were full of street food vendors along with their plastic chairs and tables. We often had to walk in the street as there was no more room on the sidewalks. Inside the park we were met almost immediately by giant lizards! And they were everywhere! Stephen looked it up later and they are called "water monitors".
We were in the park around noon and everything was pretty quiet; the park workers were napping and few people were around.
We did see a few runners and bikers but I honestly don't know how they could exercise in that heat. I was sitting in the shade and the sweat was pouring down my face! Not exactly the park experience I was hoping for. Ha! Still it was peaceful, a little oasis in the city. Maybe the early morning would be better. :)
 On Saturday Beth joined us and we all did some sightseeing. First, we hopped on the Chao Phraya Express Boat to the Wat Pho stop.
Wat Pho has an enormous reclining Buddha and a number of stupa (structures containing ashes of the deceased).
The feet of the reclining Buddha are ornately decorated with mother of pearl inlay. I thought it was curious though because it's very bad form for people to show the bottoms of their feet. When Buddhists (or anyone for that matter) pray to the Buddha they sit on the floor with the bottoms of their feet pointing away from the Buddha.
After Wat Pho we walked around the outside of the Royal Palace but didn't go in, stopped at a restaurant and had some Thai food including Thai iced tea, walked some more, and then caught a tuk-tuk back to Siam Paragon to get some cold bubble tea. Riding in a tuk-tuk in Thailand is not quite the pleasure it is in Cambodia. The air quality in Bangkok is quite a bit worse that Phnom Penh. After all, Bangkok has 14 million people and Phnom Penh has only 2.2 million. The tuk-tuks in Bangkok are faster with more powerful motors but their design is not as comfortable as Phnom Penh tuk-tuks that have more seating and space for your legs.

The air conditioning of the Siam Paragon was a welcome reprieve. Bangkok is a hot hot city. By the afternoon my clothes were completely soaked through! With all that sweating I lose a lot of electrolytes so I started chugging Gatorade. Otherwise I start to get twitching in my legs. The challenges I face adjusting to the climate of Southeast Asia make me wonder about the native born Southeast Asians. Do they also suffer from  low electrolytes? Does the food they cook and eat replenish them? They don't sweat as much as visitors to their climate do, but they do sweat. I'm sure I'll never know from personal experience, I think that even if I lived in Southeast Asia for 20 years I would still not fully adapt to the climate!
It certainly was fun visiting Bangkok again. It was almost nothing like I remember. I hardly noticed any strong smells when before they almost knocked me over. The sights were now familiar and not at all shocking. The people were friendly, as I remembered them to be. And surprisingly I remembered the two phrases I learned before: sah wat dee kaw (hello) and krop khun kaw (thank you). The "kaw" at the end of those phrases is what I use because I'm female. Stephen would replace the "kaw" at the end with "krop" because he is male. It took a little to remember to speak in the appropriate language; I would sometimes forget and speak in Khmer instead. Then when we returned to Phnom Penh, I accidentally greeted our guard in Thai!

I'm looking forward to another trip to Thailand, maybe this time to an island like Ko Samui!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Monsoon season

It's October, my favorite month of the year in the northwestern United States. October is the wettest month of the monsoon season in Cambodia. We sometimes have a river instead of a street outside our apartment. The security guards for our apartment and the businesses across the street take off their shoes and roll up their pant legs during the rain showers. I mostly avoid the worst times of the day, the downpours are generally short, but the other night Stephen and I had to wade through the streets as we walked home from dinner. We made it to the restaurant just as the rains began and waited until it had slowed to a sprinkle before venturing out again. Everyone moves toward the middle of the road, the highest part. I saw one guy run behind a tuk-tuk in the middle of the street rather than wade in the water on the side. And two guys held a girl's bicycle steady for her as she stepped off the curb onto the peddles of her bike. She peddled away without having to first soak her feet in the river that was the road. I had to laugh with delight. Who does that? Only Cambodians!
This October Stephen and I get to enjoy the beautiful fall in the US. I'm so excited! Maybe I'll get to see snow this year! But even if I don't, I know the weather will be perfect. We are really ready for this reprieve to the states. Stephen, worn down, has been sick for the last two weeks. It's just a really good time for a break from it all. We'll stock up on things we can't get in Cambodia, so there is quite a bit of shopping to do. Now that we've been here over a year, I have a lot better idea what things we need to bring back with us. I can only buy the kind of art supplies I use in the US. So I have to try to anticipate what paint, brushes, disposable palette paper, colored pencils, and manual pencils sharpeners I will need for the next 10 months.
We can't possibly bring back with us the amount of coffee we will drink over that time, but we will load our suitcases with as many pounds as will fit, given space and weight limits. I love swiffer cloths for cleaning our tile floor and they are light so easy to stock up on those. Our wardrobe and shoe needs are quite different living in the tropics year round. Not only are some fabrics just beyond uncomfortable (polyester, nylon, corduroy, jean and oh my goodness don't even think about wool) but we wash and wear multiple outfits in the same day, making us very hard on clothes. We are quickly wearing the clothes we brought with us to threads. And shoes. Brother. I love shoes and I have so many cute ones that are just about impossible to wear here. Shoes are an issue for Stephen too. In the US people generally don't take their shoes off during the course of a day. But in Cambodia taking off your shoes to enter homes, business, schools is common practice. Most Cambodians wear slip on shoes to make life easier. Trying to find professional looking slip-on shoes for a man is quite the challenge. I guess there's not that much demand for such a thing in the US.

