home sweet home

Toronto, Canada

Back home, safe and sound. What an incredible experience this trip was. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to experience different people, cultures and customs. The cool thing about living in Toronto is that you don’t always have to leave home to have that opportunity. But I do love expanding my perspective and getting a taste of other places. Thanks to all who took the time to keep up with my blog! I initially intended to write for my own benefit and just share with family. I’m glad that my friends were interested in keeping track of my adventure… both old friends and new friends I’ve gotten to meet because of this trip. 🙂 Until next time… tk


killing time at the airport

Seoul, Korea Rep.

Well, I thought I’d be interested in getting outside of the Incheon airport near Seoul but because my layover is 3 hours, my only option is to go see a temple. To be honest, I’m all ‘templed’ out after all the temples/wats we saw in Cambodia. I’m sure the temple here is different and interesting but I’m pretty tired. I’ll stick it out here at the airport until my flight. Then, it’s only 13 hours that separates me from Toronto. 13 hours. Blech. Hope I can sleep!

last day in Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A bittersweet day. I’ve had such an amazing and memorable trip and Cambodia is definitely somewhere I’d like to come back to. It is so diverse and interesting, the people are extremely friendly (if not a bit too friendly when trying to sell things), and the landscape is just beautiful. I am, however, looking forward to getting home… just settling in at my place, my bed, and my surroundings.

It’s 10:00am here on Saturday, November 14th and I’ll be checking out of my hotel soon. My flight to Seoul is not until 11:30pm so I’ll be stashing my luggage here and touring around for as long as I can. While doing my blog entry last night, I had to write down my flight schedule and time differences for Phnom Penh, Seoul, and Toronto, just so I could figure out how screwed up I’ll be when I arrive home! 🙂 There is a 12 hour difference from PP to home (I’m 12 hours ahead right now). When I land in Seoul, there is a 2 hour difference from the time zone I’m currently used to but it’s 14 hours ahead of Toronto. My layover there is almost 4 hours and I plan to go into the city for a short tour they offer out of the airport. My head hurt last night after trying to figure all of that out!

I’ll see if I’m able to upload more from today later on at the Phnom Penh airport. If not… then the next available opportunity. More to come…

Later today…

So I blasted through the remaining “things to see” in Phnom Penh today. These were places I hadn’t planned on spending a huge amount of time on but thought it would be good to at least see them. No detailed facts or history on the list from today. (Some of you may appreciate being saved any more history lessons!)

I’m packed up and on my way to the airport in Phnom Penh… as soon as I log off. This trip has been a wonderful journey and one I won’t soon forget! Really glad to be headed home though. More to come from Seoul…

five and a half hours later…

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I left Sen Monorom by bus at 7:00am this morning. It’s a 5.5 hour ride back to Phnom Penh and luckily I had some company! Dionne, from EVP, was headed to PP as well and after a quick coffee, we sat together on the bus. The coffee is phenomenal in Sen Monorom and she explained to me that it’s specific to that region: Mondulkiri province. It’s not bitter and has a slight chocolate taste! I may place an order when I get home!

When I got back to PP, I returned to the same hotel, freshened up and headed back out. I’m determined to make the most of my time while here. I had already planned my day and my first destination was a place called Daughters of Cambodia. They are a non-profit group dedicated to helping restore the lives of victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. They offer skills training, social and psychological support to young women and men wishing to leave sex work and change their lifestyle. The location I visited included a visitors’ centre, a small shop and a cafe. Daughters’ clients get to participate through paid employment in these ventures and learning new skills like cooking or sewing, etc. A very reflective visit for me. For more info, visit their site: http://daughtersofcambodia.org

After my long bus ride, I decided I was due for another massage. I really wanted to try the traditional Khmer massage and visited the affiliate of the spa I went to in Siem Reap. One of my teammates had described her experience but I don’t think it completely prepared me. Note: one of the challenges with a blog that is shared is the chance there might be oversharing. Readers beware! 😉 The masseuse uses no oil. Instead, I got to change into a very oversized set of cotton ‘PJs’… for lack of a better description. Instead of being on a table, I was on a mattress on the floor. I wasn’t really sure why until I turned over on my stomach. She stood on me! LOL! I’ve seen it on TV before but never in person. She walked up my legs onto my back and I’m so glad she was quite petite! Toward the end of the massage, she stretched and contorted me. The technique was so interesting and I have to say… felt really good!

