Musings, Travel & Adventure

Getting Settled in Phnom Penh

Things have changed.

A week ago, there were threats of snow in North Dakota, most of my meals were coming from the basement freezer as I tried to frantically pack and wrap up the last few days of my job, and my little Ford Escape took me everywhere I needed to go. Now, there are warm rain showers every day, most of my meals include noodles or rice, and we ride everywhere in tuk-tuks.

I love all those pieces of home, but Cambodia so far has been pretty awesome. Tommy and I are hanging out in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, for two weeks for TESOL training before we go to volunteer teach in Thailand. We have class every day from 9:00-5:30 and get the evenings to hang out at the hotel, explore Phnom Penh, or do homework. Here’s a little update on what I’ve experienced in Phnom Penh so far:

FOOD: We have been trying some of the local food since we got here: amok, lok lak, and some strange little salt-and-sugar rice cakes I found at the convenience store, to name a few. My favorite so far was Tommy’s lok lak dish, basically a pile of beef, rice, sauce, and a fried egg on a plate. Oh man, it was good. My stomach has been a bit gurgly the last few days, but I was expecting that. At least I haven’t gotten food poisoning yet. With my luck, it’s probably inevitable at some point.

TRANSPORTATION: As for getting around, we have been escorted everywhere by tuk-tuk, which is basically a four-person carriage pulled by a motorbike. Most of the locals, however, drive motorbikes, or motos. The traffic is absolutely nuts. There are lanes painted on the roads but no one pays too much attention to them; they are more like general guidelines. The moto drivers cut each other off, travel in huge swarms, drive down the wrong lanes and pull in front of oncoming traffic all the time. They actually have amazing skills. They are within inches of an accident at all times and never even blink. They text and drive, and they phone and drive. They ride two or even three or four to a bike. We have actually seen a family of five driving down the street on one motorbike. Twice. (And people think my family is crazy.) The amazing thing is, none of them really get mad. Cambodians are cheerful. This would not happen in America: road rage would run rampant.

I am not the first Westerner to marvel at this incredible transportation system, nor will I be the last. However, Tommy and I have both agreed that the traffic is our favorite part. Especially since we’re not driving. (Then my amusement would probably turn into utter terror.) The motorbikes do look really fun, but these drivers have mad maneuvering skills which I’m pretty sure I don’t possess. They say many tourists to Southeast Asia have died or been seriously injured by renting motorbikes. Considering I really haven’t driven a motorcycle much back home, I don’t think I will try to learn how in Cambodia.

WEATHER: Cambodia is currently nearing the end of its rainy season, meaning the weather is generally humid, the temperature is in the 80s or 90s, and at least a couple heavy rain showers hit every day, lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour or more. Don’t worry; this doesn’t affect the volume of traffic. Instead, all the moto drivers come out in full force wearing brightly colored ponchos. I even saw one zooming down the street holding an umbrella during yesterday’s heavy rain.

RANDOM TIDBIT: We were quite amused to find out that you can go to the local shooting range right down the street, and for $10 you can fire off AK47’s, for $50 you can toss a grenade and for $350 you can shoot a rocket launcher. We haven’t done this yet. Maybe I will toss a grenade before I come home.

Or maybe the traffic is a big enough thrill for now.

Hope all is well back in the states! Don’t worry about me in Cambodia. For now, I’m perfectly happy eating rice and zooming around in a tuk-tuk.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

First Thoughts on Southeast Asia

Getting here was pretty rough.

We arrived last night around midnight, which back in the USA’s Central Time Zone was noon, 12 hours behind Cambodia. There was a point along the way where my morale began to drop, somewhere after 30-some hours of flying and airport sitting, 4 airplane meals and 2 hours of sleep in the last 48. After our third and final flight into Phnom Penh, we were picked up by tuk-tuk and zoomed through the streets of Phnom Penh to our hotel. It was a strange moment in my life. I was dazed from the flight and lack of sleep, the rundown streets were eerily deserted, and garbage littered the sidewalks and piled up against curbs. I had heard words like “homesickness” and “culture shock” before I left, but I didn’t think they would actually happen to me.

They did.

For a day.

