Simple Guide to Cambodia!

Hello all!

Here are some tips and tricks for when you travel in Cambodia!

  1. When you first cross the border, there may be a casino. Don’t even bother with it. It is super confusing to get money back from the machines and such, involving at least three people in addition to yourself, and the slot machines with the levers are just for show.
  2. In Siam Reap it may be tempting to stay in the Pub Street area, as that is the tourist area with lots of shopping and restaurants of all types. No. The shopping there is great if all you are looking for are cheap souvenirs. (Word of advice, don’t bother with elephant pants. The seams will start ripping by the second time you wear them.) The restaurants are nice enough, but they are mostly western food. I recommend finding a nice, quiet hostel or hotel maybe even just a 10-15 minute walk from the Pub Street area. That allows you still easily pick up your souvenirs, but also lets you step back from the hustle and bustle of tourists and locals yelling “Tuk Tuk lady!” at you every two feet.
  3. When you do go shopping anywhere that does not have visible, set prices, BARTER. They expect you to, so it is really easy to get them to cut the price in half, if not more. Good techniques include telling them you saw the same thing cheaper down the road, feigning indifference, and telling them that it is not for you. Whatever price they tell you first, you tell them that is too expensive and go from there.
  4. Angkor Wat is huge. Much bigger than I realized. I only got the one day pass, but I can definitely understand why someone might get the three day or even week-long pass. I highly recommend going and catching the sunrise. There are still a lot of tourists there, but not as many as there will be later and as an added bonus you can do a lot of your touring before the heat of the day.
  5. When travelling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, keep in mind that it will not be a smooth ride. There was construction the entire way. Accept it.
  6. When booking a place to stay in Phnom Penh, remember that there is Phnom Penh province, and then within Phnom Penh province there is Phnom Penh city. Book accordingly.
  7. Phnom Penh has all of these fabulous pocket guide books available for free almost everywhere. They were fantastically handy at helping choose restaurants to eat at, places to shop, and activities to do. Pick one up today!
  8. Just outside of Phnom Penh there are the Killing Fields, and in the city there is a museum that expands greatly on the experience. If possible, try not to do both on the same day. It is a lot of painful history to take in, and it was not the best idea to do them back to back.
  9. There is a fantastic little circus that is performed every Friday and Saturday night that is worth checking out. It is performed by Circus School students, so it is not the most put together, but ultimately very enjoyable. The trapeze act left me with my mouth hanging open in wonderment. Tickets are only $2.50-7.50 depending on your seat, so very affordable.
  10. The palace was nice to look at, but I would recommend getting a guide. I had little to no idea what I was looking at most of the time.
  11. There is a restaurant called Mount Everest. It doesn’t look like much, but it was some of the best Napalese/Indian food I have ever had. Go to Cambodia just to eat at this restaurant.
  12. For those who like shopping for a cause, there are a whole bunch of different free trade stores in the city for all sorts of causes such as orphans, amputees, freeing people from the sex trade, women in general, and much much more. I found the wares at these stores to generally be of better quality, and often quite neat (wallets made out of tire rubber, necklaces with nuts and bolts wrapped in silk, etc.) Things at these stores are more expensive than what you could haggle for at a market, but I feel that they are supporting good causes. I ended purchasing a t-shirt from a store called Daughters of Cambodia, an organization that works to free people from the sex trade (they also have a Sons of Cambodia section).
  13. If you are looking for a day of relaxation, but the place you are staying at doesn’t have a pool, there are a number of hotels around the city that will let you use their pool for the day for a small fee.
  14. For the most part, it is not unreasonable to walk most places in the city. I think the longest it took us to walk somewhere was maybe 30-45 minutes, so really just a warm-up exercise. My only word of caution with walking is to be mindful of the traffic. Motorcycles will drive down the sidewalk if they think it is easier, and just because the lane goes one direction, it doesn’t mean everyone driving in it does. Crossing the street is an adventure on its own. The traffic doesn’t stop until it reaches its destination, so don’t bother waiting for it to, even if you are standing at lights. Once you see a bit of a break just start walking. Maintain a constant pace and don’t stop. They will see you and adjust their speed and/or direction accordingly. Sometimes though, this may not seem possible. That is okay. During rush hour there are generally police on most busy corners and they will either tell you when to go, or just walk you across the street. The traffic doesn’t stop for them either, so stay with them and don’t fall behind!

Alright, that is all I can think of for now. I hope you all enjoy your stays in Cambodia!

