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
After Thailand, the three of us flew back to Cambodia together. So for the second time this year Stephen and I got to put on our tour guide hats and show off the country we've been living in for the past year and a half. To start the tour off right in Phnom Penh, Monday morning we paid a visit to the U and Me Spa. Beth went for the full body traditional massage and I decided on a head massage. I was amazed at the strength in the girl's hands and at the end she even used her feet on my shoulders. As an added bonus somehow, by the time she was finished, my hair was three times the volume! And the prices are hard to beat: $12 for 60 minutes, $8 for 30 minutes.
On her second day, Beth went to Stephen's office to meet the staff and hear about the work they are doing. Beth and Stephen used to be coworkers; they both work in public health. She also went to the Tuol Sleng prison museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, but she had to do these by herself. Both Stephen and I have been: twice for me, several times for Stephen. It's hard enough going through once, I just could really not do it a third time. But the history of this country informs the present so profoundly that any visitor to Cambodia really needs to tour these two sights.
Wednesday was the Royal Palace and a little fruit shopping in an outdoor market. At the Royal Palace we learned that only the Silver Pagoda was open. The palace was closed because it is housing King Norodom Sihanouk's body until it's cremated. The king passed away in October and they will keep his body in the Royal Palace until February. He was the father of the current king, having abdicated his throne in 2004. It was during King Sihanouk's rule in 1953 that Cambodia gained independence from France. This independence monument in the center of Phnom Penh is replicated in smaller form in every province of the country.
After touring the Silver Pagoda it was time for some refreshment at The Blue Pumpkin on the waterfront. The best part is the cool minty cloth they bring to your table when you arrive. And the large white couches made for a nice rest while we sipped our coffee.
With some time left before lunch, I suggested we walk through the outdoor market just to look at the exotic fruit. At one stand I found yet another fruit I've never seen before. The young girl peeled one for us to try. It was really like nothing I've tasted before, so I bought some! She called it snake fruit.
We also bought mangosteen which I've seen but had not yet tried. After our fruit purchases we walked to the waterfront to wait for Stephen. While we waited two little boys came up to us and begged for some fruit. We ended up giving them most of what we bought because they came back again and again for more, smiling and giggling.
After Phnom Penh it was up to the remote northern province of Oddar Meanchey where Stephen has supervised the opening of an office, the hiring of five new staff and the starting of a community health project. Although I had met all the staff before, I had not been to their office. It was also my first time visiting the Oddar Meanchey province, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge and where Pol Pot lived to be an old man.
Oddar Menchey is one of the poorest provinces with some of the worst health indicators in the country. The project that Stephen oversees focuses on children: care seeking of mothers and accurate diagnosis of illness by medical personnel in clinics. Pneumonia kills between 30 and 60 children a year just in this one province with a population of around 190,000 people. Pneumonia is curable if caught in time, but the largest barrier to treatment is poverty. Many poor families throughout Cambodia are deep in debt because of a health event. So it makes sense that a family's first response to illness it to wait and see if it just gets better on its own. One of the aims of the project is to give families information, symptoms of pneumonia, so they will know with more certainty that the cost of a visit to the clinic, earlier rather than later, is well worth the money. On the other side of things, pneumonia is hard to diagnosis in children and medical personnel are often poorly trained. MTI conducted trainings and test results showed immediate improvement.
After a long day in Oddar Mencheay we drove the two hours back to Siem Reap to our guest house with a pool. Then we spent the next three days touring Angkor Wat.
Many Cambodians work on the ruins grounds including rice farmers. In the evening we stopped to watch them work, even got out of the car and walked out into the field. I have been so wanting to get pictures of rice farmers in the colorful clothes they wear to protect themselves from the sun. But once we were up close I just wanted to watch them. I wanted to respect their hard work and it didn't feel right to me to take pictures of them. So I ended up with only a few photos. The farmers seemed to understand our curiosity, though were maybe a little baffled by it and walked right up to us and started working directly in front of us.
And one woman even showed Stephen how to cut the rice stalks. As a way to thank them and show appreciation for their labor, I bought a flute from the little girl who wanted to sell it to me. She had been walking alongside me giving me her sales pitch nearly the whole time. I gave her $2, her "special price". Once I had paid the girl and was starting to walk away, one of the women harvesting rice called out to me, "Sok Sa bye" which in Khmer mean "be well".
A good tour of Cambodia includes good Asian food. One of the places Stephen and I like to go is The Red Piano where you can get a drink called The Tomb Raider in honor of Angelina Jolie's film. We like to sit upstairs so we can observe the street activity below, which is where we took Beth one evening for dinner.
Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat is almost a must see when you visit Cambodia. I love getting up before it's light in Siem Reap. The air is cool and still and the little city has not yet come to life. On the same morning we watched the sunrise, we skipped breakfast at the hotel and instead found a vendor selling ansam chake. I used the few words of Khmer that I know and to my surprise the women started talking to me in Khmer, like we could have a real conversation! I guess my hours and hours of Khmer study did help me improve my pronunciation. It happened again on our tour of the silk farm. I said a few Khmer words to our tour guide and he started right in telling me his story in Khmer. I was equally pleased and disappointed. Pleased that he could clearly understand my Khmer but disappointed that I really only know a few words, nothing close to being able to carry on a conversation. But those small exchanges gave me renewed incentive to try to master a bit more of this foreign language.
On our last night in Siem Reap we drove around the city to enjoy the Christmas lights. Most of the hotels decorate with lights but one of the most original light scenes was this one of "Rudolph the red-nosed elephant"! The elephants are pulling a boat instead of a sleigh.:)
The drive back to Phnom Penh is a tiring 6 hours, mostly for the driver. On the morning of our departure, I was feeling so badly that Stephen had to drive the whole thing when I made a decision: I would drive in Cambodia for the very first time. I have a driver's license, we've had them since the second month of arriving in the country, but I've never used it for anything other than ID. So I told Stephen I would drive the first 3 hours of the trip, and he could drive the rest of the way. The road from Siem Reap to Kampong Thom is much better and the traffic is lighter. At first Stephen was pretty nervous, giving me continuous instructions, but finally he relaxed and it was fine. I did it! I actually drove in Cambodia! And we are all still alive to tell about it!
Back in Phnom Penh we finally got some of the cool weather December is supposed have. Riding around the city in a tuk-tuk in the cool of December really is Cambodia at its best!
As we said goodbye to our friend when we dropped her off at the airport, I was struck by how great life feels right now. It's great to take friends on tour and great to live in such an interesting place as Southeast Asia.