When I woke up this morning at 5 a.m. and lay in bed, staring out the window, I wondered what I had gotten my brother and myself into. I clearly wasn’t prepared for this. I also couldn’t get the “free Wi-Fi” to work in our hotel room, which I had been hoping to use to contact my family and the Boyfriend to tell them I had arrived safely.

(There is a good ending to this, I promise.)

After we showered and went down to the lobby, things perked up dramatically. First of all, we ate, which hadn’t happened for what seemed like days, and plus it was something other than a packaged airline meal. Second of all, it turns out the router on our hotel floor is broken, but we can actually access internet very well from the lobby, so I got to send those “I’m here!” emails to my boyfriend and parents. Third, we began to meet people from our program as they wandered into the lobby area. Twenty-one of us from all over the US, Canada and the UK are here in Phnom Penh for our training course. Everyone was friendly and interesting. To be honest, I think that made the biggest difference. Culture shock is “shocking” largely due to a feeling of intense loneliness. At least that’s my interpretation. Meeting other friendly people who are also interested in traveling, volunteering, teaching, and working with kids changed my attitude dramatically.

Fourth, after breakfast a few of us were again escorted by tuk-tuk to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. It was a heavy experience, walking around the memorial site of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of approximately 25% of their own Cambodian people. But I learned a lot about Cambodia’s history in that short hour and a half, the rainy weather felt refreshing after several days of travel, and the fellow rider in our tuk-tuk, a recent college graduate by the name of Harris, was good company. I also got to finally see Phnom Penh during the day rather than after hours at night while exhausted and shortly off the plane. So that was positive. The hustle and bustle of the city streets and craziness of the traffic was cheering and interesting, much more so than last night’s eerie ride from the airport. In the afternoon, we visited temples, palaces, and the markets that make Southeast Asia so appealing to travelers.

I’m getting the feeling that Cambodia is a pretty unique place. But over the course of our first day here, the culture shock — or just shock, whatever you want to call it — has mostly worn off and the excitement that I felt before has set back in.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Just In Case

I am one of those people who has always been terrible at packing. One of many things will happen on almost every trip: I don’t have the right stuff, I don’t have warm enough stuff, or, more often than not, I have way too much stuff. I like to bring way too many items “just in case.” Just in case these jeans get dirty, I should bring a second pair. Just in case I finish this book, I should bring 3 more. Just in case we want to go sledding, I better bring my snow boots. Just in case I want to check my email, I should bring my laptop. Just in case I want a different scarf with this outfit, I better bring 5 scarves. Just in case I come along a dog that needs a home, I should bring this pair of dog dishes.

Ok, it’s not quite that bad. But it’s not good.

My first trip to Europe at age 20, I learned my lesson after lugging a rather gigantic suitcase around the countryside of France. My second trip to Europe, I downsized quite a bit and still found myself with too many cute shirts that I never ended up wearing. Worse, I didn’t have enough warmth for the drizzly winter weather of England. My third trip to Europe, I downsized even more still and ended up with one small suitcase and a much more reasonable amount of clothing overall. I was making progress, slowly but surely over the course of several long trips. My slightly anal-retentive and overprepared side was being pushed aside by the general annoyance of overpacking and carrying around too many heavy bags.

This time, I am going on the longest trip of my life — a little less than three months by the time we get back — and have managed to fit everything into a backpack and one small suitcase, the latter of which I am donating to some country in Asia at the end of my trip because I will no longer need the items in it anymore. I basically had to throw my “just in case” attitude out the window. No, I do not need a laptop. No, I do not need my snow boots or 5 scarves or even 1 scarf. I don’t need a dog dish — as shocking as that is. Those things don’t matter in the end.  I even replaced my stack of paper books, a great love of mine, with a small, compact Kindle and a pocket-sized Bible.

Instead, I’m trading out my material “just in case” list for a “just in case” list of a much higher caliber.

Just in case, I am going to need:

  • An open mind to try new things, try new food and make new friends of all types
  • A willing heart to serve others
  • A trust in God for the challenging days
  • An awesome traveling companion (my brother Tom)
  • And my journal to record every. last. detail.

Just in case you happen to be thinking of us, send a thought and a prayer our way. We will be in Asia by the time I post again.

P.S. Old habits die hard and I’m not completely cured: I did sneak in an extra bottle of sunscreen for our fair-skinned Norwegian selves, some 40% deet mosquito spray and a bag of various types of medicine… Just in case.