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A Distubing History Lesson (Not for the faint of heart)

Today was sort of a heavy day. C and I are currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and today we visited Choeung Ek and the Tuol Svay Museum. Choeung Ek is also known as The Killing Fields and Tuol Svay was once a high school, but in the late 1970’s became a prison.

I am going to give you all a brief history, based on what I learned today. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge became the ruling Cambodian party. They were a communist party with very aggressive plans on how to make their country a “utopia”. Within days of being elected the leader, Pol Pot, closed the borders to the country using landmines and forced the evacuation of all city dwellers into the countryside where the entire population would work together to increase rice production by 300%. Of course, not all the city dwellers made it that far. The Khmer Rouge had a strong dislike for anyone educated, and systematically killed all those who had an education, including teachers, business people, and doctors. They shut down all social institutions, such as police, schools, religious institutions, and hospitals, in order to make a purely agrarian society.

People were forced into labour camps with poor conditions. Food was scarce and many died of starvation. The close quarters, poor sanitation, and lack of proper doctors or medicine meant that many died from disease or other preventable causes. And on top of this, roughly one third of the people who died because of this regime were executed. It is estimated that one fifth of the Cambodian population died during the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days that the Khmer Rouge was in power.

Walking through the Killing Fields was difficult, as the mass graves were marked off and the awful conditions were described in detail during the audio tour. They used to play patriotic music over the loudspeakers at night to drown out the sounds of the slaughter of countless people.

Tuol Svay was rough as well. It used to be a high school, turned prison, turned museum. Having just spent the last 4 months teaching in Thailand these classrooms looked painfully familiar, but what was one a place of learning was turned into a place of torture and nightmares. The one building filled each classroom with individual brick cells smaller than the size of a twin bed.

I think one of the hardest parts about this day was the fact that I had no idea this genocide had occurred in Cambodia until just recently when looking up what sightseeing adventures I would like to go on. Perhaps I am just ignorant to recent world history, but from my understanding the world had no idea what was happening in Cambodia until it was nearly over. You can still see repercussions of this recent horror in the country today. There are far too many people missing limbs walking around, and the education system continues to receive little to no support from the government. One lady was telling us that a friend just opened a school in the slums, and in order to get students he has to pay their parents in rice. There is almost a literal generation gap due to the people lost during the regime.

I am thankful for the opportunity I had today to learn about the history of this beautiful country. I have barely even scraped the surface with the history and facts of it all, and perhaps someday I will do more research into the matter.

This country is slowly healing itself, moving forward from the horrors of the past, but I just ask that you would join me in praying for their continued healing and growth. Thank you.

Phase 2: Complete

Hello all,

I once again find myself at a turning point here in Thailand as I find my contract at the school is over. Yes, my teaching days are over (at least, for now) and it is time for me to start the third and final part of my journey. In just two days’ time I will be trading my apartment for a backpack and spend the next two months travelling around Southeast Asia.

My time in Thailand so far has been fantastic, though not always what I expected. I have spent the majority of my time here so far in the small province of Sakon Nakhon found in Isan. In many ways I feel lucky that this is where I ended up, because it is here that I feel I got the true Thai experience. The town where I worked was not the type of place where you would find tourists, or really where anyone decides to stop by and visit. It is an 11 hour bus ride to Bangkok and it has no western restaurants except for a KFC that seems extremely out of place. I am quite certain that C and I were the only female farangs in town. At least, I’ve yet to see another since I’ve gotten here. There are a handful of male farangs in town though, mostly teachers. It is because of this “isolation” that I feel I received a true cultural experience. Over the past few months I have attended many Thai parties, shared their food, and sang and danced with the locals (a Thai party just isn’t a Thai party if there isn’t karaoke).

As for the teaching aspect, that has been quite the experience as well. This semester I was teaching the equivalent to grades 10 and 12. I had 16 grade 10 classes and 8 grade 12 classes, and I saw each class once a week. Sometimes. Actually, I don’t think I had a single week where I saw every single class. For various reasons such as festivals, tests, and field trips, or missing desks, classes were constantly cancelled, which far too often I didn’t know I was happening until after I wait in the classroom for the students for 15-20 minutes.