I wandered around a bit then grabbed some food and came back to the hotel to sit outside on my balcony overlooking the pool (!) to update my blog. My last night here and the geckos are taunting me! There are three of them running around the walls and ceiling out here to give me one last show! Damn they’re cute!


gentle giants in the forest

Sen Monorom, Cambodia

Well, I spent today at the Elephant Valley Project, a sanctuary for rescued Asian elephants in Sen Monorom. Words cannot accurately describe how incredible and surreal today was. We got to hike into the forest and trek alongside a group of elephants while they were eating and getting bathed today. It was simply one of the best days I’ve ever experienced. The 6 elephants we met today are such lovely creatures and they cautiously allowed us to hang out near them.

I’m going to have to finish this post when I’m back in Phnom Penh because the WiFi signal at my guesthouse isn’t nearly strong enough for me to upload the photos and video I have for this entry. And believe me when I tell you I exercised a lot of restraint with the number of photos I will post. I am so tempted just to upload the whole day’s worth! So… more to come!

Plus, I need to get to bed tonight. I’ve got to catch an early bus tomorrow morning. Also… I’m so glad I have a high tolerance for little critters. I just heard the most unusual noise in my room and discovered it’s coming from a gecko! I haven’t heard them before. Quite a comical noise!

Stay tuned…

… back online!!! I’m in Phnom Penh again after a 5.5 hour bus ride from Sen Monorom. I’ll finish yesterday’s post (Nov 12th) and then start a new post for today (Nov 13th). If you’re not a fan of elephants, this post will be too long for you!

The elephants. Yesterday, with the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), was truly magical and I appreciated every minute we got to spend with the 6 female elephants currently at the sanctuary:

Mae Nang – age 65
Ruby – late 50s
Ning Wan – late 40s
Pearl – the youngster at age 25
Jin Yaol – 62
Mae Yao (otherwise known as Easy Rider) – late 40s

We spent the morning with the first 4 who enjoy hanging out together. Mae Nang is the matriarch and has a special bond with Pearl, who was the most recent to join. Ruby is the protector of the group and thinks she’s a tough girl. (I’m sure I’ve mixed up the 4 elephants in the photos… I wish I could remember who was who!) After a relaxing lunch at Base Camp, where I snoozed for a while in a hammock, we joined Jin Yaol and Easy who are the best of friends.

All of these girls had different stories about how they got to the sanctuary but they all involved some form of exploitation. Asian elephants are used for work, even though they have not been bred to be a working animal. They are used in logging and construction, hauling heavy loads that are harnessed to them. They are used in tourism for elephant rides, wearing heavy wooden baskets to carry riders, that cause damage to their bodies, scarring their skin and compressing the ribcage. The sanctuary is working to continue to rescue elephants while contributing to the community they work within. The money that is raised is directed in four ways:

1. financially obtain captive elephants – EVP approaches owners and pays them to move the elephants to the sanctuary
2. covers the costs to run the sanctuary – 50 staff, including employing many local people
3. education – children in that community were not consistently going to school because of lack of funds. EVP developed a scholarship that now supports about 300 students.
4. health care – public health care in rural areas is not readily available and villagers may end up not seeking care or going into debt to address health issues. EVP is funding health care for the community it resides in.

The folks at EVP that I got to meet are passionate about what they do, well informed and articulate about the cause, and just lovely all around. I had a fantastic day and am very appreciative for the opportunity.

Enough writing… on to the photos!

click link to access video: lunch time

click link to access video: Pearl’s bath time

safely in Sen Monorom

Sen Monorom, Cambodia

So, I’m writing this entry ‘analog style’ and I’ll post it once I have internet access. It is 7:00pm here and I’ve just arrived at the guesthouse I’m staying at in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri province. I checked to see if I have WiFi… and it appears there is a signal but I didn’t ask when I arrived and don’t have the password. Guess I get to be off the grid tonight!