After the shopping is done and of course doctor and dentist appointments, we get to just relax and enjoy the best of what the first world has to offer. And with any luck we will return refreshed and ready to dive into another 10 months of life in the third world.

Monday, September 10, 2012

our first visitors

In June we tried to settle into our life back in Cambodia after all the international travel of the previous months. But we also planned for a visit from my sister and her husband. They came for two weeks and together we explored the country. We started our tour in Phnom Penh so Audra and Joe could recover from jetlag before launching off to a different city. The time difference is 14 hours so just about as opposite as you can get. Phnom Penh is where the events of Cambodia's recent history are memorialized. Stephen and I took our guests to The Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and The Choeung Ek "Killing Fields" Memorial.

The Tuol Sleng Prison Museum tells the gruesome and barbaric story of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge rule of nearly four years. Just like the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum is a hard place to visit. Though not nearly as polished or well funded as those other two museums, it can still have a sobering effect. I go to museums like these not because I like to, but because it's a way for me to value human life. To know the suffering of others and not ignore it or forget it is important to me.
The Killing Fields memorial is about an hour drive south of Phnom Penh. I think that the audio recording that you listen to as you walk through the area that served as mass graves, is extremely well done. Walking on the paths that wind through the area of horrible human suffering and listening to survivors tell their nightmares, is not pleasant or easy. In fact it's quite draining. But I also feel that in a small way I am honoring innocent people by listening to their stories.
We spent two days experiencing this dark history, but Cambodia and Cambodians are more than their history. Riding around in tuk-tuks is a fun mode of transportation unique to Cambodia. And the cost is small. I negotiated the price for us which I like doing. I don't drive a hard bargain but I don't pay an unreasonably expensive price either. I wouldn't mind paying more to the tuk-tuk driver, but the actual result if I do is that it makes it harder for poor people to pay for tuk-tuk rides when they need them. Why would a tuk-tuk driver take $1 for a fare when he can turn around and charge me or another first world visitor $2-4 for the same distance? We also enjoyed a variety of good food at the numerous restaurants in the city and shopped in the informal markets.
On their third day in the country, we headed for the coast and the city of Sihanoukville. Stephen and I make it a habit to leave as early as possible in the morning when traveling out of the city to avoid the traffic. But Cambodians begin their day at sunrise so despite our early departure we shared the road with Cambodians on motos heading to work or carting various goods to market for sale.
There is really only one nice resort in Sihnaoukville and we stayed there. The beach is beautiful though the water is not ideal for swimming.
We did a little kayaking and swam in the pools instead. Phnom Penh was quite hot so the coast retreat felt especially welcome to all of us. Open air dining is the norm for Cambodia. I sometimes forget, having become so used to eating outside, that open air dining is a pretty rare treat in the Pacific Northwest where we used to live. There, for a small window of time each year, the weather is just right for al fresco dining. But in Cambodia, we eat in the open air year round.
Our next city was Kep (pronounced Kipe with a long i sound like in kite. The transliteration is definitely not American English!). We stayed in the treehouse-like resort up on the hill that affords an expansive view of the ocean from the restaurant and select guest rooms. Because it's set up on the mountain among the trees, it has a bit of a feel like the old colonial "hill stations" that colonizing countries like the French in Cambodia and the English is Burma and India created for themselves as an escape from the heat. I say a bit because though probably somewhat cooler than Phnom Penh, the difference was hardly noticeable for Audra and Joe. It was as we were leaving Kep that Audra said, "I don't think I'm cut out for this country." :(
We got a flat tire in Kep that the car guard at our hotel pointed out to us. We always carry a full sized spare and the car guard, though a fairly old man judging by his face, proceeded to help Stephen change the tire. We paid him for his assistance as well as tipped him for guarding our car as is the practice here. In a small town on the way back to Phnom Penh we stopped to have our tire repaired. It wasn't too difficult to find a place and they were quick and cheap. It cost $1 to repair the hole in the tire.
On the drive back to Phnom Penh we saw fields being planted with rice by hand and a creative way to haul a cow. In a tuk-tuk! There is never a shortage of interesting sights in Cambodia!
One night at our apartment in Phnom Penh and then it was off to Siem Reap and the biggest attraction in the country: Angkor Wat. June is when the hot dry season transitions into the hot wet season. It's a steamy month. I noticed a tremendous difference from when Stephen and I explored
Angkor Wat last November. At one point, I split off from the three of them and went back to the car, turned it on and just sat in the blasting air conditioning. And I live here! Brother. Audra and Joe were troopers but Cambodia in June and July is not for the faint of heart.:)
The monkeys were especially active this time and displayed an array of antics. Watching them swing from a vine into a pool of water was pretty fun. They also climbed up on our car though we were not among those feeding them. I learned my lesson in Africa.