I think the times when I was really put to the test while teaching was when I gave my students their midterms and later their exams. For their midterms I decided to give them a nice easy assignment. For the M4s (grade 10) it was a simple, five sentence description of their favourite character along with a drawing. I told them exactly what I wanted them to write about (all things that we had covered in class already) and even showed them an example. The example was a bad idea. In one class I had six students hand in midterms that were word for word copies of my example, although they did take it upon themselves to create their own pictures to go with the description. It was the pictures that really told all. There was clear progression of who copied off of who, and by the end it was clear that they didn’t even know who they were writing about. Unless, of course, Gandalf is a broom-riding witch and I have just been terribly mistaken all of these years. However, even with the exorbitant amount of copying off of me, each other, or the internet, every now and again I would receive a midterm where it was clear that the student just got it, and those made it worth it.

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The exam is another story entirely. I made what I thought was a simple, multiple choice exam. At least it would have been had the students studied for even just 20 minutes before the test. My personal favourite part of the exam was the section about inviting, accepting, and declining invitations. Just before the exam I went over with my classes that “accept” means “yes” and “decline” means “no”. I drilled them on it. I wrote it on the board for good measure. I think they thought I was trying to trick them with the number of students who gave me “no” answers when told to accept and vice versa.

But despite all of these minor setbacks, I had a fantastic time teaching here. My students were often clever and witty, and the Thai teachers filled the office with laughter and smiles. I am grateful for my time here and I will never forget Triam Udom Suksa School of the Northeast.

I am sad to leave this school and the home I have built for myself here, but it is time for me to step out my door again and start my next adventure.

Canada vs. Thailand: Overnight School Field Trips

Canada: The trip is scheduled months in advance and booked so everyone can arrange their personal schedules around it.

Thailand: The dates for the trip are not confirmed until a couple weeks before, as they try to arrange the trip to work with everyone’s schedules.

Canada: All the teachers involved are told well in advance of what they are in charge of so they have plenty of time to prepare their responsibilities appropriately.

Thailand: You find out you are leading two hours of activities the day before when the teacher organizing the event asks you what supplies you need.

Canada: The bus leaves at the unreasonable hour of 7am or so, getting the drive done as early day as possible.

Thailand: You are told that the bus leaves from the school at the ridiculous hour of “sometime between 1 and 2am”, so you get to school at one to see no one is there. Finally people start showing up around 1:30 and the bus leaves at 3am.

Canada: The trip starts with the teachers making some last minute announcements and double checking that everyone is there.

Thailand: The trip starts with everyone walking over to the small Buddhist shrine at the school to light incense and pray for safety on the trip. (Okay, I went to Rockway, so we prayed too, I just think we did it on the bus after we started driving.)

Canada: Students spend the bus ride watching movies, chatting, or sleeping.

Thailand: Students spend the bus ride singing karaoke or listening to music so loud it feels like you are in a night club.

Canada: Everyone has a copy of the trip’s itinerary, so they are aware of all of the activities that will be happening, where the bus will be stopping, and close estimations of arrival times and the sorts.

Thailand: No one knows. When asked what is happening on the trip, other teachers shrug and make some guesses.

Canada: The group stays at a hostel, hotel or camp, with teachers and students split up in pre-arranged rooms/cabins.

Thailand: We stay at Fountain Tree Resort Cowboy and Adventure World, where all the cabins look like little barns and some cabins can fit upwards of 50 people. The beds are not bunks, but mattresses laid side by side creating two lines of long, mega-beds.

Canada: Most activities on the trip have some educational purpose that line up with the reason for the trip.

Thailand: The only English-based activity at English Camp was the two hours of activities led by yours truly. Other activities on the trip include walking through gardens, paintball, archery, go-karting, swimming, and shopping at this neat little shopping village-like place.

Canada: While on a tour of some beautiful gardens, people take photos of the flowers and sculptures.

Thailand: While on a tour of some beautiful gardens, people take selfies on the bus.

Canada: Everyone is dropped off again at the school where they are picked up by their rides home.

Thailand: The last hour of the bus ride home is full of stops as students request to be let off at locations closer to their homes.

In conclusion: Although the trip was not what I expected, and I had no idea what was happening most of the time, I had a fantastic time at the “English Camp”. Overall, I would say my first overnight school field trip in Thailand was a great success.

I Think Thailand is Broken

When I signed up to teach English in Thailand I was picturing myself going to beaches on weekends, getting an awesome tan for the first time in my life, and just generally soaking up the sun. Oh, and I guess teaching some kidlets on weekdays too. Basically, I was looking at winter away from Canada. No snow, no ice, no cold.

Winter Escape!
Winter Escape!

I think Thailand is broken.