The ride here on the bus was quite an adventure. The bus is actually a big van with 16 seats, similar to what our Habitat team rode in last week. I was expecting a lot of dirt roads for our nearly 6 hour drive but it was paved for most of the way. Probably a good thing too because our driver was bookin’ it the whole way here. The top ten things I’ve learned about driving in Cambodia (two or four wheels):

1. traffic laws may exist in print but none are enforced

2. drive as fast as humanly possible without hitting anything/anyone

3. stop signs and traffic lights are figments of our imagination and should be ignored

4. the solid yellow line separating oncoming traffic is also a figment of our imagination and should be ignored

5. always drive in two lanes at the same time, straddling your vehicle across two lanes allows more flexibility when needing to decide which vehicle ahead one should pass first

6. sidewalks are not only for pedestrians

7. honking your horn frequently lets others know you’re coming or they are driving more slowly, are in your way and should move

8. if it is torrentially raining, do not adjust your speed, it’s not necessary (and in some cases, working windshield wipers are optional)

9. pack as many passengers as possible into/onto one vehicle (same for transporting goods)

10. have fun!

When we reached Sen Monorom, we were crowded by different drivers offering rides to passengers. This is a very small town. I had no idea where my guesthouse was or how to get there. Rather than ask the folks from the bus company, I decided to accept a ride from a total stranger… again. I really have to rethink some of my choices here! He dragged my suitcase (note to self: bring a backpack next time) to his scooter (!!!) and heaved it up on top of it. I looked at him incredulously and he said no problem. The suitcase was jammed in front of him between his legs and I hopped on behind him. They really know how to get the most out of two wheels here! We rode away from the lights of town to a dark dirt road… that’s when I really started reconsidering my decision! He confirmed it was only half a kilometer and sure enough, we turned into the drive of the guesthouse I had booked. Easy enough!

I was greeted by Disco (I kid you not, he spelled his name for me) who showed me to my little one room cottage. I asked him if he would be free in the morning to take me to the meeting place for the sanctuary vans and he agreed. Check! Navigating another unfamiliar route with help! My little room has ants everywhere and a working toilet and shower. It’s awesome! Glad I have my own toilet paper! I can hear crickets chirping outside and dogs barking in the distance. Should be a good sleep! Gnight!

onward to Sen Monorom

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It’s 10:00am and I’m still in Phnom Penh. Checking out of my hotel at 11:00am then my tuk tuk driver is going to take me to the bus station to catch the 1:00pm bus to Sen Monorom. I am going specifically to visit the Elephant Valley Project, an elephant sanctuary that works to protect Asian elephants from the threat of poaching and domestication. When I was planning my trip, I coordinated with someone at the Project who helped me to find a local guesthouse to stay at, in addition to recommending transportation there. The local guesthouse does not have a website or email, so I had to call directly to arrange for a room. I am not confident that there will be WiFi available so I may be updating this blog when I return to Phnom Penh late on November 13th. I’m looking forward to the bumpy ride there and taking in more of the rural landscape here. I can’t wait to visit the elephants!

More later!

getting the most out of Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

What a city! It is chaotic, bustling, historic and extremely interesting! I made the most out of the one full day I have here! I hope I don’t forget anything… I knew I was going to be going to a lot of places today, so I hired a tuk tuk driver for the day. I’m getting really good at negotiating prices… but I end up tipping really well. 🙂

(Warning: some folks may find many of the photos from this section difficult to look at. But don’t miss the video at the end of a busy intersection!)

I started my day wanting to understand more about Cambodia’s history under the Khmer Rouge. I first visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. There was an audio tour provided that was extremely informative and so respectfully done. It described the takeover on April 17, 1975 of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge and the resulting genocide of more than 25% of the Cambodian population. Consider 1 of 4 of your family and friends, murdered for no reason other than they were educated, perhaps financially stable or well off, and had opposing views to you. That criteria was the primary motivator of the extermination of approximately 3 million Cambodians. Those that survived were mostly peasants and farmers, or those who were able to assimilate as them. Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, believed that they were the primary people and wished to espouse a classless society.