The night markets in Siem Reap are more fun than the informal markets in Phnom Penh. It's cooler for one and there are colored lights illuminating the stalls which create a more festive feel. Also the darkness helps to hide garbage or broken sidewalks. Siem Reap is a tourist city. There is just a different feel because of that compared to Phnom Penh. I like both places for different reasons.
We stayed three nights at the Borei Angkor hotel, where Stephen and I have stayed before, and enjoyed the pool and poolside dining.
Of all the ruins, Audra was most intent on seeing the tree roots growing down the sides of the stone walls at Ta Prohm featured in the movie Tomb Raider. It was getting late and in fact the grounds were closed before Stephen finally found them for us. For most of the time while the three of them searched for the tree, I had waited at the entrance of Ta Prohm alone. I have been tired of the noise of the city lately and long for quiet spaces. But the jungle at sunset is not that quiet space! There were birds and cicadas making a tremendous racket! I don't have a telephoto lens but I think that in the tops of the trees parrots were flying from tree to tree in groups.
Though Stephen and I have been to Siem Reap a number of times we still found several new things to do with our guests. We visited a silk farm and saw the process and also the beautiful finished products. Stephen and I like to buy at least one really nice item for our house from the places we live. Silk is so emblematic of Cambodia that it makes a good choice. We have similar memorabilia/decor from Africa packed in storage in the states.
In addition to the silk farm, we also visited a floating village just outside of town. These people live their lives on the water. Though I love swimming and kayaking, I don't think I could live my life on the water.
The third new experience was Cambodian barbecue at one of the many BBQ restaurants in town. Our waitress cooked for both our tables and the food was delicious. You have your choice of five different meats; we opted to substitute chicken and beef for the crocodile and snake meat! :)
Something that I think is great about Cambodia is that you can get decent food and lodging for really cheap prices. There is a little boutique hotel in the center of the downtown in Siem Reap that has double rooms for $25 a night. It's one of the cleanest hotels I've ever stayed in; you can see people sweeping, mopping  wiping down handrails at all times of the day. The plumbing all works the way it should and the air conditioner is quiet and effective. Included in that $25 a night price is a hearty freshly prepared delicious breakfast. I had an omelette and coffee plus a fruit plate. I love how this hotel has managed to keep costs down but not sacrifice service and quality. The quality is not fancy but it is nice. The front deck staff turn off the power to your room when you are not in it and on when you are. And they require you to take your shoes off at the front steps to reduce the dirt that's tracked in. This was our last hotel stay on our tour of Cambodia with Audra and Joe.