So I’m about a full day’s travel away from the closest beach. That’s fine, I was able to go south to the islands for New Year’s and I’ll probably go back for a bit once I’m done teaching. My tan is… well, non-existent. I’m over it. But what I will not get over so quickly is how cold it gets here. This was supposed to be my winter away from winter, and here I am bundling up in sweaters and socks, hiding under blankets, and drinking more tea than water. This is not what I signed up for.

The weather up in Esan (where I am) goes down around 10 degrees at night, and for the past few days hasn’t gotten much higher than 20 during the day. Now I know what all of you are thinking. “Why are you complaining? In Canada it is negative a million degrees right now so suck it up. And you call yourself Canadian…”

Yes. Those are all valid arguments, but what many of you probably fail to realize is that I have nowhere to go where I can escape my chilly (but not so chilly) temperatures. My apartment has no insulation and is not even fully closed off to the outdoors, so whatever temperature it is outside, it is also inside. Also, hot showers aren’t really a thing here, so I don’t really have that to retreat to either. My fireplace, while pleasing to the eye, lets off no heat. I guess that’s what I get for making it out of paper.

Now, I know that this blog sounds like a lot of complaining. Well it is. There is no denying that. But, I just want all of you back home in the negative a million degrees temperatures to know, that I am jealous of your thick socks, multiple blanket options, insulated walls, and hot showers. Enjoy them and be grateful for them.

Christmas in Thailand

Let me first start off by wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

For those of you who don’t know, this was my first Christmas away from my family, and boy was it rough. I knew from day one when I signed up for this adventure that Christmas was going to be the hardest time for me. I have always celebrated Christmas surrounded by loved ones, and thoroughly enjoyed all the signs of Christmas around me: the music, the lights, the good cheer, the food. This year I found myself in a country that not only left me thousands of miles away from my loved ones, but also a country that predominately does not celebrate Christmas. Needless to say, I have found myself a little homesick.

My Christmas celebrations here actually started back in November. I figured since I wasn’t going to be bombarded with Christmas music every time I went out in public, it was okay if I started listening to Christmas music before December. If you check my one earlier post, you will discover that C and I went on a huge decorating binge, each of us creating our own wonderful Christmas scenes in our rooms. A package from home left me with a mini Christmas tree to decorate, and some delicious Christmas cookies to enjoy (I don’t know if I could have done this without the cookies!). I did my best to create for myself a Christmas oasis, but it still wasn’t the same.

But no matter what I did, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t feel like Christmas. Maybe it was the 30 degree weather outside, or the lack of festive gatherings for me to attend, but I spent a lot of December waiting for the feeling to hit me.

Now I mentioned that Thailand doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and as a country it does not. There is no holiday on Christmas. But there are pockets of celebrators around. I actually did have a few Christmas themed experiences here in Thailand, and even though they were not the same as what I am used to back home, I am happy I was a part of them.

The first took place the Sunday before Christmas. In a city about an hour and a bit from where I live there is an American expat who owns a small restaurant. He serves western food and he makes it all himself. His apple pies alone are worth the trip to Thailand. Now this delightful expat has generously hosted a Christmas dinner for the past number of years, and I managed to get myself on the list. There was around 60 westerners all crowded around tables in his small restaurant with a few Thai people sprinkled through, and we were served a feast. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, the whole deal. I was so grateful that I was able to partake in this meal as I have trouble picturing a Christmas without mashed potatoes. The food was excellent and the company was better.

My second Christmas experience actually took place at school. My school is Buddhist. The students wai a Buddha as they enter school in the morning, they say prayers at the morning assembly, and I even got a day off once because they were writing a test on Buddhism. So I was slightly surprised when I heard that there was to be a Christmas celebration on the 23rd. (No, not the 25th, even though there is school that day). I later found out that the school celebrates Christmas more as a way to appreciate the traditions of English speaking countries than for any sort of religious reasons. But, I will take what I can get. As one of the two teachers at the school from an English speaking country I actually ended up with a large role in the celebrations, though people neglected to tell me this until almost right before. Classic Thailand. I ended up reading a Christmas story (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) and quizzing the students on it, leading a Christmas choir I never practiced with, participated in a dance with the rest of the foreign language department, asked trivia questions, judged a tongue twister competition, played Santa in a rousing game of Santa says, and threw a lot of candy at students. Other events at this celebration included students performing skits and rock bands singing songs. All in all, it was a tonne of fun, and probably one of my favourite experiences at school so far.