From Choeung Ek, I moved on to S-21 the Khmer Rouge prison death camp, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The building was formerly a primary and secondary school but because Pol Pot did not support academics the building was seized when inhabitants of Phnom Penh were forced out of the city and into the rural areas. The buildings of S-21 (Security Office 21) were turned into prison cells and torture areas. Photography was restricted in many areas. For more information and visuals on S-21 or Choeung Ek, please visit these websites:
http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en (site dedicated to the ongoing trials proceeding with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – a tribunal assisted by the UN)

From a reflective and sobering morning, I ventured to the Russian Market. I found it to be somewhat similar to the Central Market although a bit smaller and perhaps more variety in the goods available.

I needed a break from the heat after that and returned to my hotel to sit in front of the air conditioning for a while and recoup! I’ve never been so hot just walking or riding around. I expected to be hot while working on the build site but I was not prepared for how sweltering it is here! Lots of water and strategic breaks!

I was considering a traditional Khmer tattoo before I came to Cambodia. I went tonight to visit a sak yant master to discuss the possibility. After his student arrived and translated, I realized that this was not the permanent memory that I wanted from this trip. I thanked them both profusely for their troubles and left… skin in tact.

Finally, I decided to walk back to the hotel from the tattoo studio as I had not explored that area yet. As I was walking home, a man on a motorcycle asked me if I wanted a ride. I promised myself that if I had the chance to authentically experience the crazy driving here, I would not pass it up. I hopped on the back, in my summer dress, riding side-saddle like the women in skirts here do, with no helmet, and hung on! It was exhilarating!!! I’m glad I decided to do it and that an experienced resident was driving. I had thought about renting a motorcycle but after that experience, I think that’s one thing I’ll leave to the locals!

Whew! What a memorable day!!!

on to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Our team dispersed this morning and went on our own way… some headed back home and others, like me, travelling on to more adventures. My roommate in Siem Reap, Beena, and I flew to Phnom Penh together. I then spent the day wandering around… to the Central Market, the riverfront, and past the Royal Palace. The traffic here is much more congested than Siem Reap and after seeing it, I think I’ll stifle my complaints back home for a while. Driving here is absolute chaos. Even being a pedestrian is tricky as motorbikes and scooters veer on to the sidewalks (where sidewalks even exist) to cut corners. Not to mention the scariest jaywalking I’ve ever done. Thankfully, I’m very familiar with the video game Frogger and applied that strategy diligently!

Unknown to me, today is Independence Day for Cambodia and was being marked by fireworks on the river in front of the Royal Palace. Today marks the 62nd anniversary of independence from France, who ruled Cambodia for 90 years from 1863 to 1953. I hung out at the riverfront until it got dark and enjoyed the fireworks with the crowds of people that attended. It was an especially humid night, I thought, and by the end of it my skin just wanted to drip off my body!

Regretfully, I’ve somehow managed to delete some of my photos from today. I’ll make up for it tomorrow but I’m a bit annoyed with myself.

still chillin’…

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our last day of R&R and last full day as a team. Most of the team went to visit more temples in the Angkor park. Five of us opted to venture off to see Kompong Phluk (pronounced Pluk), a village built on stilts in the floodplain of Tonle Sap lake. There are about 3,000 residents and their main source of income is fishing. The houses are on stilts that are approximately 6 metres high. At the height of the wet season, the water is close to the top of the stilts. In the dry season, the village towers above the water and land. We visited just at the transition from the wet to dry seasons. The village is neighboured by a flooded forest that we passed on our way out to see Tonle Sap lake. Tonle Sap is the largest body of fresh water in southeast Asia and one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Cambodians depend on fish for 70% of their protein but a threatened ecosystem puts their way of life in jeopardy. I stumbled on a wonderful article published in the NY Times last year that explains: http://nyti.ms/1kLeK1b
Our visit was exactly what we were hoping for… to continue to experience the diversity of Khmer culture. It was an interesting and beautiful visit.
Later, we met up with our team at the War Museum to learn more about the recent challenges in Cambodia’s history. This area surrounded by Vietnam, Thailand, and further out by China and Russia, has been plagued by violence and corruption. It’s truly devastating what Cambodia’s people have suffered and at the same time inspiring as they continue to seek better lives and more hopeful futures.
We finished our evening with an Apsara performance, a classical Khmer dance.

Tomorrow… I leave Siem Reap and fly to Phnom Penh where I will be staying for a couple of days. Looking forward to exploring more of this beautiful country!