Our final day together back in Phnom Penh was spent just relaxing after a pretty full itinerary. Stephen had to go to work, poor guy, even though he did ALL of the driving. The flights out of Phnom Penh that head to the US generally all leave in the late evening. We lingered with them as long as we could and then we waved good bye through the glass. Our drive back to the apartment was quiet. We were a little worn out and a little sad. And it was late at night so the streets were quiet. Though we are only 36 hours of travel time apart, it feels like worlds apart. But it won't be long before we take that same journey halfway around the world. :)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Our third international trip this year was to Myanmar. After our trip to Japan, we had just enough time to wash clothes and repack our suitcases before we headed out to the southeast Asian country formerly called Burma. It was a business trip for Stephen, but I went along too as I didn't want to miss the chance to visit a country that few people in the world have been to. Myanmar has been under strict military rule and for the past 50 years has been closed to the outside world. Most of the rest of the world had signaled their disapproval of this government by imposing sanctions. Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi have been in the news quite a bit lately. The government is releasing political prisoners, changing censorship practices and signaling to the world it wants to participate again. And the world is responding by lifting sanctions or allowing sanctions to expire.
Before we went I knew very little about Myanmar. I like to read about the history of a place because it gives some background and context to my personal experience. Our flight to Myanmar was quite empty; people were scattered throughout the plane. There are only two flights a week between Phnom Penh and Yangon, Myanmar. We decided to stay from Saturday to Saturday because Stephen needed
more than the couple of days we would have if we took the Wednesday flight instead. We stayed in a fairly decent hotel for $30 a night. The internet was reliable and adequate despite the rolling power outages. The East hotel has a giant generator out back that picks up when the city electricity goes out, which is most of the time. All businesses in Yangon who cater to foreigners have these giant generators. One evening as we were driving back to our hotel we passed a candle light protest. People were gathered peacefully holding candles protesting the lack of electricity. They were demanding 24 hour electricity where the current situation is about 2 hours a day.
As in every city we visit we searched out the good coffee shops and restaurants. Shan noodles are now one of my favorite dishes. They are so good it's almost worth the flight to Yangon to get them! Stephen found this little restaurant called 999 that for about $1 gave you a delicious bowl of noodles and a small bowl of equally delicious soup. It was close to our hotel so we went nearly every day we were there. We found a few coffee shops and though the coffee wasn't fabulous it was decent. At least
it was better than instant Nescafe! You can always count on getting decent tea pretty much anywhere in the world though, so sometimes I opted for that instead of coffee. On two different days I sat at a table in our hotel restaurant next to their floor to ceiling windows, ordered a pot of tea and worked on my colored pencil drawing.
On Sunday we visited the main tourist destinations in the city. As we walked along the streets it felt as though almost everyone was staring at us. Knowing that the people of this country have been mostly cut off from the rest of the world made me wonder if this wasn't partly the reason for their unrestrained stares. I looked back at people and noticed that there were many differences in facial features and skin color. Myanmar is bordered by China to the north and India to the west. Indochina is
the old term for the region of southeast Asia which includes both Myanmar and Cambodia. I could definitely see on the streets of Yangon the bigger mix of ethnicity in Myanmar. Cambodia is fairly homogeneous with 85% of the country being Khmer. While Myanmar has 135 distinct ethnic groups recognized by its government.
It seemed as though the entire population wears the same outfit: a kind of long wrap around skirt with a shirt. Both men and women wear skirts. And flat shoes are the norm. There are no motos (motorcycles) to be seen in the city; they are not allowed. A few years ago a government official was in an accident involving a moto so from then on motos were banned from the city. You can still see motorcycles in rural areas though, as we did when we drove out to a rural village. People get around in broken down beyond overcrowded buses or by walking.

To meet with clinic staff and tour a village for a potential project, we drove 4 hours north of Yangon. The driver of the van, both provided by the Christian organization partner, had from my perspective shocking driving habits. Though we drove on a wide new four lane freeway with hardly any traffic to speak of, our driver gave no room to motos, bicycles, or pedestrians we happened to pass. Instead of simply moving into the open lane to the left and passing safely, he honked his horn obnoxiously for great distances and then shaved past the moto, bicycle or pedestrian. I was perplexed and dismayed by this behavior.
We met with a small group of people at the clinic. Only the doctor spoke English well enough to communicate with us directly. The others' words went through a translator. It is very difficult to read the body language of people of another culture but I sensed a kindly vibe from the women. The doctor who spoke English seemed like a mild and compassionate woman. Being in that meeting made me wish I learned language easily and could then serve as a translator. But my Khmer language study tells me that isn't very likely, I'm afraid. :(
After the clinic meeting we visited one village served by the clinic. It was a long walk from the road and through another village. The heat was staggering or I would have captured many more images of this intriguing rural village of Myanmar. The children we passed pointed at us and burst out laughing.
I don't exactly know the reason, but the laughter of children is a beautiful sound. I laughed too. The
cows are healthy and fat in Myanmar. We passed a man herding his cattle up the road. And next to
the church, people were using a machine to separate rice. It was all quite fascinating but I was hot and my camera was hot and we really didn't have a lot of time; we still had to drive the 4 hours back to Yangon.

Since returning from our trip, I've been reading a book called "Finding George Orwell in Burma".  The author is an American journalist writing under the pseudonym Emma Larkin. As a young man, George Orwell took a post in Burma for the British army. One of Orwell's earliest books is called Burmese Days drawn from his 5 years living in Burma. In Emma's conversations with locals, she recorded how the Burmese love to read and they especially love George Orwell. With Burmese Days as part one, the Burmese consider Animal Farm and 1984 as parts two and three of a trilogy about Burma.  His books are banned but supposedly there are still copies to be found hidden in the country. When I finish Finding George Orwell I am going to read "Letters from Burma," a collection of articles written for a Japanese newspaper by Aung San Suu Kyi after one of her releases from house arrest. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and is the leader for human rights and democracy in Burma, just recently elected to parliament.

One week in Myanmar was plenty for me. Myanmar is even poorer than Cambodia and we could certainly feel that even as visitors. When we returned from Japan, Cambodia felt unpleasant in a number of ways compared to all the wonderful things we found and enjoyed while in Japan. But when we returned to Cambodia from Myanmar, Cambodia felt so pleasant. Cambodians are friendly, there are so many more restaurants and really good coffee, and the light in Phnom Penh is better to draw and paint by. It's all relative...