The next day was Christmas Eve, and I miraculously did not have to teach. Instead I went into the city again to pick up my work permit and get my visa extended. None too soon, either, my visa was going to expire on the 26th. The rest of the day was spent with me trying to make things feel like Christmas. I ate Christmas cookies, and C and I played some card games to help me follow my family traditions (thanks C!). That night I went to bed both excited and nervous for what the next day would bring.

Christmas morning I got up to skype with my family. They had just finished their dinner of fish and potato salad which I am quite jealous of. They were kind enough to let me play a game with them, and I ended the card game of golf with an embarrassing score of 131. But it wasn’t really the game that I was looking for, but rather the absent minded chatter that goes with it. I think that is part of what I miss most, the trivial day-to-day chatter and interactions with loved ones.

Shortly after my nice, long skype call home I headed to work. I actually lucked out with this though, because at my school sports week started on Christmas day. Sports week is a time when all the students literally just compete in a bunch of sports for a week. This meant I did not have to teach Christmas day. In fact, it meant that I only had to make an appearance at school for about an hour and then I could head back home again to continue my Christmas celebrations. This is exactly what I did. Not that I had a tonne of Christmas plans, but I just wanted to at least surround myself with as much Christmas as I could. My plans consisted of watching It’s a Wonderful Life with C, play some card games, and then probably pick up some KFC for dinner because that’s the closest thing to a turkey dinner I could think of around here. Well as C and I were enjoying the movie, we hear a knock on the door. It was a couple of the western teachers from another school in town inviting us to a Christmas dinner that night. Chicken, potatoes, stuffing, biscuits, the whole deal. Well who were we to say no?

Around 7:30 we show up at the host’s house (the time were to come) only to discover the chicken was just going into the oven, and nothing else had been started. No worries though, we rolled up our sleeves and started helping in whatever way we could. By 9 o’clock, two of the other guests in charge of the potatoes still had not shown up, so three of us who were there all ran home to skype with our families for a bit and then hurried back. Dinner was finally served about quarter to eleven and boy was it good. The stuffing came from a box, the mashed potatoes had tuna and corn in them, and the chicken had been boiled before it was roasted in the oven, but it was one of the best Christmas dinners I’ve had. Eight of us gathered around the table and filled ourselves with good food and good conversation. Much better than KFC.

Around 1am we finally headed home, Christmas done for another year. It wasn’t anything like what I am used to; there was no sign of snow, no squash, and my loved ones were all on the other side of the world. Despite all of that, I survived this season with only a slight case of homesickness.

So those of you back home, who still have about an hour left of Christmas, I wish you the best.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Father’s Day

Hello all,

This last Friday (December 5) was the king’s birthday here in Thailand, which means I got the day off, there was a spectacular fireworks display, and across Thailand people were celebrating Father’s Day. So, with this last point in mind, I would like to dedicate this blog post to one of the most important people in my life – my dad.

Dad, I feel like I don’t show my appreciation for you nearly enough, so I am going to use this blog to say thank you.

Thank you for all the times you’ve helped me with car things. Whether that be helping me pick out my first car, teaching me to drive standard, telling me where to go for an oil change, or not totally freaking out on me when I put a scratch in the car.

Thank you for eggs and noodles. Who knew that such simple base ingredients could be transformed into so many different variations of the same dish? I don’t know if I’ve ever had the same thing twice when you make eggs or noodles, but I do know 7 out of 10 times it is delicious. I guess those 3 out of 10 times are just trial runs to figure things out for next time.

Thank you for being so handy. I know we all give you such a hard time for your massive collection of tools, but when they help you do something for us we tend to shut up real quick. I appreciate all the times you’ve used your tools and handy skills to help me with school projects, help me put something up in my room, add charms to my bracelet, or fixed something that otherwise would have needed to be tossed.

Thank you for working a million hours a week to support our family. It’s not always easy having you gone so much, but I guess it makes the times that you are around so much better. Besides, what state would this family be in if you hadn’t been such an excellent provider?

And, most importantly, thank you for loving me. I guess it’s part of your job, being a dad and all, but I don’t think all dads follow through on that job description. So thank you for following through on that part of your fatherly contract, and helping me be raised in a loving and supportive household, thus teaching me to love and support others.

You’ve done a great job so far dad, keep up the good work!

Love, your favourite daughter (I have to be your favourite, I bet I’m the only one who wished you a Happy Father’s Day this Father’s Day!)